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Nier Automata's surprise Xbox One port tested

Does X deliver the best console experience?

A welcome announcement at Microsoft's E3 2018 media briefing, Nier Automata is receiving a long-overdue port onto Xbox One. Better yet, the game is due for release next week and our E3 hands-on suggests that Xbox One X is set to deliver the best version of the game yet. Indeed, Microsoft's list of X-enhanced titles suggests that we'll be receiving a 4K ultra HD experience (with HDR, no less) - a substantial boost over the PS4 Pro's 1080p showing. So is the upgrade as substantial as Microsoft suggests?

The content we had to sample was effectively a mirror for the existing PlayStation 4 playable demo, delivering the entirety of the first full level beyond the prologue. It's a decent enough workout for the engine, featuring an expansive stage to explore with a variety of scenarios, including some taxing boss encounters. And it's clear straight from the off that there is a resolution advantage on Xbox One X, delivering a significantly crisper image. But native 4K? That's quite a push bearing in mind that Nier Automata is actually a really demanding game.

We know this not just from the PlayStation 4 Pro version's relatively low 1080p resolution but also because of how difficult it is to extract decent performance from the PC build. Over a year on, this release still has issues - most of them thankfully resolved by the FAR mod - but the big takeaway is that the global illumination system used in Nier Automata is remarkably demanding on GPU resources. The FAR mod can dial back its quality levels with only limited impact on visual quality, and right now this is the only way to get Platinum's brilliant game operating at anything approaching a sustained 60 frames per second at 4K on GTX 1080 Ti-class hardware.

By extension, this makes the idea of a full 4K Xbox One X game seem unlikely, and looking closely at our footage, the evidence points to some form of reconstruction algorithm, with extra detail extrapolated out from a lower resolution base image. Quite what is happening here is difficult to fathom though, as there's a lot of noise in there, a touch of stippling suggesting a technique similar to the MSAA 'hack' used by Rainbow Six Siege, as well as some vertical interlacing on certain effects suggesting that at some point in the pipeline, Nier Automata is rendering at half-res 1920x2160. In motion, it holds together in many areas, but high contrast scenes still show harsh jaggies and sub-pixel break-up is commonplace. It's tough to figure out exactly what's going on here, but it's certainly one of the least consistent reconstruction techniques we've seen and compared to the PC version running at 3840x2160, it doesn't really pass as a 4K experience, just a sharper one when stacked up against the Pro.

A 4K look at Nier Automata's Xbox One X demo, as seen at E3 2018.Watch on YouTube

Beyond a cleaner image over PlayStation 4 Pro, there are other upgrades. Whether it's from a higher base resolution or via an increase in sample count, texture filtering shows an improvement, while per-object motion blur is retained with the addition of a camera movement blur too. Dynamic shadow quality seems a touch blurrier on X, but it's hardly noticeable in the heat of the action. The question is really whether Xbox One X can hold onto its enhancements while still delivering smooth 60fps performance.

The answer there - based on the demo code, at least - is in the negative, but the overall experience is still pleasingly smooth. In this respect, the X version of Nier Automata feels similar to the Pro game, dropping frames in the most effects-heavy scenes. Exact like-for-like footage isn't possible with only limited E3 capture, but the demo overall suggests that general performance is higher on X, with the occasional stutter seen in the PlayStation game mostly gone. However, on those epic boss battles with explosions and particle effects in full flow, X may actually have a small disadvantage compared to Pro - something we'll be testing in more depth on the full game.

What we didn't see at E3 was the same code running on Xbox One S, and this is significant. After all, the PS4 Pro's advantages over the base unit are numerous - a leap from 900p to 1080p, the introduction of motion blur, improved texture filtering and anti-aliasing and yes, some big performance improvements. Nier Automata's development was seemingly based on the notion of the standard PlayStation 4 as the entry-level experience, so how the less capable Xbox One S GPU will cope with a game as demanding as this remains to be seen.

Regardless, that doesn't change the fact that a PlayStation console exclusive title - and a truly brilliant game - is coming to the Xbox One platform, which can only be good news. It was one of Digital Foundry's favourite releases of 2017 and the evidence so far suggests that Xbox One X delivers a good experience, if not exactly a perfect one.

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