While the mystery buried within The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is certainly intriguing, from our perspective, it's the journey of its developer that is most fascinating. First released in 2014 on the PC, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter has undergone several surgeries on its way to this new release on Xbox One. In porting the game to PS4 years ago, its developer, Warsaw-based The Astronauts, completely overhauled the game by porting it from Unreal Engine 3 to Unreal 4.
In its updated state, the team worked hard to translate its gorgeous but static global illumination and photogrammetry-based assets and the results speak for themselves. Ethan Carter retains its stylizsd, pseudo-realistic appearance while introducing new Unreal 4 specific features to the mix. We were impressed with the revised version of the game back in 2015 and in 2018, it's surprising just how beautifully it holds up. With forests and structures stretching out as far as the eye can see, Ethan Carter remains as gorgeous as ever.
On Xbox One, the game offers a handful of new features designed to welcome new players to its world. Further refined visuals are combined with an impressive range of support for Xbox One X, along with a new free-roam mode. The Astronauts' support for the 4K console is impressive, offering a slew of options that we don't often see on consoles. Pop into the options menu and you're offered the choice between three resolutions, the ability to cap the frame-rate and the option to adjust the field of view. In comparison, on the regular Xbox One, you have the option to modify the FOV or cap the frame-rate but the resolution remains fixed at 1080p on the base system - still an impressive achievement considering that many other UE4 games on Xbox One opt for resolutions well below the full HD standard.
Our first question is simple - beyond resolution, are there any other differences between Xbox One and Xbox One X? Well, the higher resolution does allow for improved texture filtering but aside from that, the two versions appear equal in terms of visual details - which is to say, both consoles offer a richly detailed world to explore. However, if we bring the PS4 version into the mix, it becomes obvious that there have been changes made since the last release. Namely, the scene lighting varies slightly between the two console versions.
Curiously, while The Astronauts have embraced X enhancements, PlayStation 4 Pro support was never added to the original console release and according to the developer, implementing the improvements included in the Xbox One version would require enough extra work that it's not feasible right now, though they didn't completely rule it out. As a small indie team, this is perfectly understandable but the bottom line is that any Pro enhancements to the title can only come through the additional CPU and GPU power offered by the system-level boost mode.
The focus here is on the Xbox One X then, which begs the question - which of the three resolution options provides the best performance? Simply put, this choice is tied directly to performance. The higher the resolution, the lower the frame-rate. Starting at native 2160p, the game looks remarkably sharp and clean. The anti-aliasing solution cleans up foliage edges, texture filtering looks great and the game beckons you to sit closer to your display but clearly, performance isn't quite where it should be. The frame-rate hangs below 60fps most of the time when using the native 4K mode but ultimately remains above 30fps. If you're not bothered by judder, clearly this is a great way to play the game.
So how about the 30fps frame-rate cap then? Well, on paper, this should solve the issue entirely but in reality, it's flawed. Basically, it seems that the frame-rate is capped at 32fps instead of 30fps, which means it no longer divides evenly into the 60Hz refresh rate of an HDTV display, causing noticeable judder. It's the same on PlayStation 4, and hopefully with renewed focus on this game, The Astronauts can go back and fix it.
Another interesting aspect about the native 4K mode becomes apparent when drawing comparisons with the base Xbox One version. On Xbox One, at 1080p, the frame-rate is remarkably similar to Xbox One X at native 4K in areas like the woods but eventually, as we make our way across the less demanding bridge area, the X starts to pull ahead. So while Xbox One S offers reasonable performance, the X is faster overall, even when pushing four times the number of pixels.
Ethan Carter's 1440p mode has proven our favourite option in the game for a couple reasons. Mainly, performance manages to hang much closer to 60fps when using this mode. It's still not perfect by any means, but it's high enough that it feels very smooth overall while the excellent motion blur manages to minimise judder. Beyond that, the resolution is still a noticeable leap above 1080p allowing for beautiful visuals. In essence, while 1440p isn't usually optimal for gaming on a 4K display, the increased consistency and the tighter lock to 60fps makes it our preferred option overall.
If you really want extra stability, however, that's where the 1080p option comes into play. In this mode, Ethan Carter manages to come very close to turning in that absolutely locked full frame-rate experience. From the initial forest section to the bridge, we're averaging out a frame-rate right at 60. Of course, as we move back into the thick of it, the frame-rate starts to drop a little bit below the target but the drop is small enough that it doesn't spoil the fluidity. At this point, the CPU is likely the bottleneck here.
As you might expect, the fully enabled six teraflop Scorpio Engine hands in much higher performance at 1080p than PS4 Pro running the base PlayStation code in boost mode, but the surprise is just how well the standard Xbox One compares: clearly the Pro is faster, as it should be, but the Xbox One version hangs reasonably close. This new version of Ethan Carter operates on a more modern version of Unreal Engine 4, but the bottom line is that the development team did a great job optimising the game for standard Xbox One systems based on the results seen here.
Looking at the overall experience then, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a great experience on the Xbox One platform. If you have an Xbox One X, you're getting the best possible experience with the game on a console while standard Xbox One owners receive a solid game as well. The only real nitpick here lies with the frame-rate cap - if the team could smooth it out and implement a proper 30fps cap with even 33ms frame-pacing, a locked, consistent 4K30 experience on Xbox One X would be a real boon.
As things stand, if you're an Xbox owner who hasn't played through Ethan Carter yet and enjoys a good, narrative-focused puzzle exploration game, this is well worth checking out. It scales well onto Microsoft's powerful new console, while offering solid performance and excellent visuals on the base hardware - but more than that, it's intriguing and beautiful, still managing to retain its appeal years after its initial release.