Borderlands 3: what's up with console frame-rates?
Xbox One X and PS4 Pro's performance and resolution modes tested.
How well does Borderlands 3 perform on the current generation consoles? Digital Foundry coverage of the new Gearbox hit will be somewhat staggered since 2K failed to provide review code, but we do now have some idea of what the developer targeted and delivered on the enhanced consoles - Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Pro. The initial verdict? There are some puzzling technical decisions in place and clear performance issues that need work, but gameplay is golden.
What is interesting about the Pro and X releases is where there is parity and where there is not. Gearbox sets out with the best of intentions here, offering users of both machines the chance to choose between resolution and performance in the settings menu. In terms of pixel counts at least, Pro and X are a match: the resolution mode aims to maximise the return from 4K displays, offering up a 3200x1800 presentation, which looks good owing to Unreal Engine 4's anti-aliasing - not to mention the core art style. Frame-rate is capped at 30fps here, in contrast to the performance mode, which aims to deliver 60fps and does so by dropping internal resolution down to 1080p on both machines.
Curiously though, there are some differences in the visual feature set and remarkably, PlayStation 4 Pro delivers a slightly richer experience. Side by side with Xbox One X, it's clear that it's the Pro that offers improved anisotropic filtering on ground textures - and it's also apparent that aspects like foliage density are a cut above on the Pro. It's a surprising set-up but the working theory we have for now (backed up by some other multi-platform releases we've seen) is that aspects of the base Xbox One version persist into the X version - we'll check this out in our follow-up on how Borderlands 3 runs on the vanilla consoles.
It's performance that is the real issue here, however. With two consoles each offering two different modes of play, there are four potential iterations of Borderlands 3 to consider. And to tell the truth, there's only one of them that we're comfortable playing for anything length of time - Xbox One X in resolution mode. This delivers a nigh-on locked, evenly frame-paced 30 frames per second, paired with very nice 1800p image quality.
Usually, we'd opt to give up some resolution and target 60 frames per second instead but the truth is that Borderlands 3's performance mode has some genuine issues. On Xbox One X, it's only traversal across the environments that genuinely locked to the target frame-rate. Combat sees performance tumble into the 50s, punctuated by longer frame-time stutters that add further inconsistency into the experience. If I had to guess, I'd say that Borderlands 3 pushes CPU just a little too hard here for the X to cope with adequately. The situation gets worse when battling in a vehicle, with drops down into the 40s.
And so, by extension, the performance mode on PlayStation 4 Pro is correspondingly worse - perhaps owing to its weaker CPU. Again, there's a 1080p60 target here, but the machine fails to deliver on anything outside of traversal. The frame-rate drops in the same areas as it does on Xbox One X, the difference being that the weaker hardware spec in the Pro sees the drops hit harder. It's nice to see games offering users the chance to choose between pixel count and frame-rate - but a fast action shooter relies upon consistency and Borderlands 3 doesn't deliver here in this mode.
This leaves one more performance permutation to consider. Xbox One X plays well in its resolution mode, but unfortunately, the Pro does not follow suit. Running the game at 1800p with a slightly higher visual spec than the X doesn't work out particularly well for the machine, with the game running the gamut between 20fps and 30fps, depending on load. Combat often plays out in the mid-20s, which isn't really good enough at the best of times, let alone for a Borderlands experience.
There've been some reports online that adjusting the field of view option can help performance. The fact that we have a FOV option at all is to the developer's credit and while the default is set to a 90 degree view, users can choose between anything from 70 to 110 degrees. In theory, narrowing the field of view could reduce geometry and draw call set-up and it may well help in some scenarios. However, testing the extremes (70 vs 110) in PS4 Pro's resolution mode made no difference at all - further testing in the different modes will be needed here.
We'll be reporting back with more on the game soon, with a look at both the base consoles and the PC version, but from what we've tested so far, it's clear that there's a lack of polish on the enhanced machines and puzzling frame-rate problems. In fairness, Gearbox has some form in improving performance - Battleborn shifted from a 30fps experience to 60fps after all - so fingers crossed that the situation will be improved.