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BioShock: The Collection gets upgraded for PS4 Pro and Xbox One X - and the results disappoint

Resolution increases - but there are problems.

BioShock: The Collection returns! There's a Switch port on sale now (we'll have coverage on this soon) but meanwhile, the existing console releases have been updated to natively support PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X, with the promise of support for both consoles' 4K output modes. There are some improvements, resolution is boosted, but bearing in mind the vintage of the original games, we did expect to see a better turn-out.

Let's get the basics out of the way. With BioShock: The Collection, we're effectively looking at three separate games running on two different engines. BioShock and its sequel operate on a customised rendition of Unreal Engine 2.5, while Infinite leverages an enhanced UE3. This results in implementations for the enhanced consoles that directly relate to the engine used. So, for BioShock and BioShock 2, PlayStation 4 Pro renders at 1440p, while Xbox One X targets full 2160p - 4K. Curiously, with BioShock Infinite, 1440p is the standard for both machines. There's a further wrinkle though for PS4 Pro owners: if your front-end is set to 1080p and super-sampling is disabled, all titles run at 1080p instead of 1440p.

Looking at the first two titles to begin with, even with its lower resolution, PS4 Pro at 1440p definitely enhances the game's visual presentation by helping to bring out texture detail and reducing edge jaggies - it's just that the Xbox One X does this in a much better fashion when you look at them back to back. However, pure pixel count is only one part of the equation: The first two games have very simplistic anti-aliasing implementations in place, so specular shimmer in motion is an issue, even on Xbox One X.

Also problematic is the very low level of anisotropic filtering deployed on both machines, which results in ground textures at oblique angles quickly turning into a blurry mess, something that happens very to the camera. Bearing in mind how ubiquitous these textures are - and how often BioShock relies on repeating tile patterns, emphasising the issue - this goes a long way in offsetting the quality improvement you get from the higher pixel count. In the embedded video, you'll see how the PC version with 16x AF looks dramatically better, but even 8x from the consoles would present a huge improvement, and I'm surprised that this isn't implemented as standard. Interestingly, BioShock 2 seems to have a higher default level of anisotropic filtering than its predecessor, but there's still huge scope for improvement here.

Everything you need to know about the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X enhancements for the BioShock trilogy.

BioShock Infinite sees more modest gains: it's difficult to fathom why Xbox One X is running at the same resolution as PS4 Pro, bearing in mind the glaring disparity in GPU processing power. Image quality still leaves much to be desired: the anti-aliasing is simplistic, resulting int image crawl and fizzle in motion that's visible on both machines. This is exacerbated by mediocre anisotropic filtering, though Xbox One X does seem marginally improved. On top of this, transparency effects seem to be delivered at a lower rendering resolution than the rest of the image - even on Xbox One X - and when these transparencies intersect with opaque geometry, it's possible to see highly pixelated edges.

These negative points could be tolerable if performance were locked to 60 frames per second throughout, but unfortunately, that's simply not the case. The best performer is, perhaps understandably, the original BioShock. It is 13-years-old at this point, after all. Across samples from the first hour-and-a-half of gameplay, both enhanced consoles held up fairly well - though layer upon layer of alpha transparency textures can very occasionally hit performance hard, more so on PlayStation 4 Pro. This isn't too onerous, but the fact it's visible at all may more egregious examples further on in the game.

With BioShock 2, the experience is less stable. Even though I believe the original to be the better-looking game (with more real-time shadows), it clearly performs to a lesser degree, with both Xbox One X and PS4 Pro seemingly bandwidth-limited in specific scenarios where, again, alpha transparencies dominate the viewport. Unfortunately, this means performance drops kick in whenever you use the the drill melee weapon, where the explosion of gore invariably hits frame-rate. Bearing in mind that this is the first weapon in the game, and the iconic means of attack from the Big Daddy, it's sad to see performance drop into the 40s on PS4 Pro when it's used. The effect is even more pronounced on Xbox One X. Put simply, it's not fun to see your frame-rate tank in the middle of combat using the most basic weapon in the game. This isn't limited to the drill attack either - many transparencies cause issues, such as water splashes or electricity surges. In all of these scenarios, Xbox One X fares considerably worse than PS4 Pro - and if that's the case, there is a case here for lowering resolution.

An attempt to show the stuttering issue of BioShock and its sequel running on Xbox One X. As you can see, taking your console offline fixes the problem.

In performance terms, Bioshock infinite sits in the middle-ground between these titles. In the first hour of play on both systems, frame-rate did not seem to be compromised at all by GPU limits. In fact, the only issue I noted is one that has been a problem since its launch way back in 2013 - loading stutter. Simple traversal through the world produces noticeable frame-time spikes - the game momentarily freezes as it waits for new data. It's an issue in many Unreal Engine 3 titles of the era and it's nothing new for BioShock Infinite, but it is disappointing to see that it's still here seven years on from release. It's a shame, because the overall outlook is of a locked 60 frames per second otherwise.

Ultimately, it's difficult to avoid a lingering sense of disappointment. BioShock Infinite is fine overall, but the resolution boost isn't that great, and other aspects of the presentation haven't been cleaned up. BioShock 2's issues with alpha transparencies have a clear impact on performance that must surely have been noticed by the developer. Meanwhile, the first BioShock is fine overall but to see any performance issues at all - let alone poor texture filtering - on a game that hails from 13 years ago is disappointing to say the least.

The final problem concerns Xbox One X and the first two BioShock games. The new patch introduces a strange de-sync effect that adds a continuous stutter to the game, even when it is running at 60fps. What appears to be happening is that the game hitches every second, but world lighting still updates. This only happens on Xbox One X and is found exclusively in BioShock and its sequel, while Infinite is fine (PS4 Pro is completely unaffected). It is hard to understate how bad this looks - the game may be running at 60fps, but it looks nothing like it in practise. After producing our video, YouTube channel VGTech reported that taking the Xbox One X offline fixes the issue.

We tested this out with the same result (video embed above) so hopefully this can be easily patched for Xbox One owners - it's an essential fix, but fundamentally, it's just the start of the issues that need addressing. All three of the titles that compromise BioShock: The Collection are important games that deserve the best treatment in the interests of preserving them for the console generations to come. What we have right now is a step in the right direction, but the patches here come across more like beta code as opposed to a genuinely complete, polished product.

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About the Author
Alex Battaglia avatar

Alex Battaglia

Video Producer, Digital Foundry

Ray-tracing radical, Turok technophile, Crysis cultist and motion-blur menace. When not doing Digital Foundry things, he can be found strolling through Berlin examining the city for rendering artefacts.

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