Guardians of the Galaxy left a great impression after our tests on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X. The game itself is simply terrific and genuine highlight of 2021 - but equally obvious is that the Dawn Engine is demanding on console hardware. All of which raises the question: just how do the last-gen machines cope with the game? In a world where PS5 and Series X struggle to maintain 1080p60 in performance mode, can any PS4 or Xbox One machine deliver a good experience?
Obviously, there are going to changes from the current-gen console experience - so the option to choose between a 30fps quality mode and a 60fps performance alternative is off the table. It's 30fps and that's your lot, similar to Xbox Series S. Reducing resolution as well as frame-rate is another obvious way that Guardians of the Galaxy can scale: so, the base PS4 renders with a dynamic resolution range of around 900p to 972p, while Xbox One drops down to 720p (DRS is a possibility here but all counts came in at 720p, curiously). Owing to the temporal anti-aliasing in play, the lower the resolution goes, the less distinct the picture is but it's still a good-looking game: only hair and fur elements genuinely suffer.
Moving onto the enhanced last-gen machines, Xbox One X is a genuine surprise, with a huge increase in image quality - as you would expect from a 1440p-1890p dynamic resolution range. Image clarity is massively improved and those telltale hair and fur artefacts are far less of an issue. It was also good to see that texture quality, anisotropic filtering, shadows and even draw distance are improved over the base Xbox One. PS4 Pro also guns for 4K with a similar DRS range to Xbox One X, the difference being that the dynamic pixel count is usually lower.
At this point it's worth updating our analysis on PS5 and Series X quality modes, which also run at 30fps - it is indeed native 4K for the vast majority of play, but DRS drops to 1800p can happen. More interesting is the developer's choice to peg Series S to 1080p30 - a curious choice bearing in mind that both PS4 Pro and Xbox One X look significantly cleaner owing to their higher pixel counts. Series S is a generation ahead and yet any close-up of hair or fur shows One X in particular delivering a huge advantage resolving sub-pixel detail. However, perhaps predictably, resolution isn't the whole story. In fact, despite the lower pixel count, Series S pushes higher visual settings. Shadow quality is marginally improved on the newer machine and most noticeable is a texture quality boost on Series S - a curious state of affairs bearing in mind the lower rendering resolution.
There are other questions to answer too - if we assume that PS5 and Series X offer two times (or more) more GPU power than the last-gen enhanced machines, how come rendering resolutions are relatively close? The answer here is predictable: graphical quality is more impressive. Texture quality is greatly improved, draw distances are pushed out, shadow quality is better and geometric density is also greatly improved. Foliage physics are also included on the new consoles, perhaps tapping into the extra CPU power available.
There's also the matter of performance to consider - there are genuine problem here on the base last-gen machines. Bottom of the barrel is the base PlayStation 4. Even with its 900p-972p dynamic resolution, frame-rates struggle in cutscenes and combat, where we can drop as low as 20 frames per second. Exploration is fine, but any time the action heats up, the game clearly has issues. Bearing in mind how each new battle introduces a new mechanic, a new Guardian or more skills - like elemental rounds - it's sobering to see it gets progressively worse. Xbox One also has issues, but it looks like its locked 720p resolution offers less aggressive drops to performance. All round, Xbox One tackles most areas better than the vanilla PS4 but it is still far from ideal. The image quality, the hitching, the geometry pop-in - it's all still a serious blight on the experience.
However, if you're gaming on Xbox One X, Guardians of the Galaxy holds up admirably, delivering performance similar to Series S overall - it's essentially a 30fps lock, though there are some obvious streaming hitches from time to time, when moving between areas or during camera changes in cutscenes. It has one-frame dips, sporadically - while the worst cutscenes drop briefly into the high 20s. Again, this is not ideal, but it's a huge improvement over the other last-gen editions. There's not much more to say here, except that it's impressive One X pulls this all off at a higher resolution than Series S. Insofar as the last-gen versions go, this is the one to get, and it's very playable.
PS4 Pro is a game of two halves: on the one hand, it's an enjoyable 30fps experience in battle, holding that performance level during most exploration stages too. On the other hand, there are moments in play and cutscenes which inexplicably drop to the 20s. PS4 Pro is best described as a mixture: again, it's very playable, and image quality is creditable. You can think of it as a similar experience to Xbox One X, only with a slightly less stable frame-rate in cutscenes and odd moments.
At this point, we've covered all seven console versions of Guardians of the Galaxy and the bottom line is that PS4 Pro is the 'minimum console spec' we can recommend for playing the game smoothly, with Xbox One X the preferable choice from all the last-gen machines. Both enhanced consoles get you a reasonable 30fps performance level with a crisp image that sits well on 4K displays. They both miss out on the higher-grade detail, foliage, textures, shadows and physics of the PS5 and Series X - but they really do a decent job. With the base consoles, you'll have to tolerate regular drops to 20fps - especially on PS4 - with a significant hit to resolution too, where Xbox One comes out worst at 720p native.
Final thoughts: it's clear that Guardians of the Galaxy's engine is demanding on console hardware, but bearing in mind the turnout on PS5 and Xbox Series X, it was surprising to see how well Xbox One X and PS4 Pro handled the game. It's a brilliant release and if you're still gaming on either of those machines, you'll still get a good experience. My last thought? Given the showing of Xbox One X, hopefully the developers will offer up a higher resolution upgrade for Series S - it may not have the raw horsepower and bandwidth of the Scorpio Engine, but 1080p30 does seem like a cut too deep for the junior Series console.