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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

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Xbox Series S vs PlayStation 4 Pro - the four teraflop face-off

Comparable GPU power but a generation apart - and there's only one winner.

We're over two years into the current generation of consoles, but true current-gen software is thin on the ground. Instead, the vast majority of key games have been released on both eighth-gen consoles and ninth-gen consoles, straddling seven distinct hardware targets across two generations to maximize sales. At the same time, the Xbox Series S continues to engender controversy. While it is a current-gen machine, it suffers from key GPU and RAM deficits that place it well behind the PS5 and Series X. The results in actual games are a bit of a mixed bag, and some titles suffer from issues unique only to that system owing to its pared back specification.

So we thought we'd take a look at a selection of 2022's biggest releases and game updates to see just how well the most constrained current-gen machine fares against PS4 Pro. Sony's enhanced machine makes for an interesting point of comparison: it has a very similar GPU configuration on the surface. Both machines pack roughly 4 teraflop GPUs, and both have circa 220 GB/s peak transfer rates on their main memory pools. Architectural and configuration differences muddle the waters here but in broad strokes these systems have similarly capable graphics hardware.

However, while GPU compute is comparable, Series S is far ahead in several regards. Its Zen 2-based CPU technology and NVMe storage allow it to deliver a faster, smoother, more responsive experience. And of course, the GPU itself hails from a more modern era with more features and an increase in IPC - instructions per clock. Nevertheless, it's early days for the new Microsoft console, while the Pro benefits from years' worth of experience and more mature development tools.

Here's how the face-off discussed on this page translates into video form. Watch on YouTube

The tests delivered today are a curious counter argument to a similar piece I ran last year, stacking up the Series S against Xbox One X, equipped with an SSD. This was much of a pitched battle at the time - perhaps because last-gen systems still received plenty of focus from developers, while the One X's GPU had enough brute force horsepower to deliver tangible graphical differences. With a year gone by and Pro as the comparison point, there's been a profound shift in favour of the new machine.

Take Cyberpunk 2077, for example, which launched in notorious form on the last-gen machines, essentially because it's a next-gen game by nature. Its official 'next-gen' upgrade arrived and post-launch, Series S in particular has received a lot of love with the addition of a 60fps mode and FSR2 upscaling support. Basic image quality between Pro and S is quite similar, though Series S seems to draw in extra environmental assets, mostly little bits of additional geometry and texture layers.

Performance is also vastly improved - a wobbly 30fps on Pro becomes a nigh-on lock on Series S, while the 60fps mode (although imperfect) is a night and day upgrade. At regular viewing distances, image quality isn't too far off the quality mode either, especially when you factor in Cyberpunk's characteristic heavy post-processing. Loading times are another game-changing improvement for Series S. For the record, while Pro has been our last-gen comparison point, Series S is also a big upgrade over Xbox One X too, resolution apart.

The Callisto Protocol has similarities to Cyberpunk 2077 in that it's clearly designed for the new wave of hardware - and once again, Series S copes better than PS4 Pro and even Xbox One X, despite notionally higher rendering resolutions on last-gen machines (1440p vs circa 1080p on Series S). Temporal anti-aliasing upscaling - TAAU - effectively bridges the resolution gulf in this case and while the Series S has cutbacks up against PS5 and Series X, it's a far richer, less compromised rendition of the game with noticeably improved performance (the less said about last-gen's 24fps cutscenes, the better). It's another comprehensive win for the entry-level Xbox.

Similar to Cyberpunk 2077, The Callisto Protocol is primarily designed for current-gen hardware - and despite a resolution advantage, both PS4 Pro and Xbox One X fall sort of the experience delivered by Xbox Series S.Watch on YouTube

Elden Ring is one of the bigger technical curiousities of this generation. It's undoubtedly a great game and in its own way, a quite attractive one. However, From Software has made very poor choices in terms of the game's basic visual configuration, targeting unlocked frame-rates on the enhanced last-gen consoles and current-gen machines. It's a slightly maddening setup made all the worse by the almost total lack of improvement on consoles since the game launched almost a year ago.

PS4 Pro's 1800p checkerboard presentation has an unlocked frame-rate that typically sits in the mid-30s. Drops below are possible, but the typical run of play is 30-35fps - a juddery, unstable mess. The Series S has basically the same performance level in its 1440p quality mode, but the system offers a frame-rate mode that clocks in at about 50-60fps most of the time, though it is typically sub-60fps, annoyingly, and can drop into the 40s and 30s, accompanied by a dynamic resolution drop. However, system-level VRR saves the day, delivering a smooth presentation on modern screens. This is one of a small handful of ways to salvage reasonable performance from the console versions of Elden Ring, and it is effective, though it won't work for everyone.

Elden Ring really requires a precise setup to produce a fluid gameplay experience and neither Series S or Pro provides a great out-of-the-box experience but at least Series S is fixable with a good display, and in the event you must play the game on a non-VRR panel the overall frame-rate is respectably high at least, though the judder is unpleasant. So Series S chalks up another win here as well, though neither machine is offering a truly satisfactory experience in a conventional sense.

A close-up look at the new revision of The Witcher 3, with Series S stacked up against current-gen counterparts and - yes - PlayStation 4 Pro.Watch on YouTube

The Witcher 3's next-gen upgrade once again shows the advantages of a more modern hardware design. If we had booted up this game a month or two ago, we'd be stuck with the base Xbox One codepath on Series S, producing some less-than-ideal results. But Series S is now home to a native version delivering a 1440p target resolution quality mode, up against PS4 Pro's checkerboard 4K. Series S looks less detailed overall, but CDPR's use of FSR 2 handles aliasing much more effectively than the primitive anti-aliasing available on the Pro, producing a much more stable image. Performance mode takes another step down here as a byproduct of its lower 1080p pixel target, though it still looks reasonably presentable.

However, every other aspect of the Series S version is significantly improved over the Pro version. Foliage density, draw distance, and shading quality all take a big leap here, producing a much more vibrant natural environment. There are also boosts to model quality, town NPC density, and shadow resolution - plus performance is improved, if not perfect. VRR again offers an excellent solution though the frame-rate issues aren't too impactful overall, even on a conventionally-refreshed display panel. The Series S pulls ahead of the Pro on basically every meaningful metric here, even though the advanced ray tracing of the Series X, PS5, and PC versions is unfortunately absent.

I talked about the Xbox One X vs Xbox Series S face-off I produced last year - embedded in video form on this page - which was much more evenly matched, but in early 2023, the situation is very different. Across a variety of cross-gen software the Series S is in a much stronger position, delivering significantly more performant games than the enhanced last-gen consoles. With generational improvements in CPU speed and storage, the Series S has major fundamental advantages that eighth-gen consoles simply can't match. Across a variety of titles, including several that didn't quite make this video, consoles like the PS4 Pro are getting left behind.

Looking back at how Xbox Series S stacked up against Xbox One X this time last year.Watch on YouTube

And there's another key factor that ultimately favours the Series S more than anything else: a range of games are simply not being released on last-gen consoles. In 2023 most key software has no planned eighth-generation console version. In 2022, PS4 Pro continued to deliver some great first-party exclusives like Horizon Forbidden West, Gran Turismo 7 and God of War Ragnarök in addition to third party fare.

Looking to 2023, major games like Spider-Man 2, Dead Space and Suicide Squad are exclusive to current-gen consoles and PCs. While there are a few major pieces of generation-straddling games still to come - most notably Resident Evil 4 and Diablo 4 - the overwhelming sense is that older consoles are rapidly approaching their sell-by date, and even first-party support is dropping off. The last two years have been generous to older hardware, with a frankly overwhelming volume of cross-gen software, but that is about to end. Even in 2022, titles like A Plague Tale Requiem, Need for Speed Unbound and Gotham Knights never made their way onto the last-gen machines.

And that's for good reason. Netbook-class CPUs and slow mechanical storage have hamstrung last-generation consoles and fundamentally limit the capabilities of cross-gen games. Series S has the CPU and SSD grunt to hang with the premium current-gen consoles - systems like the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X do not. The graphics hardware between the Series S and last-gen machines isn't a world apart, but fixating on raw graphics compute is a mistake, it's just one aspect of a console design, and arguably the most scalable one. There's no doubt that developers may be challenged by its limitations, but cross-gen comparisons plus UE5 deployments like The Matrix Awakens and Fortnite prove that the machine is capable enough as we move away from this prolonged cross-gen transition period into the next era for gaming.