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DF Weekly: Starfield mods unlock frame-rate on Xbox Series S - so how well does it run?

Homebrew 'performance mode' solutions arrive for the junior Xbox.

In this week's DF Direct, I spend a bit of time looking into the Starfield modding scene - more specifically checking out mods that aim to bring a performance mode to the Xbox Series S version of the game. As we've already covered, Bethesda did a creditable job in bringing performance options to the Xbox Series X rendition of the game, but the junior Xbox didn't get the same treatment. We pointed out that this was a shame at the time, and the mods appear to suggest that Series S could have benefited likewise.

Going back to the 'stock' game, it's essentially a match for the Series X version, albeit with very slight cuts to visual features. The big difference comes from the resolution. It runs at a reconstructed 1440p, using 900p as the base internal resolution. Bethesda maintains consistency by running at a capped 30 frames per second, the game rarely dipping beneath. The first mod for Series S I tried simply turns off v-sync, which also removes that frame-rate limit. So in essence, we're looking at something similar to Series X's 60fps mode running in the visuals preset (the difference being you'll need to put up with eye-rending screen-tearing on a non-VRR display).

It's quite interesting to see that - similar to Series X - this mode sees the game careen between GPU and CPU limits. Dense cityscapes with plenty of NPCs are where the CPU is the limit - and a run around Jemison or especially Akila will see the CPU limit brought to the fore. However, in most of the other game content, it's the GPU that is the primary factor in limiting performance and here, the limits can change dramatically - anything from the mid 30s to the high 50s in my testing. It may actually go higher than that in some content: if you set the console to 120Hz output, a 60fps cap is no issue - the console will happily move beyond that.

Welcome to DF Direct Weekly #168.Watch on YouTube
  • 0:00:31 Introduction
  • 0:01:53 News 01: Starfield Series S high frame-rate mods tested!
  • 0:09:57 News 02: PS2 and PSP emulation on PS5 analyzed
  • 0:25:29 News 03: Snapdragon X Elite gaming performance disappoints
  • 0:45:27 News 04: Still Wakes The Deep ships without FSR, DLSS, XeSS on Game Pass
  • 0:54:48 News 05: LRG3 showcase features re-releases, remasters
  • 1:05:35 Supporter Q1: How can I age as gracefully as the Switch?
  • 1:14:26 Supporter Q2: Would you still recommend the Steam Deck over the new ROG Ally X?
  • 1:17:15 Supporter Q3: Could the PS5 last 8 or 9 years as Sony’s flagship console platform?
  • 1:23:56 Supporter Q4: Do you think a 1080p screen could be too much for a next-gen Switch?
  • 1:29:15 Supporter Q5: Do you think any unannounced first party games will be released around launch for Switch 2?

The Series X version of Starfield has its visuals mode, but it also has a performance alternative. Here, Bethesda essentially pare back the resolution to Series S level: 900p native, reconstructing to 1440p. While this can't address the CPU limitations in various cities, it does sort out the graphics limitations elsewhere - and it's an excellent way to play the game on Microsoft's premium console. So, the next order of business was to see if the same kind of reprioritisation is possible on Xbox Series S - and the ability to drop resolution to 1280x720 definitely does that - with dramatic effects.

I actually tested this in full 120Hz mode, meaning that frame-rate could rise as high it wishes (measurable with our tools up to 120fps) and found that we hit a 60fps baseline on challenging GPU-limited area of the game, while the more constrained levels such as the Kreet Research Lab at the beginning of Starfield ran at 90fps upwards. This is a rather nice way to play the game - with one exception. The drop to 1280x720 from 1600x900 seems to be far more impactful to image quality than you might imagine. We seem to be finding the limits of FSR 2 upscaling quality, with some ugly artefacting. Even so, you are getting a viable performance mode - it's just that the trades are far more obvious to the eye than the Series X version.

There are other ways to increase Starfield performance though. In fact, if you just search for 'Series S' under the mod menu, you'll find a range of mods designed to increase frame-rate at the expense of elements like draw distance, shadow quality and much more. And all of these mods will run on Xbox Series X too, not that we recommend them! This video from Fuzion Xbox Testing gives some idea of how ugly you can make the game in the pursuit of an ever-higher FPS count. In the process, mods like these reveal how open Bethesda has made the game - in effect, users have access to the console equivalent of the PC's .ini files.

Coming to the end of the Series S testing, it's great to see that owners of the junior Xbox can tap into the high frame-rate experience. However, there is one key limitation: while you can use your existing save games with mods without any problems, subsequent saves are moved into a sub-folder and Xbox achievements are disabled whenever a mod is in play. That's a shame for sure, which makes the case for Bethesda to add an official performance mode to the Series S version, so why haven't they?

Looking back at the first test with the existing image quality level paired with an unlocked frame-rate, perhaps there's simply not enough content that gets close to 60fps to make it fully worthwhile… although I'd say that there is a decent enough turnout to make a 120Hz 40fps mode. Meanwhile, unlocking frame-rate and reducing resolution does seem to do the trick in terms of getting high levels of performance out of the 4TF GPU. However, here, the issue is that Starfield simply isn't a particularly attractive game at this point. I'm going to assume that FSR 2 is still upscaling to 1440p, so a more conservative 1080p output might look marginally better - but still not good enough, perhaps. Whatever the reasons are for Bethesda ruling it out, at least the mods are out there for users to experiment with.

And that's just one topic in another packed edition of DF Direct Weekly, where John tests out the new PlayStation 2 emulator for PS5, I have a very early look at gaming on the Snapdragon X Elite, hosted within Microsoft's new Surface Laptop, while myself and Alex share yet more of our frustrations with the Windows Store and Game Pass PC. DF Direct Weekly is available on early access to backers of the DF Supporter Program, so if you feel so inclined, join us for those Direct privileges, early access, weekly supporter-only reports from the team and our amazing Discord community. See you next week!

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