Digital Foundry vs. the Battlefield 4 beta
Current-gen vs. next-gen?
It's been a long console generation but the end is in sight with the release of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One set for this November. But the PS3/360 legacy lives on - the sheer size of their combined installed base means that publishers can't leave the old machines behind just yet. Hence the arrival of "cross-gen" games; titles developed for current and next generation consoles simultaneously. Battlefield 4 is, perhaps, the most anticipated of these releases, with the promise of delivering the full PC experience on both next generation consoles at 60fps. Expectations are high for the new platforms but what of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 experience? Does Frostbite 3 bring anything new to the table for these ageing consoles? How do these versions compare to Battlefield 4 running on a more powerful PC? And with the arrival of last week's beta test, can we extrapolate anything about the next-gen console versions from the PC game?
To begin with, the beta includes just one map, Siege of Shanghai, available in two variations according to the selected mode. In Domination the map is reduced in size to allow for a smaller player count while Conquest mode purportedly delivers the full experience. Unfortunately PS3 and 360 owners remain limited to a maximum of just 24 players per map. With Battlefield 4 it is more apparent than ever that this low player count simply isn't adequate for a full size Conquest map. Shanghai winds up feeling dreadfully empty with huge swathes of empty open space dividing skirmishes. The PC beta allows for a full 64 players - something DICE has also promised for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 iterations of the game.
But first, let's attempt to address a next-gen controversy surrounding the game. In the last few weeks, statements have been floating around suggesting that Battlefield 4 operates at 720p on the new consoles, or 900p on one but not the other, depending on which unsourced comment you read. With the PC beta in hand, we decided to take a look at the game running at various resolutions to determine what it might look like when operating at lower resolutions which are then upscaled back to 1080p. The PC version includes a resolution scaling option that allows you to maintain a desired output resolution (optimal for fixed pixel displays and for reducing input lag) while altering the internal rendering resolution. As it stands, BF4 is a demanding game on the PC and with the promise of 60fps, it's no surprise that compromises may have to be made. If the new consoles are able to deliver a level of detail on par with the PC version at 60fps, the drop in image quality could prove an acceptable trade-off.
Based on the testing we've done previously, the impact of lowering resolution increases exponentially the lower you go. A 900p downscale from 1080p isn't optimal of course, but it's acceptable, especially in living room conditions where the player is some distance from the screen. 1080p - or even 900p - down to 720p is far, far more impactful and should be backed by really good anti-aliasing. The tests here demonstrate clearly that 1080p is the preferable solution, but care needs to be taken if DICE decides to take resolution down much lower.
But what about Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3? Keeping in mind the lower player count, just what have they been able to achieve here? Just as we saw with Battlefield 3, the PlayStation 3 iteration operates at 1280x704 with small black borders across the top and bottom. Edge smoothing is handled once again by a form of MLAA that provides good coverage without aggressively blurring the image. Interestingly, Xbox 360 sees an extra seven pixels shaved off along the top and bottom bringing the resolution to 1280x688 with FXAA once again selected for anti-aliasing duties.
New to Battlefield 4 is the introduction of dynamic resolution scaling which reduces the number of pixels rendered in an effort to maintain a more consistent frame-rate. The lowest resolution we've seen appears to be somewhere in the ballpark of 1120x600 (black bars included) and appears to manifest on both platforms. We have noticed that this resolution drop seems to occur more often on 360, however, where even an empty map manages to trigger a loss in resolution at times. [Update: Having re-evaluated the images, the resolution seems constant - but the edge blur filter is really intense and can impact image quality]. As it stands, the PS3 version maintains a cleaner overall look throughout the run of play giving it the edge in image quality.
Another noticeable point of differentiation is texture quality. Details such as billboards, signs, certain building surfaces, and even weapon textures all exhibit lower resolution textures on Xbox 360 while those same textures feature much more detail on PS3. Furthermore, on 360 there are numerous instances where we've observed textures of varying resolution swapping in and out based on player proximity. Battlefield 3 was known for including an optional install on Xbox 360 that improved the resolution of models and textures but the nigh-on identical file sizes of the BF4 beta download suggests that this shouldn't be an issue here. We tested this across two separate Xbox 360 consoles and consistently encountered these results. We must keep in mind that this is a beta release, and the code could be weeks or even months old. Such details are clearly subject to change by final release so hopefully these issues will be addressed by that time - DICE did a pretty good job overall on BF3, so the track record is there.
Aside from image quality differences and texture issues on 360 the visual make-up between the two versions is relatively equal and very similar to Battlefield 3. Shadows, for instance, use the same dithering technique previously employed with a harsher look on 360 and slightly more definition on PS3 The same applies to SSAO where the samples appear darker on 360. Other effects, such as sun flare, explosions, debris, and lighting all appear mostly identical. In addition both versions are lacking the same features found in the PC iteration of the game, so one platform doesn't appear to enjoy any additional bling over the other. Frostbite 3 no doubt offers improvements on the back-end for the developers but the results on current generation consoles offer no clear visual enhancements over the last game on the user side.
When it comes to performance the two console versions take different approaches this time out. Both consoles aim for 30fps and, as a consequence, an inevitable increase to input lag compared to the PC - and presumably next-gen versions. On Xbox 360, when the frame-rate target is unattainable, the game drops vertical sync resulting in screen-tear, just like Battlefield 3. On PlayStation 3, however, it appears that DICE has implemented triple-buffering, allowing the frame-rate to slip under 30fps without tearing or dropping all the way to 20fps. Both versions regularly dip under 30fps but generally manage to stay in the 26-28fps realm during normal gameplay. The 360 commands a small advantage as a result of disabling vertical sync but the game actually feels generally more consistent on PS3 - an interesting experience as we would have expected triple-buffering to add a little input lag. Either way, it's clear that aiming for 60fps on next generation consoles is the right move as the experience is much improved on PC as a result of the higher frame-rate.
"The overall impression left by the Battlefield 4 beta is that DICE has targeted PC and next-gen aggressively, with the Xbox 360 and PS3 games visually way behind."
Which brings us to, perhaps, the more interesting comparison between the PC and current generation consoles. We'd like to think of these versions as representing two opposing ends of a quality spectrum with the PS3 and 360 defining the lowest possible visual fidelity while the PC represents the highest.
Where the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will fall remains to be seen but this beta gives us an idea of just how much additional detail the PC version brings to the table. If you've had a chance to watch any Battlefield 4 promotional videos it's difficult not to feel as if the current generation console experience is missing out on many of the game's advertised visual features. It often feels as if the map design and art direction simply don't mesh with the compromises that were made to deliver the game on older consoles. Rooms full of detailed furniture, waving plants and props are left completely empty on consoles.
Trees, bushes, fences, power lines, and blinking neon signs? All absent. The toppling skyscraper, the defining moment of this map, loses much of the visual panache we see on the PC while still bringing the frame-rate to its knees. The dust and rubble coated streets following this event are replaced with an ugly white texture that transforms the environment into something resembling a development test map. Regardless of the technology powering the console versions of the game, the end result is unattractive and fails to match the original vision of the designers.
"In terms of the beta, Xbox 360 has a mild performance advantage, but we hope its texture issues are resolved in the final game. PS3, meanwhile, enjoys a completely tear-free game experience."
It's important to consider the gameplay consequences as well. Removing nearly all props from the building interiors, for instance, actually reduces the tactical options available to the player. On PC you could duck behind the bar at the top of the skyscraper while returning fire - on consoles, these options simply do not exist. Furthermore, the entire aesthetic of the game is different on current generation consoles. The clear blue sky of the PC version is transformed into a drab, yellowish mess. The lack of animated billboards, light shafts, motion blur, complex reflections, depth of field, and more robust shading all completely change the look of the game on PS3 and 360. What little we've seen of the next generation version does at least suggest that most of these effects and objects are in place suggesting something much more in line with the PC version.
At this point it's safe to say that the current-gen consoles fall significantly short in delivering anything like the full Battlefield 4 experience. The game is still very playable and fun in its own right but there's no doubt that players sticking with these versions of the game will be missing out on a significant element of the full experience.
While the lower fidelity visuals may be improved (remember, the BF3 beta was very unpolished), with the smaller player counts, and the lower frame-rates it's hard to recommend the game on these platforms if you have other options. Between the two, however, we feel that the PS3 version has the edge based on what we see from this beta code. The lack of screen-tear and improved image quality on PS3 offset the very subtle performance advantage on 360. Of course, this beta definitely suggests that the scope of the game was not limited by simultaneous development on last generation machines - something that is a concern with all cross-generation titles - and it's great to see that DICE is really going for it with PC and next-gen development. We'll have a look at the Xbox One and PS4 versions of the game in the coming weeks where we can finally discover whether or not the true Battlefield experience will be available to console owners, and perhaps put the resolution/frame-rate issues to bed once and for all.
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