Did last-gen simply run out of steam? Xbox 360 launched in 2005, with its successor taking eight years to arrive - three years longer than the console lifecycle established by the first two PlayStations. Artificially extended due to rising software development costs and the urge for Sony and Microsoft to maximise profits from hardware sales, the prolonged life of these consoles was both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, the need to upgrade was staved off, but on the other, there was undoubtedly the sense that these machines were hitting their limits in their twilight years. Far Cry 3 is a perfect example - a game that wowed with its scale and ambition, held back by its rather wobbly performance on console. This year's instalment emphasises the wall developers hit - Far Cry 4 is bigger and better than its predecessor, but the problems faced by its predecessor on last-gen console are just as pronounced, if not more so.
Ubisoft's latest Dunia engine-powered magnum opus is simply beautiful on Xbox One, PS4 and PC. Could it be that the latest iterations of the tech were always designed with next-gen architecture in mind? Triple-A games take years to develop, and nobody quite knew when the 360 and PS3 replacements were going to arrive - developers had to hedge their bets. Far Cry 3 was a world apart on PC compared to its console incarnations, while Battlefield 3 - its Frostbite 2 engine designed around DirectX 11 and a many-core PC architecture - was clearly a next-gen warm-up project. Crystal Dynamics' Tomb Raider is another example of a title built with one eye towards the future of console hardware.
Last-gen scalability was built into all of the games, but the results were lacklustre compared to their PC versions - next-gen console proxies, if you will. Far Cry 3 arguably fared worst of all, bereft of the graphical bells and whistles, and blighted with horrible screen-tear, low frame-rates and muddy controller response issues. The core game was there, the performance wasn't. This begs the question - how much more compromise is built into the last-gen versions of Far Cry 4? Is it still worthwhile?
Far Cry 3 received acclaim on the last-gen platforms, but it was clear that the Dunia engine powering the game was simply too much for the ageing 360 and PS3 to handle, with intrusive tearing and sub-par frame-rates seriously impacting the experience. However, our recent in-depth hands-on with the PS4 version of the sequel paints a very different picture: free from the limitations of old technology, the Dunia engine is allowed to shine, delivering a level of graphical polish only seen in high-end PC releases, along with a near-solid 30fps update in native 1080p. It's an impressive start for Far Cry 4 on consoles - but how well does the Xbox One version hold up in comparison, and what kind of graphical leap forward are we getting on PC, where the series has always been at the cutting edge?
First impressions of Far Cry 4 on Xbox One are positive. Image quality is very clean and the overall presentation compares favourably to the PS4 game. On close inspections, detail looks a little softer and less refined, but otherwise it holds up very well during gameplay. Pixel counting - not very easy here, for reasons we'll go into later - reveals a 1440x1080p framebuffer horizontally scaled up to full-HD resolution (1920x1080), although artefacts from the resizing process appear subdued compared to most sub-1080p games. In comparison we see a native 1080p image deployed on the PS4 that appears suitably sharp, and indeed clearer than the Xbox One game, but the Microsoft console is punching enough above its weight with a presentation that - by and large - defies its sub-native pixel-count.
Halo 2 Anniversary shows how well a horizontal upscale can work in providing reasonably crisp image quality, but with Far Cry 4 there's a lot more going on behind the scenes, via the use of an impressive new anti-aliasing technique known as HRAA. The effect is used in both console versions of Far Cry 4, and is a comprehensive solution that blends various elements from different anti-aliasing techniques together, using both post-process and temporal sampling. The end result is that HRAA tackles jaggies across various elements of the scene poorly covered by traditional post-process AA algorithms and multi-sampling (MSAA), and in combination with a good upscaling filter, helps to mitigate the usual artefacts of sub-native rendering.