Console wars are back. And this time it's pixelated.
Yay, console wars! I’d almost forgotten 2006, but like a Vietnam vet getting flashbacks, the Jacob’s Ladder effect was brought into stark view with the release of the footage and confirmation of the resolution of DICE’s Battlefield 4 for the next gen consoles.
Back to poring over screenshots with a magnifying glass and celebrating relatively petty victories, or putting up a guarded defence in the face of harsh statistics; all for the multi-billion dollar companies we throw money at. Whether it be a conscious identity attachment or simple justification of a purchase, this initial volley of screens drew the line in the sand. Then Call of Duty: Ghosts came along and the sand was neutron bombed!
The EA event should have been a pleasant situation. The press capturing footage of a game representing console owners’ first opportunity to play the multi-player-centric first person shooter with the kind of numbers (64 player) that had previously only been available to the PC crowd. But no, the narrative was set beforehand - what’s the resolution? It wasn’t a shock that the Xbox One version renders at 720p and upscales to 1080p, whilst the PS4 starts at 900p; if anything, most expected the Sony machine to render at a full 1080p.
But confirmation brings with it gloating. The chance to debate the relative merits of both machines is rare, usually confusing specs with "winning", whatever that means. The term “Xbone” bandied around is generally a sign of a viewpoint of negligible objectivity on the matter. Worse still, the counter-reaction was predictable but equally lamentable, the downplaying of what resolution actually means. If it doesn’t bother you, fine. If you’re claiming it’s totally negligible though, that a lack of sizeably increased definition can be suitably compensated for with upscaling, then this isn't really a debate worth having.
So, where does this leave the impartial punter, other than in the middle of a flamewar?
Well, let’s start with the facts. Battlefield 4 on the Xbox One renders the game at 720p, in comparison to 900p on the PlayStation 4, both with an unfixed but fairly consistently high frame rate. A straightforward disparity in pixels, but one obfuscated by the screenshots and footage that emanated from the DICE event. The web is now awash with cherry picked image comparisons, which tend to be about as representative of the finished product as that selfie of the pretty young thing on facebook is of the 52 year old truck driver you’re actually flirting with. The moving image can be just as deceptive - capture technique, compression and streaming to a (likely uncalibrated) display sets out a chain that has many weak links, but you can at least get a vague idea of quality. Subjective quality.
The web is now awash with cherry picked image comparisonsThe one conclusive element that can be taken away from Battlefield 4 shots was the heavy handed implementation of sharpening on the One to gain something approximating the clarity of PS4/PC. In all but the worst footage, the fringing and broken lines of an over-sharpened image are glaring. And that’s before you remind yourself that the game is rendering approximately 33% less pixels than its Sony brethren.
Call of Duty: Ghosts is more shocking. BF4 is using a newer engine, on new hardware and Sony being able to boast 50% more pixels, though seemingly damning, is perhaps understandable for a product tied to a simultaneous multi-format release date that can’t be altered for fine tuning; that train doesn’t stop, and if you’re faltering, you’ll get left behind. Ghosts is on a similar schedule, but is every inch the tiptoeing iteration. Its engine is refined but getting on, and to find that a somewhat less impressive looking title has an even wider gap - the One stuck again at 720p, but the PS4 hitting the full 1080p - is harder to understand.
The claims by some that most people won't be able to tell the difference are interesting, but fairly depressing as they indicate either a wilful disregard for the importance of evolving technology taking strides, or they’re choosing damage control mode. A resolution of 720p may be good enough for many, but it ignores the fact that it is merely a byproduct of an imbalance. Were the PS4 to be rendering at such a resolution, the differences would be seen elsewhere.
The rest of the launch line-ups do offer up a ray of hope to prospective One owners that these two titles are the exceptions rather than the rule. Forza, NBA2K14 and FIFA all hit 1080p, whilst RYSE’s 900p shows that bartering pixels for effects can reap rewards in the hands of developers like Crytek. It’s the short stack in comparison to the Sony launch line-up, where 1080p is the norm, but the question as to why the pixel disparity may be slightly more complex than outright grunt.
The tech specs for each machine indicate similar low-power eight core AMD Jaguar CPUs, with the One actually getting a nose in front thanks, it seems, to a timely upclock. But the Radeon-based GPUs highlight the potential gulf, due to the One’s 12 compute units being dwarfed by the PS4’s 18. You can get into shader cores, ROPS, teraFLOPS and spinning tops, but by any metric the central inequality is perceivable there. And that’s before you poke around the murky waters of debating Microsoft’s decision (you can argue whether it was a design ideology or purely financial) to use a small 32MB pool of embedded Static RAM - building on their use of eDRAM in the 360 - to complement their slower 8GB of DDR3, which some may say looks a little lacking in comparison to Sony’s 8 gig of GDDR5. Had Sony stuck with 4GB, perhaps the picture would be less clear.
Theoretically, the memory throughput of Microsoft's combination could be comparable to that of Sony's GDDR5, but then theoretically the Cell was supposed to make multi-platform games look better on the PS3. It rarely happened.
Indications could have been gauged before anyone entered the numbers game though. The key was looking at the manner in which the two companies engaged their potential consumers on the subject of power. History tells us that the firm looking to avoid getting embroiled in a direct tech spec face-off - intending to divert attention to more general gaming pleasantries - is usually the one that’s likely to come up short. Gaming Top Trumps, if you will, pick the right category to compete on and you’re picking up cards.
Microsoft’s trumpeting of transistors wasn’t it though, it reeked of a PR bod seeing a large number and assuming it’d look impressive in a powerpoint presentation. Then came the buzzwords and the cloud took centre stage. Unfortunately a deft hand would have been better to convince consumers, rather than promising three Xbox Ones in the cloud for every One in the living room. Microsoft have an impressive set-up and are one of the few global tech powerhouses to be able to offer real alternatives to local processing on a large scale. Sadly the sticky issues of latency and bandwidth shot down any outlandishly grandiose claims in many minds, before they were able to even enter into a meaningful discussion that may have had some merit.
Afterwards came the use of “balance” as a catch-all term for “good enough”. Convincing the demographic of early adopters, largely consisting of those eager to pay over the odds for the sense of a leap forward, is hard when an argument rests on non-quantifiable evidence and a perceived holistic development, ultimately resting more on trust than anything else. If it was such a balanced system, with access to unfathomable computational power, why are consumers having to look enviously at a rival product that often renders at least double the amount of pixels?
It’s easy to note the gulf in GPU grunt, and the small 32MB of eSRAM being a fiddly set up for a console that’s part of a generation that’s otherwise streamlining closer to PC norms thanks to x86 architecture. But a factor rarely raised, and one that muddies the waters of how wide the gap will be is time itself, and it could yet prove to be key. The bizarre mixed messaging of the post One-reveal days highlighted a company that was caught with its trousers down. A procession of Microsoft executives’ wonderfully contorted attempts to fit both feet in their mouths at the same time, whilst explaining how consumers paying fees for used games was a benefit, could have been written by Larry David. It wasn’t avoiding a question, or failing to explain it, because there was no answer. A series of ideas were still up in the air, there was no consensus from publishers or retailers as to how it would work and to unveil a box without being able to outline how you’d actually play games on it was madness. Particularly when you've got exclusives like Dead Rising 3, RYSE and Titanfall which should be grabbing the headlines.
This isn’t to say that somehow a 2014 release would magically give the One the upper hand or even an equal footing technically speaking, it wouldn’t without a specs bump. But time brings with it certain perks, like improved development tools and the kind of fine tuning that would negate instances like DICE announcing niceties like ambient occlusion - missing from the One build shown to the press - would follow quickly in an update.
Early cross generational multi-platform games will always be the poor examples to draw conclusions from, but the argument for the PS4 being the more powerful console is easy to make from a purely specs-based viewpoint. It seems as near to a fact as we’re likely to get in the wholly subjective sphere of games appreciation. The gap may narrow, but it’s likely to remain, and how much of a factor things like time and developer familiarity with the hardware will be, will only become clear in months and years rather than the weeks post launch.
No one wins because of this situation though, if anything we all benefit from greater competition and closer performing consoles, improving the base level for multi-platform titles. Third parties don't like graphical differences between systems, it harms reputations amid talk of "lazy" developers.
Where does that leave us then? Well I guess at some point we'll all go back to looking at games again, as it should be. The war will still rage on in certain circles. One side will claim victory based on little more than specs and launch games, whilst on the other side the analogies to a potential inverse of the PS2 vs Xbox era will remain as unfounded as ever; clue, if we see anywhere near the amount of significant exclusives this generation I’ll eat my hat. In 720p. And upscale it on my Wii U GamePad.
Now put on your flamesuit and play Crazy by Gnarls Barkley, because it’s 2006 all over again.
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