The words "next generation" have always held a lot of promise — and a lot of hype — in the world of video games. Consoles like the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 that herald the arrival of a new generation are said to offer stunning graphics that unlock gaming experiences like never before. That’s an exciting promise, and there’s good reason for the fascination with these black boxes: for the next several years, video gaming itself will likely be defined by these two consoles.
But now that delirium over the launches of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One is beginning to subside we must ask what, exactly, this next generation delivers to living rooms. When it comes to graphics — that jumble of polygons, sophisticated algorithms, and complex maps that create so much buzz — what do these systems offer that your dusty old Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 can't? And, as of today, have these consoles delivered on their promises?
To find out, we've carefully examined 10 different games across all four consoles — a grand total of 29 discs. As is common during transitional periods, almost all launch titles are offered on both new and old consoles. These multi-platform games offer a unique opportunity to compare these consoles head to head. For each, we have side-by-side comparisons of the same exact scene across the two generations to let you see the difference for yourself. A few of these comparisons are included in this article (you can slide the divider to compare on each) — well over a dozen more can be found in our supplement.
At first glance, these games may lack that next-gen “wow factor,” but we’ve identified some key improvements that make the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 versions of these games stand out. And developers are just getting their feet wet with this hardware — these are the graphical improvements you can count on getting out of your new console, and they hint at what this latest generation could offer in the future.
If you're impressed by the realism afforded by these new consoles, it's probably the improvements to lighting effects that are making the biggest difference. Our eyes are very accustomed to the way multiple light sources fill a three-dimensional space, reflect off of different types of objects, and cast shadows. To put it simply, these details haven't been close to accurate on older consoles — they lack the horsepower required to handle all of these effects. With the jump to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, however, light plays a far more convincing role.
One major upgrade across all of these multi-platform games is high dynamic range, which means detail in both the bright and dark parts of the game are maintained, producing an image that is more akin to what the human eye sees in the real world. This drastic change in lighting is immediately apparent from this scene in Battlefield 4, below. The next-gen version shows far more varied levels of lighting across the entire scene compared to the overly bright, uniformly lit environments in the versions for older consoles. The lower dynamic range on older systems is apparent just by looking at the sky: the sun blows out much of the image, hiding a lot of the detail in the clouds.
Next-gen versions also feature light that responds more realistically to objects in environments, and it does so dynamically. In one scene from Call of Duty: Ghosts, for example, different objects in space catch the light differently depending on their positions. Another lighting effect that makes a significant difference between the generations is shadows. There are usually far more shadows across the same scene depending on which generation of console you're using, and they'll be more accurate as well. In this shot from Battlefield 4, for instance, shadows found in the foreground on both the pole on the far left of the image and on the rubbish on the right are completely missing from the 360 edition.
NBA 2K14, meanwhile, offers a look at how these lighting improvements — coupled with real-time reflections — can completely alter the visuals of the same game between the two generations. Not only do the arena’s bright lights bounce off the court, but you can also see the reflections from the players’ white jerseys and the video monitors that wrap the sidelines.
The jump from the PlayStation 2 to the PlayStation 3 and from the Xbox to the Xbox 360 was one of the most impressive generational leaps ever because the new consoles brought high-definition gaming to the living room. While this year's new consoles don't offer such a noticeable resolution increase, they do offer a marked improvement. The truth is that the vast majority of Xbox 360 and PS3 games are rendered at 720p (or sometimes lower) and then upscaled to play on your 1080p TV. The Xbox One and PlayStation 4, meanwhile, can handle games that run natively at 1080p — or close to it.
This increased resolution brings sorely missed clarity to everything from faces, trees, and guns to status bars and menus. During gameplay, higher resolutions help minimize aliasing, which shows up as jagged edges and an almost transparent "shimmering" effect on thin objects like leaves and power lines. The rope fence on the far right of the Battlefield image, above, as well as the curved scope and the crane it all help demonstrate these differences. In other games, like Call of Duty, higher resolutions make text far easier to read, while in Assassin's Creed 4 it allows for more sharp and detailed foliage.
Next-gen brings 1080p to the living room
Higher resolutions work hand in hand with more detailed assets, environments with more "stuff," and a greater variety of objects in the world. In the Battlefield 4 image above, for instance, the rocky outcrop on the left and the dirt path are both of greater detail on the Xbox One than on the Xbox 360. Developers also axed the entire flock of seagulls to help the game run smoothly on last-gen consoles, and there’s less grass throughout the foreground on older hardware. Additionally, added detail in distant objects is particularly noticeable in the next-gen versions of these games: just look at the buildings in Battlefield 4 and the far-away islands and bay in Assassin’s Creed 4 for evidence of this.
Added detail and variety makes a noticeable difference for sports games in particular. Crowds have long been unconvincing in these games, but with higher-resolution character models and more variety in the types of people in the stands, arenas and stadiums finally look a bit more lively. FIFA 14 and NBA 2K14, for example, have completely different crowds across the two generations.
Upgraded graphics don’t mean much if the gameplay is ruined as a result. Fortunately, this isn’t yet a problem for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Developers are managing to reach at least 30 frames per second, which is the standard for most gameplay, while certain titles are running at a buttery 60fps. After spending time with multi-platform games on the next-gen consoles, it’s difficult to imagine going back to the inconsistent and middling performance of the older consoles. Battlefield 4 feels entirely different across the generations thanks to the jump from 30 to 60fps, and Assassin’s Creed 4 on next-gen consoles largely does away with the troublesome frame-rate drops prevalent on the Xbox 360 and PS3. We just wish more games ran at 60fps on the new consoles — many suffice for a reasonable but unimpressive 30fps.
PS4 vs. Xbox One
If the graphics upgrades between the two console generations fail to impress you, the distinction between the visuals on the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will seem downright miniscule. For this first batch of launch games, however, Sony’s console undoubtedly has the upper hand. Across the multi-platform titles, the improvement comes down to one factor: higher resolutions. In the early running, most developers have been more successful at running 1080p at reasonable frame rates on the PlayStation 4 than on the Xbox One. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag and Call of Duty: Ghosts, for example, run at 1080p on Sony’s console versus 900p and 720p, respectively, on the Xbox One. Battlefield 4, meanwhile, runs at 900p on the PlayStation 4 compared to 720p on the Xbox One.
In direct comparison, this resolution gap manifests itself with blurrier and more pixelated environments on Microsoft’s console. However, it’s worth noting that the benefit of higher resolutions can be harder to see from a distance, especially if you play on a smaller TV. Also, beyond the resolution change, the improved effects offered by the next generation, like lighting and shadows, are the same across both of these new systems. Ultimately, then, while the graphics edge goes to Sony for now, it’s hardly a deal-breaker if you’re interested in the Xbox One.
These multi-platform launch games, then, have tangible and noticeable improvements on the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. But there’s no doubt that the majority of these games simply do not amaze. These titles don’t offer a moment that makes you say "now this is next gen." Appreciated graphical upgrades aside, these experiences don’t feel that much different than what the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have offered for years. In this way, the next generation has not yet defined itself. But truthfully, that shouldn’t be surprising. It takes time for developers to grow comfortable with new hardware and eke out everything a platform has to offer. Launch titles in particular are not usually very pretty (or very good). Compressed development schedules and brand-new consoles aren’t a good match for high-quality games. And, perhaps most importantly, console gaming is now in a transitional period between the two generations, and developers won’t do their best work for these new consoles until they’re free to leave the limitations of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 behind. If we want a true look at the future of what these brand-new consoles can offer, we must look at games designed solely for the next generation.
Launch games are rarely impressive — we're looking forward to what's next
Forza 5 offers a taste of what’s to come. The improvements that separate it from 2011’s Forza 4 for the Xbox 360 shows how upgraded lighting, higher resolutions, added detail, improved performance, and other graphical upgrades will define what games look like on next-gen consoles. The lighting across the entire game brings the racing to life; whereas reflections in Forza 4 were largely limited to the top section of cars, you can see the road pass by in the rear bumper and even the lenses of the taillights in Forza 5. Additionally, environments are now properly lit as a result of improved dynamic range. This brings out fine details in cars as well as the tracks, which are now far more complete, featuring grandstands full of fans. These details can be hard to notice while racing, though, thanks to the motion blur. It’s not a new effect, but we’ve seen heavier use of motion blur with next-gen games and that — combined with the game’s flawless 1080p presentation at 60fps — gives a heightened sense of speed often missing in Forza 4.
Good graphics don’t make great games, however. Part of what makes Forza impressive is that it uses next-gen improvements to change its gameplay. It takes advantage of the Xbox One controller’s "impulse triggers" to give nuanced force feedback that truly helps you feel where you’re losing traction, and perfect (and boring) AI competitors have been replaced by "drivatars" based on how your friends race around each track.
This isn’t to say that Forza 5 is a perfect game, but if you’re looking at launch games like Call of Duty: Ghosts and Assassin’s Creed 4 and aren’t impressed with the next generation, just wait until the drastic visual improvements characterized by first-party exclusives like Forza 5 on the Xbox One and Killzone: Shadow Fall on the PlayStation 4 make it to upcoming next-gen games. There’s no reason to think this won’t happen; indeed, it’s very reasonable to expect games to quickly surpass this visual level in a year or two.
All told, there are precious few next-gen games that offer revolutionary graphics. But if history is any indication, those experiences will come in due time; it often takes years for developers to fully exploit the capabilities that a new console has to offer. We’re just days into this new console cycle, while the venerable Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 have had over half a decade to come into their own, making them better values than ever before. The Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will surely get there too — the best is yet to come.
Video by Zach Goldstein
Graphics by Dylan Lathrop