The next-generation consoles, Sony’s PlayStation 5 and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X, have gamers hyped for stunning new eye candy. That desire was stoked by Epic’s reveal of an Unreal Engine 5 demo that pushes far beyond what’s possible on current hardware.
Epic’s demo was only that, however. A demo. It’s unclear when a game might live up to the expectations it sets. In fact, gamers have enjoyed precious few clips of next-gen gameplay. Even events that promised gameplay, like Microsoft’s Xbox Series X First Look, threw out mere scraps.
That doesn’t mean we have no clue what next-gen games will look like at launch. The improvements we’ll see in next-gen games at launch are hinted by games you can play right now.
The PlayStation 4 Pro and Xbox One X sold themselves as 4K game consoles, but they don’t entirely live up to that label. Many, many games on current hardware choose not to pursue 4K and instead focus on delivering superior detail at a lower resolution.
Turning resolution up to 4K will be the most common enhancement found in next-gen launch titles. Why? It’s simple. Most games sold today, and certainly most sold since the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X debuted, could be patched to support 4K resolution with minimal effort.
Better still, turning graphics up to 4K on next-gen consoles doesn’t hamper support for current consoles. You can bet that, aside from a few console exclusives, most next-gen launch titles will also be sold for current hardware. Adjusting resolution is an easy way for a developer to bring a sharper image to next-gen without making development for current hardware more difficult.
Take Gears 5 as an example. Currently, this game uses dynamic resolution scaling. It shifts resolution on the fly to maintain smooth performance. Depending on the situation, it may render anywhere between 1080p and 4K on Microsoft’s Xbox One X. The Coalition, developer of Gears 5, could enhance the experience on a next-gen console by patching the game to run a locked 4K on the Xbox Series X (to be clear, though, I have no information to confirm The Coalition will choose to do this).
Want to see the difference for yourself? Boot Gears 5 on a gaming PC with a 4K monitor or television. You can try this with numerous cross-platform games, but Gears 5 is a great example. It’s a recent title with gorgeous artistic design and art assets that are ready to hold up to scrutiny at full 4K resolution.
This generation, both consoles seem to be fixating on support for gameplay at up to 120 frames per second. Gamers are stoked for fluid gameplay, and some are already buying televisions that can support the feature. Before you do that, however, you should check your expectations.
The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X will indeed support 120Hz displays, which means they could output gameplay at up to 120 frames per second. They won’t meet that standard in most games, however. The math providing this is simple.
Most of today’s most attractive games target 30 fps on console. Boosting to 60 fps would require a console twice as powerful. Turning the dial all the way up to 120 fps requires a console four times as powerful.
The relationship between frame rate, and the performance required to obtain it, is rather linear (if everything else, like resolution, stays the same). Want a game to render two frames a second instead of one? You’ll need hardware that’s about twice as powerful. Want to boost from 30 fps to 60 fps? Again, you’ll need hardware that’s twice as fast to do it. Today’s most attractive games target 30 fps on a console. Boosting to 60 fps would require a console twice as powerful. Turning the dial all the way up to 120 fps requires a console four times as powerful.
Unfortunately, next-gen consoles don’t meet that mark. The PlayStation 5 will push a bit over 10 teraflops, up over the PS4 Pro’s 4.2 Tflops. Microsoft’s Xbox Series X should push 12 Tflops, about double the Xbox One X. These raw figures might undersell the leap because both consoles use a newer, more effective graphics architecture, but it’s clear both consoles lack the quadrupled improvement that’d be required to leap from 30 fps to 120 fps.
This example assumes the game is otherwise unchanged. It doesn’t include a bump from 1440p to 4K resolution, or any new features (like ray tracing) a developer might want to cram in. The math makes the 120 fps claim suspect even if the visuals of today’s best games didn’t improve in the next generation.
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla has already announced it will target “a minimum of 30 fps,” to the disappointment of fans. I expect this disappointment will be repeated. Many games that don’t focus on competitive play will choose to deliver better visuals over smoother gameplay.
That doesn’t mean you won’t see fluid gameplay on next-gen machines, however. While few games will choose to target 120 fps, more will aim for 60 fps, a frame rate that remains uncommon on current hardware.
And, like resolution, this is an easy extra for developers to add. I expect many older titles will launch on next-gen with 120 fps supported. Rocket League and Fortnite are examples of longstanding, popular games that could easily be enhanced with a 120 fps option for next-gen hardware.
Current consoles are already overtaxed by modern games. While a few launch games may have next-gen exclusive features like 120 fps support or ray tracing, I think the vast majority will focus on enabling detail that’s already technically possible, but beyond what current consoles can handle.
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is a wonderful example. Released in late 2018, this game is the most demanding title Digital Trends routinely benchmarks for desktop and laptop reviews. It can hammer a system. No single video card sold today — not even the mighty Nvidia GTX 2080 Super — can deliver a sustained average of 60 fps at 4K resolution and maximum detail. Anything less than a GTX 2070 Super won’t even hit 60 fps at 1440p resolution.
That’s why Odyssey’s detail is cut back on current consoles. It rarely hits 4K even on the Xbox One X, instead meandering below that mark through use of dynamic resolution scaling (a feature you can also use in the game’s PC version if you want). The Xbox One X version also seems to run some combination of the “medium” and “high” detail settings available on PC.
The differences are most obvious when viewing the game’s massive vistas. A top-tier PC offers significant increases in visual density, thanks to a better maximum draw distance and more objects in distant terrain. You’ll see less noticeable object pop in on a decked-out PC, as well, another area next-gen consoles look to significantly improve.
The PC version of Odyssey, played at maximum detail, improves visuals across the board.
In more intimate scenes, including cutscenes, I think texture detail is the PC’s most noticeable improvement. Textures don’t look bad on Xbox One X, but when you compare it to the maximum setting of PC, you’ll realize the console versions look fuzzy and lack the intricate, crisp details found on the PC version. You can notice this same difference in the open world, though it’s less obvious in the middle of a fight.
These are far from the only differences — which is why I find Assassin’s Creed Odyssey a compelling example. The PC version, played at its maximum detail, improves visuals across the board. Resolution, shadows, textures, draw distance, distance detail, water quality, and ambient occlusion all see improvements on PC.
Next-gen consoles, with hardware that can match a high-end PC graphics card, will no doubt embrace the full suite of features. Sitting down to play Odyssey on a PC with settings cranked to max will hint at what Valhalla will look like at launch. Will the new game bring enhancements? Absolutely. But they might be more difficult to notice than you’d hope.
Ray tracing brings the next-gen leap
Ray tracing is a feature recently popularized by Nvidia’s RTX ray tracing. It’s enabled by special silicon (which Nvidia calls RT cores) found on Nvidia RTX video cards. The next-gen consoles include AMD’s spin on this technology. While ray tracing is possible without special silicon, the performance penalty is so large that it’s not remotely practical to implement.
This feature is a big deal because it fundamentally changes how a game’s lighting system works. Instead of simulating a realistic look, ray tracing calculates the path of virtual light from its source. It simulates how light works in reality. Rays can bounce off, and interact with, the in-game world, much as they would in real life.
Battlefield V, a debut title of Nvidia’s RTX ray tracing, shows one way this feature can work. It uses ray tracing for reflections. With ray tracing off, the game can simulate the glow of the tank’s explosion in a nearby puddle. It looks fine at a glance. Pay close attention, though, and you’ll see the explosion isn’t accurately reflected in the water. It’s an imprecise, low-fidelity imitation of how the reflection should appear. Turn on ray tracing, however, and Battlefield V can deliver an accurate, mirror-like reflection.
RTX ray tracing can also be used to enhance global illumination, produce far more realistic shadows, and more. It delivers results that just aren’t possible without hardware ray tracing. This is the kind of improvement gamers are looking for in a next-gen console.
That’s the good news. The bad news? Even with special hardware, ray tracing is a difficult feature to implement without a huge hit to performance. Games that adopt raytracing tend to use it for only a limited selection of effects, such as Battlefield V’s reflections. The difference is often subtle.
You can bet next-gen games will try to make this subtle difference obvious. I expect we’ll see ray-traced reflections become a cliché during in-game cutscenes. Games will highlight levels that feature multiple color lights angled to cast long shadows. Mirrors will become more common. Expect to see fires and explosions reflected across every modestly reflective surface.
This could tilt games toward a darker, more atmospheric presentation. If that happened, it would mark a change, as current titles often focus on vibrant, high-contrast visuals that are best viewed in HDR at 4K resolution (or something close to it).
This could tilt games towards a darker, more atmospheric presentation.
Ray tracing can also change the look of older games. Minecraft’s ray-tracing beta is an example. Ray tracing makes a big difference in Minecraft because the game uses it for all the game’s lighting effects. I think it’s likely other older games will follow this example. Adding ray tracing to an aging game’s next-gen release could prove a popular way to generate new hype.
This discussion has covered a lot of ground. Let’s bring it back in.
Next-gen launch games will target, and frequently achieve, a locked 4K resolution. Games will deliver a mix of 30 fps or 60 fps, with very few achieving 120 fps. You’ll see better textures, more detailed models, longer draw distances, more distance detail, and better shadows, but these enhancements won’t go far beyond what’s available on today’s most expensive gaming PCs. Ray-tracing will be found in some titles but usually limited to a specific task, such as reflections. Object pop-in and draw distances will be improved, leading to more impressive open world areas, and fewer situations where an object suddenly seems to pop into view from nowhere.
It will be a leap. However, if you expect an unprecedented leap in quality, like that shown by Epic’s Unreal Engine 5 demo, you will be disappointed. Next-gen launch titles will be a refined and enhanced take on the best games of the current generation.
This was already true at the start of this current generation. Want a real-world example? Take a look at the release of Grand Theft Auto V on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. It made a wonderful transition between generations and received a big boost from better hardware. Yet the Grand Theft Auto V we enjoy today is still fundamentally rooted in Xbox 360/PS3-era hardware that’s now two generations out of date. Compare the difference for yourself in the video above.
Would you call the leap between generations a “next-gen” improvement? Whatever your answer to that question, you should expect the PS5 and Xbox Series X is to deliver (at best) a similar degree of improvement over the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X
For me, the most interesting aspect of next-gen consoles is not the quality of the most visually demanding games, but the range of options available. New AAA titles from Activision, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft will continue to deliver big, complex open worlds full of lavishly detailed characters. These are the games most likely to accept a 30 fps target, and some might even choose not to fully embrace 4K — even on new hardware.
Other developers will choose a different tact, however. Fighting, racing, and competitive multiplayer games may decide against serious improvements to visual quality and instead go all-in on an effort to achieve 4K at 120 fps. Dirt5, the first game confirmed to offer a 120 fps mode on Xbox Series X, could be the start of a trend for that genre.
The next-gen consoles are also great fodder for remasters and enhanced versions of long-standing favorites. Microsoft’s recent efforts remastering the Halo franchise for PC provides a glimpse into enhancements a next-gen console could provide to classics from the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 era. Imagine your favorite game from the Xbox 360 era, only rendered at 4K and 120 fps.
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