Dark Souls 2 Definitive Edition: Head 2 Head

Publisher Bandai Namco Entertainment
Developer From Software
Platforms tested PS4 XboxOne
We commence April with yet another head to head and technical analysis. From software have been busy the last few months and this week. Fresh from my analysis of bloodborne last week, now we get som multi platform action in the form of last years release Dark Souls 2.

Having launched on last gen machines and PC it was another example of delivering to the masses, with the console being the main aim for the game (where its roots are, the entire series being a console RPG) the game was a solid but controversial release with its lighting engine severely paired back from the initial showings, even the PC had the exact same engine.

Roll on 12 months or so and we now have a newer, updated version for PS4, XBoxOne and PC. If you want to upgrade the last DX9 based game with some new DX11 features from the update here. First thoughts on this are quick and simple, it is not worth it as the game, art, design and play are identical. Instead this new version offers up some welcome but purely light visual improvements. The game has a nice DoF effect for foreground objects that adds a nice Sense of depth to the camera in the game, motion blur Is added to camera and enhanced over its original release, the lighting engine has also been updated with a much broader range of light and dark something that is key to the games atmosphere with it creating such a foreboding sense of anguish from the outset. This is contrasted by the sun drenched open hub area that is juxtaposed with the majority of the game elsewhere, here some screen space sun rays are used to enhance the light with it occluding from the casts that hit nearby objects or yourself. These small but welcome additions are evident throughout the game and all add a fair degree of visual improvement to the last release along with more computational load. But this is not the biggest change (well on console anyway) as this version sports not only a fully native 1920x1080 resolution on both PS4 and XboxOne but it also runs the game at over twice the framerate from last gen with the glorious and single most important aspect of games now if you listen to some 60fps.

This improvement is very welcome and is always the preferred option for frame rate on any game but should never come at the expense of other things or become the only goal to aim for or purchase decision. With the games assets and environments all being not overtly taxing even with the DX11 feature improvements the target for 60fps is a valid one and certainly does not come at the expense of the visuals or gameplay. But with the improvements to post process effects they also have, it seems, increased the amount of enemies which adds an even greater level of resource use but also makes the game even tougher, a challenge it was never accused of needing to address, I do not normally include gameplay sections in my technical analysis or head to head but as this is a remaster I will here as the effort for 2 articles is not needed.

After coming back into this straight off the back of Bloodborne the first highlight is that the visuals in Dark Souls certainly show its age and roots far more. Where Bloodborne has far more detailed geometry, character models, texture work and lighting model it also has sound design, animation and a physics engine that is also vastly superior to what is on offer here, albeit at half the frame rate. This shows the sacrifices of frame rate but more so in this example the gigantic changes you can get from the same engine when the target spec and aim are set from day 1, up porting the Dark Souls 2 engine was a question of programming more than anything else. But this is not to say that DK2 is a bad looking game as it does have some very nice benefits in addition to its frame rate. Textures are of a very high quality, much higher than seen in the recent DmC remaster which also sported -on PS4 atleast - terrible texture filtering, an issue Dark Souls on both does not suffer from, with both machines sporting a full 16x AF which makes textures all appear clean and crisp from all angles. This helps show the good mix of texture and normal maps that add shadows from the light sources in the game which you get everywhere, it also shows where POM and tessellation when used well as in Bloodborne improve the look and depth of each rugged wall or sunken flooring, but these are far to big a change to redo assets and engine work to this level. But I am sure the next souls game will bring these improvements from bloodborne and they will be a welcome addition as they add so much to the immersion in a game.

But this is a problem that will not be an issue here as dark souls is immersive and damn right unforgiving but this is not news to most. After playing these remasters at double the frame rate never adds much more fluidity to the controls that it should. As the game is fully v-synced on both I would imagine the input polling from Bloodborne is running at the same rate as Dark Souls here at 16ms meaning the flow of combat can actually feel slightly better or worse dependent on your chosen path. This segmentation of engine work is a much bigger deal than the single output metric and playing these games side by side the increase in frame rate never feels as vast an improvement as it should.

But enough about Bloodborne, this is Dark Souls and aside finding campfires, dodging attacks and dying ALOT what are the platform differences. Well like I say resolution, texture work, post processing effects and target frame rate are all in equal standing on both along with the FXAA solution used to clean up the image, the single biggest win aside frame-rate over Bloodborne with its heavy shader work going mostly untouched, but here the game is very clean and mostly avoids any large aliasing issues that offend, helped in part by its dull colour palette and angular design. But a difference does come and it is of no surprise that the refresh rate varies on both machines from its 60 aim but one suffers far more than the other. Throughout real-time cut-scenes or the quieter areas as you explorer both machines manage a locked 60 aside oddly the PS4 that can drop a single frame when entering new areas or here as a scene changes in the cutscene, this is only really an odd blip that is of no concern but at the tower hub you can get the PS4 to drop a frame or 2 when looking at the house at the back, this is a strange issue and one the XboxOne does not suffer from as it flows through the scene without any hiccup. But this is as I say a minor issue and something I am sure is a simple code issue and not a real factor of conversation.

Thoughout early lighter scenes the game runs a solid 60 on both with no concern, but once we get to more open areas the X1 can start to fall behind. Here with my updated and I am still working on more improvements for the information you can now see not only the actual frame rate achieved in realtime but also the real time Mean frame rate for both as it build though the scenes. Here on PS4 we can see the average never drops from the 59 which is for all intents and purposes a fully locked 60 game. The X1 is not bad here but does dip down to a low point of 52 with the PS4 some 6fps higher. This brings the average on XboxOne to 56 which again is of no concern and aside this indepth analysis you would not notice.

But further on this gets worse and once you hit some lava areas or outdoors with multiple enemies the PS4 can dip a little more into the low 50's which still leaves the average at a solid 58 but the X1 can dip a further 15 frames lower and for more prolonged runs, meaning here you can feel the choppiness that comes from this with a lowest marker of 41 bring the average down to 54. Again this is not a huge issue but is a clear price for the need to reach the same resolution and effects parity as the Sony machine. With lots of overdraw from heavy alpha effects and geometry just like from my DmC video which allowed the X1 to tear when this happened helping the frame-rate slightly at the cost of screen stability. Here with v-sync on both active the higher ROP count more than anything else is the culprit for the difference from both machines. The CPU is still most likely the biggest issue for game drops at this point in the generation with far more specific practices and coding changes to come that will improve this further, check out my Naughty Dog article up over the weekend to learn more about this in practice from a first party team. These kinds of lessons will also work to a lesser degree within 3rd party.

To be clear 60 will still be more of an exception this generation than the rule, but we are currently in a run of quite a few games both now gen and last that are aiming and mostly achieving this very difficult task admirably.

With all that said if you have both machines then the PS4 is the preferred option with identical visuals improved by the higher and thus more consistent performance. The X1 does very well and with the most likely marketing driven push for resolution parity has come at the expense of a small but noticeable hit on the frame rate that at times can be felt as you play, but the overall game experience and visual presentation is unaffected. If you have a mid level PC and the game then buying this again on that or either console is not worth the extra investment over the welcome but superfluous visual improvements. This is still Dark Souls in all its unforgiving, frustration filled beauty just delivered in its Sunday best.

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