Now that the next generation consoles are released, let’s kick off our first graphic comparison and analysis with the next gen vs a high end PC. And what better way than to start our head to head battle than Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed 4 for the PC and Playstation 4?
Let’s set up a few ground rules first. The Playstation 4 version is fully patched, which adds anti-aliasing (no one likes the jaggies!) and changes the internal rendering resolution from 900P to the magical figure of 1080P. The title runs at a locked 30FPS. As some of you may know, 900P vs 1080P is a hot debate right now – especially with the so called ‘resolution-gate’ going on. Ubisoft managed to get AC4 running at 1080P after the title was launched (more on this later on).
For the PC version – I am running the PC version of AC4 Black Black at the following settings: Resolution 1080P, Enviroment Quality Very High, texture quality high, MSAA x2, Soft Shadows (High), Reflection Quality: High, Motion Blur On, Ambient Occlusion: HBAO+ (high), God Rays: High and Volumetric Fog enabled. You’ll notice a few of those options – such as Texture Quality are ‘only’ set to high – what gives? Well, it’s their highest setting. If you don’t believe me, watch the video where I select each option to prove it’s the highest. Well okay – why MSAA at only 2X? Well, true the PC version of Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag can go to 4X MSAA, or even 8X, but that’s not very fair to the console versions. I figure it’s fairest on the Playstation 4 version of Black Flag to keep at a sensible level of AA rather than x4 or higher.
Assassin’s Creed 4 PC Version Graphical Extras:
To Ubisoft’s credit, the PC version of AC4 Black Flag is impressive, featuring a number of improvements even over the next generation of consoles. Ubisoft have included support for 4K displays, high level Ambient Occlusion (the HBAO+), along with ‘unique screen effects and technologies’. It’s worth noting they’re touting an upcoming patch which will introduce Nvidia’s Hardware Physx into the mix. Currently this is not released, and with no word as to when the patch shall be released, this version of the test is lacking this optional extra. We’ll do a video of course which’ll show off this visual treat. Other changes for the PC version include the ability to play the game at 60FPS (or more) if your hardware is up to the task.
PC Versus the Playstation 4 graphics:
Firstly, it’s remarkable how closely these two versions stack up. While it’s true that AC4 isn’t the most demanding title out there (due to its cross platform roots), it does looks gorgeous on both the PC and PS4. The 1080P/AA patch makes a difference – the image quality looks sharper, and with many of the ugly ‘jaggies’ being eliminated once you’ve applied the patch. Previous generation Assassin’s Creed’s certainly looked much uglier on the consoles, but AC4 is showing promising signs. The quality of the textures and the lighting quality is much more faithful to what you’d see on a high end PC rig as you’ll see below.
Not too bad, eh? You’ll notice that colors look a little more saturated and vibrant on the PC version. You’ll also notice that the sand at the back of Edward’s head looks slightly better defined. Pay close attention around the edges – in particular at the center of the image above his head. Let’s look at a few more images (once again, click on each of them to bring you to a full 1080P high res version).
The first thing which strikes you is that the color of the two versions differs – anything from just a little to quite drastically. This is possibly down to a mixture of the capture settings (although both versions were captured with no additional saturation or color correction) and the HBAO+ on the PC version (more on this in a moment). Looking over the texture quality – both versions are very close indeed. Previously, texture quality on AC3 for instance had really suffered on the consoles, with their lack of RAM just being unable to handle high resolution textures. The PS4 has obviously changed this however, with its 8GB of GDDR5 being able to pack in lots of high quality textures. The PC version does slightly edge out the Playstation 4 with facial texture and detail – but the difference is far smaller than the previous generation.
PC AC4 – better lighting on the Horizon?
So, what’s going on? Well, the lighting is obviously improved for the PC version slightly; thanks to HBAO+. So what is HBAO+? Horizon-Based Ambient Occlusion is a technique which improves shadows and lighting in an image. It is based on plain old regular Ambient Occlusion – which has the job of figuring out how light works in real life, particularly from what you’d consider to be non reflective surfaces. For example – would you consider say a brick wall to be a reflective surface? Of course not – and yet light still interacts with the wall. Lighting in games is a difficult beast to replicate fully. Using Ambient Occlusion, objects are able to be lit based on their surroundings. For instance, how well a wall is lit based on the other nearby objects which may either block or interfere with that light source.
In Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag, sure you have the obvious light source – like the sun or torches burning on walls, but there are also many others. The roar of cannons in ship battles, muskets firing, barrels exploding. Or even slightly less exciting sounding, but still important light being reflected from windows and the like.
It’s clear that the release of Sony’s Playstation 4 has drastically upped the quality of the console versions. Lighting in the fog of the opening ship battle remains a familiar story – slightly nicer on the PC, but not by much. The rain effects look a little dense on the PS4 version too – particularly during the opening ship battle. Personally, we found it to be a bit too much – and somewhat obscures the far distance. The ship battles in AC4 can look fairly spectacular, with impressive amounts of detail being shifted by the PS4 and the PC version of Black Flag.
The Playstation 4 version of AC4 is using a brand new Anti-Aliasing technique which Ubisoft developed internally – “The most important part of this title update is not necessarily 1080p native resolution. It’s the fact that even when we were done with the project, even when we were finished with the certification and everything else, even when most of the engineers had started to work on other projects – like we always do at Ubisoft – some of my engineers continued to work on Black Flag and they even developed a brand-new anti-aliasing technique.” – Sylvain Trottier
For the most part, it does a pretty good job compared to non -patched AC4, but it does have a few more ‘jaggies’ than a rather modest 2x smattering of MSAA on the PC.
Nvidia’s Hardware Physx will be an interesting implementation. Hardware Physx can have a dramatic effect on the shear number of debris on screen. It also helps to realistically model the movement of smoke, fog and even animate objects such as paper and cloth. It can take a heavy toll on the GPU and if you’re a AMD Radeon owner, then you’re going to be out of luck since Physx is for Nvidia hardware only. But in games it is supported (such as Batman) it can make a dramatic difference on the mood of the game. We’ll have to wait for the PC version of AC4 Black Flag to receive its patch so we can test it out.
There are a few strange things we’ve noticed in testing – the PS4 version had used several close up shots of characters – rather than slightly wider field of view on the PC. It’s strange this is the case – as they typically happen with cut scenes.
The verdict – PS4 or PC for AC4?
Assassin’s Creed 4 Black Flag looks gorgeous on both the Playstation 4 and PC. Sony’s new console does a fantastic job handling AC4 – and a fantastic job handling 1080P at a pretty constant 30FPS. But there can be only one winner and the PC version of AC4 does slightly edge out the PS4. For one, the PC version isn’t locked at 30FPS. The PC version can run at 60FPS or more, which makes the game beautifully smooth in motion. The PC versions Anti-Aliasing can be raised much higher than the 2x MSAA used in this head to head. You’ll notice a performance hit, but if you’re not worried about trying to keep the 2 versions ‘comparable’ in terms of AA and instead making the title as pretty possible and you’ve got the rig to do it, then more power to you. There’s also support for 4K display – which the PS4 just cannot muster. Despite the Playstation 4 being an impressive machine for its price, its 1.84TFLOP GPU likely won’t be ever able to run games in such demanding resolutions. It just doesn’t have the pixel pushing power of the high end GPU’s on the PC, for example the R9 290 or the Geforce GTX 7xx series.
I’m a fan of the PC versions lighting – although its improvements are subtle, they’re certainly an improvement. If you’re not watching the two versions running side by side, you’ll rarely notice the PC versions superior lighting techniques unless you’re looking for them. But once you notice the two versions running side by side, it’s hard to get used to the PS4’s somewhat flatter looking lighting. Finally – there’s the cost factor. If you already have a PC which is capable of running the game, then currently the PC version is cheaper – by a long shot. The boxed version of AC4 is £27 (British Pounds) – which is considerably cheaper than the 47 or so that I coughed up for the PS4 version. I ended up playing the PC version with the PS4 controller too (which works beautifully may I add). It does however show you prompts which you’d associate with the Xbox 360 pad.
There is the prospect of the Nvidia patch for AC4 Black Flag, which as we mentioned earlier will indeed add hardware PhysX to the title. As of the time of writing, that patch isn’t released and so we obviously cannot include it in our test or factors.
Overall – either version is going to leave you being a very happy gamer. If you’ve got the rig to run this game at the highest settings, I’d edge out for the PC version – if only to enjoy the game at 60FPS. We’re still very early on in this generation, and the real change I think will be evident in the next Assassin’s Creed title. Which will likely be more heavily optimized for both high end PC’s and next generation consoles.