When it comes to cross-generational titles, there will always be the assumption that the next gen versions are superior. That makes sense of course – the PS4 and Xbox One are both far superior to the PS3 and Xbox 360 respectively in terms of performance, power and energy efficiency. However, with a game like Ubisoft Montreal’s Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the dev team faces a significantly more complex challenge. With the game releasing close to the arrival of next-gen consoles rather than, oh, sometime next year like some other high profile releases, how do you take advantage of next gen hardware while still having limited knowledge about it? At the same time, how do you deliver a visually compelling experience that makes the most of current-gen hardware?
Ubisoft decided to stick with the Anvil Next Engine, which had debuted in Assassin’s Creed III and was famous for being able to render crowds of up to 2000 character models at once, along with accurate water and wind simulation. This was capped off by a dynamic weather system, since all three elements played a part in what would become a major component of Black Flag: Naval combat. But the true power of Anvil Next lay in the fact that it was built for next-gen consoles while still being able to scale to current gen platforms.
PS3 vs. Xbox 360
Starting with the PS3 and Xbox 360, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag’s intro is awe-inspiring enough. Several ships in combat with particle effects and explosions, along with crashing waves, thunderstorms and heavy rains, are all rendered in real-time as characters run about the detailed, worn-out deck. The resolution on both platforms is at native 720p, which enables the same degree of sharpness.
Draw distance is impressive, and you’ll be hard-pressed to notice any pop-ups or materializing buildings, whether you’re running through the streets of Havana or climbing a perch for a full 360-degree view of Nassau. Overall asset streaming is a step up from Assassin’s Creed III though. Even the foliage is more impressively rendered here, with less shimmering seen in individual shadows and a wider colour pallete to painting the different varieties of palm trees.
Animation has typically been one of the weaker elements of the series, but the motion captured animations and transitions in Black Flag feel the smoothest in the series yet. Graphical glitches have been significantly reduced from the nightmare that was Assassin’s Creed III.
The odd problem or so seems to seep through, especially with the infamous asset loading glitch that saw the Jackdaw rise from the depths while tied to port. Other major glitches are noticeably absent though with solid collision detection overall.
Ubisoft has employed a global illumination lighting system for Black Flag allowing for a richer quality of lighting throughout. This is further enhanced by each object being dynamically rendered and effectively part of the scenery at all times. So whether there’s a brief shower or fierce gale winds, palm trees will sway realistically, the light catching on individual rain drops as the sun begins to shine.
Truth be told, there’s not much difference between the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. You’ll notice a few jitters here and there, but the outright stumbles and freezes seen in a next-gen game like Dead Rising 3 are absent.
PS4 vs. Xbox One vs. PC
We’ll talk about the weather effects, physics and wave simulation primarily here. Why? Because these assets are what show off the true potential that next generation gaming consoles hold. Ubisoft has taken the ocean from Assassin’s Creed III and heavily tweaked it to allow for real-time physics and dynamic interaction with the waves. This allows for a more realistic impact during stormy sequences but also mimics the ebb and flow observed during normal journey via sea. It’s quite amazing to see the Jackdaw just bob up and down among the waves while stationary.
And when Ubisoft talked about wind simulation, we didn’t quite expect to actually see the effects. Nonetheless, swathes of fog cut through your ship’s deck during particularly torrid sequences and venturing through the high seas often sees you cutting through the slight mist rising from the ocean. In the same way, typhoons are as beautifully modelled as burning hot days.
You’ll be able to tell the difference between “sun shine and lollipops” weather and blazing hot in Black Flag, with small touches such as heat shimmers, lens flares and more rendered all the more realistically. The slight embers from camp fires during drunken pirate parties and whimsical meandering of your crew contrasts against the stark blackness of night beautifully as well.
That’s what the power of next gen presents: The ability to accurately render and acutely present these visual flourishes in such a way that it affects not only the look of the game but the overall mood of each scene. The other facets of the PS4 and Xbox One, namely their locked 30 FPS frame rates and a new custom anti-aliasing solution help sharpen and smoothen out the picture all the more (though the Xbox One looks noticeably blurred because of its 900p resolution). You’ll notice significantly less shimmering of individual shadows on plants, but the real impact can be seen on the PS4 version with its 1080p resolution.
Combined with V-sync, there’s almost no screen tearing. The defining characteristic of the PS4 version is its overall sharpness and crisp picture quality and it delivers perfectly.
But in terms of visuals, both the PS4 and Xbox One pale in comparison to the PC version, which takes advantage of several Nvidia-exclusive features such as HBAO+, a type of ambient occlusion that individually renders shadows to an almost miniscule scale, leading to a higher quality of shading within a scene’s elements; Percentage Closer Soft Shadows, which bring more realistic softer shadows to the experience and which vary as the distance grows; and a custom TXAA anti-aliasing solution that combines multi-sample anti-aliasing and a temporal filter, though post-processing FXAA and SMAA remains for less powerful systems; and sun rays, which can act in unison with DirectX 11 to deliver realistic light shafts that are most noticeably when an object is standing before the sun or moon. Did we mention that the PC version is 4K resolution compatible? Regardless of its powerful features, the PC version is highly scalable and allows you to run the game on many mid-range systems with acceptable frame rates and details.
The difference between current and next-gen game versions isn’t always discernible at first. But Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag takes it upon itself to paint a world of millions of visual flourishes, those same flourishes all the more highlighted as the technology becomes more advanced. It’s a great initiative and if the PC version is any indication, Ubisoft Montreal is capable of leveraging powerful hardware to deliver a purely performance based visual experience as well. In the midst of launch titles and exclusives for the PS4 and Xbox One, Assassin’s Creed IV may just be the best looking game of 2013 in both aesthetics, attention to detail, weather effects, stable frame rates and much more.