Review after review, including David Their’s thoughtful and balanced analysis of Red Dead Redemption II here on Forbes, has praised the game’s fully realized and beautifully rendered world. This doesn’t come as a complete surprise as Rockstar is renowned for it’s ability to create rich and immersive open worlds and the gameplay trailers that preceded RDR2’s release are strikingly beautiful. The surprise is that the PS4 Pro footage seen in the trailers is far from the best looking version of the game. Red Dead Redemption II on the Xbox One X stands head and shoulders above all other consoles, Pro included. It’s a showcase for the superiority of the One X and may turn out to be the game that exemplifies the best of what this console generation has to offer.
Digital Foundry conducted thorough technical analyses of RDR2 on the Xbox One S, One X, PS4 and Pro. In general, the outcome is what we’ve seen countless times before. In terms of graphics, the One X leads the way followed in descending order by the Pro, the PS4 and the One S. The story is largely the same for performance although the differences between the consoles is not as clear cut in some cases.
The real story emerges when you look more closely at how the consoles differ. It all starts with resolution.
Resolution and its knock-on effects
Rockstar’s graphics and art teams pulled off something rarely seen in this console generation. RDR2 does not make use of dynamic resolution scaling on any of the consoles and the game renders in full 4K (3840 x 2160) on the One X. You read that correctly. The entire game is displayed in full 4K on the One X. None of the other consoles come close. Here are the resolutions for each console along with a direct comparison expressed as a percentage of full 4K.
|Xbox One X||3840 x 2160||100%|
|PS4 Pro||1920 x 2160||50%|
|PS4||1920 x 1080||25%|
|Xbox One S||1536 x 864||16%|
The One X puts twice as many pixels on the screen as the Pro, four times as many as the PS4 and six times as many as the One S.
The pixel count matters because more pixels translates into the sharper, clearer and more detailed screen images that bring RDR2’s realistic art style to life. If you’re sitting at the optimal distance from a 4K screen, RDR2 looks much better on the One X simply because resolution on Microsoft’s flagship console is so much higher than on any of the others.
But resolution alone is only part of the story. The rest is about how resolution interacts with several other aspects of RDR2’s visual presentation.
Red Dead Redemption II uses temporal anti-aliasing to smooth diagonal and curved lines. This is a mixed blessing for the Pro and a problem for the One S.
Temporal anti-aliasing not only smooths lines, it smooths movement as those lines move across the screen. This has the effect of unifying a scene into a coherent and convincing whole by blending frames together. It’s one of the main reasons why the image on the Pro looks as good as it does.
The downside of temporal anti-aliasing is that the smoothing process softens the image by reducing sharpness and detail. Softening interacts with resolution such that the softening effect increases as resolution decreases and it doesn’t take long before softness turns into blurriness. The negative effect of temporal anti-aliasing is modest at the One X’s high resolution. It’s more apparent on the Pro although the benefits still outweigh the costs. By the time we get down to the low resolution seen on the One S, blurriness has become a serious problem.
Resolution also interacts with many of Red Dead Redemption II’s high-quality visual features. Material textures on character models, diverse and sophisticated lighting effects, contact hardening for shadows (shadows are sharper near the point where the object casting the shadow meets the ground), LOD management for near and far-field objects and extensive use of parallax occlusion mapping are all areas where RDR2 excels. All of these features work better at higher resolutions, and combining them with the One X’s huge resolution advantage produces a strikingly better looking game. (If some technical terms are unfamiliar, check out this guide.)
Red Dead Redemption II caps frame rate at 30 fps. To hit that target, a new image has to be drawn on the screen every 33.3 milliseconds. The One X renders at full 4K all the time which means it has to push twice as many pixels to the screen every 33.3 milliseconds as it’s nearest competitor, the Pro. Given that processing load, you’d expect frame rate drops to occur more frequently on the One X as the hardware struggles to keep up. You’d be wrong.
Overall, the One X performs better than all the other consoles even though it is drawing anywhere from twice to 6 times as many pixels on the screen. There’s one exception which I’ll get to shortly. Frame rate rarely drops below 30 fps on the One X, and when it does it’s usually a very brief drop of one or two frames. A virtual lock on 30 fps combined with full 4K throughout the game in RDR2‘s richly detailed open world is an extraordinary achievement on current-generation consoles.
All of the consoles hit the 30 fps target almost all the time when you’re out in the wild. With the exception of the One X, performance generally drops in towns which put more stress on the system. The drop is only a couple of frames on the Pro. The One S can fall to somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 or 26 fps in high-stress areas in towns. The base PS4 is a surprise in that it’s comparable or perhaps marginally worse than the One S in these same areas.
The exception mentioned above is a cut scene that occurs after a street brawl in the town of Valentine early in the game. Frame rate drops on all the consoles during this scene and it drops lower on the One X than any of the others. Digital Foundry didn’t find any other instances where performance on the One X wasn’t as good or better than the other consoles and they have no explanation of what’s going on in this cut scene. It’s bizarre.
The hype and anticipation preceding the release of Red Dead Redemption II was extreme. When expectations are raised that high, the games that follow frequently disappoint. That didn’t happen with RDR2. I think part of the reason is that people raved about how good the PS4 Pro footage looked in the pre-release trailers only to find RDR2 looks even better on the One X. Rockstar wowed the world without showing us the best-looking version of its game.
In an earlier article on the first Red Dead Redemption II gameplay trailer I wrote
The only console capable of a full 4K render is the Xbox One X. If Rockstar’s engineers can pull it off without falling back on dynamic resolution scaling while keeping the exceptional visual quality seen in the footage running on the Pro, the One X enhanced version of Red Dead Redemption 2 is going to be a show stopper.
I didn’t think it would happen, but Rockstar did it and it’s a definitely a showstopper. Red Dead Redemption II on the One X is so far beyond the other consoles that the world is waking up to something players who care about performance and visual quality have recognized and enjoyed since Microsoft’s flagship console debuted a year ago. Almost without exception, cross-platform games look and play better on the One X.
Red Dead Redemption II takes the superiority of the One X to another level. The game is beautiful and performs very well on the Pro. No doubt. But it performs marginally but consistently better and looks a whole lot better on the One X. If you have a One X, there’s no reason to play RDR2 on any other console. If you don’t have a One X, RDR2 gives you a good reason to buy one. With next-gen consoles forecast to appear in a year or two, Red Dead Redemption II on the Xbox One X may come to be seen as the high point of the current console generation.
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