What’s new with Gears 5 on Xbox Series X?

One of the trends we’re seeing with this new generation of consoles is the arrival of visual updates for last generation games – basically, new features designed to take advantage of more powerful hardware. Gears 5 is one of the first titles revealed to be receiving this sort of update and along with upcoming story DLC, it feels almost like a soft relaunch. In the process, one of the best-looking games for Xbox One looks better than ever – it’s basically a graphics and performance upgrade with some cool new features added in.

To get the basics out of the way first, Gears 5 retains the use of dynamic resolution scaling, but based on pixel counting a selection of shots, it seems to average out at around 1728p during gameplay, with full 2160p manifesting in less busy situations. Interestingly, the lower bounds is still 1080p – just as it was on Xbox One X – but it’s extremely uncommon for resolution to hit this level. By comparison, Xbox One X could drop to near 1080p much more often.

The multiplayer mode is a little more aggressive with its dynamic resolution solution owing to its higher performance targets – yes, 120 frames per second is the target – but it still looks solid. Image quality was already good thanks to Unreal’s temporal anti-aliasing implementation and it’s improved here thanks to a higher average resolution. We don’t yet have a Series S console but we were told that Gears 5 maxes out at 1440p on the high-end suggesting an average resolution somewhere between Xbox One and Xbox One X while still hitting the same frame-rate targets as Series X.

In terms of detail levels, the PC version is used as a basis with settings bumped up to ultra across the board. This means higher quality volumetric lighting, improved shadows and more. There is an increase in detail in the new version too thanks to level of detail being pushed out – but the overall effect is relatively subtle but leads to a more stable, solid-looking game. Effects work is also increased. The Coalition bumps up the quality of screen-space reflections, increasing the quality and number of surfaces using the effect – many of these surfaces lacked SSR completely on Xbox One X and the effect is more broadly in line with the PC version.

Gears 5 takes just partial advantage of the Xbox Velocity Architecture – the NVME SSD. Hardware decompression, the new DirectStorage API layer and the Sampler Feedback Streaming are not in use with this game. The simple nature of being installed to an SSD has a huge impact on data transfer speeds, however. Loading times on One X could take more than 45 seconds in most scenarios. On Series X, however, this is reduced to a mere fraction of the time – often under ten seconds.

This might have been enough on its own, but the developers took the time to implement some new features not previously available on PC. The big one here is screen-space global illumination. It’s a ray tracer done in screen-space (software-based, not using the RT hardware within the console) which takes care of indirect illumination. According to The Coalition, the GI pass is calculated at half resolution but uses eight rays per pixel. This is fine grain enough to allow things like muzzle flashes and item pickups to contribute realistically to the lighting. This also naturally takes care of darker areas – places that were overly and unrealistically lit previously now feature additional detail and shadow on Series X. Again, it’s kind of subtle, but it’s a neat step forward in creating more realistic lighting. Unlike the March demo, however, this is now coupled with more traditional screen space ambient occlusion which takes care of finer details. It is worth noting that SSGI is only used during gameplay – but cut-scenes do benefit from improvements to SSAO at least.

Another fascinating addition is the implementation of Variable Rate Shading. VRS is used to claw back performance in heavy situations by varying shading precision in a scene which, in turn, allows for a higher average resolution. Check out the image below for a great visualisation of how the effect works out in Gears 5, and how various areas of the frame are rendered at different resolutions depending on content. Impressively, it’s not something that is really evident during normal play but having tinkered with Gears Tactics on PC – which includes a somewhat noisy implementation of VRS – I was curious to know what has changed and why the effect was so much improved over what we’d seen before.

Well, apparently the changes are down to using what is known as Tier Two variable rate shading. Gears Tactics uses Tier One, which allows developers to specify the shading rate per draw call, while Tier Two allows for more granular control within a draw call. This allows more precise control over which parts of the screen are adjusted. They use an edge detection filter to figure out the rate of shading and can vary it across the screen in a series of 8×8 tiles. In this case, using VRS basically saves five to 12 per cent of rendering time per frame which leads to a higher average resolution, making for a sharper looking game. Artefacts from VRS are not completely eliminated with Tier Two, but they’re very hard to discern.

Speaking of shaders, a lot of work was done to maximise the use of relaxed cone step mapping. This was featured in the original game and resembles parallax occlusion maps – essentially, it adds proper depth to an otherwise 2D texture. For the Series X version, however, the team spent months adding lots of extra details to each stage. Depth write has also been enabled for cone step maps meaning actual contact shadows and proper depth – they basically integrate more realistically into the world.

All told, these updates look great but what’s perhaps more important is the feel of the game. Using Dynamic Latency Input, the team was able to greatly reduce input latency. This is really interesting to me as it does result in a noticeably more responsive gaming experience. Microsoft’s numbers are on this page and my quick and dirty tests produced similar results, but the difference in feel is everything. I hope this focus on latency reduction becomes a common thing this generation as it definitely makes for snappier aiming. Of course, it’s even lower when playing multiplayer owing to the 120hz update.

The game looks nicer overall and it plays better as a result of reduced latency but the frame-rate is interesting for me. Basically, there are multiple things to test – normal 60Hz gameplay, 120Hz gameplay and variable refresh rate. Kicking off with the 60fps campaign, it’s great to see what cutscenes are now rendering at full frame-rate where they were just 30fps on Xbox One X. It looks really impressive overall but it does highlight a small issue – on Xbox, the camera cuts exhibit 33ms pauses giving the impression of slight hitches. Apparently, this is down to the way in which the camera cuts work on Xbox One and I’m told the team is testing a fix for this issue. It’s not necessarily a huge deal but I did find it slightly distracting since there was no such frame persistence issue on Xbox One due to the lower target frame-rate.

Gameplay is obviously more important and performance is solid here overall. On Series X, the overall experience is much smoother than Xbox One X, without serious drops in combat or exploration. Basically, I spotted issues when traversing the large, open world-like stages present in the game. Based on conversations with The Coalition, it seems that this is a bug introduced with the interaction between the streaming system and the low-latency optimisations. I was told that a fix is already in the works so hopefully that’ll take care of things – we’ll be sure to let you know on social media when it hits.

But this also prompted me to test something else – variable refresh rate. Since I just upgraded to an LG CX, I was able to test how this feature impacts small performance dips like this. It turns out that VRR does save the day and those hiccups are not visible by eye. This is going to be an important feature this gen, I think.

120Hz support is in for multiplayer and the good news is that it works exactly as you’d hope – the game reaches the target 120fps and seems to hold there most of the time. Now, of course, I’ve only had a chance to play bot matches against the CPU but that should technically be more demanding, I’d imagine. Either way, the frame-rate was locked 99 per cent of the time in my tests with only occasional hiccups. It really feels dramatically better too – 120Hz could be a huge deal for multiplayer games this generation as well.

Ultimately, the update for Gears 5 is a really nice boost for an already great game. While we’ve only played the ‘preview’ version of the game, it already offers a remarkable boost in quality. The new lighting features, improved shadows, increased detail and smoother overall frame-rate are all welcome changes and Gears 5 still features one of the best HDR implementations out there. The only thing that remains to be seen is how it stacks up on Xbox Series S, and how that stacks up to the full-fat Series X experience…