With PS5 and Xbox Series X in its hands, developer Gearbox’s first port of call it seems is to give Borderlands 3 the next-gen treatment. Through a sizeable patch, the studio taps into the strengths of each machine with two modes – targeting 60fps and 120fps respectively. But how close does the game come to its performance targets and, as ever, where does Xbox Series S slot into the line-up?
Targeting 4K at 60fps is the primary objective for the new version of the game, with plenty of behind the scenes tweaks in improving performance, beyond leaning into the raw horsepower of the hardware itself. Collision detection is extensively revamped, for example, but Gearbox also leans into more traditional optimisations – such as the use of dynamic resolution scaling (DRS) meaning that the game engine adapts its pixel counts based on GPU load. It’s something that in practice doesn’t show up too often, with few deviations from the target 4K – to the point where my pixel counts showed very little variance from 3840×2160, even when the game was dropping frames (2016p was the minimum resolution I found).
Xbox Series S on the other hand, lives up to its spec by targeting 1440p as the maximum resolution, with more obvious drops in resolution, down to a 2112×1188 lower bounds. Crucially though, it’s a well-worked version that holds to 60fps just as well as the two premium machines – in fact, I think it actually runs a touch better. One big catch to Series S is that there’s no toggle between resolution or performance modes, as there is on PS5 or Series X. It’s 1440p60 with DRS and there is no 120Hz support at all.
The big advantage in owning PS5 and Series X is the ability to leverage a high refresh rate display. To summarise, the resolution mode runs at 4K60fps on each, but the performance mode changes the console output to 120Hz – in this case targeting a native 1080p. This uses DRS as well to try and lock to 120fps and the lowest value I’ve caught is 1440×810 in cutscenes.
Visual comparisons are worth touching on here, though after speaking to the developers at Gearbox, it seems that the focus is primarily on hitting 4K60. That said, shadows are tweaked on PS5, giving more generous shadow draw distances, and higher quality outlines on dynamic shadows across the ground, when stacked up against PS4 Pro. On top of this there is a further wrinkle to comparisons between PS5 and Series X: just about everything is squarely matched between the two, but plant density has an advantage on Sony’s machine. This isn’t a revelation, as we saw the same thing on PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. Rather than being a measure for system performance, this particular difference seems to be legacy code inherited by the new machines too, giving PS5 a distinctive advantage across the opening wastelands in foliage density. Shadow quality also appears to be improved too.
It’s worth noting Series S is also matched with the other consoles in terms of overall texture quality, effects and texture filtering quality. It’s mainly the drop to 1440p that keeps it from the same level of sharpness as PS5 and Series X, but it’s still an impressive effort for a machine running at near a third of the GPU power as X. As years of PS4 Pro tests have shown, 1440p shows a clear advantage over 1080p rendering on a 4K screen, while owners of full HD displays should get the benefit of super-sampling anti-aliasing. One final way to split the three is loading times. Loading screens are a regular sight in Borderlands, with fast travel between Sanctuary, large world hubs, and smaller areas. Again there is a consistent advantage on PS5 – completing a load to the Droughts in 12 seconds, compared to the 14-15 seconds on Xbox machines.
Ultimately, this next-gen upgrade focuses on performance, and the 4K60 boost significantly improves on the wobbly performance mode of PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, and wipes the floor with their 1800p default mode – which had trouble sustaining the 30fps performance target. Next-gen delivers a huge upgrade that works better on every front, and for most of the game’s early play it’s pretty much flawless, though unfortunately most of the cutscenes are still pegged a 30fps. However, the more you play, the more you notice some issues. Lavish alpha transparencies see performance drop into the 50s at points, and even basic acts like looting chests can see minor slowdown. Series X and PS5 both have this problem in equal measure and it can be jarring to the experience. A bulk of the issues start once you enter Promethea, the second major world.
In terms of assessing which platform performs best, it’s nigh on impossible to call. Cutscenes can’t be used as benchmarks due to the 30fps cap and gameplay mostly hits 60fps. The drops, when they happen, are often isolated to dynamic points in gameplay that can’t be replicated in like-for-like scenarios. The fair summary? Both versions operate in much the same way, with issues that are very similar in terms of severity and frequency. What I did find interesting is the Series S version’s performance level. By targeting 1440p with a more aggressive DRS range, frame-rates actually adhere more closely to 60fps than the other two. It’s a softer image of course, but in the end, the drops aren’t as stark the two more powerful machines. We can put it down to being more modest in its ambition, but a wider DRS window does have a slight net positive for performance on Series S. Perhaps an option to increase the DRS range would help the Xbox and PS5 versions – similar to the ‘aggressive’ dynamic resolution option in the latest Wolfenstein games. As things stand, finding any drops from native 4K proved difficult and the DRS range seems very narrow, while slowdown was much easier to see.
Where PS5 and Series X break away from the S is in offering a 120Hz mode, adding more clarity – more temporal resolution – to improve the feel of play and to lower latency. In the case of Borderlands 3, it’s sticking to a 1080p maximum to achieve it and the early wastelands area gives a good first impression. Delving deeper though, and especially by the time you land on the Promethean complex, the situation changes quite drastically. What begins as a sturdy 120fps lock descends to 80fps in the worst case – and you get pretty much everything in between those figures too. The real stress point is careening through Promethea’s streets, taking down enemy vehicles as you corner each stretch.
On the whole 120Hz mode works well enough, but being fully v-synced, you’ll see some stutter kick in, especially during road combat. This is where Xbox Series X has a crucial advantage. At least at launch, a v-synced frame drop causes an 8.3ms drop on the frame-time graph on PS5 – but on Series X there’s support for variable refresh rates, or VRR. A supporting TV it will do wonders for adjusting to variable frame-times in Borderlands 3. It makes that 90-120fps smoother, something the PS5 doesn’t offer at the system level right now. Equally, Series X has a performance advantage at 120fps to begin with, which helps the endeavour. The dynamic nature of the game again makes life difficult in measuring the two side-by-side, but there is one driving sequence which matches well, showing a Series X lead of between five to 15fps (but remember that frame-times are much tighter at higher fps).
The bottom line? Both consoles are prone to fluctuations at 120Hz, some kicking in harder on Series X at points, others on PS5 – but on the whole it is Series X with a lead, while PS5 has a small selection of visual improvements and faster loading times. For anyone looking at getting the best 120Hz performance though, the vote has to go on Series X. For the higher baseline performance, and having VRR, it has an advantage. There’s little to split the two in 60fps, but 120Hz gives Microsoft’s machine an identifiable plus. Where both need some work is in getting a more stable lock at 60fps. Again, Series X can lean in to VRR here, but not everyone has a suitably equipped screen. Meanwhile, Series S’s overall smoother performance level suggests that the option for more aggressive DRS scaling could help to alleviate the issues. Regardless, even though there are issues, Borderlands 3 delivers a big improvement over the last-gen versions, with just a patch or two needed to get this game exactly where it needs to be.