Inevitably, it's time to wheel out the Digital Foundry performance analysis. The content here covers the PS3 and Xbox 360 sections of both the CryTek tech demo movies released to date, and starts off with the Crysis sections before moving on to the other elements of the CE3 showcase. The inclusion of material from the second trailer is important. While Crysis itself is not represented, other sections from the debut video are, and in those cases performance appears to be like-for-like. This suggests that the technological underpinnings perform much as they did back in April for the GDC reveal.
The CryEngine3 demo on console appears to be running at native 720p with no anti-aliasing, and based on this demo, performance is somewhat variable. It seems to be the case that in some sections (Crysis for sure), CryTek has v-synced the demo for more consistent image quality, but this can see the frame-rate vary from anything between 15FPS to what we can assume is the target 30FPS. It is disappointing to see sections of Crysis running so slowly, especially when our visual approximation on PC runs lightning fast on even a relatively "lite" computer.
Does this performance level suggest that a playable version of Crysis with a consistent frame-rate isn't possible on PS3 and Xbox 360? Well, it's a fact that CryTek's masterpiece is very memory-hungry. Consoles are effectively memory-starved up against even an entry-level PC, and Crysis requires a huge amount of RAM to run well compared to what's available in the consoles - it makes sense that a lot of the developmental effort in transitioning CE2 across to the multi-platform CE3 was spent in reducing the memory footprint.
It's also a matter of fact that CryTek's zero-compromise coding techniques result in some pretty massive source code. One developer recently told me that just the source for creating normal maps in Crysis is bigger than that for their entire engine - which has been used to ship over half a dozen games. There's no doubt that console development is a world removed from the cutting edge land of PC development that CryTek has prospered in, and despite the impressive demos, the firm still has it all to prove in the console space.
However, the fact that Frankfurt's finest are not producing a straight-up port of Crysis is also very significant. Moving onto a sequel allows CryTek to concentrate on levels and gameplay that do suit a cross-platform product. For example, level design with more occluding elements in the scenery could serve to boost performance significantly.
The Criterion Games philosophy of choosing "balancing points" that suit both console platforms appears to be in place at CryTek too. According to comments from the developer, shader-heavy work favours 360 while physics work is more suited to the Cell within PS3. The engine's "WYSIWYP" editor allows for scene-by-scene optimisation that gives the developers the best chance to achieve parity between the two consoles.
Our experiment in modding Crysis to replicate the console look also suggests that PC owners have little to worry about. While Crysis 2 may be console-focused by financial necessity, it's fair to assume that the PC version will benefit from higher-quality artwork, and will receive an enormous visual upgrade by default simply by scaling up many of the powerful environmental variables built into the engine by design.
It's also fair to say that PC owners should be able to get performance that far outstrips the 720p30 we can realistically expect from the PS3 and Xbox 360. The scalability of CryEngine3, along with the existence of those higher-quality assets designed for PC, also means that CryTek could conceivably release a supremely impressive version of Crysis 2 for the next-gen consoles when they materialise in the expected 2011/2012 time-frame. The developer is already on the record as saying that CE3 has been designed to scale up to accommodate the next generation of console platforms.
Another factor computer owners should consider is that the optimisation work required to get CryEngine working on console will inevitably lead to significant performance boosts when rolled back across to PC, a point of view expressed in this GDC presentation from Valve, which discusses in depth the challenges of moving from a pure PC development environment to multi-format. There was a useful performance bump between Crysis and Warhead, but both games still targeted a dual-core CPU for optimum performance. Bearing in mind the six hardware threads available in the Xenon CPU, plus the six available Cell SPUs, CryTek would have been hard at work in scaling their engine to work across many more processors. The best gaming CPUs on PC right now are quad-cores, so those efforts will transition across back to PC very nicely. Bottom line: we would hope that Crysis 2 will be a technical showcase regardless of platform, scaling to match the power of the system you run it on.
Regardless of the performance level, there is no doubt whatsoever that the CryEngine 3 tech demos are exciting stuff: we're seeing effects and scenarios in play that have the potential to transform the look and scope of console titles, and the importance of this cannot be understated. To an extent, this generation has been defined to a great degree by the almost ubiquitous Unreal Engine 3. CryEngine 3 is a chance for developers to go for a fresh new look with hugely impressive technology.
The question is: will they jump onboard the CryEngine Express, which for all its promise is essentially an unproven technology for multi-platform development? This is where Crysis 2 will be the ultimate litmus test, and while its debut may be too late to seriously threaten the dominance of UE3 on PS3 and Xbox 360, when the next-gen consoles launch there'll be everything to play for.