The most obvious point of differentiation on the console builds of Battlefield 3 concerns the fact that the Xbox 360 version comes on two discs, while everything is bundled up together onto one Blu-ray disc for the PS3 game. The multiplayer game, co-op and a 1.5GB "HD" texture install are located on disc one, while the single-player campaign is relegated to disc two.
DICE strongly recommends that you install the texture pack onto the hard drive in order to see the game running with the highest possible texture quality - this is achieved by default on PlayStation 3 via a mandatory install. This sounds absolutely fine, but of course not every Xbox 360 owner actually has a hard drive, meaning that a certain percentage of the audience is going to get a downgraded graphical experience.
Unfortunately, the bad news is that this includes anyone who has bought the entry-level 4GB version of the Xbox 360S "slim" console. Despite carrying more than enough onboard memory to run the enhanced textures, by default the game will not allow you to install the data onto anything other than a hard drive. This seems to be somewhat bone-headed bearing in mind how generous Microsoft is in terms of third party mass storage devices you can attach to the console and how good the performance level can be from these devices.
Regular Digital Foundry readers may recall our in-depth benchmarking of USB storage devices, where we compared performance from the 360 HDD to a range of different drives hooked up via USB: a basic 16GB stick from Amazon, hard drives in caddies and even an SSD. Only where we really pushed our luck with a no-name micro-SD card in a USB adaptor did we see poor performance - the beauty of flash memory is very fast seek times, so we wouldn't be surprised at all if the 4GB Slim could actually outperform the hard drive. We have to admit to some level of surprise here bearing in mind that titles like Forza 4 do support the onboard memory unit, yet Battlefield 3 does not.
Just how sub-par the uninstalled Battlefield 3 actually looks is worth looking at. We've seen it described elsewhere as looking like a PS1 game. First up, it's worth bearing in mind that only texture quality is affected here. Despite being described in terms of "SD" and "HD", the native rendering resolution of the game is unaffected: all that is missing is some of the higher resolution texture assets. That being the case, describing it as looking like a PS1 game (as we've seen this week elsewhere) is bordering on the criminally insane. Let's re-run some of the campaign cut-scenes and take a look at how they stack up with the install and without.
As you can see, in motion during the run of play, the differences are noticeable but it's still the same game, driven by the same engine, with all the same effects in play - comparisons to any obsolete console architecture aren't really valid. What is clear however is that the lack of consistency in the assets is really disappointing - in many cases we see the full artwork, while in other cases only ultra-low res proxies are left in place.
It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that DICE didn't put so much effort into streamlining the game for those without hard drives and the result is that we have a game that looks beautiful in some cases, but unfinished and buggy in others. We're almost certain that the developer would have looked at the profile of its Xbox 360 userbase from previous titles and worked out the percentage of owners without the HDD and allocated resources accordingly. After all, every time you log onto Xbox Live (or indeed PSN), a whole range of anonymous information on the configuration of your console and even the monitor you have attached gets beamed back to the platform holders.
Hopefully the game will be patched or at the very least, Microsoft and EA could explain why owners of the 4GB 360 are being offered a sub-par version of the game.
It comes as no surprise to learn that the PC version of Battlefield 3 is where we really see what Frostbite 2 is capable of. It's a game designed to leverage the best from current generation PC hardware, running only on DirectX 10 capable systems - so if you're still running the venerable Windows XP as your primary OS, it is now finally time to let go.
As we discussed in our Battlefield 3 PC hardware article last week, you'll also need to give serious thought to the hardware in your system too. We gave the final code a whirl on a 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo system armed with an NVIDIA GTS250 graphics card and just as we found with the multiplayer beta, the experience was pretty disastrous even on the lowest settings. Since then we upgraded the RAM and this helped a little, but regardless, it's safe to say that the minimum recommended spec for the game is still some way off what we'd describe as a decent experience.