Recent news that Mass Effect 2 on PlayStation 3 is running on a newer, enhanced engine and may even be the "definitive" version of the game raised more than a few eyebrows. While performance is close, Unreal Engine 3 typically favours the Xbox 360, and it's safe to assume that BioWare's prior customisations to the tech were carried out very much with the Microsoft platform in mind. So, is the PS3 version genuinely enhanced and improved?
Based on the demo code released last night, our conclusion is that the PS3 version of Mass Effect 2 is different as opposed to definitive, and while nobody is likely to be disappointed with the game, a direct comparison with the Xbox 360 version suggests that while some elements are improved, others have been downgraded and the effectiveness of some of the aesthetic changes will all come down to personal taste.
The format of the demo is similar to the Xbox 360 sampler: you get to witness the destruction of the Normandy, you'll create your own in-game avatar and then witness Shepard's resurrection and the pitched battle through to the end of the intro level. After that, the focus shifts to a secondary action-orientated level. In the 360 game, that was Shepard's orbital prison breakout, while on PS3, the mission shifts to a visit to a plague-ridden planet as our hero attempts to add a brilliant, if eccentric medic to his (or her) team.
The only other change is that in the 360 version, progress made in the demo could be ported into the full game when you bought it. This isn't possible in the PS3 demo because the ME1 recap isn't included.
To business then. Here's a head-to-head video of key scenes from the intro mission, backed up by a meaty comparison gallery to mull over at your leisure.
Mass Effect 2 on Xbox 360 ran at native 720p with the nerfed 2x multi-sampling anti-aliasing implementation common to many Unreal Engine 3 titles. Regular Digital Foundry readers will know that in this scenario, the AA effect appears to be carried out relatively early on in the rendering process - as lighting and post-processing effects are added, the MSAA is gradually removed from much of the scene. The PS3 version doesn't seem to run with any anti-aliasing at all, but looks very similar overall.
BioWare is on the record in stating that the PS3 version of Mass Effect 2 has enhanced visuals.
"One of the first things you're going to see is improved graphics," game producer Jesse Houston said during a recent BioWare podcast. "We actually created the engine for Mass Effect 3 and used that to make Mass Effect 2 PS3. So we took the content, the story and all of the other assets that made up Mass Effect 2 and we put it into the Mass Effect 3 engine."
It stands to reason that BioWare would want to make adjustments to the core engine for what is now a cross-platform project: this is, after all, an extensively retooled Unreal Engine 3. However, direct visual comparisons with the same scenes on the existing Xbox 360 version of Mass Effect 2 suggest that not all of the changes are not for the better. There's a curious mixture of improvements, downgrades and swapped out effects.
Take for example this shot of Miranda. The distinctive hexagonal pattern on her uniform clearly looks smoother and of a higher resolution than the equivalent on the Xbox 360. However, the effect is curiously flat - normal-mapping appears to be absent.
This one will come down a matter of personal taste, but BioWare has also tweaked and adjusted the shadowing scheme in Mass Effect 2 as well: the jittered sampling effect has been given the heave-ho in favour of the more traditional PCF (percentage closer filtering).
Shadows are still of a low resolution and can look rather rough close up, but they are obviously more tightly defined and look a tad more realistic than the system employed in the original release of the game.
In other areas of the game, we see effects that have clearly been toned down in their transition across to PlayStation 3, dropping to a lower resolution or operating at a reduced precision level. A good example of this is seen right at the beginning of the game, with a more artifact-ridden cosmic backdrop behind Miranda as she talks with the Illusive Man.