It's fair to say that the core PC gamer has a huge emotional investment in the Call of Duty and Modern Warfare series. The franchise (as it has now become) originated on computer and, at its core, it's still running id Software code that dates all the way back to the Quake 2 era. Indeed, even Modern Warfare 2's first splash screen acknowledges the contribution Carmack's antique code makes to the current game, just like its predecessors before it.
However, it's equally obvious that since the launch of Call of Duty 2 alongside Xbox 360 back in November 2005, the series has been moving towards a more mainstream focus, concentrating on the console audience and what those gamers want from a first-person shooter. The result has been enormous financial rewards for Activision and Infinity Ward. PC support continues, but it is estimated that of the original Modern Warfare's 13 million sales, only 10 per cent of those derive from the PC game.
The arrival of Modern Warfare 2 effectively divorces the PC version of the game from many of the accepted conventions that core fanbase expects from this style of game. We all know about the lack of dedicated server support, which I'll touch on later, but it's clear to see that Modern Warfare 2 is a cut above the usual console port. Perhaps most obviously there are multiple sets of textures you can choose between to get the game running on lower or higher-end hardware.
It's not often we see this anymore - there seems to be a tacit admission from publishers that their PC audience runs graphics cards that easily outperform the GPUs in the Xbox 360 and PS3, so they simply re-use the console assets. This means that those with low-power machines can't run the game very well at all, while the hardcore with high-end kit find themselves supremely over-specced.
However, Modern Warfare 2 has low, medium, high and "extra" texture levels that in theory open up the game to those with both lower-end and top-level GPUs:
In terms of how that compares to the console builds of the game, the high-quality level is roughly approximate to the console builds, but what the "extra" gives you is very much context-dependent. There are clear examples that show how the PC version boasts considerable increases in texture detail, like in the shots below.
There are also many areas where we see higher resolution in alpha elements of the texture, although any actual detail increase appears slight. Having played through the game now on three separate SKUs, one thing that is quite apparent is that a couple of campaigns that simply don't match the overall standard of the others. The initial Ramirez levels set in US neighbourhoods are underwhelming in terms of gameplay and disappoint graphically too. Compare and contrast with any and all the SAS missions, which look incredible on console and scale up beautifully on the PC when running at higher resolutions. The resolution advantage of course is one of the key plus points of the computer version.
For the same Face-Off video remixed with the PS3 version up against the PC build, we've prepared a special alternative video. For more in-depth analysis of the console versions, look no further than last week's Face-Off. That article's comparison gallery has now been updated to include the PC version too.
While the console versions upscale 1024x600 with 2x multi-sampling anti-aliasing, the PC build offers the usual array of customisable resolutions, along with the ability to run with either 2x or 4x AA, or none at all if you don't have the requisite CPU power. Running Modern Warfare 2 on a Core i7 system running Windows 7 and a GTX295, I was able to run the game with everything at maximum at 1080p, albeit with some quite alarming drops in performance later on in the game.
German site PC Games Hardware has done a bang-up job of measuring performance with a vast array of GPUs to give some idea of how well your graphics card copes with the game generally. However, I found that having the v-sync option engaged seemed to introduce drops in performance that were occasionally very impactful. V-sync is pretty much an essential in my book, and it's worth pointing out that the console builds employ it too. It's a core part of the MW2 visual make-up.