Face-Off: Spec Ops: The Line

Which one Dubai?

- Xbox 360 PlayStation 3
Disc Size 5.4GB 6.0GB
Install 5.4GB (optional) 1339MB (mandatory)
Surround Support Dolby Digital Dolby Digital, DTS, 5.1LPCM, 7.1LPCM

With Spec Ops, Yager Developments and 2K Games have delivered a thought-provoking, intelligent third-person shooter - one which cleverly blends dark humour with a more serious side that depicts the horrors of war and the effects they have on the human psyche. Morally grey decisions taken by the player affect the characters, rather than just the outcome of the story, while the Call of Duty-style 'stop and pop' shooting is counter-balanced by some chilling scenes of cruelty towards fellow soldiers and Dubai's civilian population. The Middle-Eastern setting also provides some entertainingly varied scenarios, with the use of sand and the ravaged environments giving players a variety of different gameplay options.

On a basic level, sandstorms obscure the player's vision and serve to create large set-pieces in which key parts of the environment are destroyed. Light is shifted around, colours become distorted and enemies morph into silhouettes which blend into the chaos of the storm. The use of sand is also used to influence how combat scenes play out, so if you shoot out a pane of glass then the sand dunes beyond come crashing through, killing enemy soldiers and opening up a new path to follow. Most of the large events are heavily scripted but still feel organic, upping both the spectacle and intensity of the action as the game progresses.

The use of lighting and various alpha-based effects - sand, dust, smoke - really help to immerse the player in this challenging environment. However, in creating such a spectacle, there have been a few compromises made to the graphical make-up of the game on the console platforms, while the PC version doesn't appear to have had anything like the kind of optimisation it should have, resulting in some real performance issues.

Let's tackle the console versions first, kicking off with our standard head-to-head video, and a triple-format 720p comparison gallery.

Spec Ops: The Line compared on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Use the full-screen button on the bottom-right of this window for full 720p resolution.

The game world itself provides much in the way of atmosphere, with the way each scene is lit and shaded perfectly capturing the feeling of a scorching hot Middle-Eastern city in turmoil. Light shafts beam through the collapsed buildings, while a warm glow radiates around the environment. Draw distances are fairly expansive, with views of the sandstorm-induced chaos visible for miles, with the layers of dust and particles swooping through the air as the treacherous weather conditions change. It's genuinely impressive stuff.

"The console versions are fairly close visually. Both are sub-HD, but the 360 game operates at a higher resolution and boasts a few additional graphical effects."

Unfortunately, this level of immersion is disrupted a touch by the game's inconsistent visuals. A veil of softness covers the screen, and this is joined by some unsightly edge-shimmering artifacts. As suspected, Spec Ops renders in sub-HD resolutions on both platforms - something like 1200x680 on the 360 and 1120x640 on the PS3 - and as a result of the heavy upscaling taking place, there's a distinct blur over the entire image, robbing the presentation of more intricate texture details. This isn't helped by a clear lack of solid anti-aliasing on both platforms, helping to give the game its rough appearance.

A closer examination of the shots in our comparison gallery indicates that a very mild FXAA solution might actually be in play on both formats. However, coverage is limited to a few seemingly random edges and in real-world terms the meagre effect on offer here has little to no impact in enhancing the look of the game. The 360 version appears to be the slightly smoother-looking of the two, but viewed in motion the difference is relatively minor, and neither gives the impression of a clean, native 720p presentation.

Besides the softening caused by the upscale blur, the texture work and level of filtering is basically a match across both formats, bar a few lower-resolution ground textures present on the PS3 on some stages. However, any differences we do see with regards to the artwork appear to be down to the game's streaming system, which appears to be somewhat hit or miss across all formats. Higher-quality assets are generally streamed in a little more quickly on the 360: this advantage is mostly confined to the game's real-time cinematics, in which higher-resolution textures often load in the background on both consoles, but sometimes fail to complete on the PS3 before gameplay begins. By the time control has been given back to the player these issues are usually resolved and rarely crop up again until the next batch of cinematics begins to roll.

Elsewhere, other differences between the two versions are more deliberate. SSAO is present only on the 360, along with the use of more ambient shadowing in dark areas, helping to add more depth while subtly enhancing the atmosphere in certain scenes. There is also a shadow offset bias at work, resulting in shadows protruding outwards a little more on the PS3, though this neither harms nor benefits the overall presentation of this version. In a few shots we also see what looks like lower-resolution shadows on the PS3, although this looks to be down to the difference in shadow casting and receiving distance in individual scenes, rather than an intentional downgrade. Both versions feature the use of light shafts and bloom, which are central components in representing the sun-scorched Middle-Eastern setting.

"Besides the softening caused by the upscale blur, the texture work and level of filtering is basically a match across both formats, bar a few lower-resolution ground textures present on the PS3."

Interestingly, a look at the cut-scenes reveals that they are comprised of both FMV sequences and real-time rendered visuals. These sequences are mostly locked at 30FPS with v-sync on both formats, with just the most minor incidence of screen-tear kicking in. To maintain this level of consistency the most demanding scenes are displayed as FMV, while a switch to real-time sequences is made for the last few scenes which segue directly into gameplay. Bink video is used for the FMV, but visible compression artifacts only tend to manifest in fast-moving scenes.

Spec Ops: The Line - Performance Analysis

In terms of performance it's business as usual with regards to Unreal Engine 3 - the middleware technology underpinning the game. Both versions run at 30FPS with v-sync, which drops when the performance dips below that level. The idea is that controller response and overall fluidity is maintained at the expense of some screen-tear when the engine is under stress.

It's a familiar set-up that can work very well as long as the demands being placed on the game aren't too sustained. In this respect we see a noticeable gap between the two consoles, with the PlayStation 3 version struggling to keep up with the 360 game. Curiously, scripted cinematics with heavy use of alpha don't seem to pose much of a problem for either version.

On the face of it, the 360 copes very well with the rendering load, with the game only mildly deviating from its target frame-rate on a few occasions across the general run of play. Remarkably, in demanding scenes which see the screen littered with heavy alpha effects (dust and sand particles) and detailed scenery being ripped apart by intense sandstorms, the game remains largely locked at 30FPS with little screen-tear. Instead, more than anything else the engine's streaming appears to be the root cause of the frame-rate drops, which cause similar dips in performance at similar points on both platforms - and, interestingly enough, can cause havoc on the PC version too.

"Performance is fairly typical for taxing Unreal Engine 3 games - both are capped at 30FPS, dropping v-sync when frame-rate dips below. PS3 has noticeably more apparent screen-tear."

Performance analysis suggests that the Xbox 360 advantages go beyond just the native rendering resolution - the frame-rate is generally smoother, with fewer instances of screen-tear compared to the PS3 game.

In terms of the PS3 code, while the game drops frames at similar points to the 360 release, the engine has a far tougher time keeping up with the demands being placed on it. Screen-tear is much more apparent, which can look rather unsightly in fast-paced scenes. However, in the bright daytime environments when engaged in more tactical 'duck and cover' stand-offs, the lack of fast-moving action ensures that the tearing is less of an issue than the graphs sometimes suggest - sometimes, heavy bouts of tearing can pass by unnoticed.

On the whole though, it is the Xbox 360 game which offers up the more stable gameplay experience throughout, with fewer frame-rate drops and lower levels of screen-tearing. The PS3 version still remains highly playable, but the inconsistent refresh does affect controller response, meaning that players can lose some accuracy when aiming in heated encounters.

Enter the PC Version

Moving onto the PC game, it's safe to say Spec Ops doesn't take advantage of the platform in any dramatic way. This is not necessarily a bad thing considering how a simple boost in resolution can often spruce up the look of a sub-HD console game, and in that respect the PC version represents a definite improvement over the 360 and PS3 SKUs, although the graphical upgrades on offer are rather minor. It's difficult to avoid the sense that Yager has simply built upon the core console code and assets while introducing a few subtle tweaks, rather than providing us with any major visual enhancements.

To illustrate the point, let's re-run the initial console comparison video, this time factoring in the Xbox 360 and PC versions. For the sake of completeness, there's a PS3/PC mirror as well. As the video demonstrates, the core artwork is basically identical to the console games, with higher-resolution textures only used on certain areas of the environment and characters - the floor in some scenes is slightly more detailed, while on the characters you can better make out the stitching in their clothing.

"The core artwork on PC is basically identical to the console games, with higher-resolution textures only deployed on certain areas of the environment and the characters."

Spec Ops: The Line - compared here at 720p on Xbox 360 and PC. Use the full-screen button in the bottom right to enjoy full-resolution.

The only other difference we see with the PC game is that the lighting model looks to be more ambient in nature, with various light sources revised in certain parts of the game - something which can be enjoyed regardless of the resolution setting. Instead, the main benefit of running on more powerful hardware is the ability to render natively in 720p and above, thus avoiding the damaging upscaling artifacts which scrub away fine detailing on the PS3 and 360 games.

Curiously, the PC release also runs without any anti-aliasing applied, and there are no edge-smoothing options in the game's menus either. As a result, while the boost in native resolution gives us a sharper, more defined image, we are also left with a similar amount of jaggies to the console code. Upping the resolution to 1080p helps to reduce aliasing, even if edge-shimmering isn't completely eliminated. We tried forcing hardware MSAA via the NVIDIA control panel to see if we could improve things further, but this didn't seem to have any effect at all.

Other than the extra level of sharpness and the reduction in jaggies, running the game in 1080p yields few other benefits. The artwork doesn't appear to scale up when raising the resolution, leaving lower-quality textures looking even more blurry the higher up the chain you go. The overall gain with regards to image quality (reduced aliasing) does make the increase in pixel precision worthwhile though, and select higher resolution textures were better resolved as a result.

Elsewhere, improvements to the PC code mainly come by way of running the game with much higher frame-rates than on consoles. Looking at the recommended specifications on the back of the box, even a fairly modest gaming PC should be able to run the game in 1080p while targeting a 60FPS update. Yager recommend users have at a 2.4GHz quad-core processor and a GeForce 9800 GTX or Radeon HD 4850 graphics card, along with at least 3GB RAM. The entry requirements are lower still, but these rarely allow for a playable experience using anything but the lowest settings.

Despite the low recommended settings, performance on a range of hardware is pretty variable to say the least. Our performance tests comparing 1366x768 and 1920x1080 modes on our recently built 300 DFPC yield some interesting results, especially when joined with our metrics obtained from running the game on a trusty Core i5 and GTX460 set-up. Despite upping the GPU power considerably, our choice of CPUs appears to be limiting performance, suggesting that the PC code is just poorly optimised generally.

Performance analysis of Spec Ops: The Line running on the Digital Foundry PC - a budget-orientated gaming PC. Frame-rate is all over the place at 768p, but rendering load balances out at 1080p, offering what amounts to a locked 30FPS.

As we can see, our budget DFPC has some real trouble maintaining a smooth 60FPS when running Spec Ops in 768p. Constantly fluctuating frame-rates are joined by frequent bouts of bonus stuttering as the game streams in graphics data during play. The end result is a gameplay experience which is way too inconsistent for our liking - disabling v-sync helps, but obviously introduces ever-present screen-tear. We tried lowering the settings to improve performance, but this had little impact on the results we were seeing. Interestingly, upping the resolution to 1080p actually improves things significantly. Frame-rates are locked at 30FPS - perhaps owing to the sheer lack of raw power available to render out frames any faster - but controller response is now far more consistent, making the game feel much better to play and with a clear resolution improvement over the console versions.

But what happens when we run similar tests on more capable hardware? Our Core i5 and GTX460 machine - also with 4GB RAM - is capable of running most UE3 titles in 1080p and at 60FPS with max settings enabled, bar the most visually demanding of titles using the latest DirectX 11 rendering features (there are no such features in Spec Ops that we could find), or those which feature lavish open-world environments.

We find no real issue when running the game in 720p. A near solid 60FPS is easily possible, with just a few minor hiccups when the engine is streaming in data, and this isn't enough to negatively impact on the action, so we get an experience which looks and feels better than the console versions. The same cannot be said when upping the resolution to 1080p though. On average we get between 35-45FPS, with frame-rate regularly fluctuating between these metrics. The uneven frame cadence causes visible juddering to occur, and we also encounter some annoying bouts of stuttering when entering new areas as the engine begins loading in data.

Despite running on more powerful hardware, we were presented with a noticeably worse gameplay experience when running Spec Ops in higher resolutions - which somewhat defeats the point where PC gaming is concerned. The locked 30FPS we enjoyed at 1080p with the DFPC was simply a more enjoyable experience than the wildly inconsistent frame-rate we had to put up with using our more powerful i5/GTX 460 combo. It's exactly for this reason why we feel that more developers should implement a frame-rate cap as part of the standard 'display settings' menu, allowing users to better manage how they want the game to handle the rendering load if they encounter unwanted performance issues.

Looking at comments online, gaming rigs old and new seem to be having issues with this game. The bottom line is that Battlefield 3 and Crysis 2 run more smoothly on our hardware than Spec Ops does, suggesting some clear optimisation issues.

Spec Ops: The Line - The Digital Foundry Verdict

Overall, Yager Developments should really be congratulated for creating a genuinely interestingly third-person shooter which goes beyond the usual shallow storytelling, instead unfolding to become a character study on the human cost of warfare. From the morally grey choices you are forced to make throughout the game to the bleak, unflinching setting, Spec Ops complements the entertaining, but by the numbers 'stop and pop' shooting with additional substance in a game that rarely uses graphic violence for the sheer shock factor alone, and without trying to imposes certain viewpoints upon the player.

"Despite the less stable performance on the PS3, or the sub-HD nature of the console versions in general, both are still highly playable, with a deep, thought-provoking story."

The core gameplay mechanics also work very well, with the fallen city of Dubai offering up a number of interesting encounters to keeps things fresh, while also bringing a sense of scale and spectacle to the proceedings - from using shifting sand dunes to your advantage, to engulfing the player in a battle for survival in dust-clouded firefights where the environment begins to tear itself apart. It's an experience that is effectively conveyed across all three platforms, although not all in equal measure.

For console-only gamers, it is the Xbox 360 version which offers up the most visually polished experience of the three releases, with higher frame-rates and lower levels of screen tearing than the PS3 game. Additionally, the use of a higher-resolution framebuffer leads to less blurring of the artwork, while the inclusion of SSAO and more ambient shadowing also helps to subtly complement the look of game as a whole. In terms of basic graphical quality, the PS3 version doesn't stand out as being too different from the 360 code - the lack of SSAO is far from being a deal-breaker. However, performance isn't anywhere near as solid as on the 360, and this makes the game less enjoyable to play as a result.

All in all, the PC game is the best one to go for given the choice. Even when running the game at 30FPS in 1080p - effectively providing only a small boost in performance over the 360 version - the increase in resolution is a worthy upgrade, and this is something that is possible to enjoy even on a budget system you can build yourself for just 300. Owners of higher-end hardware can enjoy the benefits of 720p, and even 1080p at 60FPS if you are lucky enough to not encounter any of the game's performance-sapping optimisation issues.

But regardless of which platform you own, Spec Ops is well worth checking out. Despite the less stable performance on the PS3, or the sub-HD nature of the console versions in general, both are still highly playable, and the overall impact of the story, combined with the hard-hitting action and interesting critique on the effects of warfare surely make the game a worthy hit. In any case, it's rare that we find a shooter than dares to be different - especially one that does so while successfully tackling more serious issues without cheapening the overall subject matter.

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