Call of Duty: Black Ops on console is a great game and in many ways the PC release is significantly better. Having played through both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions, we approached our third playthrough somewhat wearily, a touch burned out after all the effort put into last week's PS3 vs. 360 Face-Off. Happily, this third playthrough was in no way a chore. Indeed it's safe to say that we'd managed to save the best until last. Assuming you have a suitably meaty machine, Black Ops PC delivers an unbeatable experience.
The best thing about it is that it allows the game to be played without any of the compromises made for the console versions. Aside from the visual improvements, the ability to play with mouse and keyboard adds an additional dimension to the gameplay, obviously increasing your accuracy substantially over playing with the joypad. There is gamepad support built into the PC version of Black Ops, effectively making the controls identical to the Xbox 360 version, although there are some minor annoyances, like having to switch back to the mouse just to select options in the pause screen.
We talked in the Black Ops Face-Off about a "perceptual 60FPS" - how the console games are far smoother and more responsive than the typical 30FPS shooter, but still operating with a fluctuating performance level. We also discussed the COD games' firm commitment to sub-HD rendering resolutions to make this possible, with the Xbox 360 game running somewhere in the region of 1040x608 while PS3 is closer to 960x544. Since then, we've also noted comments online from Treyarch staff, talking about how difficult it was to cram everything onto DVD.
Loading up the PC version, we have the opportunity to carry out a "what if?" experiment - we can use the top-end textures and run the game natively at 720p to get some idea of how Black Ops would look if the consoles had just a little bit more memory and processing ability. It also allows us to better put the differences between the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions into context, in terms of their differing sub-HD resolutions and the impact on the quality of the overall presentation.
The difference is quite remarkable. It's clear that the PS3 game runs at the lowest resolution out of the bunch, but it is equally apparent that the bump up to Xbox 360 resolution isn't anywhere near as noticeable as the almost generational leap towards native 720p. Also noteworthy is that a large percentage of the rendering bugs that are found in the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions are mostly gone in the PC game.
Over and above the benefits of the resolution increase, we also see other elements you might consider to be staples of the PC experience: shadows have more samples, lighting appears to be operating to a higher level of precision and particles are more generously applied throughout the levels.
Of course, the PC is capable of going way beyond 720p resolution. The absolute bottom-end baseline these days is effectively 1280x1024 - the default res for a bog standard 5:4 LCD display. Using a Core i7 PC running at 2.66GHz, combined with the might of an NVIDIA GTX480, we were able to run the game at 1080p with all settings at maximum, including a whopper 16x MSAA (!). While the detail difference between the console games and the PC version is substantial at 720p, the game takes on a whole new dimension at higher resolutions where the improved artwork is really allowed to shine.
In last year's Modern Warfare 2 tech comparison we talked about how enabling "extra" quality textures gave the player a bump in detail level for the PC version over the console game. In Black Ops, the same option is present but it's fair to say that the increase in visual quality is significantly higher.
Aside from the occasional glitch, these settings still allowed us to sustain 60 frames per second and it was at this point that the mammoth gulf in visual fidelity really hit home. The Black Ops single-player campaign looks decent on console, but on PC, the extra resolution, the more solid frame-rate and the increase in artwork quality all combine to create an experience that knocks the console versions for six.