Digital Foundry vs. E3: Microsoft

A technical look at yesterday's games and announcements.

Microsoft kicked off what is going to be a very interesting E3 in spectacular style with an extended gameplay segment from Activision's upcoming epic, Modern Warfare 3.

It's a hugely important game for the publisher. Having traditionally owned the first-person shooter market in the most commercially lucrative period of the year, Activision now faces very real competition in the form of the Frostbite 2-powered Battlefield 3 from DICE. The new Call of Duty has faced additional challenges too during its two year gestation period, with a core of the Infinity Ward development team having decamped to set-up Respawn Entertainment.

The good news for gamers is that the new Infinity Ward, working in concert with Glen Schofield's Sledgehammer Games, has responded to these internal and external pressures in exactly the right way by creating what looks like a supremely confident, technically accomplished piece of work - at the same time proving that there's plenty of life in the existing COD technical architecture.

Footage released to date suggests that the underpinnings of the engine share a lot in common with previous COD titles. In pre-release videos we've seen the same 600p resolution, and the peculiarities of the shadow implementation all but confirm that the Xbox 360 version has been used for media assets thus far. However, what has surprised us is that the developer's claims of running at a "locked 60FPS" aren't so far from the truth.

While not quite delivering a 'locked 60FPS', there's little doubt that Modern Warfare 3 looked and performed very nicely.

The Call of Duty games have traditionally relied on what we prefer to call a perceptual 60FPS: to the human eye, it's as smooth as smooth can be on console, and while there are performance drops, they are not really picked up unless you have the keenest of senses, or unless the engine is handling some seriously taxing action. The problem is that as the games have become more technologically complex, so the frame-rate has dropped - a state of affairs that continued on into Treyarch's Black Ops.

In recent weeks, not only have the developers talked about a locked 60FPS for console, Infinity Ward's Rob Bowling has even tweeted that the game "never drops below" that target frame-rate. Based on what we saw at Microsoft's conference, the game is very smooth, maintaining performance admirably, and it - only the water effects and big explosions seem to trouble the engine for the most part. The developers appear to have modelled waves in full 3D rather than faking it with a 2D alternative, adding to the quality of the effects work there.

Overall image quality, despite the sub-HD resolution, remains very impressive. The final section, showing the far-off blasted cityscape should have presented a lot of pure polygons edges that we thought might alias badly, but they looked good - perhaps down to what looks like a new depth of field implementation that was used generously throughout the presentation. Also worthy of mention is the quality of the interior lighting, showcased in the submarine infiltration section: we were reminded of some of the excellent work done in this regard by Black Ops.

The Modern Warfare 3 reveal was a great way to kick off Microsoft's E3 showing, and shows COD doing what COD does best: excellent visuals and impressive, albeit tightly scripted, set-pieces. The 60FPS frame-rate and smooth, realistic character animation were highlights too.

The new engine powering the latest of Lara Croft's adventures managed is a clear technical leap over what we've seen before from Crystal Dynamics.

Next up was the new Tomb Raider from Crystal Dynamics, another excellent example of just how far this generation of HD gaming has come. The old engine has been jettisoned in favour of brand new tech - impressive environmental detail, high resolution texture art and what looks like the ability to throw plenty of light sources about (the candles in particular stand out here). Adding to the cinematic feel of the game is a heavy, stylised depth of field effect. Interestingly, water effects looked fairly simplistic coming off the back of Modern Warfare 3, with basic decals in use rather than full 3D modelling.

Lara is undoubtedly the star here. She's an impressively high detail model, with particular care and attention (not to mention polygon budget) spent on her face, which also benefits immensely from a very well realised skin shading system.

The developers are definitely targeting 30 frames per second, but there were clear cases where the game engine was struggling, particularly in her escape from the native man and there was a sense that performance in general wasn't entirely consistent.

Also noteworthy was the new approach to the gameplay in general. There was little in this presentation of the puzzle-based Tomb Raider play style of yore - in this clip at least - and the emphasis seemed to be on story-telling via cut-scenes shifting seamlessly to gameplay then to QTEs. It made for a great visual presentation, but hopefully there will be more depth in the actual meat of the game and a stronger emphasis on Lara's agility, which was only really hinted at in the footage we saw.

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