In short, both console games have little nips and tucks here and there, but overall quality in terms of textures is essentially the same, with just a couple of nice bonus extras on Xbox 360. So how about performance then? Looking at Gearbox's previous game, Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway (also based on UE3), we saw that the company opted to v-sync the title, meaning that both versions dropped frames fairly heavily. However, the PS3 version clearly suffered the most in stressful situations.
Gearbox has eschewed the tactical shooter approach for all-out action with Borderlands, so it comes as little surprise to see that v-sync has been disabled in favour of crisper response from the controls and, unfortunately, a lot of tearing. There's a three-clip comparison coming now, showing performance of Borderlands in several situations. While we can't offer like-for-like shots, they are taken from the same sections in-game.
As you can see, performance isn't exactly fantastic in the midst of combat. Bearing in mind that we see a low of around 16FPS at one point, it has to be said that performance expectations for Borderlands are pretty low. While average frame-rates are still relatively high, it is the impact of the dips in the graph that makes the most impact to the gameplay experience, as typically they happen in the heat of the action - where you really need the visual and controller response to be at their peak.
And here on PS3 we run through the same three sections and see much the same performance levels - lots of tearing, lots of dips in the frame-rate. While mathematically the PS3's 60Hz output has around ten per cent more torn frames than the Xbox 360 version, in the heat of battle, the look and feel is very similar. However, curiously, outside of battle when you'd expect the engine to under lower load, the PS3 version is prone to far more tearing than the 360 game. The fact that the PS3 game feels a bit more glitchy and wobbly outside of hardcore combat isn't hugely relevant and doesn't affect the gameplay experience; it just feels a touch odd. However, where it makes more of a difference is in the split-screen mode. It's still very playable on both systems (and Gearbox deserve mucho kudos for incorporating a tricky feature like this when many simply don't bother) but the 360 code appears to handle the action with a more consistent smoothness.
While the console versions fight it out with their own advantages and disadvantages, the fact that they both have disappointing performance in busy scenes is difficult to ignore, and it is in this respect that the PC version wipes the floor with both of them. While console performance with Unreal Engine is effectively fixed on 2005/2006-level technology bar revisions and upgrades from Epic itself, the fact is that enormous gains have been made in the PC hardware scene in those last three to four years to the point where inexpensive upgrades can make a huge difference to the playability of cross-platform titles like Borderlands.
The only desktops you can buy with a single-core CPU tend to be the ultra-low power netbooks, and the lowliest of dual-core chips has performance advantages over the Xenon CPU and even the PS3's Cell in many applications. Indeed, we live in an age where a quad-core CPU gives you change from £75, while AMD/ATI and NVIDIA medium-level GPUs effortlessly wipe the floor with the RSX and Xenos.
As these cross-platform Unreal Engine games target the console, even an entry-level PC with an inexpensive graphics card will give superb performance: a sustained 720p (or 1280x1024) at 60FPS with all effects on should be no problem for a GPU along the lines of the £80 Geforce GTS 250. The same config at 1080p is still highly playable and smoother than the console games. Couple this untouchable performance with the keyboard-and-mouse combination for control, and Borderlands is effectively completely divorced from its limitations on console in every way, and feels like a much better game.
The only area in which it is cut back is in the social gaming element. The console versions encourage co-op gameplay no matter if you're playing at home or online, and as such Gearbox has supported two-player split-screen. The PC version of the game on the other hand omits split-screen entirely, although similar to the console renditions, online and LAN gameplay are supported. Annoyingly, a v-sync option has also been omitted. The chances are therefore that you'll get tearing because the game is pumping out far more than 60FPS. It's all the more curious in that by manually tweaking the config file, you can enable it (simply search for "willowengine.ini" and change "UseVSync=False" to "UseVSync=True") and quickly get a huge boost to overall image consistency.
Another important element that favours the PC game is that for once we don't need to wait three or six months to play it: Borderlands PC was released just one week after the console versions, and would have been day-and-date but for a last-minute hiccup. This is a crucial factor in any buying decision: while the extra performance on PC is often extremely cool (e.g. Resident Evil 5), it rarely makes much impact, or drives a purchase when you've already bought, played and completed the same game on console months previously.
Overall then, option deficiencies aside, this is a commanding victory for PC - perhaps more down to the scalability of Unreal Engine and the sheer momentum of advances in computer technology as opposed to any kind of masterplan from Gearbox. PC performance in all areas leaves the console versions behind, though slightly smoother performance and the SSAO effect give the 360 game the nod over the PS3 version with its occasional higher-resolution textures. A good game all-round, in summary, outstanding on PC, with just a few niggling doubts over performance on the consoles.