While our most recent Chronicles of Riddick face-off once again saw Xbox 360 emerge victorious in our ongoing comparison features, this more comprehensive roundup of recent releases suggests that maybe, just maybe, the balance of quality is starting to shift three years into the lifespan of the current-generation consoles. Taken as a whole, neither machine can claim victory over the other in this collection of games, probably the first time this has happened since our coverage began over two years ago. A sign of things to come, or just a factor of the specific games chosen? Only time will tell.
As is the norm, for the more interesting games you'll find embedded comparison videos. The combination of insane-level h264 encoding combined with slowing the video down to 50 per cent speed all but eliminates macroblocking, making for streaming vids that do actually show the difference. Couple that with our usual 24-bit RGB screenshot comparison galleries and you're all set with the very best possible assets to back up the critical comment.
Onto the line-up then, a seven-strong collection featuring the best of the most recent cross-platform releases.
- Tom Clancy's HAWX
- Battle Fantasia
- 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand
- The Godfather II
- Wanted: Weapons of Fate
- Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3
Special thanks to my Digital Foundry collaborators MazingerDUDE and Alex Goh for their observations in putting this feature together.
- Round One (Ridge Racer 6/Ridge Racer 7, Def Jam: Icon, Fight Night Round 3, Virtua Tennis 3, NBA Homecourt, Need for Speed Carbon)
- Round Two (Call of Duty 3, F.E.A.R., Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2007, World Championship Snooker 2007, NBA 2K7, NHL 2K7, Enchanted Arms, Blazing Angels: Squadrons of WWII)
- Round Three (Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Double Agent, Sonic the Hedgehog, Marvel Ultimate Alliance, Tony Hawk Project 8)
- Round Four (The Darkness, Spider-Man 3: The Game, The Godfather, Madden NFL '08, NHL '08)
- Round Five (Virtua Fighter 5, SKATE, Transformers: The Game, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Colin McRae: DiRT, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, SEGA Rally, FIFA 08)
- Round Six (Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, NBA Live 08, Need for Speed ProStreet, Stuntman Ignition, WWE Smackdown vs. Raw 2008, The Simpsons Game, Conan, Assassin's Creed)
- Round Seven (Kane & Lynch: Dead Men, TimeShift, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter 2, Tony Hawk's Proving Ground, Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock, Blazing Angels: Secret Missions of WWII, Medal of Honor: Airborne, Dynasty Warriors: Gundam, Bladestorm: The Hundred Years' War, LEGO Star Wars: The Complete Saga, Clive Barker's Jericho, John Woo Presents Stranglehold)
- Round Eight (Burnout Paradise, Cars Mater-National, The Golden Compass, Beowulf, Ratatouille)
- Round Nine (Devil May Cry 4, The Club, Pro Evolution Soccer 2008, FIFA Street 3, Juiced 2, Turok)
- Round Ten (Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas 2, Blacksite: Area 51, Army of Two, Conflict: Denied Ops, Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, Dynasty Warriors 6, Lost: The Video Game)
- Round Eleven (NFL Tour, Dark Sector, Soldier of Fortune: Payback, SEGA Superstars Tennis, MX vs. ATV Untamed, Turning Point: Fall of Liberty, Condemned 2: Bloodshot, Viking: Battle for Asgard)
- Round Twelve (Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Race Driver: GRID, LEGO Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures, Overlord: Raising Hell, UEFA Euro 2008)
- Round Thirteen (Unreal Tournament 3, Robert Ludlum's The Bourne Conspiracy, Top Spin 3, Iron Man, Battlefield: Bad Company)
- Round Fourteen (SoulCalibur IV, Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, Kung Fu Panda, Beijing 2008: The Official Videogame of the Olympic Games, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, FaceBreaker, The Incredible Hulk, Madden NFL 09, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09, NHL 09)
- Round Fifteen (BioShock, Dead Space, Pure, Midnight Club: Los Angeles, Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed)
- Round Sixteen (Baja: Edge of Control, Mirror's Edge, Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, Fracture, Guitar Hero: World Tour, FIFA 09, Quantum of Solace)
- Round Seventeen (Lord of the Rings: Conquest, Tomb Raider: Underworld, Prince of Persia, Saints Row 2, LEGO Batman, The Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon, Golden Axe: Beast Rider, SCORE International Baja 1000, Legendary, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, Shaun White Snowboarding)
- Bonus Rounds: (The Orange Box, Grand Theft Auto IV, Fallout 3, Call of Duty: World at War, Far Cry 2, F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin, Street Fighter IV, The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Athena)
Tom Clancy's HAWX (4.9GB)
After writing the original Eurogamer review, and quite enjoying it, it was great to come back to HAWX to give it a second viewing on PlayStation 3. Ubisoft has worked hard on its recent cross-platform efforts, and while HAWX isn't quite up to the quality of the excellent Prince of Persia conversion, it does show that the company is continuing to make efforts in getting good performance from both systems.
As you might expect, game content on both systems is identical (even the DLC updates are like for like) and the only real differences are in terms of frame-rate and graphical bling.
Both versions of the game aspire to 60fps gameplay, both dropping frames significantly in the heat of the action. Based on like-for-like clips, the 360 game appears to have a small advantage, but when the engine is really tested during gameplay - where no direct like-for-like comparison is possible - the sense is that similar to Prince of Persia, the games have been optimised so that certain scenes will be rendered faster according to the strengths of the host hardware. One thing that I did notice in playing the demos, and which has made its way into the full game, is that the cockpit view on 360 introduces a substantial performance hit. It's unlikely that you're actually going to be using this in-game because it's hard to see anything, so not an issue, but a curiosity nonetheless.
In terms of the direct measurable stuff, the PS3 code has a longer view distance, resolving more scenery, but it's at the expense of 'pop in', whereas the Xbox 360 game gradually fades in the new environmental details. Other differences come down to lighting and anti-aliasing. The 360 release looks ultra-crisp, thanks to utilisation of its top-end 4x multisampling AA, whereas the PS3 game invokes a horizontal blur. It's a bit ropey really and does very little to actually smooth off the edges. Additionally, the impressive bloom effects on the 360 game are also significantly dialled back on the Sony console.
In all though, it's just graphical effects that separates the two games - and while 360 looks better, in terms of playability it's a score draw, and if I were reviewing the PS3 build today, it would still earn the same 6/10 score. It's a fun game, particularly online where you really do get the sense you're a small player in a massive warzone. However, the overall lack of depth remains somewhat at odds with the core values of a great Clancy game.
This is probably the smallest current-generation console game I've yet to look at, in terms of its actual use of disc space. Dumping Battle Fantasia to my debug 360's hard disk reveals that the game occupies a mere 1.25GB of space, while the PS3 game uses up a whole 1.4GB of the 25GB single-layer Blu-ray disc it occupies. You can't help but feel that it would've been a perfect candidate for digital delivery as opposed to the traditional physical disc.
While limited in terms of assets, it's clear that Battle Fantasia is a whole lot of fun if you're into your fighting games, and while it's likely to be completely ignored in favour of the lovely Street Fighter IV, there's still much to like here, especially if you're into your Japanica. Wacky, far-out, crazy but attractive and enjoyable, the bright 'n' cheerful visuals are in stark contrast to the technical adept, mature fighting game action.
Technically speaking, there's little here to challenge either console. Both run at full 720p, and maintain a solid 60fps refresh rate. The only immediate difference concerns a blur filter that is on by default on 360, and off on PS3. Sort out that tweakable (as we have in the screenshot gallery) and aside from a small difference in the colour balance, the games are completely interchangeable. If there's any kind of style that would gain something from a blur it's the anime look, but even here I thought it looked a bit rough and rather unnecessary. Aside from that, the only noticeable difference I could locate was a background music selector for Versus Mode on PS3, which is curiously absent in the 360 version.
50 Cent: Blood on the Sand
It was difficult to see how the 'franchise' could come back in the wake of the absurd 50 Cent: Bulletproof, but Blood on the Sand is a bloody good effort, adapting elements of Gears of War 2 and The Club into an unspectacular, but solid shooter, complete with unintentional hilarity via the OTT profanity of Fiddy's motherf***in' voice acting. It's also another example of how the cross-format development game has moved on, and how nature of these face-off outcomes is becoming increasingly more difficult to predict.
The most obvious difference here is the inclusion of v-lock. We're seeing a small number of cross-platform games these days where it is in evidence on the PS3 version, but turned off on 360, and this is the most striking example since Resident Evil 5. While Capcom's game wasn't unduly impacted by the screen tear during gameplay, its inclusion here is blatant and seriously bad news for the overall image quality. Meanwhile, the PS3 game is v-locked and rock solid, albeit at the cost of slightly less responsive controls.
The only other difference here concerns the introduction of a blur filter, which appears to be a recurring theme in this face-off. Just like Tom Clancy's HAWX, it has been added to the PS3 code, muddying picture quality in comparison to the blur-free 360 game. Now usually, the introduction of blur serves to compensate for a lack of anti-aliasing (as seen in the case of HAWX). But not here, where the Vaseline-free 360 game also omits AA and clearly resolves more detail, particularly on the background. So, curiously, for some reason we can't fathom, the developers decided to waste CPU cycles by effectively making the PS3 game look worse.
Other than that, we're looking at platform parity, aside from some incidental and relatively minor lighting differences, along with a mandatory PS3 installation of around 2GB. Blood in the Sand remains a strong release, and while it's definitely not a must-buy, it's a worthy enough 7/10 which might prove irresistible once the price drops. For owners of both consoles considering which to buy, it really comes down to where you're likely to pick up a co-op partner: PSN or Live? Failing that: blur or tearing, it's your choice.
While Unreal Engine tends to earn its keep via first- or third-person shooters, there have been some interesting attempts at using the technology within other genres. Unfortunately, in most cases, when his happens, a mediocre game and/or a technical disappointment is the result - check out Undertow or Mortal Kombat vs. DC Universe for a couple of examples. However, to the best of my knowledge, Wheelman is the first out-and-out racing game to make use of UE3 and the engine acquits itself fairly well.
As you would expect with middleware as accomplished as Unreal Engine 3, Wheelman does a pretty job of extracting like-for-like performance from the respective consoles. The usual racing game gotchas (blatant changes in LODs, pop-in) aren't really an issue, and any difference between the outputs of the two consoles comes down to the more predictable issues of screen-tear and anti-aliasing. The Xbox 360 version is clearly the more refined, better-looking game - edges are smoothed off with 2x multi-sampling AA, which is completely omitted on PS3, resulting in a jaggier picture with more shimmering on the textures.
Both games run at 30fps, but neither version is v-synced, resulting in some pretty ugly tearing. By looking at the like-for-like clips, we can see that the PS3 version of the game tears much more often, impacting its visual consistency more than the 360 release. However, in truth, the game's visual deficiencies aren't wholly the fault of the engine - the art direction here simply isn't that fantastic. The video tells its own story about the quality of the cityscape (never any better than 'OK') but check out the cut-scenes in particular - the 3D work on the characters gave me nightmarish reminders of the Core Design Lara Croft era (specifically the horrific 'Young Lara' episode) and bearing in mind that Tigon Studios presumably has intimate access to the head of Vin Diesel, he looks like a poor-quality waxwork facsimile in comparison to Starbreeze Studios' model, as seen in The Chronicles of Riddick.
Combining this lack of artistic merit with all the gameplay issues Tom experienced in his original review, it's really difficult to recommend this as anything other than a rental or as a heavily discounted bargain bucket special, regardless of the console you might happen to own. Just be prepared for a 15-minute 4.7GB installation when you first boot the PS3 game.
The Godfather II
It's interesting to note that the conversion work for The Godfather II is a pretty close match to the quality of review the game has earned across the board, ranging from poor to not bad to quite good. EA's PlayStation 3 performance has been much improved in the last 12 months, but there's a very real sense that this particular developer has reverted to previous form.
As per the norm, actual game content is identical cross-platform, and while there are many technical differences that give the Xbox 360 version a tangible advantage, it has to be said that the pacing and style of the game is such that the PS3 version's shortcomings do not have a massive impact on the game experience - only in fast action sequences do you really notice the difference. However, the detriments to the Sony code are at the same time predictable but also rather odd.
First up is image clarity. The good news is that both versions are v-synced, but native resolution is strange. It's the standard 720p on Xbox 360, with no anti-aliasing. On PS3 however, there is a very slight reduction in resolution: what looks to be a 1200x720 resolution, resulting in a subtle blur and the occasional upscaling artefact.
Of far more impact is the frame-rate. The Xbox 360 is more consistent in achieving the target 30fps, while performance on PS3 is somewhat more variable. The game's initial escape from Cuba level, with its combination of indoor and outdoor settings, is as good a test as any to see how performance fluctuates on PS3, while by and large, the 360 version is solid.
Technically speaking, both games are actually pretty sound compared to some of the competition. Saints Row 2 is a technical disaster in comparison to what EA has achieved here. On both platforms, graphical quality is consistent, and often pleasing, if rather lacklustre compared to the standards-setting technical achievements of GTAIV. So it all comes down to the gameplay then. Kristan's review essentially wrote off this release, but I saw it as quite a decent progression of what was achieved in the previous game, if not anything like an essential buy.
Wanted: Weapons of Fate
We've heard a lot from game-makers and PRs about development 'leading' on PS3, with little in the way of actual evidence in the end product, but here's a game that clearly does show a bit of love for the Sony platform, being clearly and demonstrably the better release on PlayStation 3.
Make no mistake though, Weapons of Fate isn't exactly a technical showcase. It's running at sub-HD resolutions on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 - 1120x640 to be precise, and with no anti-aliasing to smooth off the edges, combined with a rather dark and icky colour palette, things can look rather rough in places.
The usual gamma differences aside (few developers seem willing to calibrate the output of their games to be like-for-like), there are other ways to tell these games apart. Just like 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, the PS3 game is v-locked, whereas the 360 code has an often alarming amount of screen-tear. The other major difference is the inclusion of more apparent specular maps on the PS3 version, giving a polished sheen to surfaces that isn't present in the 360 game.
So, mandatory 1.9GB install aside, it's a clear technical advantage to the Sony console here - it's literally shinier, has more coherent image quality and unlike 50 Cent, this doesn't seem to be any less responsive on PS3 than it is on the Microsoft box. Which is kind of ironic in a way, because response really is this game's biggest issue.
People complain about the analogue 'dead zone' in the control scheme of Killzone 2, but that's akin to keyboard and mouse levels of precision compared to what's going on here. It takes an absolute age to build up momentum in movement, and then suddenly it becomes ultra-fast. You can adjust the joypad sensitivity to compensate - but only to a certain extent, the change in momentum is still jarring. Even after extensive tweaking, the control system on both versions of the game just doesn't feel right. All things being equal, for a game of this ilk, I'd sooner replay Dark Sector on either platform.
Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3
EA went very public in claiming that PS3 owners would get something special from the enforced wait for their version of Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, but at first glance this 'Ultimate Edition' doesn't seem to be hugely different from its 360 predecessor. Indeed, it's pretty clear from the synchronised video feeds that the differences are basically skin-deep: a wholly unnecessary blur filter has been removed from the 360 version, colour balance has been brightened up a touch, and shadows are slightly better defined on PS3.
Claims that the PS3 code would take advantage of 1080p prove to be somewhat off the mark. The actual in-game visuals don't benefit at all from switching your PS3 to full HD mode. Indeed, bearing in mind the level of screen-tear here (also in 360), frame-rate would most likely be completely crippled if the detail level was more than doubled. However, the game does produce an upscaled 1080p video output, and it kicks in even if 720p is enabled on your XMB - something of a rarity these days and proof that the developers would rather you play in this mode. So is there any tangible benefit at all to doing so?
While gameplay can be handicapped by opting for native 1080p, there's no reason why the video sequences couldn't have been remastered for the Ultimate Edition. In producing these features I'm constantly amazed at how generally poor video sequences tend to be on PS3, bearing in mind the machine's incredible storage potential and the fact that it is the one of the best Blu-ray players money can buy. Often, they're only just as good - sometimes worse - than they are on 360, but very rarely do you actually see the gigabytes of spare space on the BD being used for superior-quality video.
1080p resolution video then? It doesn't look like it. In like-for-like tests, PS3 actually ends up looking slightly worse - edge detail is smooth on 360, but rougher on PS3. It's especially obvious where the characters have been blue-screened onto the backgrounds. Compression artefacting is again equally obvious on both versions, though colour balance looks marginally nicer and brighter on PS3. If the video sequences are 1080p, a bloody awful job has been done in gaining any extra detail from the increased resolution. A closer look at the picture quality reveals that the same distinctive upscaling algorithm as used in-game is being used on the video sequences. It does the job, but Xenos' scaler does it better on 360.
Mitigating this disappointment somewhat is an embarrassment of riches added for PS3 owners in terms of additional content - videos of the girlie photoshoots, behind-the-scenes featurettes, trailers, 'bloopers', tactics and strategy videos, tons of artwork and even the original soundtrack. Obviously good stuff, but still not quite enough to justify 'Ultimate Edition' billing, especially when, in terms of actual game content, there's barely anything here of value that wasn't in the original release. It's basically exactly the same, barring the addition of a handful of new multiplayer maps. Even the bizarre limitation of only playing co-op with people on your friends list has made it into the PS3 code, despite everyone complaining about it the first time around.
EA deserves some kudos for actually making use of the Blu-ray space by at least tossing together a goodly amount of extras (though the 3.7GB mandatory install isn't quite so welcome), but calling the PS3 version 'Ultimate' in any respect is stretching credibility when game performance is basically identical.