We've reached a new Face-Off milestone as the series reaches its 20th compilation-based instalment and with it, Eurogamer is happy to reveal that its coverage has evolved once more. Our comparison features have traditionally been rich with video and screenshot-based assets that are the best they can be possibly be, but with the arrival of this landmark, the brand new Eurogamer HD video player comes into play, giving you the choice of watching either the cropped 1:1 pixel-mapped embedded video streams, or else a higher-quality 720p presentation.
Just click the HD button where appropriate to get the full picture. It's worth pointing out that the default setting for the HD player is 960x540, with the 720p encoding scaled down to fit the window. To bypass this resizing, hit the full-screen button at the bottom of the screen. CPU-rending h264 encoding techniques, combined with running the full 60Hz output of each console at 50 per cent speed, allows us to retain enough quality to make the comparison videos actually work, and now you get to see the full picture. Every frame, every pixel. Nice.
Onto the games then - a six-strong line-up of the most recent high-profile releases. All killer, no filler!
Thanks, as always, to my Digital Foundry associates, MazingerDUDE and Alex Goh for the additional observations and help in putting the feature together.
Ghostbusters: The Video Game
Here's a mystery from the files of Arthur C Clarke... just why did Sony Europe end up with timed exclusivity rights to Ghostbusters: The Video Game? Away from any warm and happy feelings I might have for the 25-year-old movie, I can't help but feel that the game itself is distinctly average - almost last-gen in terms of its basic gameplay. And rather embarrassingly, it's the poorest PS3 conversion I've seen for a long, long time - a disappointing reminder of how just how terrible cross-platform development could treat the PS3 back in 2006.
Indeed, Ghostbusters: The Video Game is quite remarkable in that it manages to tick off just about all the common failings of PS3 conversion work of the period. Probably the most impactful compromise has been to the resolution of the game. The "no you can't have it yet" Xbox 360 version runs at full 720p and is a reasonably pleasing game to look at. PlayStation 3 on the other hand gets a whopping great drop to 960x540 resolution, and a correspondingly heavy blur as the framebuffer is scaled up to work on your HD display. This is compounded by the quincunx anti-aliasing technique, which blurs the entire texture, as a by-product of its edge-smoothing. quincunx can work acceptably well (see Prototype for an example in this feature) but combined with the lower resolution its negative effects are amplified significantly.
Check out the difference in the video here. It's well worth clicking through for the HD version which removes the crop and shows you the full picture with no loss in quality.
On some titles that upscale like this (Silent Hill: Homecoming springs to mind), there is a corresponding increase in refresh rate as the GPU obviously has less work to do in more complex scenes. However, in the case of Ghostbusters, performance in this area is remarkably similar, with small fluctuations sometimes favouring 360, sometimes PS3. Tellingly though, both versions have issues sustaining a fluid 30FPS when there's a modicum of action on-screen. In the like-for-like video captures there are more torn frames in the PS3 game, but then again, image quality and consistency in both versions can suffer badly in places from the lack of v-sync.
Not only is resolution compromised on the PS3 version, so is texture quality. Again it's vintage 2006 as we see visibly more detailed texture work on many graphical elements in the Xbox 360 version of the game. It's not just the odd piece of scenery here and there, or detail you need to walk right up to in order to see the difference (a la Fallout 3). The lower resolution presentation impacts a majority of scenes in the game.
PS3 also has the dubious honour of a 3.9GB mandatory installation. In theory this means that the game can stream in more texture detail than the 360 version, in a shorter amount of time, but clearly we don't see that. Indeed, the lower quality video assets actually take much the same time to load as the more complex and memory-intensive 360 data does from the DVD.
As it is, having tweeted my dismay about this game two days ago when I was still doing the analysis work for this feature, Joystiq, to its credit, picked up the baton and got this statement from a spokesperson for the developer:
"For the record, the PS3 version is softer due to the 'quincunx' anti-aliasing filter and the fact we render at about 75 per cent the resolution of the 360 version. So you cannot directly compare a screenshot of one to the other unless you scale them properly. The PS3 does have less available RAM than the 360 - but we managed to squeeze three out of four textures as full size on the PS3."
My response to that is pretty straightforward. First of all, PS3 Ghostbusters is rendering 518,400 pixels per frame. Xbox 360 is managing 921,600, so there's some interesting mathematics going on in that statement. Secondly, if quincunx anti-aliasing is compromising your image quality to this degree, why not try another solution? With regards the RAM situation, it's a well-known limitation that the vast majority of cross-platform developers have (thankfully) managed to overcome.
The admission that 25 per cent of the texture work in Ghostbusters is compromised on PS3 is very telling. More than that, the notion that somehow we're not allowed to compare the two versions without downscaling the higher resolution one is frankly astonishing. How many people out there have 540p displays? Perhaps we should we be sitting further away from the screen to make the two games look the same? Terminal Reality's response, rather like the PS3 build itself, simply isn't good enough.
Leaving the ghosts of cross-platform development in the past, we return to the present and a release from Radical Entertainment that is far more indicative of the current state of play. In common with the rest of the games covered in this feature (bar Bionic Commando) it's a case that while performance metrics give a technical victory to the Xbox 360 game, the all-important gameplay experience is, by and large, equally as satisfying on either platform.
Graphically speaking, Prototype's biggest compromise is equally impactful on both consoles, the game running at a native resolution of 1120x640, manifesting in a detail drop from traditional 720p similar to the likes of the recent GRIN games, Halo 3 and Saints Row 2. Jaggies are mitigated thanks to the inclusion of anti-aliasing solutions on both platforms - the usual 2x multi-sampling anti-aliasing on Xbox 360 and quincunx on PS3. A look at the HD video and the comparison gallery should be enough to show you that while quincunx blur does have an impact, in some cases it can work out fine, as it does here. Prototype eschews high frequency texture detail for the most part, so the effect of the blur isn't quite so noticeable as it is in other games.
Probably the biggest difference you'll see concerns how well each version maintains v-sync - the 360 game is clearly a lot better at it, tearing relatively rarely, whereas the PS3 game loses v-sync and drops frames more regularly. Other differences tend to be somewhat less important to the overall presentation, but intriguing nonetheless. There is a significantly shorter draw distance for shadows on PS3, and crowd members in the environment tend to be duplicated a lot more than they are on 360.
On the plus side, self-shadowing on the PS3 models looks a touch more refined and we spotted higher anistropic filtering on the Sony platform too. Debris on the ground also has more depth on PS3, each piece of rubble being individually shadowed. This could be a distinct decision by the developers at Radical, or else it may simply be an offset bias issue for the shadowmaps that could be fixed on the 360 build simply by raising the rubble an inch or two off the ground and letting the lighting model do the rest (for the record, the PC version works just like the 360 game).
Either way, all of these different plus and minus points do at least strongly suggest that the code was tweaked to get additional features from the respective consoles, however slight, but in terms of the gameplay, the smoothness of the update and the corresponding response from the controls, it is the Xbox 360 game that has an overall consistency that gives it a small advantage.
If there's one big gaming mystery even more bizarre than Sony Europe's decision to snaffle Ghostbusters: The Video Game as a timed exclusive, it's probably the reasoning behind Capcom's decision to make the Bionic Commando multiplayer demo on Xbox Live the only way in which to sample this new game before its release. Basic, derivative and graphically uninteresting, the demo is completely at odds with the single-player experience of the retail release in just about every regard. Bearing in mind the dubious demo, along with GRIN's previous efforts in Wanted: Weapons of Fate, it's fair to say that the undoubted quality of Bionic Commando was probably the most pleasant surprise I had in putting this feature together. It's a very decent game!
Just like Wanted, Bionic Commando runs on GRIN's own proprietary Diesel Engine, and there are a number of technical elements the game has in common with its less impressive cousin. Firstly is the sub-HD resolution; both console versions run at a less-than-stellar 1120x640, with no frame rate lock - so, depending on the complexity of the scene, the game runs at anything from the mid-20s up to 60FPS (albeit very rarely). There is the sense that the PS3 version is smoother (in actual fact, frame-rate analysis shows a plus/minus variance of around ten per cent in favour of either platform at any given point), but more than that, image quality overall is beefed up considerably thanks to the implementation of v-sync, omitted on Xbox 360 and thus tearing badly as a result.
Where the Microsoft console pulls back some points is in the utilisation of screen-space ambient occlusion - an effect that adds additional depth to any given scene. The overall effect is subtle, but becomes far more obvious to the eye when it is removed. Also apparent is that GRIN has set about reworking some of the textures in the 360 build, adding extra detail where less exists in the PS3 version. While this could be considered an advantage for the Microsoft console, it's fair to say that its inclusion appears to be in place in lieu of some of the other graphical effects that only the PlayStation 3 version brings to the table.
In particular are more refined normal maps and specular effects you'll only see on PS3, but of far more dramatic impact is the inclusion of what looks like proper high dynamic range lighting that is exclusive to the Sony platform. All of this, combined with the v-sync, works to make the PS3 version of Bionic Commando look a touch more pleasing to the eye. While the Xbox 360 version is a fine game that still looks lovely and has some "exclusives" of its own, the improved bling and solid image consistency make the decision easy if you own both consoles and are wondering which version to buy. Despite the inclusion of a 1.8GB mandatory installation, it's got to be PS3.
For a bit more technical detail, combined with additional screenshots not found in the Eurogamer comparison gallery, be sure to check out the work of my colleague over at the Digital Foundry blog.
Assessing FUEL from a gameplay perspective, I can't find much to fault in Tom's review, despite the strident nature of some of the follow-up comments from Eurogamers. FUEL allegedly boasts the biggest open-world yet devised, but the plain and simple fact of the matter is that unfortunately, it's simply not a very interesting one. The best sandbox games are based on a man-made landscape designed to be fun to play, with plenty to see and do. FUEL, on the other hand, bears all the hallmarks of being mathematically generated - in effect, the shape and form of the landscape is most likely based on the result of a complex equation rather than being completely sculpted by human hands.
With this in mind, peering at the Blu-ray PS3 version, I was only a little surprised when I saw that the total data use of the 25GB BD is a mere 3.3GB. If you have the required development/PS3 TEST hardware, you can even run this game from a common or garden single-layer DVD-R should you have a penchant for old-skool optical discs. Perhaps more surprising still is the fact that 2.2GB of that data is then force-installed on your PS3, presumably to make the process of streaming the landscape easier for the developer. This does give the game a loading (or rather, "generating") advantage on PS3, which is negated on 360 should you choose an NXE hard disk install which weighs in at just 4.2GB.
Surprisingly, main review code for FUEL was supplied in the form of the PS3 version. We sourced the 360 version from retail, and it is technically the better-performing game. While both appear to be rendering true 720p (albeit with an unwelcome blur filter that we assume is there to mask the lack of anti-aliasing on both platforms), the Xbox 360 game feels smoother, with more responsive controls, only dipping below 30FPS when a lot of alpha effects are in play (for example, with the stormy weather). Both games lack v-sync, and the resultant tearing is much more apparent on PS3, making it look slightly rougher compared to the 360 code.
So while the Xbox 360 version of FUEL has a small but tangible technical edge over the PlayStation 3 release, it makes little odds really. A 5/10 game that runs a touch smoother on one platform has to offer much more to lift its overall score and FUEL remains a rather disappointing release despite the small performance hike.
The tracks in many events are overlong, gameplay is repetitive, and AI remains predictable - a case of catching up with the CPU-driven cars, overtaking them and then merely extending your lead. There's no real sense of actual racing here on either platform which is somewhat surprising considering how hard Codemasters works to get that particular element into its own in-house racing titles. While the smaller, lap-based closed-circuit races are more exciting, gameplay-wise, Black Rock Studios' Pure has the better of this in almost every way and while it lacks the biggest open-world in video games, it makes up for it with oodles more fun. The fact that you can pick it up online for less than a tenner makes it something of a no-brainer.
X-Men Origins: Wolverine
X-Men Origins: Wolverine does much to endear itself to me right from the off. Forget the concept of a mandatory installation, Raven has instead opted for a stealth approach which sees the game gradually fill up to around 1GB of your hard disk space as you play. If you don't have a large enough buffer for this behind-the-scenes streaming, the game tells you, but crucially doesn't stop you playing.
The more I play Wolverine, the more I like it, to the point where I think perhaps the 5/10 score was harsh. Sure, it's short-lived and repetitive, but it captures the essence of the character perfectly and builds a memorable gameplay experience around that. Marvel's most infamous mutant is essentially an almost unstoppable killing machine, and Raven's notion of inserting that creation into a God of War-esque game is a stroke of brilliance. There are two things that stand out for me with this game: firstly, and perhaps rather bizarrely, it's the way that the easy mode is the default difficulty setting.
Sure, you can rip that to shreds, but that's kind of the point. That's Wolverine, that's what it's all about. It makes killing joyously simple to the point where you end up devising more interesting ways of carrying out the job to amuse yourself. Over and above that is the way that the game powers you up and equips you with powers and skills that allow you to handle practically any combat situation, and handle it with style. Again, classic Wolverine.
The good news is that with some notable, but minor, exceptions, the game is essentially like-for-like on both console platforms, perhaps not so surprising bearing in mind that Raven licensed Epic's Unreal Engine 3 for this eye-wateringly bloodthirsty death spree.
Raven's work with this Wolverine tie-in shows a utilisation of the Unreal Engine 3 technology that compares very closely with the recent UE3-driven Wheelman project. In-game action is very close indeed between the two platforms, and certainly from a gameplay perspective both versions feel almost like-for-like. Also in common with Wheelman, both versions aspire to a 30FPS refresh rate but do have trouble sustaining it, though 360 clearly gets closer to the ideal.
In-game and cinematic performance mirrors what we found in the playable demo, which we covered in more depth over on the Digital Foundry blog (worth checking out simply because the comparison video we produced there is absolutely mental). In short, rather bizarrely, the PS3 version runs more smoothly during certain cinematics, while the Xbox 360 rendition generally tends to perform better, and with far fewer torn frames during the actual gameplay.
You'll see minor lighting differences, plus the Microsoft platform once again includes anti-aliasing absent on the PS3 build - all of which combines to give the Xbox 360 a marginal, but tangible, technical victory in this particular comparison. But in terms of the more important factor - the bloodthirsty thrill of the commandeering the world's most finely tuned killer - that's equally as enjoyable on either platform.
Red Faction: Guerrilla
Not since Criterion's Black has a game been so focused on the joys of rampant, unadulterated destruction, and with that in mind Volition deserves kudos for what it has achieved here - Red Faction Guerrilla is a tremendous technical achievement that is at times staggeringly impressive. What is the all the more noteworthy is just how much of an upgrade Guerrilla appears to be when stacked up against the studio's previous cross-format release, Saints Row 2.
Let's just say that SR2 has its issues - eye-rending screen tear, sub-HD resolution on both platforms, frame-rate issues, certain effects pared back on PS3... it wasn't pretty. Red Faction is a leap forward on almost all counts, but perhaps most pertinent is the clear evidence that Volition has performance-tuned the game to run almost identically cross-platform, and while the core experience is pretty much the same, there are plus and minus points to both of the conversions.
First up, the good news after the disappointment of Saints Row 2 is that the resolution is back up to 720p on both platforms, and in a game like this, with all that intricate detail, that's something of a relief. Xbox 360 gets superior edge smoothing in the form 2x multi-sampling anti-aliasing, up against the PS3 version which has none at all. However, the bloom effects and overall lighting do a lot to take the edge off the landscape detail edges in particular so the difference is nowhere near as pronounced as it can be in some games.
The Xbox 360 leads the way in other areas too - a higher-resolution blending buffer gives better definition to the explosions and other transparent alpha effects compared to the lower-res PS3 buffer. In a game where blowing things up is part and parcel to the fun, you'd think it would have much more impact than it does, but the impact is barely noticeable (even Killzone 2 uses the same lower-resolution buffer technique). The Microsoft platform also benefits from higher resolution ground textures, but really the difference is barely noticeable. Other than that, the only other real point of differentiation is the hard disk utilisation - a mandatory 1.65GB on PS3, with an optional 6.5GB on 360 via an NXE install.
Probably the biggest issue I have with the game concerns the lack of v-sync. The tearing is pretty bad here to the point where in most cases every other frame is torn, making a huge impact on visual consistency, especially during those outrageous explosions. The HD video shows the entire 60Hz output of the consoles, slowed down to 50 per cent speed, with no frames dropped in the encoding. In short, you don't miss anything, so you can judge for yourself just how much of an impact this has. However, as it is, both versions are equally afflicted.
In common with the best cross-platform multiplayer games, the choice of which version to buy should you happen to own both machines really comes down to where your friends list is. Guerrilla is excellent fun online, and getting the most out of that experience is more important than minor differences to visuals.