The cross-platform console games having been gradually piling up over the summer, and it's about time the decks were cleared to best ready ourselves for the upcoming Q4 gaming tsunami. On this particular occasion, eight recent titles are put to the test, including our very first multi-format PSN/XBLA face-off.
As is the norm, the analyses are backed up with a comprehensive range of assets: full 24-bit RGB framebuffer dumps of each game (including 1080p shots where supported on PS3), embedded comparison videos using the very best in h264 compression, along with new high-definition clickthroughs in order to get the full picture. These Eurogamer Face-Off features have been gradually evolving over time, and once more the range of available data has increased: discrete frame-rate and v-sync readings have been added to the HD videos.
Onto the gaming line-up then:
- Battlefield 1943
- Virtua Tennis 2009
- Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood
- G.I. Joe
- Fight Night: Round 4
- UFC: Undisputed
- Overlord II
Already the next roundup is taking shape, but next week, Batman: Arkham Asylum takes centre-stage with the definitive triple-format face-off.
In a console generation that has been dominated by the Unreal Engine, it's something of a novelty to see a third-party, first-person shooter that doesn't use Epic's almost ubiquitous middleware. Few games have utilised the aged idTech 4. Prior to Wolfenstein, I'm fairly sure that the only other cross-platform project we've seen using it has been Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. In the case of that particular game, two entirely different developers were deployed for each console version, resulting in two very different looking end-products.
In the case of Wolfenstein, Raven is in charge for both formats using base-level id technology that dates back to 2005, albeit spruced up significantly to take advantage of the multi-core set-ups of the current generation consoles in concert with the much stronger GPUs found in both machines. So, how does the game look?
Amid internet stories of the challenges id software has faced in bringing its new idTech 5 engine to the PlayStation 3, it is interesting to note that Raven's work with its predecessor appears to have translated fairly well to the Sony platform.
In terms of performance and image quality, there are both pros and cons. First up, the game has a better overall image consistency than the Xbox 360 version: the game is v-synced with not a torn frame in sight, in stark contrast to the 360 build. On the minus side, however, Wolfenstein on PS3 is slightly blurrier than its 360 counterpart - I doubt it's to do with texture quality, probably more to do with the pixel format employed for the framebuffer itself. It's hardly an issue compared to the frame-rate situation though. The performance is considerably jerkier and less responsive on PS3 than Xbox 360 and this is entirely down to the decisions made by the developer.
Xbox 360 aims to maintain 30FPS no matter what and where the PS3 build drops a frame when the rendering situation is challenging, the 360 game tears it instead. Lag on 360 is therefore palpably lower than it is on PS3, but at the expense of image integrity which suffers time and time again through excessive tearing. You can get an idea of just how bad it gets at times by looking at the Digital Foundry performance analysis of the game running on the Microsoft platform. However, clearly our notion in that piece that idTech 4 has had its day is erroneous: Bethesda's Brink uses an enhanced idTech 4 and it was one of the best-looking games at this year's gamescom.
With Wolfenstein, however, what we have is an average game with an average performance level on both consoles, with a small amount of pluses and minuses unique to each platform. Which one gets the nod is essentially down to personal preference: frame-rate and response versus overall image integrity.
DICE's debut outing for its proprietary Frostbyte engine in Battlefield: Bad Company looked pretty promising. The visuals looked new, distinct and different and performance cross-platform was very close indeed, give or take the odd environment map. Where the game appeared limited was in its destruction model: while it worked fairly well in offering up an environment that could be almost totally blown apart, scenery seemed to break down into recognisable and predictable patterns which did spoil the illusion somewhat.
Battlefield 1943 appears to have solved this particular issue, and as far as 10-quid downloadable games go, it's an extremely strong title, even if both console versions fail to match the stupendously large 64-player melees that characterised the original PC games. It's also another decent example of what Frostbyte is capable of, even if the difference in performance between the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions is still rather noticeable.
While the overall look is similar, there is a clear advantage to the Xbox 360 code, specifically in the use of normal maps which add an extra layer of depth to the environments and which appear to be absent on the PS3 version of the game. The sixth shot in the comparison gallery is probably the best still we have to show the difference, and reveals how rather flat the environmental details can be. There's also a smattering of lower-resolution textures too, found only in the PS3 build. Both games run at native 720p but lack any form of anti-aliasing, and in a bright, colourful game such as this, the jaggies are hard to miss.
Both games run well though, and performance rarely deviates from the target 30FPS. When maintaining the frame-rate is an issue, Battlefield 1943 drops v-sync in order to maintain smoothness both in the way the game moves, and in the controls. In a game like this where every session is different, A-versus-B performance is almost impossible to accurately measure, but it did seem as though the 360 game was prone to more tearing.
Probably the most impactful element concerns the issues people are having in the online connection. On the PS3 version especially there have been many complaints about sudden disconnections. I spent a decent amount of time playing both versions, and each of them performed impeccably, but the comments on the forums and on Twitter speak for themselves.
So long as DICE sorts out this issue, Battlefield is going to be one of those games where performance differences are not as important as opposed to where you do the majority of your online gaming, and where your friends list is strongest. Certainly in terms of the all-important playability, these games are like-for-like.
Virtua Tennis 2009
Based on the original Eurogamer review, some might argue that the real Face-Off here ought to be between this new 2009 edition and its immediate predecessor, the seminal Virtua Tennis 3. Kristan made a good fist of stacking up the strengths and weaknesses of the new game up against its immediate predecessor, but omitted to mention that while Virtua Tennis 3 achieved native 1080p visuals on both platforms, the new game is restricted to 720p only.
While the lack of 'full HD' graphics may be initially puzzling, the decision was perhaps inevitable. The technological underpinnings of VT2009 have much in common with SEGA Superstars Tennis, and just like the mascot-driven homage, both PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game were developed by Sheffield-based Sumo Digital. In SST, Sumo opted to up detail levels and eschew 1080p, and the same decision has been made here... it's just that the visual boost isn't quite so obvious.
For the record though, the polygon budget has been expended on a full 3D audience as opposed to the entirely flat audience members seen in the last game. The tennis courts themselves also feature a visual upgrade: the grass is no longer an entirely flat surface, and has some 3D depth to it. It's an interesting trade-off, but it certainly looks to me as though the player models are not quite so attractive as they were in the last game, and maybe it's the downgrade from 1080p to standard HD that is the principle culprit. Alternatively, it may be the seemingly randomised camera angles, which rarely seem to offer the most flattering view of the players.
As you might expect from a tennis game, there isn't a huge amount to tell the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions apart, although there was more than I expected. If you're spotting frame-rate differences in the movie above, it's well worth checking out the HD clickthrough for the overlaid FPS counters. There is quite a bit of difference between the two versions (usually, but not always in favour of PS3), although thankfully the variance calms down after the pre-game warm-up sequences and is fairly steady at 60FPS on both games.
You'll notice that the bloom effects found in the Xbox 360 game (which sometimes appear a touch overdone) are completely absent on PS3 - a curious state of affairs since it was the other way around in Virtua Tennis 3. Shadows seem to be resolved more pleasingly on PS3, it's just that there are fewer of them! PS3 also makes use of Quincunx anti-aliasing, which blurs some of the fine detail. Again, a similar system was in play during SEGA Superstars Tennis, but the bright, more cartoon-esque presentation ensured that it was less of an issue there.
In all though, the conversion work here isn't bad, and once again, Sumo Digital proves that it knows SEGA and it knows Virtua Tennis... even if the ongoing direction of the franchise appears to be somewhat less clear.
Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood
Techland's latest outing for its proprietary Chrome engine certainly is intriguing from a pure performance perspective. In common with the PC enthusiast mentality which seeks to eke out as many frames-per-second no matter what the cost, this new Call of Juarez prequel has the distinction of being the game with the most impactful screen-tearing I think I've seen since the Xbox 360 launch period.
On console at least, the vast majority of games that lack v-sync are at least capped at 30FPS. This means that every torn frame will be followed by a non-torn one. Image quality is impacted but at least a torn frame is only seen on screen for around 16 milliseconds before it is replaced by a whole one. Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, on the other hand tries its hardest to coax out as many frames as possible, and if the game tears as a consequence, Techland doesn't really care. That being the case, you can see raw frame-rates above 30FPS, but you can get many torn frames in a row, making for a very inconsistent-looking game.
There are a lot of very odd differences between the two versions of the game. Probably the most obvious one you'll see in the HD comparison video is that the Xbox 360 version runs in a letterbox, yielding an effective 1280x672 resolution. Why there is a 48-line deficit isn't exactly clear, but as you'll see from the composite elements of the video, the 360 game is also being squeezed vertically meaning it's quite running at the same aspect ratio. The PS3 build lacks the squeeze-o-vision letterboxing but sees native resolution drop significantly to 1152x648, resulting in an overall more blurry experience. Screen tear is lessened though, but this is purely down to a significantly lower frame-rate, as opposed to any technical wizardry from Techland.
What makes Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood again quite interesting is the anti-aliasing technique it uses to smooth off its edges. It's custom-built for the Chrome engine; we've not seen it anywhere else and it works pretty well. On Xbox 360 a 4x2 pixel smoothing solution is employed but this is pared down on the PS3 to 2x2, which combined with the upscaling blur isn't so attractive.
Dan Pearson wasn't particularly enthralled by this ball-achingly bad movie tie-in when he wrote the Eurogamer review, and indeed, one journalist I barely know took it upon himself to contact me telling me that it is the one of the worst games he's played in the last 20 years (a claim that fell on deaf ears here, having played Dark Castle on Mega Drive and Road Fighter on NES).
Regardless, the absolutely awful nature of the game was enough to intrigue me and sure enough, G.I. Joe manages to be live up (or down) to expectations in terms of its worth as a cross-platform console project. While there have been worse PS3 conversions dotted throughout the previous score of Face-Off features, there haven't been that many of them, and certainly not many of them in the reasonably recent past.
It's another situation where the HD clickthrough video does a better job at highlighting the differences, but for the record, the PS3 work done here is of an exceptionally low quality. While the developer has managed to retain 720p resolution, it has done so at the expense of texture quality and more v-sync drop-outs. The paring-back of textures is profoundly impactful to the image (even the character textures are pared back), and when combined with the Quincunx anti-aliasing it results in a game that looks significantly backward up against its 360 sibling.
I won't dwell on this one, as I'm sure the people that have played it won't thank me for reminding them of it, but suffice to say that while G.I. Joe conforms exactly to the perception of the quality of the average movie tie-in, it's surprising to see a company like Electronic Arts pump out this kind of dross these days.
Fight Night Round 4
From the ridiculous to the sublime. EA's abject failure with G.I. Joe is in stark contrast with the majority of its latter-day output, where the company has raised the bar both in terms of the quality of its games and also in the proficiency of its conversion work.
Fight Night Round 4 doesn't disappoint in just about any way, and that situation holds true whether you own an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. Yes, on a purely analytical level there are technical advantages to playing the game on the Microsoft console, but there's really nothing in it that favours one version over the other in terms of the actual gameplay experience. The similarities and, indeed, the subtleties of the differences can be seen in the videos, particularly the HD clickthrough.
The crucial factors in the success of the conversion work have been covered in Digital Foundry's prior assessments of the Xbox demo and its PS3 counterpart. During the actual gameplay, frame-rate is locked to a v-synced 60FPS, and in that regard there is no difference whatsoever between the two games.
Over and above that, the quality of the artwork in the game is like-for-like. The only real difference comes from the anti-aliasing techniques deployed in each version and in this area, Xbox 360 commands a marginal advantage with its top-of-the-line (for console) 4x multi-sampling anti-aliasing. Similar to EA's last fighting game, PS3 employs 2x quincunx AA. This gives very close edge smoothing to the Xbox solution with the minus point that the entire texture is blurred. The difference is noticeable, but it's not a massive issue bearing in mind the sheer intricacy of the base visuals.
Any other performance advantages the Xbox 360 version has are limited to superior frame-rates in the sequences outside of the core action: a solid 30FPS on the Microsoft console with mild fluctuations under that on PS3 (still retaining v-sync). Hardly monumental stuff, and where it matters - in the gameplay - nobody is likely to be disappointed.
UFC 2009: Undisputed
There's not a lot of love for UFC/WWE developer Yukes in the Digital Foundry lair. There has always been a sense that both gameplay and technology in the SmackDown vs. Raw games haven't really progressed since the PS2 era, and for a long while the PS3 entrants in the series have boasted pretty awful visuals. Yukes combine two 640x720 anti-aliasing buffers in an attempt to simulate proper 720p, and the result doesn't work, being both blocky and blurry in equal measure while Xbox 360 owners get the real deal. Hardly the sign of impressive conversion work.
So, plenty to prove then with UFC 2009: Undisputed, and the good news is that the technology behind the game is hugely, massively improved over what we've seen from previous Yukes efforts. Similar to Fight Night Round 4, the game is v-locked at 60FPS, with no sign of any drops in frame-rate at all. While the quality of the fighters isn't quite in the same league as EA's efforts, the UFC brawlers still look fantastic, with the close-ups in particular possessing uncanny levels of detail.
The differences, as they are, are fairly minute, but notable nonetheless. Xbox 360 benefits from a custom anti-aliasing solution throughout (something similar to Call of Juarez, where two mid-colour pixels are applied to the edges), whereas the PS3 version is somewhat different. There's no anti-aliasing at all in action during gameplay, while the impressive cinematics that top and tail the bouts see the introduction of smooth 4x multisampling anti-aliasing, producing an extremely clean presentation.
On both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, the cinematics follow a similar formula to that used by Fight Night: Round 4. The frame-rate drops to 30FPS in order to accommodate what are presumably higher-resolution models. There's no difference in performance here - both are rock solid. Over and above that, it's a case of very minor plus and minus points for each platform. It's obvious that the background and ring decals are of a much lower resolution on the PlayStation 3, but for its part the Xbox 360 version appears to have lower-quality texture filtering.
So, overall then, it's effectively a score draw with perhaps a slither-like advantage for 360 with its smoother image and higher-resolution background textures, but the big relief here is that Yukes has seemingly overcome its cross-platform deficiencies on PS3 while at the same time addressing the somewhat ancient elements of its existing SmackDown engine. Fingers crossed we'll see this particular tech deployed in the developers' future WWE games.
In a market dominated by shooters, fighting games and sports sims, Codemasters' Overlord was a breath of fresh air: an intriguing action-strategy title that combined innovative concepts with a great script and wonderful artistic direction. Many of the minor gameplay annoyances in the original Xbox 360 release were sorted out with the subsequent Raising Hell edition on PS3, which also added new levels at the expense of a slightly lower performance level up against its pre-existing sibling.
Overlord's sequel is a true cross-platform project, with both Xbox 360 and PS3 versions developed and released simultaneously, and similar to the original game there are performance issues with both renditions of Triumph Studios' work. However, crucially, they don't seem quite so important in this particular style of game: smoother movement and crisper responses from the controls would be nice, but the lack of them doesn't get in the way of you having a great time.
For the developer, it is clear that the integrity of the image is of more importance than the frame-rate. Bearing in mind the phenomenal amount of work that has gone into the artistic style of the game, the team has opted to engage v-sync and take the hit in frame-rate. However, the result of this is that on both Xbox 360 and PS3 performance essentially switches between 20FPS and 30FPS at any given point, according to load. As you can see on the HD clickthrough above, both can suffer badly, with the PS3 version more prone to locking down to the lower frame-rate with a jerkier update and consequently less responsive controls.
Otherwise the differences are slight and once again come down to edge-smoothing. Overlord II on the Xbox 360 appears to be using a custom anti-aliasing solution similar, but not quite as refined as that in Call of Juarez. Just as in the Techland game, the outer edges only are targeted for smoothing, but instead using an MSAA-style smoothing method, a subtle blur is used instead on the edges alone. On the PS3 there is no such evidence of any kind of AA at all.
In all, this is a recommended release for both platforms, simply because the sense that you're playing something fresh, new and appealing is still there, despite the fact that it's a sequel. That intrinsic appeal is essentially the same on both versions to the point where the technical differences are an irrelevance.