Colin McRae DiRT 2
Codemasters' reputation for quality racing games certainly hasn't been diminished with the release of Colin McRae DiRT 2. Long-term fans of the series' hardcore rallying routes won't be too chuffed with the mainstream direction DiRT has been taking of late, but I tend to see Codemasters' progression more of a case of expanding the possibilities of the game while taking advantage of the sheer processing and graphical power available to them. Maybe it's an approach the Tekken team should consider.
At a cursory glance, there is little to tell the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions apart, aside from what you might describe as a 'hazier' look to the PS3 code (more on that later). The actual gameplay experience is pretty much exactly like-for-like, and the all-important handling model that Codies has honed to this level across three console generations is just as good on both machines.
The overall achievement is made all the more impressive bearing in mind that there are a few technical and performance-related differences, as I talked about in-depth on the Digital Foundry blog when the demo was first released. In every way these differences favour the Microsoft console, perhaps most noticeable when it comes to the issue of screen-tearing. Both games make a good fist of sustaining 30FPS, but the PS3 code is far more prone to tearing.
The original blog post discussed how the tearing was there in the level chosen for the demo and easily identified with our tools, but in the process of actually playing the game the impact was mostly negligible. Tear location and (by and large) the lack of lateral movement worked nicely in combination to make the issue almost go away in many cases. So how does the full game measure up? Pretty well, actually, with only the tightest of circuits seeing a breakdown in image consistency. The London and Japan tracks in particular can tear pretty badly, but it is interesting to note that even the Xbox 360 version is affected in the many of the same places, albeit to a lesser extent.
As with the previous EGO engine game, Race Driver: GRID, there is also a different approach taken to edge-smoothing on the two versions. In the case of DiRT 2, the Xbox 360 version gets full-on 4x multi-sampling anti-aliasing (MSAA) whereas the PS3 version uses a 2x quincunx solution. Regular readers will know that the AA solution here is a close match in terms of edge smoothing up against 4x MSAA, but will also know that the downside of this is that the entire texture has detail blurred.
It can look good, but it can look pretty atrocious. With regards DiRT 2, it actually works pretty well and this is mostly down to the artistic style and the way in which the EGO engine's effects are deployed. There's an emphasis on realism here with a fine use of use of motion blur to make the game feel smoother than 30FPS. Combine that with a colour palette that naturally dampens the worst effects of edge-aliasing and the QAA solution employed here actually works pretty well.
Overall then, DiRT 2 is highly recommended on both platforms. There is still a performance advantage in playing on Xbox 360, but in the case of this game, the technical measurements aren't hugely relevant. As the same tech is almost certainly likely to power the forthcoming official Formula 1 title from Codemasters, hopefully we can look forward to an equally good game there too.
Need for Speed: SHIFT
PlayStation 3 owners haven't been particularly well-served with Electronic Arts' efforts in bringing the Black Box-originated Need for Speed titles across to their platform, and last year's NFS Undercover offering was one of the most unfortunate conversions I'd seen for quite some time. It was effectively a textbook example of how not to convert to PS3, factoring in its pared-back scenery and crippled frame-rate.
Black Box got the boot and it appears that the core NFS titles are being developed on a rotating basis within EA. Burnout legend Criterion is hotly tipped to be handling the 2010 game (so no worries for PS3 owners there) while debut studio Slightly Mad Studios is on development duties for this year's more Gotham-lite SHIFT. It's been described as the best NFS title since 2005's excellent - if technically flawed - Most Wanted, and the good news is that the welcome quality boost extends to the level of care and attention afforded to the PlayStation code.
It's interesting to note that there is much in common here with DiRT 2 in terms of the quality of the conversion. Xbox 360 commands a noticeable lead in terms of the overall image: just like the McRae game, it is rendered with full-on 4x MSAA, whereas the PS3 game uses a slightly rougher 2x MSAA solution. Where things get slightly odd is that Slighty Mad has sought to address the deficit but introducing a blur to the PS3 game to provide additional edge-smoothing. It's very rare that these work out, and SHIFT's image quality suffers a touch as a result. It's curious that the developer didn't use the more typical quincunx AA solution which would have still invoked blur, but would've at least given a more pleasing form of anti-aliasing.
Otherwise, it's a very sound conversion with just a few oddities that separate the pair. First up there's the rather exaggerated bloom that has been added to the PS3 version. Quite why this has been dialled up is any one's guess; it doesn't really add anything to the game. It certainly doesn't disguise the fact that the PS3 game tears more, and drops to lower frame-rates than its 360 equivalent when the engine is under load. Finally, the Sony platform undeniably enjoys a significant loading advantage over the non-NXE installed Xbox 360 version, but this is mostly down to the 15-minute 3GB mandatory install.
This is probably one of the most annoying installs of recent times, mostly down to the fact that the progress indicator seems to be based on the some kind of arbitrary calculation that has nothing in common with the amount of time you can expect to be waiting for the file copying to be complete. All looks good until you get to the 90 per cent mark, then progress slows to a crawl as you wait for it to finish. It's at times like this that having the option to install becomes far more valuable.