Wow, so many games, so much to write about and so little time to cover absolutely everything. It's fair to say that the office is almost literally dripping with code, and there's simply not enough manpower to dissect it all while maintaining regular Digital Foundry duties. So, with this month's mammoth 22nd Face-Off, we're covering six of the best and the most interesting of the recent releases, with the aim being to take a look at the rest over a series of smaller-scale DF blog updates as and when time permits.
As usual, the words are backed up with a battery of comparison shots, and pristine quality h264 videos too - all derived losslessly from the HDMI ports of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. In a slight departure from the presentations of past, the cropped 632x500 vids are now history. They did the job admirably before Eurogamer TV transitioned to HD, but with full 720p at our disposal, the old-school videos seemed somewhat superfluous to requirements.
The full 720p presentations are now embedded into the article itself in a similar manner to the DF Bayonetta demo showdown: simply press the full-screen button in the player to get the full effect, or click through using the EGTV link to get a larger window.
Onto the games then, and the selection this time around offers plenty of great talking points:
- Il-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey
- Tekken 6
- Colin McRae's DiRT 2
- Need for Speed: SHIFT
- Brutal Legend
- Operation Flashpoint 2
All things being equal, you can expect Face-Off 23 with a fresh batch of "holiday season" games in December, but make no mistake: November's going to be a packed month. First up, there's some prestige triple-format coverage for Gearbox's recently-released Borderlands, before the focus shifts to SEGA's excellent Bayonetta. After that, all bets are off as the Modern Warfare 2 and Assassin's Creed II behemoths roll into town.
To be frank, it's gonna be epic. Be there.
Many thanks to Digital Foundry colleagues MazingerDUDE and Alex Goh for their inputs into this feature.
Il-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey
Even if you have little interest in the hardcore PC simulation from which it's derived, there's still much to enjoy in the console renditions of Il-2 Sturmovik: Birds of Prey, be it the truly impressive visuals, the vast variety of missions or the sheer attention to detail.
Curiously, the dogfighting element has much in common with Ubisoft's much-maligned but curiously entertaining Blazing Angels series, with a button-press camera that centres on your opponent and allows you to bank towards him relatively easily. It's a great mechanism that Ubisoft bizarrely left behind when the Angels development team moved onto HAWX.
Conversion-wise there have been some interesting decisions taken with the regards the two versions. Developer Gaijin Games appears to have been hell-bent on achieving platform parity in terms of the games' looks, and you can see how successful it's been in this video:
Il-2 crams in a hell of a lot of detail. Indeed, the primary focus of the developer seems to have been on maintaining the highest possible image quality at all times, while at the same time ensuring that the two versions look almost completely identical. Both games run at native 720p, but once again there are different approaches taken in terms of edge-smoothing: the usual 2x MSAA on 360 and the almost as ubiquitous quincunx on PS3.
So, bearing in mind that the latter technique often leads to a reduction in texture detail, how come the two versions look almost completely identical? It appears to be the case that once the MSAA is resolved on the Xbox 360 version, a subtle blur filter is added that seeks to emulate the look of the QAA on PS3. In this case, the game is so detail-rich that there doesn't appear to be any deficit in overall image quality - it's a great looking release.
However, there are some differences elsewhere that are notable. The lighting scheme on 360 features a bloom effect when you point towards the sun that is curiously absent, or at the very least significantly dialled back, on PS3. Perhaps more relevant in terms of a purchasing decision is the performance level. That focus on the very best image quality possible has some serious ramifications for the frame-rate. Both versions can drop frames badly, and both tear too.
In terms of the overall amount of frames pumped out, measurements seem to drop as low as 14FPS (!) on both systems when things get really, really busy - i.e. just when you need the visual and controller feedback the most. The Xbox 360 game appears to be capped at 30FPS max, while the PS3 version is completely unlimited - our "personal best" was close to 50FPS. However, this comes at a cost of some absolutely horrific tearing (over 50 per cent of the PS3's output consists of torn frames). It's also present to a far lower degree on 360, but barely noticeable, so that would be the version I'd choose personally.
Quite often we talk about sub-HD resolutions during these face-offs, and usually when one version is running with fewer pixels than the other it is an obviously noticeable bad thing. Tekken 6 is the exception to the rule, and one of the most intriguing cross-format games we've studied in depth for quite some time. On the Xbox 360 at least, you can choose between sub-HD (1024x576) and a native rendering resolution of 1365x768. All you need to do is choose whether you want motion blur active or not.
The PlayStation 3 version of Tekken 6 on the other hand is sub-HD regardless, although you do get bonus anti-aliasing added if you forego the blur, and you don't get that on 360. The full ins and outs of this bizarre situation can be found in this earlier DF blog post, but suffice to say, Tekken 6 goes to show that in very, very rare cases, image quality isn't always just about the resolution. Tekken's additional texture filtering actually gives the sub-HD look on both platforms the edge over the 360 version when it's running in excess of 720p.
For the purposes of the face-off, we'll be sticking to the game's default graphical modes. That means it's motion blur all the way for the comparison video.
While the actual graphics and game content are basically identical across both platforms, Namco does deserve credit for acknowledging and making use of the additional storage offered by the Blu-ray disc format. A lot of the multi-platform releases we cover in the Face-Offs usually fit quite nicely onto a dual-layer DVD. Not so with Tekken 6: the game is a whopping great 20GB up against the more usual 6.7GB of the Xbox 360 dual-layer DVD. So, with an additional 13 gigs used up, where has it gone?
The answer is fairly obvious: Namco has provided two different encodings for its video content depending on the platform. The DVD gets less bandwidth for the video, and a correspondingly lower quality. More than that, on some of the videos (for example the Tekken timeline recap at the beginning of Scenario Mode), frame-rate has been upped from 30FPS on 360 up to 60FPS on PS3.
It's really nice to see some kind of acknowledgement for the storage capabilities of the Blu-ray disc, but it should be stressed that the differences are not hugely significant in the greater scheme of things. Increasing bandwidth on video encoding introduces a law of diminishing returns: doubling the bitrate doesn't double the quality. But regardless, having seen so many games appear in these features with inexplicably lower video quality on the PS3, seeing Namco take the time to make its impressive CG all that it can be is a refreshing change.
There's also another nice touch: similar to Namco's Soul Calibur IV and Ridge Racer 7, PS3 owners get the ability to install the crucial game data to hard disk to speed up loading times. Around 3GB of space is required, and while the install is optional, it's highly recommended because the loading times on both Xbox 360 and PS3 versions are something of a drag.
Gameplay-wise, as someone whose gaming career has encompassed every single Tekken released game to date, I have to admit that it's difficult to find much enthusiasm for what Namco has handed in here. Don't get me wrong - there's very little to choose between the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, they're effectively as good as one another, but the palpable lack of innovation is beginning to grind.
The Tekken series used to be an accessible, special-effects fuelled alternative to the more po-faced, ultra-hardcore Virtua Fighter series, and for that we loved it. However, from Tekken 3 onwards the game's focus appears to have narrowed and narrowed - each sequel effectively a revised version of the last with very little in the way of progression, and new features that only the ultra-committed enthusiast is going to get excited about. The refinements and new elements are great for the series' long-time fans, but the actual gameplay itself hasn't really moved on that much. It feels old and moribund, even with the graphical facelift.
Soul Calibur IV managed to get away with the same approach with the inclusion of a powerful, fun character-generation system, but Tekken doesn't even have that, with a customisation system that is pretty limited in comparison. Instead, Tekken's approach has been to pave the way for cheap comeback KOs via the new Rage system. It's also "borrowed" the multi-level stages from Dead of Alive and, um, let you bounce your opponents off the floor for further juggle combos that you can do nothing about if you find yourself on the wrong end of them.
All of this, combined with the clumsy-to-play and graphically quite ugly Tekken Force element (aka Scenario mode) makes this something of a disappointing release. However, if you like the old-school Tekken approach to the fighting game, it's difficult to argue that you won't "get your kicks" from this one - it looks better, the additional fighters are actually new and interesting, all the characters are unlocked from the beginning, and in a genre so bereft of support from the major publishers, Tekken's arrival does feel oddly comforting.
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.
One of the most consistently entertaining games released recently, Brutal Legend's game environments and basic concepts are so far out there that it practically demands a strong engine to realise them all effectively. The good news is that the tech is more than up to the challenge, and aside from a number of small performance differences, the game more than holds its own on both HD console platforms.
Take a look at the comparison video, and it's fairly evident that any superficial differences are effectively a non-issue.
There's clearly a very cleverly designed engine in play here, with Double Fine's solution capable of producing excellent visuals in both a streaming linear fashion as well as in an open-world environment. The fact that this is the team's first game, and that the conversion work between the two console formats is so good, is another excellent sign of things to come.
Yes, there are differences, but they are slight on a technical level. To the human eye, performance between the two versions is very, very close indeed. First up is resolution: both versions run at detail levels slightly below 720p. My Digital Foundry colleagues peg the Xbox 360 version at 1200x720, while the PS3 game is slightly lower at 1152x720. The reduction in horizontal resolution does serve to amplify the jagginess and both versions seek to lessen this somewhat by applying a very selective blur. Essentially the edges only are targeted, leaving texture detail levels intact. It's definitely a superior solution to the more frequent technique of simply blurring the whole frame-buffer, but it's still no match for proper MSAA.
Otherwise, in terms of performance, the two games operate very closely indeed. Both aspire to run at 30FPS, but both will drop v-sync in order to do so. The tearing is noticeable and more likely to occur on PS3, but the percentages are low enough that overall image quality is not unduly impacted. Frame drops under 30FPS are possible, and again, the PS3 will drop lower, but it's not a deal breaker. Other than that, aside from minor, almost indistinguishable differences in terms of texture filtering, shadowing and reflections, there's nothing to tell these two games apart, aside from the PS3's 1.5GB mandatory installation, which yields little, if any, advantage in terms of shorter loading times.
Overall then, this is accomplished work from the Double Fine team.
Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising
While purists will bemoan the mainstream approach taken with Il-2 Sturmovik, the self-same champions of hardcore PC gaming are unlikely to find much to fault with in this particular first-person shooter [oh I wouldn't be too sure about that chap - Ed]. Even in the default, "regular" difficulty setting, Operating Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is as hard as nails. Flashpoint is true to its roots: brutal and uncompromising.
It's just a shame that the same level of zero compromise has not been extended to the quality of the PlayStation 3 version of the game, which is undoubtedly one of the worst I've looked at this year:
Things don't look so bad on Xbox 360. It's hardly a game rich in diverse detail, but the graphics do their job well enough - it's native 720p, the 2x MSAA works nicely, and there's no real sense that you're being visually short-changed in any way: it's solid. PS3 on the other hand is a world apart from what is seen in the Xbox game. Environmental foliage is significantly pared back, texture quality likewise. The result is a release that looks significantly sparser on PlayStation 3. This wouldn't be so much of an issue were it not for the other indignities the graphics have had visited upon them for their trip across to the PS3.
In many senses, the game looks sub-HD on the Sony platform, but actually it isn't - it is indeed "proper" 720p based on our measurements. Quincunx anti-aliasing combined with lower-quality textures explains why the visuals are significantly blurrier, but only up to the point. Weirdly, and astonishingly, it appears that an additional, subtle blur filter has been added on top. Texture filtering has been downgraded too, resulting in a very ugly look on ground textures in particular.
The final insult concerns the level of screen tear visited upon the PS3 version. Yes, it's there on Xbox 360 but once again it is barely there at all, and difficult to detect by the human eye even when it does manifest. On PS3 it is effectively your constant companion; however, it's impact is offset by the relative slow pace of the game. Fast motion makes tearing much more evident perceptually, but there isn't much of this in Flashpoint, so in that sense the game feels a bit more solid that it actually is.
Regardless, factoring in all the compromises and downgrades, this is one to avoid for PS3 owners.