The Black Ops 3 beta handed in a solid presentation on PlayStation 4, with the game delivering a similar, if more refined gameplay experience compared to last year's Advanced Warfare, demonstrating native 1080p visuals along with smooth frame-rates that adhered closely to the desired 60fps target. It was largely business as usual on Sony's console, but how well does the Xbox One beta stack up in comparison?
Kicking off, once again we selected the Prophet class, launching head first into a series of busy Team Deathmatch rounds with some particularly bloodthirsty players. Matchmaking went smoothly with no connection issues - a good indication for overall stability, something that's always welcome to see in a beta. Aside from a one-off glitch where an enemy was left floating in mid-air after being killed, the experience was stable overall, with no other bugs cropping up during gameplay.
On a technical level, first impressions suggest a sub-native presentation is at work - just like Advanced Warfare on Xbox One - though if anything, image quality appears softer and less defined. Pixel counting puts the Xbox One version of Black Ops 3 at 1600x900 in multiplayer (though curiously, this shot seems to manifest at 1360x900). It's an interesting decision bearing in mind that Advanced Warfare opted for 1360x1080 instead, a different utilisation of much the same pixel count. There has been some discussion about the blurring found in Xbox One and PS4 versions of the beta - this is now confirmed as filmic SMAA T2x, explaining how the image quality presented here isn't just a factor of the rendering resolution.
The combination of the two isn't great news for Xbox One though. Compared to the native 1080p PS4 version, buildings, foliage and distant objects appear considerably less defined with subtle normal map and texture details smudged over. This reduction in clarity also makes it harder to spot other players that are far away, particularly when they are crouched behind vehicles or lying prone within similarly coloured scenery. Obviously, moving targets are easier to see, but stationary enemies tend to blur into the surrounding environment somewhat. Thankfully, the loss in visual sharpness isn't enough to break the long-range gameplay - after all, everyone gets the same presentation on a fixed platform - but currently, based on what the beta has to offer, PS4 is the more preferable choice here, just as it was on Advanced Warfare.
Aside from the large gap in sharpness between platforms due to the resolution deficit on Xbox One, both versions of Blacks Ops feature the same core assets and quality level of effects, while trilinear filtering scrubs away distant texture detail to a similar degree across both formats.
In terms of performance, the decision to opt for 900p has clear benefits in terms of engine stability under load, with Black Ops 3 offering up a near 60fps lock during gameplay. Frame-rates are rarely affected across the course of the match while the player is in control and this translates into low latency, high accuracy twitch gameplay that takes full advantage of the 60fps update. Performance remains stable under load too, with explosions and alpha effects barely making a dent when the action starts to heat up. The only sharp frame-rate dips on Xbox One come in the transition to and from the Killcam - irrelevant to the gameplay, and mostly unnoticeable in practise.
Just like PlayStation 4, an adaptive v-sync is in play. Should the engine fail to render a frame within the allotted 16.7ms, a certain amount of leeway is granted, with the game flipping the framebuffer late and causing a tear to occur as screen refresh begins. On PS4, tearing was 'permitted' in the top part of the screen only, the game dropping a frame rather than allowing the tear to encroach into the main viewable area. We presume that the same situation is in place on Xbox One, but in truth, it's hard to tell - tearing is much less pronounced, and in our experience, the tear never travels far enough down the screen to let a frame-drop kick in. This 'elastic' approach to v-sync is designed to get frames to the screen as quickly as possible, but not to the point where tearing noticeably impacts image integrity.
Comparatively, the vice-like grip on 60fps isn't quite so pronounced on PlayStation 4. Small dips in performance appear more frequently throughout the match, although the mild nature of these disruptions is unlikely to impact the experience for most players. Effects-heavy scenes are where Sony's console is at more of a disadvantage, with frame-rates hitting around the low 50s for short periods of time during gameplay, while the Xbox One version mostly delivers a locked and clean 60fps.
On the whole, from a performance perspective, the results from this beta phase look pretty straightforward. Both versions of Black Ops 3 perform well in the multiplayer component, providing responsive controls that are perfectly suited to the twitch-based shooting. However, Xbox One provides an increased level of stability to performance that comes with a price: image clarity isn't anywhere near as sharp as PS4, and there are gameplay ramifications because of this, just as there were in Advanced Warfare - only this time it's significantly harder to discern long-range detail.
On balance, at this point in time, the PS4's mostly stable 60fps and native 1080p visuals look to provide the best overall experience - even though Xbox One has more solid performance overall. Given a relatively minor inconsistency in frame-rates as opposed to a constant resolution deficit, we'd take the former, putting the Sony platform in pole position. But we must remember that Black Ops 3 is still in development, and there is further time to tweak. To illustrate, last year saw Sledgehammer instigate a last-minute switch in Xbox One multiplayer from 1600x900 to 1360x1080 - just a two per cent boost in resolution, the presentation helped more by upscaling artefacts only manifesting on one axis. We're sure that Treyarch will be looking at its own range of options for adjusting the presentation, based on player feedback.
Exactly how the studio chooses to use its remaining development time remains to be seen, but it seems that the basic template for multiplayer is in place, at least. Black Ops 3 multiplayer is now a known quantity - the big unknown remains the make-up and performance level of the campaign in both its single-player and co-op iterations. Historically, Treyarch pushes its engine tech to the limit in its campaign offerings and we're looking forward to seeing what the studio is cooking up for its debut current-gen outing.