Bearing in mind all the hard work PlayStation 3 has done as the standard-bearer for true stereoscopic 3D console gaming, it's a bit of a blow that Black Ops just doesn't work particularly well on the Sony platform and it's clearly the Xbox 360 game that offers a smoother, superior-looking experience.
We've discussed this before, but it's a very big problem for journalists to show off the effect of an emerging technology like 3D gaming when 99.99 per cent of our readership isn't reading this site on a 3D-capable display. NVIDIA has developed a 3D video player in Flash, which is fine for the guesstimated 0.1 per cent of readers who have a 3D Vision 120Hz monitor, but how else can we actually show 3D? Perhaps the future will be downloadable movies for the 3DS, but in the meantime, let's try an experiment: the shots below represent 2D plus depth. On the left we have one eye's worth of screen capture, on the right, we have the entire 3D image converted into anaglyph 3D. Grab those red/blue paper glasses and have a gander to get some idea of the depth being generated.
The effect of playing Black Ops in 3D appears to vary on a person-by-person basis. Some talk about the heightened immersion. Others say it just looks weird. There's no way to adjust the parallax (on 360 at least, although adjusting the size of your display on the PS3 XMB may help), and one of our colleagues said that it just looked rather flat to him. Perhaps this is why the 3DS features a slider to adjust the strength of the 3D effect. For what it's worth, Activision's review event used 360 code exclusively to demonstrate the 3D mode.
Away from individual perceptions and back to the cold hard realities of performance and controller response, there's little doubt that 3D impacts the core experience of playing Black Ops. What you gain (or don't gain, depending on the individual's viewpoint) from the 3D effect you lose in terms of controller response and frame-rate. Bearing in mind that the COD experience is built upon razor-sharp arcade-quality latency, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that the gameplay in 3D just isn't as good as it is in conventional 2D mode. On both versions of the game there's often a sense that you're wading through treacle, almost as if you're battling the control scheme to get some semblance of the response you get from playing in 2D.
Writing these articles can be a bit of a solitary activity, but I did try out the split-screen mode with the Zombies sub-game and it's much, much better than the 3D. You'd think that the principles would be similar - a half-res display generating two individual viewpoints - and that performance would suffer accordingly, but certainly in the quick sessions I had, frame-rate was close to 60, and the experience was superb.
At some point I hope to have time to try out the conventional multiplayer modes, which also support two-player split-screen. Here, Xbox 360 does have what you might call an architectural advantage. Two players can each log in with their own profiles and play with their own unique identities. On PlayStation 3 though, the second player is represented as a sub-player of the main PSN login, so you'd have "DigitalFoundryUK" and "DigitalFoundryUK(1)" as opposed to individual handles. There's nothing Treyarch can do here, as it's the way things are set up on the PS3. Bearing in mind that so few online titles support split-screen, it's not exactly a major issue, but on the other hand this limitation was somewhat apparent on Sony's own Warhawk and the ability to log in with sub-accounts for multiple players surely isn't an onerous element to add to the PSN infrastructure.
Treyarch itself has done all that it can do to offer up as many multiplayer modes as possible. The fact that both console versions can operate offline in multiplayer mode for LAN parties is an example of a welcome attention to detail. It's not exactly a must-have addition, but those that use it will be deeply appreciative of it, and it's not exactly a big ask for the developers to include it. The fact that they did reflects highly on Treyarch in an age when other developers seem to want to restrict the ways in which online gaming is played.
In the final analysis, Call of Duty: Black Ops is a good game on both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. If this game were to be released as a PS3 exclusive without 360 as a frame of reference, it would be difficult to believe that the scores would be different. Having played through the game twice, Tom's comments in the Eurogamer review apply equally to both versions. Black Ops is highly playable, polished and enjoyable and, for me, the best single-player campaign game in the series' history. Additions like the Dead Ops bonus game and the inclusion of the Nazi Zombies mode add plenty of further value.
For those with both consoles, the choice of where you spend the majority of your online gaming time must be factored into any purchasing decision - as was the case with Modern Warfare 2 before it. However, from a technical perspective, there's little doubt that the Xbox 360 offers the better experience: superior image definition, and a pleasingly smoother run of play.
In many ways, the core experience of playing a COD title is defined by that 60FPS target frame-rate and the advantages that brings. Neither version of the game sustains it, but the Xbox 360 game comes closest and thus it just feels like the more playable, satisfying game. Factor in the higher resolution and what feels like a bit more polish, and it's clearly the pick of the two HD console releases.
Will you support the Digital Foundry team?
Digital Foundry specialises in technical analysis of gaming hardware and software, using state-of-the-art capture systems and bespoke software to show you how well games and hardware run, visualising precisely what they're capable of. In order to show you what 4K gaming actually looks like we needed to build our own platform to supply high quality 4K video for offline viewing. So we did.
Our videos are multi-gigabyte files and we've chosen a high quality provider to ensure fast downloads. However, that bandwidth isn't free and so we charge a small monthly subscription fee of $5. We think it's a small price to pay for unlimited access to top-tier quality encodes of our content. Thank you.Support Digital Foundry