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Console Gaming: The Lag Factor • Page 3

Getting to grips with in-game latency, with help from Infinity Ward and friends.

The next test I was itching to try out concerned games where frame-rate isn't capped to 60FPS or 30FPS. Two tests here - first of all Techland's screen-tear festival, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, and along with that, BioShock on Xbox 360. This game is interesting in that by default the game is capped at 30FPS, but you can disable v-sync and let the Unreal Engine pump out as many frames as it possibly can regardless of image quality. This results is even more noticeable tearing than Juarez, but the result is a frame-rate boost that sometimes exceeds 50FPS.

Games that run at variable frame-rates obviously produce variable results. With its frame-rate unlocked, BioShock on Xbox 360 can half its latency. Final reminder - all frame counts in these vids must have three frames removed to account for the latency in the Dell screen.

So, while Juarez hovers around the 40FPS area, there's still the same 100ms of lag as Halo 3, despite an effective 25 per cent boost in frame-rate. However, BioShock is something of a revelation. The standard 133ms in frame-locked mode, but with v-sync disabled, occasionally we reach the same response rate as a 60FPS shooter like Call of Duty 4: 67ms.

And speaking of which, let's complete our tests with where it all began: Infinity Ward's last COD game, along with its Treyarch-originated sibling, World at War. Here we see controller response vary between the expected four frames (67ms) all the way up to 100ms in certain sections of World at War.

Call of Duty aims to have the swiftest response in any console shooter, but latency varies at any given point, as does the frame-rate. Negative performance is seemingly more pronounced in World at War.

Here's a final list of all the games I tested for this feature. Not all made it into the videos, so this handy table represents all of my findings. Probably the biggest surprise after GTA was the amount of lag built into LEGO Batman - 133ms on a 60FPS game. What is important to note is that these findings are very context-sensitive. Yes, COD4 appears to be more responsive than World at War, but in different selections of levels per game you could easily reverse that. In this respect, these results do have an element of randomness about them, though it is no secret that for the most scenarios, COD4 does outperform its pseudo-sequel.

Game Latency Measurement
Burnout Paradise 67ms
BioShock (frame-locked) 133ms
BioShock (unlocked) as low as 67ms
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare 67ms-84ms
Call of Duty: World at War 67ms-100ms
Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood 100ms
Forza Motorsport 2 67ms
Geometry Wars 2 67ms
Guitar Hero: Aerosmith 67ms
Grand Theft Auto IV 133ms-200ms
Halo 3 100ms-150ms
Left 4 Dead 100ms-133ms
LEGO Batman 133ms
Mirror's Edge 133ms
Street Fighter IV 67ms
Soul Calibur IV 67ms-84ms
Unreal Tournament 3 100ms-133ms
X-Men Origins: Wolverine 133ms

In-game latency, or the level of response in our controls, is one of the most crucial elements in game-making, not just in the here and now, but for the future too. It's fair to say that players today have become conditioned to what the truly hardcore PC gamers would consider to be almost unacceptably high levels of latency to the point where cloud gaming services such as OnLive and Gaikai rely heavily upon it.

The average videogame runs at 30FPS, and appears to have an average lag in the region of 133ms. On top of that is additional delay from the display itself, bringing the overall latency to around 166ms. Assuming that the most ultra-PC gaming set-up has a latency less than one third of that, this is good news for cloud gaming in that there's a good 80ms or so window for game video to be transmitted from client to server.

But in the meantime, while overall "pings" between console and gamer remain rather high, the bottom line seems to be that players are now used to it, to the point where developers - like Infinity Ward - centred on getting the very lowest possible latencies are using that to give their games an edge over the competition. Call of Duty's ultra-crisp response is one of the key reasons why it's a cut above its rivals, and it's a core part of a gameplay package that will once again top the charts this Christmas.

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About the author

Richard Leadbetter

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry  |  digitalfoundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.


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