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Face-Off: Splinter Cell: Blacklist

Sam Fisher's Wii U debut stacked up against the Xbox 360, PC and PS3 versions of the game.

Xbox 360 PlayStation 3 PC
Disc Size 6.7GB (disc 1), 6.9GB (disc 2) 11.5GB 19.5GB (download)
Install 6.7GB (disc 1), 6.9GB (disc 2), (3GB optional install) 7.9GB (mandatory) 19.5GB (mandatory)
Surround Support Dolby Digital Dolby Digital, DTS, 5.1LPCM Set-up Dependant

Developed by the newly formed Ubisoft Toronto studio, Splinter Cell: Blacklist re-introduces its covert hero Sam Fisher with a new motion-captured voice actor, throwing us into a action-thriller blender that has us terrorist-spotting our way across the globe. Level design is still heavily encouraging of the stealthy approach, where the dividing line between light and shadow not only forms the bedrock to its gameplay, but also informs the game's technical direction behind the scenes. The team's LEAD engine carries straight over from the last game with clear enhancements, ignoring next-gen formats to focus on the PS3, 360, PC and Wii U, where Nintendo's platform receives full GamePad support, while also being beset by a myriad of bizarre design choices.

Remarkably, at the game's base is the ageing Unreal Engine 2.5 which, much like the original BioShock titles with Irrational Games' focus on water physics, is heavily modified to suit demands beyond Epic's original tool-set. In Splinter Cell's case, appropriately, the renderer has been re-written to enable more complex layers of shading across a scene, with both baked-in and active ambient occlusion, silhouette shadows and multiple dynamic light sources making an impact. The result is a game that takes pride in its rich, pitch-black indoors settings, and yet finds narrative scope to let Sam explore some lush exterior areas too.

In the tradition of Ubisoft's other high-profile releases, such as Far Cry 3 and Assassin's Creed 3, this latest entry in the Splinter Cell series arguably pushes the console versions too hard, while the PC version stands as a show-boat release. All manner of trade-offs are made to make sure each version streams data fast enough to its respective hardware, with the 360's campaign mode divided across two discs - the second containing an optional 3GB HD texture pack install for the "best possible visual experience." Meanwhile, the PS3 version enforces a mandatory install of 7.9GB that takes around 25 minutes to complete, compensating for the slow read rates of its optical drive. Without any such installs to worry about, largely due to its limited built-in storage, the Wii U version is by far the quickest to set up.

After installing patch 1.1.0 on each console, we can get the ball rolling with our suite of head-to-head videos below and a quad-format 720p comparison gallery. Interestingly, the Wii U version puts its best foot first by producing a full 1280x720 internal framebuffer, backed up by 2x multi-sample anti-aliasing (MSAA) [Update: on taking a closer look at the assets, we're now more inclined to go with an FXAA variant for all console versions - similar to the Driver: San Francisco implementation which shades geometry edges in a manner very similar to MSAA). This is an astonishing feat given that Splinter Cell: Conviction ran at just 1024x576 for its 360 release three years ago, and shows great proficiency in the Toronto team's handling of new hardware.

"Visually, Blacklist is a close match between all platform, except that the Wii U game lacks the high resolution texture pack available to all of the other versions."

Splinter Cell: Blacklist compared on Wii U and PC. Use the full-screen button in conjunction with the 720p quality setting for the best experience. Additional comparisons with the PC version at max settings are found below.

Alternative comparisons:

As it turns out, the engine shows marked improvements in its optimisation for all platforms, though the others fall short of the crispness afforded by Nintendo's console. The Xbox 360 only marginally misses the mark by peeling back its horizontal resolution by 80 pixels, providing us with a 1200x720 internal resolution. Oddly, the image appears slightly squashed when compared directly to all three other versions, as if the field of view is increased on the vertical axis - though in isolation this is impossible to distinguish.

In light of Saints Row 4's sub-HD blurriness on Sony's console, it's a shame to see that image quality in Blacklist also falls foul of a curtailed internal resolution. To our pixel count, the PS3 weighs in at 1152x648 - an awkward figure for the PS3 to resolve in the upscale, and results in the fuzziest image quality of all the versions available.

Starting the Wii U version's campaign in earnest, we get a sense that this extra pixel-perfect clarity isn't necessarily being put to best use. The absence of an install is a convenience, certainly, but flitting between each comparison screenshot shows texture quality suffers to the same degree as the 360 code minus its optional texture pack. Some bump-mapped surfaces appear comparable to those on PS3, such as character skin and most clothing, but environmental details also appear flattened or downright garish in spots. Taking on the Insurgent Stronghold mission, geometry pop-in is also an issue as we walk upstream through a valley, where trees and rocks swap out for higher-res assets as they're audibly read from the disc.

A lack of any such mandatory texture pack install on the Wii U version has other repercussions. Loading times are noticeably longer on Nintendo's platform, where if we select "skip" at the earliest opportunity during the initial briefing video, it takes the optical drive one minute 24 seconds to fully stream the prologue level and let us cut to the gameplay. This demands patience from players just itching to get to the action, and by comparison the PS3 takes just 22 seconds to load the very same mission, while the 360 clocks in at 24 seconds with its optional install.

Wii UX360PS3PC
To the Wii U version's credit there's no mandatory install. However, the upshot of this is that textures stream directly from its optical drive, resulting in more geometry pop-in and blurrier assets across large-scale environments.

Wii UX360PS3PC
Despite using these lower resolution textures, actual image resolution on Wii U still remains the highest of all three console platforms. It runs at a full 1280x720 while the 360 and PS3 versions are muddied by the upscale process from sub-HD resolutions.
Wii UX360PS3PC
Outdoor shadow filtering is restricted on Wii U. Looking to the right side of this shot we see the cascade is closer to the screen, where dithering is more visible.
Wii UX360PS3PC
Alpha effects such as licks of fire are equivalent in quality across Wii U, PS3 and 360 versions. The PC offers additional crispness here, but we also see more refined bump-mapping to clothing for a Direct X 11 enabled platforms.
Wii UX360PS3PC
As shown by the bullet impact sparks in the bottom right, the console versions use the same grade of particle effects as the PC version. Again, reduced texture quality on the Wii U is a disappointment, appearing smudged over compared to PS3.

Waiting around for the "loading data" prompt to disappear isn't just an issue while loading new missions on Wii U, but also for each time we upgrade the Paladin cockpit - taking one minute and 20 seconds on average each time any selection is made. This is typically three times the wait of the rivalling versions, and also greatly bloats the down-time between bouts of Spies versus Mercs mode online.

Of course, we can't overlook the potential advantages of Wii U's extra second screen. A typical complaint of referring back to the GamePad's display is that it takes your eyes off the crucial action on the big-screen, but for a slower-paced stealth game this is much less of an issue. In fact, the decision to present all gadgets and weapons on a grid makes selections far more intuitive than the weapon wheel method seen on PS3 and 360, which involves holding down the d-pad first. The Wii U's approach feels snappy and less convoluted - though the same can't be said of the sluggish - but thankfully optional - tilt controls for handling the UAV, Tri-Rotor and Snake gadgets. Another huge plus is Blacklist's support for off-TV play, as effective as its implementation in Assassin's Creed 3, which can be toggled in the menus at any time.

Looking purely at effects quality on each version, everything from alpha to particle effects are even in resolution across the board, and visual tricks like motion blur and depth of field also make the cut for in-engine cut-scenes. Shadows are beautifully integrated into the visual mix while indoors too, with a baked-in approach to ambient occlusion saving on excess work from the GPU when it comes to static parts of the environment. Characters, meanwhile, see the use of screen-space ambient occlusion (SSAO) on consoles to fill dents and crevices on clothing with small pockets of shade. The PC advantage here becomes most apparent in DirectX 11 mode, where field AO is combined with a refined form of horizon-based ambient occlusion (HBAO) to deliver a lighter, but more accurate spread of shade across character clothing and behind objects.

Those with DX11-enabled cards also have plenty of anti-aliasing options opened up to them, ranging from MSAA to the filmic, temporal TXAA - plus the additional benefit of a toggle for tessellation. Once this is selected, rock formations appear more rounded, palm trees pop out more organically, and crucially, character faces and clothing appear less angular when given close-ups. These are subtle changes, but ones that help the world look less rigid, and less polygonal by nature.

Wii UX360PS3PC
Splinter Cell: Blacklist is all about using light and shade to your advantage. While indoors, silhouette shadows on Wii U are full-bodied and identical to the PS3 and 360 versions - with only light pixellation surfacing while up close.

Wii UX360PS3PC
Tessellation and parallax occlusion mapping (POM) set the PC version apart from the others. When enabled it chisels in extra details across character clothing and terrain - in this case adding pop to the web patterning on Sam's upgraded mesh suit.
Wii UX360PS3PC
The PC version also opens up horizon-based ambient occlusion (HBAO), adding touches of shade to the already increased detailing on characters.
Wii UX360PS3PC
Motion blur is rarely used during gameplay for any version, being solely reserved for cinematic moments like travelling down zip-lines. This is added to the player's periphery, leaving Sam Fisher in full focus to achieve a vignette-style effect.
Wii UX360PS3PC
2D elements such as grass also receive a update on PC, which leaves palm trees with a distinctly fuller look compared to those on consoles.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist - performance analysis

The final piece of the Face-Off puzzle is in performance, where we test the PS3, 360 and Wii U versions of Blacklist across a mixture of engine cut-scenes and unsynchronised gameplay. A target of 30fps is often on the cards for console games using variations of the Unreal Engine, and Blacklist is no exception.

Save for drops to the 25fps mark during some cut-scenes, the good news is that both PS3 and 360 versions hit this midway 30fps target consistently enough to make gameplay feel fluid. However, this is only made possible by means of some very aggressive full-screen tearing. Adaptive v-sync is in place for each platform, which causes frames to chop in half when the hardware is being pushed beyond its limits. Engaging an area filled with mercenaries is an easy way to get the artifact to manifest in full force, though thankfully the Wii U version is completely free of this blemish.

V-sync is permanently engaged for Nintendo's platform, adding to its credentials as one of the better-presented versions of the game overall - and it even outperforms the 360 during earlier in-engine cinematics. However, from the moment Sam Fisher enters the Paladin aircraft, it's clear this isn't to last. We suffer from lengthy bouts of 20fps performance during most briefing scenes here, plus similarly sluggish levels of refresh while at the heart of larger shoot-outs. Given that the PS3 runs at the smoothest clip of the three, it's unfortunate that this uneven level of response is the price we appear to be paying for enjoying the highest image quality.

The performance deficit during solo play goes some way to explain why no split-screen co-op mode is made available to Wii U owners, although online co-op is maintained. As a point of reference, the PS3 and 360 versions drop to a wavering 25fps during split-screen mode, meaning it's likely the Wii U's existing frame-rate struggles would only accentuate further once an extra viewpoint is added. Even so, the omission strikes us as wasted opportunity given how well the GamePad lends itself to inviting a guest player into the action without dividing the main screen.

"The Wii U version is the only console SKU to feature v-sync permanently engaged - the downside being sustained drops to 20fps in intense action scenes."

Those with an aversion to screen tearing are advised to avoid the PS3 and 360 versions of Blacklist. The Wii U version is completely v-synced, incidentally, but the trade-off is that it holds at the 20fps line during direct combat, while the PS3 version is the most stable performer.

In testing out PC performance, we find the level of optimisation goes beyond that of most other Unreal Engine titles, and multi-core CPU support is implemented in such a way that it takes advantage of more than just two cores. In this case, triangle processing duties are spread across as many cores as are available, alleviating some strain on the GPU. With ultra settings selected, plus tessellation and 4x MSAA, we get a perfect 1080p60 when using an Intel i7-3770k clocked to 4.3GHz. Pushing the test system's GTX 770 to a resolution of 2560x1440 chops that figure down to a rougher 40fps, though this is easily put to rights by simply removing AA. Mileage will clearly vary according to your set-up, and ultra settings will be off the table for lower-spec rigs, but you should still enjoy a decent experience even on a mid-level gaming PC.

Splinter Cell: Blacklist - the Digital Foundry verdict

Almost every quad-format Face-Off to date has unearthed compromises in the Wii U release which eclipses its advantages, and Splinter Cell: Blacklist doesn't buck this trend. Taken from an image resolution standpoint, the Wii U version is no doubt the reigning king of its domain, where unlike the Sony and Microsoft platform releases, it achieves a full 720p with v-sync always engaged. As a result, it's Nintendo's hardware that gives us the clearest and most integral image of the three, while the 360 and PS3 versions trail behind with sub-HD presentations, with the PlayStation 3 coming off as particularly blurry.

But there are gripes to consider before jumping in bed with the Wii U version. Most significant is the degradation in texture quality, the muddiness of which matches the 360 release without its HD texture pack install. Surfaces can look flat compared to the game running on PS3 and 360 with full installs, and the lack of any similar optional install on Nintendo's platform means pop-in flares up while in wide outdoors areas. Curiously, in terms of sheer playability, Sony's hardware achieves the most consistent frame-rates during combat, with 360 taking middle ground here, and the Wii U suffering from more regular dips to the low 20s, perhaps explaining the omission of split-screen gameplay.

All in all, Ubisoft Toronto's debut stealth-em-up has us talking in circles when tasked with pinning down one definitive version - accepting the PC version with tessellation, TXAA and higher-grade ambient occlusion as the obvious response. Looking purely at the console trio, there's no denying that tearing on PS3 and 360 is overbearing in this case, though these have been optimised with fast loading times, and higher quality assets missing from Wii U. The pristine presentation of this Wii U version is a major plus meanwhile, and extra GamePad features such as off-screen play and an intuitive grid system for selecting weapons are considerable, tangible pluses.

However, the Wii U's lower frame-rates, patience-testing loading screens and occasional freezing issues can't be ignored either, meaning we'd advise caution before buying this version. It feels rushed to market in these respects, and until a worthy patch arrives, the contest must be narrowed down to PS3 and 360 - a stalemate that itself can only be broken via your preference for either visual fidelity or performance.

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About the author

Thomas Morgan

Thomas Morgan

Senior Staff Writer, Digital Foundry

32-bit era nostalgic and gadget enthusiast Tom has been writing for Eurogamer and Digital Foundry since 2011. His favourite games include Gitaroo Man, F-Zero GX and StarCraft 2.


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