After the unstoppable surge of cross-platform releases at the tail end of 2007, the frantic pace of game releases has thankfully died down as the New Year games lull kicks in. It's a good time pick up a few of the games we've overlooked as we gorged on the brilliance of the Q4 '07 line-up, or perhaps return to the titles we never quite had time to finish, eking out the final ounces of gaming excellence.
For me? A chance to take a look at a range of recent cross-platform titles that somehow failed to make their way into the Christmas period features, and combine them with an in-depth look at what is easily the best game released so far in 2008.
You all know the score by now: impartial criticism of each cross-format release is duly delivered, serving to supplement the original reviews with console-specific commentary. Gameplay matters take precedence, but technical matters are also discussed. Think of it as a running commentary on the state of multiformat games development, if you like. Or the opportunity for a big ruck in the comments section, I really don't mind.
As per usual, comparison screenshots galleries accompany each piece. Full precision 24-bit RGB shots are losslessly extracted from the HDMI ports of the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 Elite respectively, courtesy of the Digital Foundry HD capture station - the only equipment in the world capable of capturing every last piece of visual information output by the host consoles. With open access to the complete full-range RGB video outputs of both machines, we're able to match up the action shot-by-shot. Forget the murky, jerky, comparison videos seen elsewhere, our shots are the only way to get the full picture, and you'll only find this level of quality on Eurogamer. [Alright, we get it. -Ed]
So, onto the line-up of games then: a sanity-rending barrage of movie tie-in releases that range from the preposterous to the mediocre, rescued only by the inclusion of the multiformat brilliance of Criterion's Burnout Paradise.
In the next, thrilling, movie tie-in free instalment: Devil May Cry 4, The Club and many, many more...
There's a palpable sense of zero compromise about Criterion's work that underpins all its titles released to date. Technically speaking, the team is untouchable, and whatever you may think of the creative decisions that have shaped the gameplay of Burnout Paradise (personally, I'm a fan), nobody else is managing to match what the UK-based developer is achieving in terms of the scale of this cross-platform masterpiece.
Put simply, this is the first truly 'next-gen' game that truly is 99.9 percent identical across both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360; the first title I've looked at for these features that raises the bar technically on both formats, offering the complete, full-fat experience, nothing added, nothing taken away.
That being the case, you'd think that putting the assets together for this game would be a doddle. Far from it. The sheer freedom of the game combined with its ever-changing lighting made producing the comparison shots required for our face-off features quite a challenge. The solution? To bin off the Burnout licenses I'd spent days working on and begin again from scratch. Both versions were started simultaneously in order to synchronise the lighting, with the races' starting grid used to line up the range of shots we've culled from all over Paradise City. In all honesty, for all the effort that went into this comparison gallery, it would have been far easier simply to use the same shots from both formats and nobody outside of an office in Guildford would've been able to tell the difference.
Bearing in mind just how close the conversion work is, finding any difference at all is pretty much impossible. Maybe - just maybe - the PS3 version has the edge in terms of texture filtering on the road surfaces, but you'd need to be pausing the game and studying the screen in-depth to notice the difference. Otherwise, I literally can't tell the difference between the two versions. Certainly, early reports of screen tear and frame-drops on the 360 version are way off-beam. It's cross-platform development the way it should be, and hopefully the near-equal split in sales being reported is enough to convince EA that putting out excellent PS3 code is indeed worth the time, money and effort.
It can easily be argued that the developers have even gone above and beyond the call of duty. Criterion's eye for cross-platform conformity even extends to the colour balance. No doubt many of you have noticed that even with full-range RGB enabled, PS3 titles often (but not always) have less contrast than the Xbox 360 versions of the same game. You can see it in this feature for sure with titles like Cars, Ratatouille and Beowulf. However, with Burnout Paradise, Criterion has manually tweaked both versions to look the same. Indeed, the credits section of the game mentions that the developers' screens were professionally ISF-calibrated, and I understand that code was added to the 360 rendition of the game to produce a lighting range that matched the look of the PS3 version.
For owners of both consoles - assuming you have hard disks installed on both - the choice of which version to buy essentially comes down to the online component of the game. Wherever your friends list is strongest, or wherever you spend the most time online - PSN or Live - that's the only criteria for deciding which of the two games to buy. Burnout Paradise is a completely different experience online, and fully mastering it involves taking on challenges with up to eight players. Organisation is the key here as random freeburns with online 'joyriders' not looking to take part in the challenges effectively kill off your chances of making it through all 300+ tasks.
I'm struggling to think of any other ground-breaking cross-platform project that meets the standards of Burnout Paradise. Bearing in mind how many times EA has disappointed us with substandard PS3 code, this is an exceptional achievement. Bearing in mind EA's own projections for PS3 sales this year, let's hope that Burnout Paradise is just the start of a stronger focus on development for the Sony console.