Last year's Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare was a technical revolution for the series - a generational leap compared to the disappointing Ghosts. Taking a look at Black Ops 3's multiplayer beta on PS4, it's clear that Treyarch is building upon the solid gameplay foundations laid down by Sledgehammer in the last game. With an even more agile move-set and class-specific abilities, the series' action doesn't relent in its pace - but with all these new changes to the gameplay's core, can the new game retain the signature 60fps gameplay and extend that experience into the brand new campaign co-op mode?
The beta concentrates entirely on multiplayer, offering a choice of three maps: Hunted, Combine, and EVAC - playable across seven game modes. From here, Black Ops 3's eight classes each bring unique abilities to the squad, ranging from magnetically charged projectiles to exploding arrows. Also added is a new traversal system: boost jumps, wall runs, and slides can be chained together to parkour across terrain, and in practised hands, a quick kill and fast bail-out are now much easier to execute. It must be said that animations are slightly stiff on other players, but from the first person view, motion unfolds fluidly during play.
From a technical perspective we're in familiar territory here. The game offers up a native 1080p presentation similar to that of Advanced Warfare, in combination with a post-process anti-aliasing solution that looks very much in-line with plain old FXAA. The core presentation is sufficiently smooth, with shimmering mostly restricted to sub-pixel elements of the scene and surfaces featuring intricate texture details, or those with a specular component. The use of post-process AA gives a reasonably clean look to the game, but the technique here blurs the image to a degree, somewhat reducing the pin-sharp fidelity one might expect from a native 1080p title.
Elsewhere, the lack of anisotropic filtering is a returning gripe for the series. This leaves ground textures appearing blurry, though normal map detail is still impressive at close range. Treyarch's latest engine also produces some striking views across the three maps on show in the beta - the lighting model working nicely in combination with a range of surface shaders, while smoke trails and particles effects are delivered at full resolution. Overall, the core look of the game is reminiscent of its predecessor, and many visual elements are handled in a similar way: shadows are displayed with dithered edges, while screen distortion and motion blur are restrained compared to what we've seen in other Call of Duty campaigns.
In terms of performance, the Black Ops 3 beta delivers a mostly solid 60fps experience in multiplayer - albeit with visible drops in frame-rate during more bombastic segments of gameplay with lows of around 55fps manifesting on rare occasions. Controls are otherwise crisp and consistent for gameplay, and outside of an occasional moment of judder, these drops in performance often go by unnoticed.
Similarly, smaller skirmishes between players register only a small visible dip in performance, with gunfire occasionally followed by the odd frame drop along with a handful of torn frames (limited to the top 25 per cent of the screen), before re-establishing a locked 60fps once more. While top-level players that rely on per-frame precision may feel the temporary shift in latency when these variances occur, this is unlikely to affect gameplay in any meaningful way for the vast majority of people - and obviously, this is still work-in-progress code with room to improve. During the beta we were mercilessly gunned down with pixel precision multiple times despite our attempts to strafe to safety, strongly suggesting that these blips in smoothness are largely inconsequential to most players.
The only noticeable drops come about in rare, heated moments, where exploding grenades and airstrikes combine to see metrics fall to around 50fps. This only happens in short bursts around smoke and particle effects, and in line with what we see in Advanced Warfare, the engine quickly recovers to a steady 60fps. Across a general run of play though, the most noticeable variances in performance appear directly after respawning outside a firefight, or when the camera transitions from gameplay to the kill-cam. In this case, the engine appears to temporarily freeze as it streams in data from the enemy's viewpoint, causing a tiny pause - but obviously, this doesn't affect gameplay.
So far, despite some variances in overall smoothness, frame-rates and controller response feel both fast and fluid. The performance issues surrounding Ghosts in multiplayer appear long gone, and the overall impression is that COD fans are well served by a refined gameplay experience paired with a pretty solid level of performance. Mild dips in frame-rate aside, the impact on gameplay should largely go unnoticed for all but the most hardcore of Call of Duty players.
However, one thing we couldn't test in the beta was Black Ops 3's unique four-player campaign co-op. As shown at Sony's E3 2015 conference, a direct feed of the demo reveals a more obtuse frame-rate than the performance level seen in the beta. Rather, it clocks in at between 30-50fps for most of the gameplay shown, and besides glancing the 60fps line while looking skyward, a strong tide of transparency effects keeps it far from this target throughout.
From a visual perspective, it's clear that much more is going on in any given scene compared to what we see in the beta - and historically, Treyarch's campaigns have been somewhat more flexible in sticking to the performance target compared to the multiplayer mode. It's a concerning initial showing for the game's campaign mode, and having four players charging around the square does little to flatter its performance read-out. But with frame-rates far from the target 60fps, to what extent is this indicative of the final product? We reached out to Activision with our test results, and Treyarch studio head Mark Lamia came back to us with this statement:
"This capture was made from a pre-alpha build for the intended purpose of demoing a level at E3 and was not fully optimised for performance. At this stage in development, we had not yet implemented our shipping code and content performance optimisations that will be in place by launch," he says. "During development, especially pre-Beta, we prioritise performance work for anything that will go hands-on with the public, like our multiplayer hands-on at E3, or our upcoming public beta in August. At Treyarch, we are always working to maximise our technology to take advantage of a given platform's hardware capabilities and deliver the highest production values, balanced with feel, gameplay and frame-rate performance."
With that in mind, it's fair to give Treyarch the benefit of the doubt, at least until the game arrives in its final form, where we can give its co-op campaign a full test - but it's clear that a significant optimisation effort is required based on the E3 showing. From our early analysis of this pre-alpha code, it's certainly not as as smooth as last week's multiplayer beta. However, the fact that this more optimised, public-facing component has hit the expected performance level gives us optimism that Treyarch is heading in the right direction - and with its 6th November due date drawing ever closer, we hope to see the team hit the target frame-rate across all areas of the game.
Additional reporting and assets by Thomas Morgan.
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