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Face-Off: Assassin's Creed II

Splitting heirs.

The good news is that the gap between PS3 and Xbox 360 has been reduced, but on the flip side there is still a tangible performance difference. The first of our two FPS videos based on ACII features synchronised video: mostly set-piece elements and cut-scenes, with the odd dash of gameplay, but all powered with the same engine.

This synchronised set of clips is a decent way to test performance in like-for-like situations. However, the clips themselves do not really stress the engine by and large.

First impressions are that Ubisoft has done good work on the PS3 build. In cut-scenes and viewpoint set-pieces, we see that the new game clearly outperforms the old one, which dropped and tore frames on an almost continuous basis. Also curious is that the uncapped frame-rate from AC1 (only seen on PS3) has been disposed of in favour of a 30FPS limit, bringing it into line with the 360 version. It may sound crazy to limit your frame-rate but it actually makes good sense in this case as it standardises controller feedback and helps to eliminate judder, something that AC1 on PS3 had in spades. Raw stats see tearing down to 9.4 per cent, but only 1.7 per cent on 360 with minimum frame-rates of 21FPS (PS3) and 24FPS (360).

However, it's interesting to note that the few pure gameplay clips seen in that selection do tear pretty badly. It's occasionally seen in cut-scenes too, specifically when the game is rendering a large number of NPCs. So, let's go for a second test using non-synchronous video taken from the same areas of the game running on each platform, with a stronger emphasis on actual gameplay.

A representative sample of gameplay clips show that while both have performance issues, it's the PS3 build that suffers most.

For 360 owners, here's where we see what you might call classic Assassin's Creed performance: 5.2 per cent torn frames (just like the first game) with a 24FPS minimum (ditto). It bears out a gameplay experience which suggests that playing ACII feels very similar to playing the original: off-putting screen-tear when it does manifest and a sense that the game isn't really as solid as you would hope it would be two years after its predecessor came out.

PS3 gets a 24FPS minimum, with 22.6 per cent screen-tear. Yes, the sequel is clearly a big improvement over the first game in terms of raw performance, especially in terms of a smoother frame-rate, but the tearing is clearly a very big issue, and it's most especially evident in crowded scenes. The very nature of Assassin's Creed II means there are a lot of crowded scenes.

So what about the 1080p mode then? Assuming the DF measurements are right and it is indeed rendering 25 per cent fewer pixels than pure 720p, can you effectively decide to go for smoother gameplay over some detail loss and some extra blur? Apparently not: in our tests the game acted in exactly the same way as the native 720p mode does, and the loss of image quality was a bitter pill to swallow.

So, overall the performance gap has dropped, but if you've got the choice, the Xbox 360 offers a sharper picture, smoother performance, lower levels of screen-tear and faster loading, and it doesn't require PS3's 1.5GB mandatory install either. This is not to say that the 360 version doesn't have its faults, and the fact that the technical issues of its two-year-old predecessor haven't been addressed is probably my biggest disappointment with the game: quite apart from the tearing, the pop-in is sometimes atrocious, even when running from hard disk. It's worth pointing out that in this respect, the PS3 version performs in much the same way.

Performance issues aside, the games are basically like-for-like. There's proper anisotropic filtering on both versions that looks identical and serves its purpose admirably. Some reports peg the 360 game as possessing superior texture filtering, but it's actually the same cross-platform, with just variations in implementation between the NVIDIA and ATI GPUs causing slight differences. The PS3 developers do appear to have had a bit more fun with their light-sources in night-time scenes, however. Viewpoint set-pieces at night clearly show the PS3 code to have more lights in effect. It's more of a curiosity than a technical issue, though, and has no real bearing on the make-up of the game itself.

Where PS3 does have an interesting addition not found on 360 is in its link-up support with Assassin's Creed: Bloodlines on the PSP. There's a curious "sync" system in place, whereby the weapon of every boss Altair defeats in the PSP game is unlocked for use by Ezio hundreds of years later in the PS3 game - the notion being that his ancestor tucked them away as a legacy for his assassin descendants to make use of. Templar coins you amass from the handheld game are also translated into AC2 Florins - a useful addition at the beginning of the new epic when funds are relatively scarce. Similarly the Codex pages in the PS3 game that bestow extra life and blade upgrades, once unlocked on PS3, become available to Altair in the past too. Hardly earth-shattering stuff, but pretty neat nonetheless.

In the final analysis, it's fair to say that while Assassin's Creed II has a number of important advantages on Xbox 360, the crucial thing is that the improvements to the PS3 engine are such that the performance deficit isn't going to get in the way of having a great time. It's an essential game on both platforms, but if you've got both consoles, the 360 version is clearly the more solid performer.

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