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Black Ops 2: Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3?

Preliminary findings from the upcoming Digital Foundry Face-Off.

It's fair to say that Treyarch's track record in terms of cross-platform conversions is patchy at best, especially evident when the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of 2010's Call of Duty: Black Ops are compared directly. Lower frame-rates, lower resolution frame buffers, and PSN's online issues gave the impression that the firm's focus had been directed towards the Xbox 360 version of the game, resulting in a sub-par experience for PS3 owners. So how does Black Ops 2 fare?

As we speak, Digital Foundry's Tom Morgan is poring over all three versions of the game, having bought each at the midnight launch on Tuesday. A complete analysis is in the running for this weekend, but for now, we are in a position to offer some headline pointers on what separates the two console versions based on our captures of the single-player campaign.

First up: rendering resolution. Since the release of Modern Warfare, the Call of Duty engine has always operated in a sub-HD configuration, with Treyarch's Black Ops running at the COD standard 1040x600 with 2x multi-sampling anti-aliasing (MSAA) on Xbox 360. Alas, this saw a reduction to 960x540 on the PlayStation 3.

Resolution parity returned with Infinity Ward's Modern Warfare 3, but this has changed once again with Black Ops 2; native resolution is now 880x720 on Xbox 360 with 2x MSAA. It may sound somewhat on the low side, but kudos to Treyarch here - the upscaling algorithm is remarkably refined when viewed in motion. The overall impression is that this is the crispest COD we've seen on 360. As you'll see in the comparison viewer below, the upscaled image generally compares quite well with the PC version running at native res.

Things aren't quite so impressive on PS3, however. Base resolution does indeed appear to be a very close match, with our pixel count resolving a marginally lower 864x720 image [Update #2: Further shot analysis now seems to be suggesting that PS3 uses dynamic resolution]. It's impossible to overlook the aggressive blur applied over the top of the image though, resulting from what appears to be a new post-process anti-aliasing technique for the studio. The intensity of the filter is so pronounced that, even after close study of numerous shots, it's difficult to pinpoint whether any hardware MSAA is being applied on Sony's platform. A significant amount of detail is lost in the image overall, but on the plus side, edge detection/smoothing does work out better in some scenes.

Update: Reader Damien Dugdale wrote to us asking to re-test PS3 image quality with the 1.02 patch removed, suggesting that the blur effect is lessened in the original code. And guess what - he's right. Here's a shot showing the patch running, which is noticeably blurrier than the unpatched game. So in the here and now, you can at least play single-player modes with a less severe blur by removing the 1.02 update, but obviously you'll need it running to play online. Hopefully this can be addressed by Treyarch.

Black Ops 2 on PS3 suffers from noticeable hit to image quality, where the additional blur comes from Treyarch's choice method of anti-aliasing. As a result, the 360 scales up an 880x720 native resolution alongside 2x MSAA to create a crisper image, while PS3 uses lower precision post processing to mask the jaggies.
The 360 benefits from higher resolution alpha buffers on explosions, as seen behind the wrecked vehicles in the distance. The lower resolution buffers on PlayStation 3 help mitigate bandwidth issues in the Sony architecture and we saw similar compromises in World at War and Modern Warfare 3.
Grass can come across as a bit plain on both consoles compared to Battlefield 3's due to the absence of ambient occlusion on console. This option is available on the PC version, though appears understated - and often absent - during our tests.
Shadows appear largely like-for-like in our tests, though slightly filtered on 360. Real-time shadows can sap system performance, and every millisecond counts on a console title. PC has the horsepower to put on a better show here.
The silver lining for the PS3's post processing is its more thorough edge-detection. Here, the yellow stair bannisters and notches on the topside of the gun show less prominent stair-stepping - though, this comes at the cost of increased blurring to textures.

We've also run some like-for-like video clips through our frame-rate analysis tools to discern whether or not a disparity in performance still exists between the two console platforms - historically the COD engine has favoured the Xbox 360 - a state of affairs especially evident in Black Ops.

Modern Warfare 3 closed the gap somewhat, but it's safe to say that there is still a noticeable performance difference between Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in the new game, as you can see by checking out the cut-scene and traversal video below, which seeks to measure frame-rates in areas where the rendering engines are put through a series of nigh-on identical stress tests.

We're still working on campaign gameplay, multiplayer, and stereoscopic 3D analyses but we reckon that the gap between the two console SKUs does close - especially in terms of the all-important online experience (though these issues are somewhat alarming).

In most gameplay areas, PS3 performance generally is significantly closer to the target 60FPS than it was in the first Black Ops, though more intense effects work clearly takes its toll on frame-rate. Curiously we find that the PC version seems to require serious amounts of CPU power - no problem for quad-core systems but the 2.8GHz Pentium G840 powering the £300 Digital Foundry PC seems to have issues running the game at anything above 30FPS, regardless of what graphical settings or resolutions we try, something we'll be taking another look at shortly.

We aim to have our full article complete for the weekend, but in the meantime, we can safely recommend the Xbox 360 version of Black Ops 2 ahead of its Sony equivalent. That said, assuming Treyarch can overcome the freezes and lock-ups impacting the PS3 experience, the gap between the two console versions in terms of performance does narrow if you're mainly invested in the multiplayer side.

"Despite the disparities between the console versions, it's clear that the PS3 work is a step up from Treyarch's efforts on the first Black Ops and the online issues are more of a concern to us right now."

There are still noticeable frame-rate differences between the two console versions of Black Ops 2, some of which we highlight here in a performance video based on like-for-like sections from the game.

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Call of Duty: Black Ops 2

PS3, Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii U, PC

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About the Author
Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

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.