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Digital Foundry vs. Console Battlefield 3

Technical analysis of campaign and multiplayer code revealed to date.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Everything we have seen so far of Battlefield 3 on PC suggests a consummate example of video game warfare, realised by pushing back new barriers in rendering technology courtesy of DICE's phenomenal new Frostbite 2 engine. However, the lack of marketing focus on the console versions has led many to wonder whether current generation hardware has the power available to provide any kind of equivalent experience to the incredible DirectX 11 computer game. To put it blankly, can consoles really handle a satisfying Battlefield 3?

Last week's release of the console multiplayer beta, in tandem with a single-player PS3 demo revealed at the recent Eurogamer Expo gave us our first opportunities to get hands-on with some game code and our reaction is mixed: the campaign sampler lived up to expectations but we're really not quite sure what to make of the beta.

First up, let's take a look at the positives. The campaign mission we played on the PlayStation 3 was undoubtedly a high quality piece of code. The Operation Guillotine level effectively showcases one of the core improvements DICE has made to its fundamental rendering architecture - the implementation of a fully deferred shading solution.

DICE's Xbox 360 gameplay footage of the Operation Guillotine campaign level gives a very good idea of the quality of the level that was playable on PlayStation 3 at the recent Eurogamer Expo.

This allows for a phenomenal amount of dynamic lights to be in play at any given point, giving real depth and texture to the scene: from the blinding floodlights to the flickering embers of fire, the deferred rendering set-up gives the Battlefield series a new level of fidelity to its already state-of-the-art visuals. Also really impressive is the quality of animation: systems developed by EA Sports for titles like Madden NFL were repurposed by DICE for inclusion into the new Frostbite 2 engine, resulting in characters and actions that bring video games one step closer to a more cinematic level of quality.

Gameplay itself follows the established Battlefield campaign template, but the overall immersion level seems to be that much more improved, with a more visceral feeling imparted by some excellent dynamic camera work as cut-scene moments are more closely integrated with the core action than we've seen before.

So the real question has to be: why aren't we blown away by the console multiplayer beta? In many ways, it doesn't seem to be quite the same quality game as the Expo single-player demo: first impressions are so important and the first five minutes you have with the console beta doesn't seem to signpost the arrival of any great technological advances.

It can be convincingly argued that the choice of level for the beta isn't exactly the best showcase for the Frostbite 2 technology: only in the underground subway level do we really see any kind of work-out for the deferred lighting set-up. The other two major sections of the stage are both mostly set outdoors and the thing about broad daylight is that you're only ever really going to see one major light source - and that would be the sun. There's very little texture to the lighting of the outdoor sections, which can be very harsh.

A montage of quick clips from the Xbox 360 version of the Battlefield 3 multiplayer beta. Both versions opt for a capped 30 frames per second, with tearing kicking in when rendering budgets overrun. Note that frame-rate itself is pretty consistent though.

Similarly, the choice of level doesn't really showcase some of the things that Frostbite technology excels at. There's very little in the way of substantial structures you can fully explode until the last leg of the level, and almost nothing in terms of big bangs that could really put the terrain deformation technology through its paces - there are plenty of collapsing trees though, useful for hiding snipers. SAM missiles occasionally fire off, sometimes bringing down craft in flight, but as the smoke clears, suddenly seeing a replacement missile appear out of nowhere on the launcher does spoil the effect somewhat. There are also no playable vehicles in the singular level on offer - something you'd think DICE would want to emphasise as it's a key difference in its multiplayer offering compared to Call of Duty.

What we do get is an example of the kind of expansive, multi-stage maps for which DICE are famous... but then again this is exactly the kind of set-up we've already seen before in titles like Medal of Honor and Battlefield: Bad Company 2. There are a number of real technical issues with the code as it stands right now too: the choice of a brightly lit, expansive outdoors level really brings into focus some off-putting technical issues: detail levels (LODs) pop before your eyes in an obvious manner very close to the camera, incidental environmental objects also appear out of nowhere, and even lighting and shadow on far-off buildings can suddenly switch between LODs right before your eyes.

Many bugs manifest - such as pink and green frames flashing on-screen for no real reason, and your character occasionally teleporting across the level when he dies. Often, close-up textures seem to stall when loading in, leaving lower res versions on-screen for too long. Other elements of the beta just don't seem to look right. Post-death, the view switches to a close-up shot of your killer, with ugly clipping and what sometimes looks like low LOD versions of the character models.