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Xbox 360 vs. PlayStation 3: Round 30

SHIFT 2, LEGO Clone Wars, Top Spin 4, Red Faction: Battlegrounds, MotoGP 10/11.

Welcome to the latest skirmish in the ongoing Xbox 360 vs. PlayStation 3 Face-Off series, Digital Foundry's continuing analysis of cross-platform development on our two favourite consoles.

As we reach our 30th anniversary, perhaps a quick refresher on what we do and how we do it is in order. For each game, our capture stations ruthlessly plunder the HDMI ports of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, extracting the video output with digital lossless precision. Gameplay clips are then amassed from the raw captures, edited and synchronised, and from there the process of choosing screenshots and creating comparison videos begins.

Gameplay is analysed via our bespoke tool (dubbed internally FPSGui) which coughs up videos measuring frame-rate and screen-tear, while comparison movies are generally slowed down to 50 per cent speeds and custom-encoded to ensure the highest picture quality using the lowest amount of bandwidth.

With the gameplay and acquisition work complete, assets are then shared amongst a small team of people, conclusions are reached and articles are written.

Onto the full line-up for this milestone outing: a nice range of racing, shooting, fighting, platforming and sports.

Probably the biggest surprise is that of the sextet of titles covered this month, three of them have stereoscopic support. More surprising still, bearing in mind Sony's investment in the format, is that two of those titles also feature 3D support for the Xbox 360 as well. It's been a long while since we've discussed the current state of 3D gaming - something we're aiming to address in a future Digital Foundry feature.

Thanks to Alex Goh and David Bierton for their assistance with this feature.

SHIFT 2: Unleashed

Xbox 360 PlayStation 3
Disc Size 5.6GB 6.0GB
Install 5.6GB (optional) 4243MB (mandatory)
Surround Support Dolby Digital Dolby Digital, 5.1LPCM, 7.1LPCM, DTS

Slightly Mad Studios' excellent Need for Speed sequel manages to set itself apart from its heavyweight competition rather nicely and is swiftly becoming a fan favourite. A tight focus on carefully selected cars, combined with a well thought-out and expansive career mode, is married nicely with over 30 different courses, most of which have several distinctive variations. While it lacks the 60Hz refresh of its rivals, it delivers in terms of realism, physics and excellent audio. Kudos to the developers because SHIFT has managed to outgrow its NFS roots and is on the way to seriously challenging series staples Forza and Gran Turismo.

The good news is that while there are a range of differences between the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game, they both deliver where it matters: it's a seriously impressive game. Many of the differences between the two versions are visual by nature, so now is as good a time as any to roll out the standard comparison video.

SHIFT 2: Xbox 360 vs. PS3. Use the full-screen button for 720p res, or click on the link below for a larger window.

While both versions of the game are native 720p, the overall presentation is noticeably different and a lot of this is down to the implementation of anti-aliasing. Similar to the last SHIFT, the Xbox 360 version utilises 4x multi-sampling anti-aliasing (MSAA) - the best hardware solution that the Xenos GPU realistically has to offer.

PlayStation 3 bins the 2x MSAA and additional blur filter of the previous game in favour of an altogether more state-of-the-art approach. Morphological anti-aliasing (MLAA) or something very similar has been utilised instead, and it's fair to say that the overall effect is variable: long clean edges (for example, in the cockpit view) are clearly more smoothed off than they are on Xbox 360. However, MLAA is a screen-space process: it has no access to depth information, so faraway objects with sub-pixel edges actually look considerably worse than they should if they'd been left alone.

The effect in SHIFT 2 can be summed up fairly succinctly - cityscape tracks tend to suffer quite badly from the pixel-popping side-effects of MLAA, while the more organic circuits tend to look just as good as they do on Xbox 360, if not better.

Other visual effects tend to favour the Microsoft platform too. Shadows appear to be a higher resolution, and there's the occasional instance which suggests the texture filtering is of a higher quality too, but this is small beans really. We do encounter some occasional oddments in the PS3 replays too (popping detail, jerky camera movements) but nothing to write home about.

Frame-rates and image integrity see the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game equally matched for most of the time. The Microsoft platform clearly tears far less frequently, while the Sony console is given a bit more leeway in when the actual frame is flipped, resulting in tearing at the very top of the screen, which is mostly out of view. However, there are some exceptions.

Performance analysis of SHIFT 2 shows a fairly consistent 30FPS on both platforms, although night-time stages appear to challenge PS3 more than its rival platform.

There are two areas where the PS3 version clearly under-performs in comparison to the Xbox 360 game. Night-time scenes (perhaps because of the additional dynamic lighting required) can cause some very noticeable tearing on the PS3 game, and we also note that image consistency takes a bit of hit on replays too. However, for the most part we see the same consistent 30FPS update on both machines.

The overall impression is that the Xbox 360 game is a touch more refined in terms of the visuals, but the core gameplay is effectively identical on both systems. However, peripheral support may well have an impact on the purchasing decision and it's clear that in this case, it's the PlayStation 3 version that accommodates a wider range of steering wheels, including favourites such as the Logitech G27. The Xbox 360 supports just the Microsoft force feedback wheel and Fanatec Porsche 911 Turbo wheel (and those compatible with it).

Otherwise, the only other deciding factor in which version to buy comes down to how voluminous your friends lists are. The inclusion of Autolog sees the game's leaderboards auto-populate with times to beat, and the more friends you have playing, the more involving and addictive the challenge becomes...