Saturday, 12 March 2011

Tech Analysis: Fight Night Champion (360 vs PS3)

We first looked at Fight Night Champion in our back to 30fps feature, discussing the actual benefits that the use of a lower frame-rate had on the overall experience. Both the look and feel of the game was transformed, with a style that made pulling punches and their impacts feel more intense. The action felt faster and more furious than before.

Since then it has come to light that some of the additional upgrades with regards to FN Champion's graphical look are completely separate from the decision to target a 30fps refresh rate. The lighting for example has been built around working in both 30fps and 60fps environments, whilst the controls (according to the developer) still operate at the higher frame-rate independently of rendering update.

At the same time, it's also hard to believe that there hasn't been some tangible benefits with regards to the additional increase in rendering time per-frame in other areas. But either way EA's latest looks far more spectacular than their last boxing release, and the final game continues to show what we found out during our time with the demo - that 60fps isn't the be all and end all when it comes to graphics.

But what about the PS3 and 360 releases. How do they match up? Well, the good news is that they are basically on a par with each other. In this respect the outcome is exactly like that of Fight Night Round 4.

Fight Night Champion renders in 720p on both platforms with the Xbox 360 game featuring use of 4xMSAA, while on PS3 the alternative quincunx solution (QAA) is used instead. As we've seen many times before, the use of QAA provides a similar amount of edge-smoothing compared to the more traditional MSAA, but this comes at the cost of blurring texture details as well as edges.

However, like in past Fight Night titles this overall effect does little to spoil the final image. The game looks clean and smooth on both formats with the blur only really standing out when flicking between the two on the HDTV, or in still screenshots. There's still plenty of intricate detailing visible, but not quite as much at certain points.

A difference in gamma curve can also be seen when putting the two games up against each other. As per usual we see that the 360 version is a little darker than the PS3 one, with subtle shadow details standing out more as a result of this, but without crushing black levels. However, this can easily be adjusted so that both games look identical without anything other than the very minimal of fuss.

In addition there is a variance in how each version renders the scenery outside of the ring in pre-fight introductions from a distance - different LOD parameters for both. The 360 game features spectators which are constructed of less geometry than their PS3 counterparts but at the expense of having more detailed textures. This only appears to be when the scene is viewed from afar. Move in closer and the two are brought back up to a similar standard. You can see this in the shots below.

But outside of this the game looks basically the same across both platforms. Art assets are identical, and the variances in lighting that can sometimes be seen is simply down to the lightsources being in different places at slightly different times. Albeit, ever so slightly.

In motion, these graphical subtleties are barely noticeable unless you've played both versions back to back, and considering that this is something you'd never do in regular play it's safe to say that nothing is lost as a result.

So far, EA's latest boxing smash is following in the footsteps of its predecessor extremely closely. But perhaps the main talking point, and indeed the most substantial difference between the two games is with regards to the frame-rate. While FN RD4 saw the game being upgraded to take advantage of all the benefits provided by the jump to a 60fps refresh (more responsive controls, smoother visual update etc), FN Champion on the other hand favours the drop back down to 30fps, instead choosing to back this up with a highly advanced and very convincing motion blur effect.

The combination of a 30fps update and motion blur has the effect on not only making the action look smoother than the normal 30fps game, but also far more brutal. FN Champion looks like a moody Hollywood blockbuster, whereby the impact of each blow carries a greater weight and appearance than before. By comparison, in FN RD4 the presentation alluded to that of a televised presentation.

But what does this change mean in terms of how the game plays?

To put it mildly, not as much as you might think. Past Fight Night titles always has a delayed feel with regards to controller response times (less so with RD4) compared to the likes of Tekken or Street Fighter, and FN Champion is no different. There is a slight, but noticeable all the same, increase in latency overall compared to FN RD 4, but control feels good on the whole. Moves can still be performed quickly and accurately, for example.

It also has to be said that the weighty feel of past games - designed to deliver the sensation of actually pulling punches - still comes across very well considering you no longer have to pull off various motions using the right analogue stick anymore. The additional delay I suspect, similar to how this is used to add weight to weapon aiming in Killzone 2, is the perhaps the main reason for this.

A look at performance then, and FN Champion is solid on both formats with very little in the way to separate them. While I thought that I experienced a few more frame-rate drops during play than what is registered in our video, it looks like the output on my Intensity Pro capture card (second output to HDTV) was affecting this. When playing both back just connected to my HDTV alone, they are exactly like-for-like in this regard.

As you can see in our performance vid, the game both targets and almost fully sustains a constant 30fps update. Outside of a few small instances (and one or two detection errors - 12.0fps and such like), it never drops from that point. That said, we do see a few scenes whereby the game is slightly smoother on the 360. The game drops slightly more frames during the cut-scenes on the PS3, although both games feature dips at roughly the same points and at similar levels.

Beyond this FN Champion strongly sticks to its 30fps baseline update, and it never deviates from it during actual gameplay. In addition, v-sync is employed on both platforms which means that there are never any torn frames throughout the whole experience. The entire presentation is both clean and smooth on both formats.

You can also see clearly the impact the use of motion blur has on the visuals, and how it augments the very look the developers were trying to recreate.

Moving on and there's very little left to discuss. The game's use of per-object motion blur is by far the most advanced implementation we've seen so far. It appears very natural when things are in motion, and the varying degrees of distortion it occupies at different points ensure that the results are subtle and noticeable at the same time, adding to the immersion.

Also, as we've talked about before, the lighting and shading on both the characters and the environments have also been improved over the last game. Better use of multiple dynamic lightsources in combination with more intricate shading means that there's plenty of depth on offer, and this is further expanded upon with the return of SSAO.

There have also been other improvements too, which you can see below. The body deformation system looks even more complex this time around. Here we see some really nice blending of normal maps in combination with what looks like some kind of simulation, maybe using real-time dynamics based on the bone structure to simulate skin and muscle movement.

Perhaps the only thing to add, is that all these upgrades are represented equally on both Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3.

Elsewhere, and away from graphical prowess, we found that loading times are also slightly longer on the PS3. Although, thanfully this is circumvented by a complete lack of the usual 'mandatory install' we sometimes have to deal with on the platform. In any case it isn't something worth complaining about.

So, the conclusion then. Like with Fight Night Round 4, FN Champion comes equally recommended on both platforms with the slightly blurrier look of the PS3 game really doing nothing to take away from the graphical splendor that EA have achieved. The game looks stunning, with realistic body movement and deformation, accomplished lighting and shading, plus use of motion blur, and all at a flawless thirty frames per-second.

For owners of both formats, and for the people who want the very best image quality available, then the 360 version is the best bet - just about, by the very tiniest of margins. But if all your mates are playing it online via the PS3, then I'd have no qualms about recommending it on that format instead. Both are visually spectacular regardless.

As for the game itself, it's fair to say that FN Champion still delivers a cracking round of the sport for anyone wanting to go in fists first. 'Legacy Mode' and its frustrating mini-games is a continued annoyance, but the new - albeit short - 'Champion Mode' definitely presents us with an interesting take on things. It gives you another reason to play outside of simply taking your chosen fighter to the top, with every Hollywood cliche you care to mention in tow.

Special thanks go out to Richard Leadbetter this time around, for all his help and support, plus allowing me to contribute on the latest Digital Foundry Article.

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