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|
|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.
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.
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...
SHIFT 2: Xbox 360 vs. PS3. Use the full-screen button for 720p res, or click on the link below for a larger window.
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.
If you've never touched a video game controller in your life, but do have avid players in your household, you may be in for a bewildering month. That's because we're on the verge of what the gaming industry excitedly calls 'a new console generation'. In short, the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, once the most powerful games machines on the planet are being replaced – the former by the Xbox One, the latter by the PlayStation 4. No, I don't know why they called it the Xbox One either, but as a lot of people still refer to the original Xbox (launched waaaay back in 2001) as Xbox one, it's going to lead to some hilarious Christmas list misunderstandings.
Anyway, both of the new consoles are arriving in November, and members of your family may already be nagging you for one. So what are these things and what makes them different from each other, and from the consoles that you can still buy in the shops for a third of the price?
Here's a quick guide designed especially for uninterested parents and partners, hopefully avoiding all the usual jargon and assumed knowledge. Good luck out there …
Okay, all you really need to know here is that both the PS4 and the Xbox One represent a significant leap over their predecessors. Some people in the industry are suggesting that the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are around eight times more powerful than the current Xbox 360 and PS3 machines. Does this mean that games will look eight times better? Probably not – tech specs don't work like that. But game visuals will look noticeably more detailed, and you'll see lots of lovely lighting effects and intricate character animations, which add to the "realism" of game worlds. I've put realism in quote marks there because we're still a long way from "photo-realism". However, I think the big blockbuster Xbox One and PS4 games will have moments where you'll think you're watching TV, or at least a pretty good animated movie.
What about the technical differences between the consoles? Well, they're pretty negligible to the naked eye. Both are using very similar multi-core central processors and high-end graphics technologies, both have Blu-ray players and 500GB hard drives, and both have 8GB of system memory.
There are small differences in the way memory works and how graphics are handled which, on paper, suggest the PS4 is more powerful and will be capable of better visuals. However, developers are very clever and usually work out how to get comparable results from all the available hardware. Even if right now PS4 games look better, that might not be the case a few months down the line when game studios work out how to squeeze extra performance from the Xbox One.
Finally, both offer advanced online functionality. The use of cloud computing, which connects your console to remote servers on the internet, may mean we see a new era of games which have huge online worlds that players can explore together, and that seamlessly grow and evolve over time. We may see game processing tasks like physics and artificial intelligence being 'outsourced' to the cloud, meaning we see much more advanced simulations and life-like computer-controlled enemies. It's a truly exciting time.
In a nutshell: Right now, it looks like PS4 is the most powerful console, but developers may well learn to exploit the Xbox One in new ways. It's unlikely you'll be making your buying decision on hardware specifications alone.
Microsoft is making a big deal about its updated Kinect motion controller, which uses a camera to watch player movements allowing you to control the onscreen action with arm waves, head nods and other gestures. Kinect was available for the Xbox 360, but it wasn't very accurate and required a lot of light and space to work. The new Kinect is more sensitive and more powerful – it'll be able to watch several players at once in quite a small room, it can recognise individual players, and it can even monitor your heart rate. Which isn't at all creepy. It also has a microphone, so you can actually shout instructions at your console and it'll obey. Again, Xbox 360 did this, but not very well. Oh, and Microsoft has assured everyone that the Kinect won't be watching you 24 hours a day and then beaming live footage to the NSA. Its privacy statement assures users that all footage is kept locally on the machine.
So this is all very exciting, but then, the PS4 also has a new version of its own PlayStation Eye peripheral which does a lot of the same stuff. According to Sony, it can recognise your face and voice, and it can track body movements, although it uses a different technology and there are doubts that it'll do this as accurately as Kinect.
Perhaps the key difference, however, is that while the Xbox One ships with Kinect, PS4 owners will have to buy a PlayStation Eye camera separately. This will probably mean that developers are more likely to support the Kinect as they know everyone will have one. So if controlling games by wafting your arms around and/or talking is attractive, that's a tick in the Xbox One column.
In a nutshell: both machines have interesting motion controllers that can reportedly recognise your face, your voice and your friends, though Microsoft seems to be taking Kinect more seriously than Sony is taking PlayStation Eye, and its motion technology is more advanced.
Entertainment beyond games
Xbox One and PS4 are promising lots of entertainment options that will let you watch movies and listen to music on your console, as well as playing games. We'll see deals with video-on-demand providers like LoveFilm and Netflix, and there will be "free" TV services like YouTube, iPlayer and 4oD.
Right now, Microsoft seems more ambitious in this area. It has been showing off how you'll be able to connect your cable or satellite set-top box to Xbox One, letting you control your live TV viewing pleasure through your console and also adding new social and interactive features to the experience. However, right now, a lot of those options are only available in the US – and if you don't really fancy, say, playing fantasy football while watching a real football match, it won't excite you that much anyway.
Other than that, Microsoft is also making a big deal about how Xbox One can instantaneously switch between TV, movies and gaming without a lot of fiddling about. It can also play your CDs and MP3 files and will soon be able to stream media content from your PC – PS4 can't do any of those (although a later firmware update could well add MP3 playback and streaming capabilities).
In a nutshell: both consoles will offer tons of on-demand movie and TV options, but Xbox One seems to have a wider array of options, including the potential compatibility with your Sky or Virgin Media box. You need to think of these machines, not just as games consoles, but as all-round entertainment devices. You need to especially remember that when you're handing over your £400.
There's a theory that the future of interactive entertainment is going to be about playing things on the your big living-room TV, while simultaneously interacting with a smaller screen on your lap. Basically, the games industry has been studying how everyone watches television these days, and, apparently, that involves sort of semi-viewing stuff like X Factor and Made in Chelsea while tweeting friends or, I don't know, looking up Phoebe-Lettice Thompson on the web. This is the second-screen theory.
The PS4 and the Xbox One are going to support this to some degree. If you buy an Xbox One, for example, you'll be able to download a new version of the SmartGlass app to your phone or tablet and then use your portable device to control certain elements of the console game.
For example, in the zombie adventure Dead Rising 3, if you have SmartGlass on your phone, you can actually use it to receive in-game mission objectives. Yes, the game will "ring you up" and a character will tell you what to do. It's also likely a lot of games will support a second screen to show players personal stuff, like what items their character is carrying or where they are in the game world. All very useful.
Microsoft has also shown how you'll be able to use your tablet or smartphone as a remote control and programme guide, as well as comparing your gaming stats with friends, and organising multiplayer sessions.
PS4 has a smartphone app that does similar things to SmartGlass, such as acting as a limited remote control and showing game information. But Sony's console also offers extra compatibility with the lovely PlayStation Vita handheld console. For example, you'll be able to remote play PS4 games on your Vita, as long as both are wirelessly connected to your home network.
Why would you want to do that? Well, say you're having a lovely time playing a PS4 game on the big TV in your living room, but then someone else wants to watch Downton Abbey – well, now you can pick up your Vita, select Remote Play and the PS4 game will appear on its little screen. You can now continue playing, while your housemate revels in a sedentary and unconvincing portrait of early 20th-century aristocratic life. Not all games will be compatible with Remote Play, but it's still pretty neat. Oh, and Vita will also be used as a second screen for lots of new titles.
In a nutshell: Xbox One has a more powerful smartphone and tablet application in the form of SmartGlass and developers are already using it in very interesting ways. But PS4 has strong connectivity potential with the PlayStation Vita console.
In the past, new games consoles would often let you play the old games released for proceeding machines. That's not the case with the PS4 or Xbox One – you'll have to keep hold of your rickety old PS3s and Xbox 360s to play those classic titles. However, from next year, the PS4 will be able stream a limited selection of PS3 games from "the cloud" (i.e. a remote server network) to your PS4, so you'll have access to "retro" titles. It's likely Xbox One will eventually offer this sort of thing as well.
As for peripherals, you won't be able to use your old Xbox 360 or PS3 controllers with your new machines – both consoles have shiny new joypads with lots of new features. For example, the PS4's Dualshock 4 controller has a touchpad, which provides a new form of tactile input, while the Xbox One controller has cool rumble packs in the triggers to … well … make the triggers vibrate. Don't ask.
In a nutshell: Neither PS4 nor Xbox One are compatible with old games or controllers.
At last, the real meat of the debate. Well, both machines will have extensive lineups from launch, so a lot of it's going to be down to personal choice – what do you, your kids or your partner want to play? What do they like? You can find complete lists of the launch lists (as they stand right now) here and here. Have a quick look.
Both consoles boast a selection of exclusive titles and these are the key bargaining chips at this stage. Xbox One has super sexy driving simulator Forza Motorsport 5, gruesome zombie game Dead Rising 3 and historical hack-and-slash romp Ryse: Son of Rome.
PS4, meanwhile, is the only place you'll be able to play family-friendly adventure Knack, sci-fi blaster Killzone: Shadow Fall and hectic shoot-em-up, Resogun. PS4's ambitious open-world racing game, Drive Club, has been delayed until next year.
The Xbox One and PS4 will also offer all the major multi-platform blockbusters released this autumn, such as Battlefield 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts, Assassin's Creed 4, Lego Marvel Superheroes and Fifa 2014. Which machine has the best versions? Well, that's going to vary quite a lot – and we don't yet know the answers for several big titles. However, there's been some controversy over the fact that Call of Duty: Ghosts runs in full native 1080p high-definition on PS4 but only 720p on Xbox One.
Don't know what that means? It's OK, a lot of people won't notice the difference – indeed a lot of cheaper LCD television sets don't actually support full 1080p HD. Furthermore, other developers are promising to get full HD performance out of Xbox One. Let's just say this: if graphics are the main reason you're buying a new machine, this is an issue to be aware of – especially if you've been presented with a Christmas list that says: "Dear Santa, please bring me a games console that absolutely definitely outputs in full 1080p HD at 60 frames-per-second or I'll scream until I vomit".
As for the future of games, well, both consoles have their individual strengths. Sony has an amazing collection of development studios that will work exclusively on PS4 and Vita titles. Naughty Dog, creator of the much-loved Uncharted series, and Media Molecule, the clever Guildford team behind the loveable LittleBigPlanet titles, are both working on major projects that will certainly show what next-gen consoles are capable of. We can also look forward to steampunk action adventure, The Order: 1886 by Californian studio Ready At Dawn, whose staff did lots of work on the hugely successful God of War series.
But Microsoft also has its own cabal of talented studios. Warwickshire-based veteran Rare is producing the hugely amusing Kinect Sports Rivals, and 343 Industries is now hard at work on epic space sequel Halo 5. Xbox One also has some extremely promising console exclusives on the way including Titanfall, the new sci-fi shooter from the people who brought us Call of Duty, and Quantum Break, an apocalyptic thriller set to tie-in with a live-action TV series.
Oh, as a sub-plot, it seems Sony has launched a major charm offensive on smaller indie developers. Consequently, there are quite a few idiosyncratic little treasures that will be exclusive to PS4 – at least in the short term. Microsoft is also trying to court these teeny studios too – everyone wants to find the next big crossover hit, like Minecraft. Right now, though, PS4 is definitely the console to come to for offbeat titles like Supergiant's sci-fi adventure Transistor and hilarious action puzzler Octodad: Dadliest Catch.
In a nutshell: Xbox One possibly has the stronger launch lineup in terms of big triple-A hits, although graphically it may be lagging behind its rival. PS4, meanwhile, is very strong on offbeat indie games.
It's all about social gaming these days, so both machines will offer video chat for up to eight people, and both will provide loads of social integration features, making it easier to find and play against friends. On the PS4, for example, as soon as you switch the console on, you'll get a news screen showing what all your friends are playing – you'll even be able to leap straight into their games.
One big new feature of the next-gen consoles will be seamless content sharing. On both, you can record yourself playing games and then post that footage to the web. This may sound daft to you, but there's already a huge online community of gamers who share videos of themselves playing games, and many of them have hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers. This is what kids do nowadays instead of watching television.
All of this will be jammed with parental locks so you shouldn't have to worry about how much personal information your children are broadcasting across the gaming universe.
In a nutshell: the Xbox One and PS4 are both loaded with social features such as video chatting and video sharing, allowing users to communicate and share content with friends and the wider web. Xbox has traditionally been the best platform for online multiplayer gaming, but PlayStation is really pushing it this time round.
Launch details and prices
The PS4 is launching in North America on 15 November and in Europe and Australia on 29 November. The machine will cost $399 in the US, €399 in Europe, £349 in the UK and $549 in Australia – that price will get you the machine, a controller, a mono headset and an HDMI cable.
The Xbox One is launching in major global territories on 22 November. It will cost $499 in the US, €499 in Europe, £429 in the UK and $599 in Australia. The basic package has a controller, all the essential leads, plus the Kinect motion device.
There are various other bundles available which will add extra controllers or games – it's best to check with retailers like Amazon, Game or Argos, or any of the supermarkets, to see who has the best deals. If you're buying the console as a present, check what games the lucky recipient wants – you may find a bundle deal that includes that very title, and it'll be cheaper than purchasing the game separately.
Games will cost between £45-60 each – you'll be able to buy second-hand copies, but it's likely that many will require you to pay again in order to unlock online multiplayer modes and other extras (originally, the Xbox One was designed to prevent or at least control the sale of used games, but a public outcry led to a change in policy).
Both consoles will also be offering a range of free' titles, that will cost nothing to download, but will doubtless include 'microtransactions' so that players can purchase in-game items. The Xbox One has beat-em-'up Killer Instinct and game creation package Project Spark, while PS4 has third-person shooter Warframe and flight combat sim, War Thunder. Free-to-play is already a common model in smartphone games, and is likely to be a big deal on these new consoles too.
If you buy an Xbox One, you'll need to pay an annual Gold subscription to be able to play games against other users online, as well as to use Skype and most TV services. This will cost £39.99 a year. On PS4 you'll need an annual subscription to PlayStation Plus to play online games (currently it's £5.49 a month, or £39.99 for a year) – however, video chat and TV streaming options like iPlayer and 4oD will be free, and you also get a range of other subscription services like access to pre-release games and free online titles. On both machines, video-on-demand services like Netflix and Lovefilm will almost certainly require separate subscriptions.
Purchasing a next-gen console
For a while at least, this probably isn't going to be as straightforward as you'd expect. Initial supplies will be limited, so it's unlikely you'll just be able to wander into your local HMV on the launch day and grab one off the shelves. Even if you go out tomorrow and pre-order a machine, most retailers are saying that you won't get it for launch – the likes of Game and Amazon are, however, promising you'll get it before Christmas – but you ought to be quick.
"Finding a console at all for launch is going to be a stretch now," agrees Lewie Procter of video game retail news site, SavvyGamer. "GameStop are taking PS4 orders at £329.97, which is about £20 cheaper than pretty much everywhere else. They won't get it to you for launch, but I think it's most likely you'll get it before Christmas.
"Everywhere is charging full price for an Xbox One, and I'd say Amazon or Game (depending on whether you want the bundled copy of FIFA) would be your best bet to get one soon after launch. Also, most high-street retailers will have a small amount of stock on the shelves available on launch day. If you are eager to get it on launch day, and don't mind taking a chance, it's worth turning up first thing in the morning. Although it's a bit of a long shot."
If you're not sure, don't rush in. Give things a few weeks to settle down, see if you can get hands-on time at your local game store or chat to any early adopters you know. And of course, we'll be reviewing both of the machines closer to their launch dates, so you can always come back here.
And there are alternatives. The PS3 and Xbox 360 are great machines with vast libraries of excellent games – if you're buying your first family console, you could do a lot worse than purchasing one of these and then jumping into the next-gen era in a year or so. There's also the Nintendo Wii U, the follow-up to the hugely successful Wii. It hasn't caught on as well as its predecessor, but with its innovative GamePad controller (which comes with its own display, like a tablet computer), it offers some really fun gaming experiences, such as Nintendoland, Pikmin 3 and New Super Mario Bros U – and there arre new versions of Mario Kart and Wii Fit on the way.
If you love smartphone games, there are also a couple of smaller consoles based on the Android operating system. The Ouya and the GameStick are priced at less than £100 and are extremely portable – their games are more like those you'd find on your mobile, but for a lot of people that's fine. Meanwhile, we're seeing an increasing number of 'living rooms PCs' – computers designed for entertainment rather than work. Next year, the brilliant game developer Valve is releasing a series of Steam Machine PCs that will handle gaming brilliantly, as well as offering all the other advantages of a computer.
In a nutshell: Don't feel you have to jump into the next generation just yet. Make sure you research the alternatives.
PlayStation 4 conclusion
• Powerful, cleverly designed hardware with high-end graphics technology
• Excellent 'in-house' developers
• Really interesting new controller, with touchpad interface
• Plenty of 'on-demand' entertainment options, many of which won't require a subscription, and PlayStation Plus subscription includes free access to digital games
• Strong roster of offbeat 'indie' games
• Clever 'live' user-interface that displays what your friends are playing and lets you join them instantly
• PlayStation Eye motion controller is sold separately, which means it won't be as well supported by developers
• Launch lineup relies heavily on 'third-party' multi-platform games
Xbox One conclusion
• Advanced all-round entertainment options, allowing users to plug in their satellite or cable box (content deals permitting) and control the TV experience
• Seamless transition between movies, TV and games
• The new Kinect is extremely powerful and may well lead to some truly innovative gaming experiences
• The launch lineup is very strong with key brands like Forza and Killer Instinct
• Xbox Live is a very strong online multiplayer service which has been fully overhauled for the new generation
• Question marks over the console's ability to display full 1080p visuals when games are running at the optimal rate of 60 frames-per-second (but this may be temporary)
• The inclusion of Kinect means it's more expensive
If you're choosing one for your family, have a good think about what you'll use it for. It may also be worth checking what consoles all your childrens' peers are getting. If your family is likely to be gaming online, you'll want the same machine as your friends so you can battle it out together.
If not, it's really difficult to separate the two, but right now, if you want an all-round entertainment beast that will handle all your TV and movie needs as well as playing a very decent selection of games, go for Xbox One. If it's all about graphical performance and sheer variety of gaming experiences, PlayStation 4 may be the one for you.
They're both super advanced machines with tons to offer, so in the end, it's down to personal choice. The good news is, although this is billed as a console war, neither is likely to 'lose'. Buy a next-gen console and, unless there's some sort of financial catastrophe, you're investing in at least eight years of entertainment.