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8th July 2021

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Tech Focus: Modern Warfare 3 vs. Battlefield 3

Digital Foundry on the technical merits of the year's biggest shooters.

After the months of aggressive marketing, week one sales suggest that the biggest battle in video games is perhaps over before it has really begun. Based on week one figures, the stark reality is that EA's Battlefield has sold less than a quarter of the amount of units shifted by Call of Duty: Black Ops last year - meaning it would require a monumental drop-off in sales performance for MW3 to be in any way comparable. The biggest video game face-off of the year appears to have concluded with a whimper rather than a bang.

Doubtless, EA will be taking heart from the fact that it doubled its sales year-on-year in comparison with Medal of Honor, and blitzed its previous totals from all previous Battlefield releases, but it's clear that despite the trash talk and the enormous marketing budgets, it's going to take a catastrophic failure on Activision's part not to once again achieve sales domination with Modern Warfare 3.

But what of the respective merits of the games themselves? From a product development point of view, how does the new DICE epic rate against (take a deep breath) Infinity Ward, Sledgehammer and Raven's collaboration?

The FPS genre is akin to a technological arms race - the best shooters push back new frontiers to serve up a unique gameplay experience.

At Digital Foundry we often equate the first person shooter genre to a technological arms race. In their own way, games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, not to mention worthy contenders like Killzone 3, Halo: Reach, Rage and Metro 2033 are responsible for some of the most impressive rendering advances we've seen on console hardware. All of them push back new technological frontiers in order to serve up a unique gameplay experience.

It's safe to say that the arms race continues apace with the new Battlefield and Call of Duty offerings. On the face of it, the DICE game innovates from a technological angle in many different ways, while Modern Warfare 3 is much more of an iterative improvement on the existing tech - though it too serves up some nice new surprises we were not expecting.


Improved character modelling, animation and some nice-looking particle effects work constitute some of the additions made to the stalwart Call of Duty engine.

In terms of sheer ambition, DICE's new Frostbite technology is nothing short of astonishing. Exercising the potential of the DirectX 11 APIs that developers fully expect to be a core component of the next-generation Xbox, Battlefield 3 produces beautifully lit environments using a tile-based deferred shading technique, allowing for hundreds of different light sources to be in play at any given point. Point lights, lens flare, emissive particles - watching Frostbite render out Battlefield 3's most intense scenes is an absolutely remarkable experience, especially on PC.

The destruction model is also second to none: DICE creates environmental detail from a series of linked meshes that break apart with a remarkable level of fidelity, while terrain deformation ensures that big bangs have the appropriate impact on a ground level.

Perhaps the most impressive element of the game is the support for maps large enough to support a total of 64 players (dropping to 24 on console). DICE has implemented a new streaming system that allows for new texture and mesh data to be streamed in on the fly, resulting in an extreme level of detail over vast expanses of space. It's virtually seamless on PC, and while LOD popping is an issue on console, the performance is much improved over the disappointing multiplayer beta DICE released just a few weeks before the game hit retail and the developer has only enriched its reputation for ultra-high detailed texture work and superb rendering of materials.


Battlefield 3's real-time destruction model is absolutely phenomenal - MW3 manages to pull off effects very similar in single-player cut-scenes with some really impressive scripting.

Modern Warfare 3 may lack the sheer technical wonderment of Battlefield 3 - and certainly on all of the key points we've just highlighted, the game comes up short in comparison - but many will argue that the overall quality of the final game more than justifies the enormous sales it's going to achieve. DICE has pursued the purist's approach we might expect from a technology-driven developer but Infinity Ward/Raven/Sledgehammer's take is a mixture of a deft engine upgrades and astonishingly good technical and art direction.

Let's tackle the engine upgrades first - lighting, reflection and water effects have been significantly improved, there's a beautiful new system in place for dealing with particle rendering, and animation is much smoother and more realistic, working in concert with character models that are more detailed than they were in Modern Warfare 2.

While the flexibility of the destruction model isn't really a patch on what see in the Frostbite 2 engine, the MW3 developers can be proud of the explosive environmental work they've done in their new game: remarkably, their single-player campaign seems to have far more in the way of destructible scenery in its showpiece engine-driven cut-scenes than DICE has in theirs - a great example of more ambitious, more exciting scripting and direction.

However, while the perception is that Battlefield has a lot of catching up to do to challenge the Call of Duty franchise, it's clear that Infinity Ward and Sledgehammer have taken some inspiration from DICE on both macro and micro levels. The "HDR" audio developed for Battlefield: Bad Company 2, which dynamically mixes and adjusts audio according to context gets its own take in MW3, making it easily the most audibly satisfying Call of Duty to date. We also see some small, neat ideas developed by DICE reduxed for MW3 - for example, masking loud noises (in this case an explosion) using thunder with a cue provided by lighting is a direct homage to the excellent sniper focused section from the Bad Company 2 single-player campaign.

The overall impression you get from playing both single-player campaigns back to back is that the advantages DICE has in terms of its technology have not been transformed into gameplay that makes the most of them - even the showpiece destruction technology seems to be limited and toned down compared to what it is capable of in multiplayer mode. On the flipside, the Modern Warfare 3 achievement is remarkable: the campaign is fast and indeed furious, beautifully paced and teeming with interesting scenarios and variety. What is may lack in technical advancement is more than made up for by the action and the gameplay.

The Modern Warfare 3 development teams have also managed to retain the series' trademark 60FPS gameplay: while it is somewhat short of the sustained, zero compromise frame-rate promised by Infinity Ward "Creative Strategist" Rob Bowling in his tweets over the summer, the game is clearly far more responsive and arcade-like than its DICE equivalent.

As the next-gen draws closer, DICE and EA are well-positioned to fully capitalise on the immense potential of its beautiful new Frostbite 2 technology

From a single-player perspective at least, the difference between Battlefield 3 and the new Modern Warfare is remarkable - while the comparison of new tech vs. an established, reinvigorated engine is intriguing, it's the surrounding elements that really make the Activision game what it is: excellent production values, a story that makes sense, a non-stop breakneck pace, tons of variety, some great ideas (zero G gunplay in a plane plummeting to the ground - yes!) and a sense of polish that is definitely missing from DICE's game.


Where Battlefield holds a key advantage over Call of Duty is in its wonderful rendering of vast, open spaces - particularly evident in multiplayer.

The achievement is all the more remarkable bearing in mind the respective positions of the BF3 and MW3 developers as they started work on their respective projects - DICE has been making these games consistently for many years now but Battlefield 3 is rife with issues, offering up sub-par single-player and co-op modes, while Activision's disparate development teams - cobbled together in the wake of Infinity Ward's implosion - has managed to hand in an ultra-slick, assured game that truly delivers on all levels.

It may well be that the production of the Frostbite 2 engine - carried out to a certain extent in tandem with Battlefield 3 - may have caused issues as the studio finds its feet with its fresh new tech. However, going forward, the advantage DICE and EA have is that the second game using the engine will almost certainly be a significant improvement over its first. There's also an undeniable sense that DICE is future-proofing itself against the transitional period we have coming up in the next couple of years.

We can get a taste of the challenges that face Activision going forward by checking out the PC version of Modern Warfare 3. Suffice to say it's a world apart from the experience offered up by Battlefield 3: shorn of its frame-rate advantage on PC, the game simply doesn't compare from a visual perspective: textures are of a remarkably lower resolution, effects work is far more basic and console-like, and the lighting model lacks much of the fidelity found in DICE's game. It's a game of extremes - the scenes that look spectacular on console look even more remarkable on PC, while the plainer, more basic elements simply don't stand up to scrutiny when scaled up to 1080p or higher resolutions. The unavoidable conclusion is that MW3's console focus is so tight that freed from the sub-HD console confines (both 360 and PS3 run at 1024x600 native res), the assets simply don't really work very well.


On PC, MW3 seems to exaggerate the strengths and indeed the weaknesses of the console-focused art and technology. Open levels like this can look superb, but interiors in terms of detail and lighting can look very old.

What we're seeing here with these two games is a clear difference in priorities: DICE has scaled down its PC tech to work on current generation consoles, while Modern Warfare scales up for PC, with only very limited success. Bearing in mind that the vast majority of its sales will be on console, it's doubtful that Activision will be too upset about the shortcomings of the PC game, but it's difficult not to believe that Battlefield will be offering a far more robust challenge to the current market leader when next-gen consoles appear in 2013. Frostbite 2 is simply incredible today: by the time new hardware is available, it's going to be even better.

In the here and now, Activision can congratulate themselves on the creation of the quintessential console shooter - a superb value package that delivers in all three of its major modes: campaign, co-op and multiplayer. For its part, Battlefield 3 isn't the same consummate all-rounder, but it's still one hell of a good online shooter, and different enough from Call of Duty to enjoy phenomenal success in its own right - and going forward, as the next-gen draws closer, DICE and EA are well-positioned to fully capitalise on the immense potential of that beautiful Frostbite 2 technology...

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8th July 2021

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Latest comments (17)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 9 years ago
Brands, ads and using glitches in the customer's psyche (Completionism, Patriotism, Fitness, etc.), that is what is creating top tier sales today. Graphics might not be totally unimportant, but if you look at the costs of great graphics, the relative impact on sales does not seem to be there and this article proves it.
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Kingman Cheng Illustrator and Animator 9 years ago
Right now it's PETA & MW3 versus BF3. ;)
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Ken Addeh9 years ago
Nice article. Enjoyed reading it.
However, The lack of multiplayer talk on both ends I find are lacking as this is pretty much the defining feature for BF3 and I'm quite sure MW3 would have multiplayer as a big component too.

I think there's a little bit of a film industry mentality feel going on in terms of sales gained vs tech advancements. On one hand, you have film blockbusters that are just BIG...They make a lot of money but do not re-invent any ideas, and rely on catching the audiences attention with "the shiny stuff"...and of course, this is not a bad thing. If it sells, then it sells and you're better for it.
Then on the other hand you have more "unique" types of films that may push the boundaries in what it's achieving. This may not be over-emphasised to an audience because it's simply not going to be something they check up on unless they're technologically interested. Although they make leaps and bounds, it's hardly felt by the audience if the film is lacking in catching the attention and more on trying to show what their tech advancements have to offer.

I plan on buying MW3 soon and already have been playing BF3, but I feel that BF3 has captured my heart. MW3 feels like it will only serve as a go-between when i don't feel like BF3.
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Show all comments (17)
Thank god the MW fanboys did not jump onto BF3. Their style of gameplay is lone wolfing. Something that can be pretty hurtful for a team in BF3.
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Mihai Cozma Indie Games Developer 9 years ago
Well, this article is like 1/3 tech focus. I mean when you compare the single player stuff of MW3 with a game that usually ships with no single player at all, eventually some bot play, and write a full second half of the article saying MW3 makes up with gameplay for technical disadvantages, where is the tech focus there? It is a nice comparison, but then the title is wrong. The article tries to not upset anyone, but it fails in its purpose by doing this.
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Pete Thompson Editor 9 years ago
As far as single player campaigns go MW 3 is a clear winner, Although both very linear I found that there's more freedom in MW3's campaign to go exploring or to use various routes to get to an objective, and the lack of those skill sapping and boring QTE button press sequences is a blessing, unlike BF3's Campaign thats full of them and glitches such as being able to walk / crawl through a lot of objects such as ammo crates and APC's.. Dice should have given the campaign to Danger Close as their work on Medal of Honors campaign was vastly superior compared to Dices BF3 campaign, The destruction 2.0 is a bit underwhelming really, as a portable office partition in a work area comes apart in the exact same sequence as a concrete support column in say the underground car park for example and online there's only certain parts of buidlings that can be blown apart..

Just my own experiences as im a single player gamer first, once the campaign is complete on the hardest setting i'll then move onto the online / co-op components, (Im not a rank, tier or prestige whore.)

@Christopher, My experiences of BF3 online is that there's no "team" game play at all, everyone is out for themselves unless playing within a squad of mates, even then its hit and miss as to whether they play as a "team" or not as most players do their own thing, The same with co-op..
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Graham Simpson Tea boy, Collins Stewart9 years ago
@Christopher Tamayo I'm not sure this is the place to be calling people fanboys there's plenty of other forums where you can do that. The reality is ATVI have once again delivered the complete package. A stunning singleplayer with excellent co-op/survival and multiplayer features. EA once again have delivered half a game with a throwaway singleplayer. The problem for EA was this was their big chance and they failed miserably. Many people who thought BF3 might offer something different to CoD will not bother next time. Especially as BF4 will just be the same as previous BF games. So yes nice buggy frostbyte engine that will be better optimised for the next iteration. Nothing new though. The fact remains they are very different games in terms of multiplayer style and appeal to different people with a overlap in the middle. EA got so worked up about trying to beat a game they forgot in the end it's all about entertainment. Listen to ATVI management its entertainment entertainment entertainment.
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David Howard Editor-in-Chief and Founder, One Hit Pixel9 years ago
There are a great number of things I full-hearted disagree with, primarily with regards to the MW3 campaign.

"A story that makes sense" - whilst this is true, it's incredibly boring and predictable.
"Tons of variety" - far from it. Aside from breaching, a bit of running and clearing out rooms/areas it's incredible repetitive, more so that we've done all of it before, several times.
"EA's Battlefield has sold less than a quarter of the amount of units shifted by Call of Duty: Black Ops last year" - I can only assume that you are comparing lifetime sales to week one, considering BF3 moved 5 million units in week one whilst Black Ops shifted around 20 million units to date.
"Excellent production values" - given the dated overall presentation and average visuals, it's unfair to compare it to BF3, primarily because that's not the only shooter from this year alone that vastly outstrips MW3. With shooters like Killzone 3, Crysis 2, Brink, Rage, even Halo Reach, all vastly out shining the game on those fronts, it hugely disappointing that a game with such pedigree is falling so far behind.

That said, yes 60fps is lovely and the gameplay is still great, but it's hardly progressed in the last four years to make it "remarkable".
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David Howard Editor-in-Chief and Founder, One Hit Pixel9 years ago
@Graham -

"Failed miserably" - both sales and critical reaction would disagree.
"Nothing new though" - never seems to stop Call of Duty selling really well.
"Many people who thought BF3 might offer something different to CoD will not bother next time" - I think you severely either underestimate the waves and impact that BF3 will/has made, or those that MW3 will do, positively at least.
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Attila Olas IT- security consultant 9 years ago
I think DICE made a very good online shooter, but like lot of good things can be messed up and EA shows how.
Using ORIGIN in EU zone can be very bad for sales, see Germany, Switzerland "nobody want a spy software" on his PC without possibility to switch it off.
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Kevin Robertson Account Executive - Eastern North America, Unity Technologies9 years ago
MW3 ~ Top 40 Pop Music

BF3 ~ Every other genre of music

I can only see the single player console experience surviving for 1-2 more iterations. DICE is so far ahead in what is going to be relevant for many years to come - massive scale online shooter - the CoD franchise is doomed unless they make strides. I don't know many people who get their taste of massive online gameplay and say, "meh, I'll stick with the single-player console experience."

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Guy Gayford Director, 1000fraggers9 years ago
The membership over at have tended to shift over to Battlefield3
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Alex Yuen9 years ago
It appears that the focus of the article was more on the gameplay experience, quality of single player, marketing and console vs PC comparison, than technology.

That can be reflected in the discussion: how many of the comment is tech-related? maybe 2 or 3 of them.

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Jeremy Robinson Quality Assurance, eyecon9 years ago
I find that this latest inception of MW3 is over priced and underwhelming. Despite the so called tweaks the graphics it just looks like a DLC pack that costs you $100 AU.

@Pete My experience with BF3 has be very solid with only a few matches marred by MW esk run and gun idiots. I've found that even in large 64 player maps that as a squad member I can achieve goals and work together. The co op is great fun with friends as well. I also find if you choose your servers wisely you will geta solid game. Play on Hardcore.
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Gregory Hommel writer 9 years ago
IMO. The only thing that matters is innovation. That's what drives this industry and that is what has led to every game we've enjoyed for the last 30 years. I have payed more than enough for Modern Warfare's engine. I haven't even purchased the Treyarch games and already I've been exploited to death. I will not purchase the same tech 3 or 4 times. Ever.
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Ashley Barley Community Manager, Frontier Developments9 years ago
I don't think anyone ever thought that BF3 was going to compete closely on sales, they were just trying to show a larger market what the alternative is. Which they have done so.

Like Ken Addeh said, the main appeal of both these games are their multiplayer offerings and that wasn't really alluded to much in this article. User reviews for MW3 so far have been extremely poor, I actually don't know anyone who owns it that is satisfied with the game. It looks exactly like MW2 with an inflated price tag, they broke the multiplayer from MW1 in MW2 and have opted not to fix it either.

Battlefield meanwhile was built from the ground up and even looks stunning on consoles. It has a good singleplayer campaign that is well written and solidly paced (even if it apparently lacks for as many Michael Bay moments as MW3's campaign) and the multiplayer is extremely immersive and tactical. Sure, the multiplayer of the 2 games are aimed at different groups of people, but I sure as hell know which group I'd rather be included in; it is like comparing X-Factor to The Wire, one is significantly more popular but when has popularity ever been an accurate gauge of quality?
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game9 years ago
I might be waiting a long time but I'm fantasing about next year when this battle gets hyped, both games being beaten on sales by some whimsical title about a faerie with a prosthetic leg who rides around on a toad, or a magic carpet reboot. I won't hold my breath.
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