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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.

Richard Leadbetter avatar

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.