It all started innocently enough, in the gaming forum section of a non-gaming related website I visit. The fanboys were going at it, spitting venom and vitriol back and forth as they tried to declare their favorite console as being the best choice for everyone. Someone said that the PS3 simply had “more power” (and that is a direct quote). Others maintained that the PS3 had literally no good games that the 360 didn’t (and I guess for some reason this meant that they thought it never would).
That’s when someone chimed in with the argument that the PS3 is a better buy because it supports 1080p output via HDMI, without having to buy an “Elite” version. Of course, that’s forgetting that the XBOX 360 in all its flavours comes with HDMI output now – including the “Retard” or “Arcade” version.
The point is that the current generation of games are not really full HD anyway. Most of them, at least.
Halo 3 Controversy
As I was doing research for this article, I came across this massive thread at Beyond3D. This is the thread that generated a lot of buzz on the net, and heat with Bungie, because they exposed the fact that Halo 3 played at a native resolution of 640p (that’s 1152×640 – or 0.7 megapixels, less pixel area than that of the “old” gaming standard of 1024×768). People were upset, and Bungie took an overly defensive stance.
See, the common gamer just doesn’t realize that most games do not necessarily use their ‘full-HDTV’ to full advantage. Most games run at a lower res, and use the console’s hardware to scale it to native HD resolutions. In the case of Halo 3, it runs at 640p, and is upscaled to whatever you have your console set at – be it 1080p, 1080i, or 720p.
Current GPU’s simply aren’t powerful enough to run games at 1080p, at least while maintaining playable framerates with good graphics and the special effects current-gen games are known for. For instance, Halo 3 uses a lot of nice HDR and lighting effects to give scenes a more realistic look. With the XBOX 360, it wouldn’t have been feasible to have these effects enabled and the game run smoothly at 1080p. My guess is that they were aiming for 720p (early screenshots from beta builds are in 720p, which supports this theory) but had to crank the res down to 640p fairly late in development to keep things running smoothly. Perhaps they added one more effect that just pushed them over their EDRAM memory limit of 10MB.
Anyway, I didn’t want this to turn into a Halo 3 discussion; it just happened to create a lot of buzz when it happened.
So is next-gen gaming really High Definition?
Now that we’ve established that most games use a native resolution of 720p, and use hardware to upscale to whatever res your television uses, some people may question calling XBOX 360 and Playstation 3 “HDTV Game Consoles”. The answer to that is: they are HDTV gaming consoles, but scene complexity would have to be sacrificed to run games smoothly in full-HD. Imagine Halo 3 without the HDR effects, or Gears of War or Heavenly Sword without the full screen effects like haze, water, blood, etc. Yes, these consoles can run these games at 1920×1080. But they will look like crap and/or run at an unplayable framerate.
There are some games that do run at full 1920×1080. These are usually the less graphics-intense games like sports games and many downloadable 3D games, such as Blast Factor, Pixel Junk Racers, and the upcoming Street Fighter II HD game. These games can handle the extra pixels, since they usually have much more simplified graphics, with fewer low-polygon characters on the screen (even if they are often heavy with effects). Some would argue that some games that do run at 1080p probably shouldn’t; if you’ve ever played Full Auto 2 PS3, you’ll know what I’m talking about.
So be happy with 720p gaming – even though I don’t consider it “full HD”, it’s quite a bit better than consoles have ever been, and each console does a great job of scaling in most cases. The Playstation 3 does have some issues with scaling when it has to do so in software mode, but we can save that discussion for another day.
If you see a game with “HD” in the title, chances are that it is indeed a 1080p game. If that’s important to you, check the game out and see if you like it. It won’t have the complexity of an AAA title like Gears of War or Metal Gear Solid 4, but it will have crisp, clean graphics, and hopefully a playable framerate. A couple of upcoming titles that come to mind are Wipeout HD and Gran Turismo 5.
It’s not just Halo 3
Halo 3 isn’t the only game that uses a lower native resolution than 720p. B3D Forum user Quaz51 discovered Halo 3′s odd resolution because he is interested in finding odd resolutions in today’s console games. He has discovered a number of games that use sub-720p graphics, on both consoles. Here’s a quick list of those that he has mentioned so far:
- Tony Hawk’s Project 8 – XBOX 360 – 1040×585 (with 4XAA)
- Tony Hawk’s Project 8 – Playstation 3 – 1280×720 (no AA)
- Perfect Dark Zero – XBOX 360 – 1152×640
- Halo 3 – XBOX 360 – 1152×640
- Call of Duty 3 – XBOX 360 – 1120×630
- Call of Duty 3 – Playstation 3 – 1120×630 (software scaled to 720p)
- Project Gotham Racing 3 – XBOX 360 – 1024×600 (2xMSAA)
- Tomb Raider Legend- XBOX 360 – 1024×600 (2xMSAA)
- Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground – Playstation 3 – 1024×600
- Tony Hawk’s Proving Ground – XBOX 360 – 1280×720
- Super Rub a Dub – Playstation 3 – 1600×1080
- Gran Turismo HD – Playstation 3 – 1440×1080
- Super Stardust HD – Playstation 3 – 1280×1080
- Skate – Playstation 3 – 1536×864 (no AA)
- Skate – XBOX 360 – 1280×720 (4x AA)
- The Darkness – Playstation 3 – 1024×576
- The Darkness – XBOX 360 – 1280×720
- Jericho Demo – Playstation 3 – 996×560
- Call of Duty 4 – XBOX 360 – 1024×600 (2x AA)
- Call of Duty 4 – Playstation 3 – 1024x600p (2x AA)
- Def Jam: Icon – Playstation 3 – 1152×648
- Transformers – Playstation 3 – 960×1080
- Pirates of the Caribbean – Playstation 3 (720p mode) – 960×720
- Pirates of the Caribbean – Playstation 3 (1080p mode) – 780×1080
- Elder Scrolls: Oblivion – XBOX 360 – 1024×600
- Elder Scrolls: Oblivion – Playstation 3 – 1280×720
- Virtua Fighter 5 – XBOX 360 – 1024×1024
- Virtua Fighter 5 – PS3 (720p mode) – 1024×1024
- Virtua Fighter 5 – PS3 (1080p mode) – 1024×768
As you can see, each console has its fair share of “cheaters” (note that not all of the above should be considered ‘cheaters’ as this is simply a list of ‘odd’ rendering resolutions). Sometimes a game will run better on a console with a lower, antialiased resolution, while on the other console it makes more sense to have it run at full 720p. XBOX 360 tends to use FSAA more often, due to the advantage of having a 10MB EDRAM framebuffer integrated into the GPU.
Quite often though, games do not perform equally on both consoles. Tony Hawk’s Project 8, for instance, only manages to run at 30 fps on the Playstation 3, despite not having any filtering. On the 360, it looks and plays smoother despite the lower resolution, because antialiasing is used.
In the end, you can rest assured that even though you sometimes aren’t getting a “full 720p” experience, like in the case of Halo 3, developers are choosing the best resolutions and setting in mind to make sure you are getting the best graphics possible without sacrificing playability.