How well does Call of Duty’s tech handle the battle royale challenge?

Is battle royale a good fit for Treyarch’s iteration of the Call of Duty engine? Black Ops 4’s latest beta provides answers. An early demo of the new Blackout mode rolled out last week, revealing that the developer is aiming to deliver a very similar style of game, but targeting a 60fps update in a world where Xbox One has struggled to achieve smooth performance in PUBG. At its core, Blackout follows the same beats of play; up to 100 combatants fly across the map, skydive down, scavenge for weapons and armour, and then duke it out to be the last man standing as the field of play narrows. We’re in familiar territory then – but what makes Treyarch’s effort stand out?

Well, unlike the Unreal Engine 4 backbone of PUBG and Fortnite, Blackout mode is a fascinating technical experiment for the Call of Duty series. It shows how the studio’s renderer and netcode scales beyond Black Ops 4’s usual online deathmatch games. Player counts of 5v5 are the focus there, taking place across far smaller maps. But here? By necessity, the engine loads in one gigantic, open sprawl spreading out for acres – showing the engine’s efficiency at asset streaming, and rendering shadow or foliage detail.

From high-end housing estates, factories, and prisons, this is the biggest battle arena in Call of Duty’s history. This thing is a monster and Treyarch claims it’s roughly 1500 times the size of the fan favourite Nuketown from Black Ops 3. What that leaves you with is a demand to render detail at a macro scale, as well as focusing on the small details – and it strikes a strong balance. The handful of maps in the previous deathmatch beta appear more detailed on the surface, and rooms in Blackout are relatively bare compared to the decorated spots of that earlier beta. Even so, Treyarch’s engine still gets a strong workout in Blackout. The tech is familiar; from the effects resolution, use of screen-space reflections through to its eye-catching water shaders, Blackout may be a standalone attraction within Black Ops 4, but the visual settings are similar to the rest of the package.

Here’s our video breakdown of the Blackout mode running on every console.

Pop-in is the only rough spot. While Blackout does look technically robust at first, it doesn’t get away completely unscathed. On-foot, the engine streams in geometry, shadows and foliage seamlessly enough. There’s rarely any sign of a LOD transitions as you sprint – it’s pretty fluid at a slow pace. The seams do start to show when you’re rocketing across the map in a vehicle, like the nippy quad bike. This is the first time we’ve seen vehicles prominently in a Call of Duty multiplayer mode since World at War back in 2008. Just like PUBG, some kind of mechanism is needed to cover the map’s acreage at speed, and so Treyarch gives us trucks, bikes, and even helicopters to help. Unfortunately this isn’t an area this engine historically excels in, and shadows especially pop in abruptly on farmland plants. Even on an Xbox One X it sticks out, a console that presumably gives the best chance of rendering more detail further afield owing to its more powerful GPU.

Indeed, the visual feature set looks pretty consistent across all four consoles, with shadow quality the main factor of differentiation. It’s hard to overlook the vast gulf in image quality though. There’s a lot to cover here, but the nutshell summary is this: starting with the lower end, Xbox One targets 1600×900 as its maximum native resolution. It does hit that, but supposing you’ve just landed in a town with several other players, you’ll see a dynamic res system kick in, taking it down to around 1024×768. That’s the lowest figure, and yes, the reality is this is a mode that demands seeing far into the distance for a good sniper shot, and image quality matters. If you’re on a base Xbox One, it will be more of a challenge to compete with the Xbox One X players on the same server for that reason – your image is significantly blurrier.

By contrast, Xbox One X tops out at 3840×2160, again running with a dynamic scaler. This figure isn’t common though, and I only caught it looking up at the sky while climbing ladders. Any sight of actual terrain just pulls that number down. The typical top end is 2240×1800 in my experience, while the lowest I’ve found is 1792×1800. For all intents and purposes, and across the many shots I’ve tested, you’re getting 1800 pixels as the vertical resolution, with some scaling on the horizontal axis based on load. A true 4K is a very rare sight indeed, but Xbox One X is set up to push that in select moments.

A detailed look at Black Ops 4’s more traditional multiplayer beta, running on Xbox One and its X counterpart.

Next up, let’s look at the PlayStation 4 machines. The regular model is straightforward, topping out at 1920×1080, dynamically adjusting to 960×1080 – half the resolution – when it needs to. Full HD is hit for a good deal of the experience. Meanwhile, PS4 Pro goes one better, but inevitably pales in comparison to the brute force of X’s GPU when pushing pixels. This target 3840×2160 at max, and in rare moments, yes it can pull it off, but there is the possibility that temporal reconstruction techniques are used to get there.

The PS4 Pro’s typical output is expectedly lower than X’s. The typical peak is 1920×1800 for the majority of gameplay, and the lowest point I’ve measured is 1440×1080. That’s a lowering on both axes, and an aggressive cut to keep performance in check. General traversal holds up OK, but when any real action kicks off – again mostly in those crucial opening few minutes, or driving vehicles – picture quality takes a visible hit. X and Pro look very sharp nevertheless and it’s surprising how well they come across on a 4K TV, even with all that dynamic scaling.

Where does that leave frame-rate then? Getting a 60fps lock is the Call of Duty ideal – and that’s the hope here for Treyarch’s take on battle royale. However, it’s not quite there yet in this early build. The standard Xbox One rests between 40-60fps during general action, and tearing creeps in at the top 10 per cent of the screen. Right now, the standard PS4 fares better and the range adjusts to a tighter 45-60fps, often resting in the 50s. Again it shows adaptive v-sync helping it along, and while it’s impossible to match shots exactly, the impression is it is smoother, if not perfect. PS4 Pro offers an even better ride, and most scenarios play out in the upper end of the 50s instead. Geometrically complex spots like the shooting range are a tax on GPU resources, but it’s a generally smooth experience and holds up well.

Our very first experience of Black Ops 4 was on PlayStation 4 and Pro – here’s what we thought out of it.

Surprisingly, Xbox One X produces less positive results in this beta. It’s in the 40-60fps range – possibly due to its average higher resolution compared to Pro. Again, scenarios aren’t an exact match, but looking at that same shooting range area, the sense is that this beta gives a smoother ride on Sony’s console. This could change by the 12th October release, and since this is still beta code, hopefully we’ll see one further push in optimisation. In theory, Xbox One X should be the flagship version, and we’d hope to see a push for a smoother frame-rate even if it comes at the expense of visual acuity.

Of course, if you are looking for another option for Blackout, there’s the PC version too. This is shaping up to an especially impressive piece of work. Our experience on this one is limited to a high-end machine, but developer Beenox’s work is impressive: a Titan Xp machine with Core i9 powers this title up to 4K 60fps on the very highest settings, with only minor tweaks required to lock to 4K60. Pop-in – whether geometry or texture-based – is massively improved over consoles and the granularity of the options is genuinely impressive. Based on what we’ve seen, hopes are high that the game will scale down well to lower resolutions on more mainstream kit.

While it’s clear that Treyarch’s Blackout mode won’t win many awards for originality, there’s no doubt that it’s a remarkable repurposing of the COD engine – and although there’s some work to go in terms of console performance, the results are already encouraging. The feel of the core shooting mechanics is everything you’d expect of the series, especially so on PS4 Pro where frame-rate is currently best. Arguably, Blackout is the most exciting part of the Black Ops 4 package: the PUBG concept enhanced with COD gameplay, benefitting immensely from the series’ signature higher frame-rate and super-responsive controls. With Battlefield 5 also entering the fray with its own take on battle royale, plus rumours of a PUBG PS4 port arriving at some point, console players should be spoilt for choice when it comes to winner takes all shooters. Can any of them slow down the Fortnite juggernaut? Right now it’s hard to foresee, but it’s fascinating to see how each developer’s attempt at the battle royale concept is coming to life.

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