The Xbox Series S was marketed on the idea that it was a next-gen machine at lower resolution, offering similar experiences with a reduction in fidelity. But developers were always going to make the call on how severe that drop was, and with Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, we’re getting an indication of what the gulf between the Xbox Series X and S will look like going forward.
Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla was the first big next-gen multi-platform comparison, and at least in that game, the Xbox Series S held up pretty well. It ran at half the frame rate of the Xbox Series X and PS5, which was to be expected, but that decision at least meant Ubisoft didn’t have to sacrifice a huge amount of detail and image quality for the discless-Xbox Series S.
Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War, however, didn’t have that advantage.
It’s a necessity for all Call of Duty games to run at 60 frames per second, and doing so on the less powerful $499 Xbox Series S means taking a hatchet to some pretty noticeable quality settings. In a new visual breakdown from Digital Foundry, there’s some great comparisons from set pieces showing just how big the tradeoffs were.
Along with a reduction in foliage density and detail, there’s no ray tracing on the XSX. The game targets 1440p dynamically, but it doesn’t drop particularly far — Digital Foundry counted down to 1200p at the lowest. That’s also roughly the same resolution the PS5 and Xbox Series X run at when running the game in their 120Hz/120 FPS modes.
Those run pretty well, by the way, which is a positive sign for Call of Duty players everywhere. On the Xbox Series S, however, the loss of shadows and foliage detail is impossible not to notice. It’s especially brutal in helicopter scenes or the game’s missions set in Vietnam, where you’re spending a lot of time looking at lower resolution trees or branches.
In a later helicopter scene, where the camera pans from side to side as you shower a village with machine gun bullets, the loss of ray traced shadows is especially prominent. It also masks another reduction Treyarch, Raven, Sledgehammer Games and Activision’s other support studios chose to make: without the extra shadows on the trees, it’s much easier to see how reduced the foliage detail is.
I would have liked to see what details they could have retained if they kept Black Ops Cold War at a dynamic 1080p on the Xbox Series S, the way Ubisoft did with Watch Dogs: Legion. Sure, the hit to resolution means you end with up a presentation that feels more last gen than next gen, but it might have resulted in slightly less flat jungles and environments.
Of course, there’s an understated benefit to the slightly higher resolution and less detail on the Xbox Series S: multiplayer. By having less clutter and details to focus, it’s a bit easier to pick out player models, which can be useful in competition.
All in all, Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is a good technical accomplishment for both the new next-gen consoles. The PS5 and Xbox Series X maintain a pretty solid 60 FPS with ray tracing enabled, but it’s really the 120Hz mode that is the standout winner. There’s some occasional drops in some of the campaign missions, but nothing enormous that would be a detriment to the experience. And it holds up in multiplayer too, so anyone with a screen that can take advantage (or if you’re happy to play at 1440p/120Hz on Xbox, as most HDMI 2.0 TVs support that) is in for a real treat.
For those playing on the PS5, there’s some extra bonuses from the DualSense controller. The adaptive triggers add tension for every single weapon, and the tension changes for every single weapon. It basically mimics the feeling of pulling an actual trigger: you have that resistance until you hit that point where the trigger clicks. It’s definitely not something you’d want to deal with in multiplayer, but it’s another example of how devs are looking at the DualSense’s capabilities.
The next big comparison of image quality will likely be Cyberpunk 2077, which can’t be far away especially if retail copies are floating about in the wild. But I think these comparisons will be a lot more interesting in 12 or 18 months, when developers don’t have to be as concerned with the original Xbox One or PS4, and they can start working around the Xbox Series S for the baseline.