If you've spent any time on gaming forums or chatting with gamer friends in the last week or so, you've probably had to endure endless sniping and flame wars regarding "Call of Duty: Ghosts" on next-gen consoles. The game will run at a resolution of 1080p on the PlayStation 4, but only 720p on the Xbox One.
This is obviously a blow against Microsoft in the nascent next-gen console war, but unless you're an expert on framerates, resolution and how graphics impact gameplay, it might not be immediately apparent why this is such a big deal. After all, the Xbox One will upscale the graphics in "Ghosts" to 1080p, so won't the differences be negligible anyway?
To explore why resolution on two almost identical versions of a game has sparked one of the first major PS4 vs. Xbox One flame wars, it might be helpful to define a few terms.
What is HD resolution?
In modern-day parlance, HD refers to resolutions of 720 progressive, 1080 interlaced and 1080 progressive (higher resolutions are called 4K or Ultra HD and have about four times as many pixels). This means that there are either 720 or 1080 horizontal lines that comprise an image running across a display. With 720p and 1080p, the lines appear in progressive format — essentially all at once (as far as the eye can perceive). 1080i video is interlaced, with alternating bursts of the 540 odd- and even-numbered lines.
The progressive formats show images better. And obviously, 1080p is able to show more nuance than 720p (it also requires a lot more bandwidth). As to whether having 720p or 1080p resolution actually matters, it depends on a lot of factors, including the size of your TV, how far you sit from it and what you're using it for.
On a 32-inch HDTV, it takes a relatively discerning eye to tell the difference; on smaller TVs, the difference is almost negligible. On a 55-inch HDTV, a 1080p resolution is almost a necessity if you'll be sitting anywhere near the screen.
There's also the matter of upscaling. In very simple terms, upscaling takes a lower-resolution video, such as one in 720p, and interpolates additional horizontal lines to make it look smoother at a higher resolution like 1080p.
Naturally, the issue gets thorny when dealing with top-of-the-line video games.
"Call of Duty: Ghosts" — PS4 vs. Xbox One
The trouble began on Oct. 30, when Mark Rubin, executive producer at "Call of Duty" developer Infinity Ward, tweeted that "Ghosts" would run at 1080p on PS4 and 720p (upscaled to 1080p) on Xbox One.
Any forum-goer could have predicted what happened next: the PS4 stalwarts went on the offensive, declaring the supremacy of their expensive toy of choice. Xbox One diehards retaliated, and "Call of Duty" fans and detractors of every stripe came out of the woodwork to air their opinions on why the graphics didn't matter, or why the series was ruined forever, or anything in-between.
Cut through the chatter and invective, though, and you'll actually find a salient question: Does it matter if "Ghosts" runs at 720p or 1080p? As things stand right now, the answer is probably "no."
The PS4 version might look better, but the operative word here is "might" — few people outside of Infinity Ward have seen both versions in action, and resolution is not the only thing that determines how good a game looks on any given system. Furthermore, the "Call of Duty" series has never been an industry leader in graphics to begin with.
The series excels in delivering high-octane single-player campaigns and fast-paced multiplayer matches. What matters for "Call of Duty" is how well it runs, not how good it looks.
In that respect, if Rubin is as good as his word, prospective owners of both the PS4 and the Xbox One have little to worry about. "We optimized each console to hit 60 [frames per second] and the game looks great on both," he tweeted.
PC gamers and people who enjoy watching HD TV channels and Blu-rays are already familiar with how good 60 fps looks. However, Xbox 360s and PS3s displayed games at 30 fps. As you might imagine, animations with twice the number of frames generally look crisper and more realistic, and that can be a boon when dealing with a game in which speed and precision are key.
The bottom line is that whichever system you choose for "Call of Duty: Ghosts" — PS4, Xbox One or PC — you're likely to get a very similar experience. Even the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions of the game will likely not look drastically different, as developers are rarely able to leverage a next-gen console's full potential until months or years into its life cycle.
If the next "Call of Duty" game rolls around and Infinity Ward still hasn't learned to leverage 1080p graphics on the Xbox One, then there will be a problem. Until then, stay calm and rest assured that whichever new console you choose — if any — it will have its share of resounding successes and spectacular failures.