When Treyarch ushered us into their Los Angeles studios to showcase their latest surprise – support for stereoscopic 3D in Call of Duty: Black Ops – it seemed too good to be true. Black Ops' 3D mode will be a selectable option turned off or on at the main menu. PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 will all support the feature, and it won't be bundled as part of a limited edition or DLC package – it's shipping with the game as a standard feature. Continuing the “all silver lining, no cloud” theme is the framerate hit the game takes, which on the levels we were shown, appeared to be negligible.
There's a caveat to this good news. Short of playing the entire game through in 3D mode – every multiplayer map, every single player level – we can't know for certain if Treyarch has managed to essentially double the visual rendering load for Black Ops and still retained that silky, 60fps-or-close-enough framerate that is the hallmark of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 CoD games. Treyarch head Mark Lamia is confident the team has. Showcasing a limited selection of levels from the game – as well as what had to be a CPU taxing round of multiplayer skirmish against AI bots – the game engine's performance was rock solid. No dips in framerate, and a level of visual fidelity in line with what Treyarch has shown previously – only this time, it's in stereoscopic 3D. Expectations of a low rez, stuttering mess were quickly abolished as the same scenes we'd seen at previous demonstrations were ran through in 3D smoothly and with no fuss.
Treyarch claims to have tested the 3D mode on virtually every stereoscopic 3D screen/active shutter product on sale at present, with the exception of a Sharp model that literally went on sale a week ago. Lamia claims the experience remains consistent regardless of which product they tried. As for concerns about side effects of prolonged exposure to the 3D effect – headaches and nausea amongst them, Lamia concedes not every gamer will be able to use the tech, but also points to a staffer who says he's been racking up eight hours a day in 3D mode playtesting “for the past few months”. Not the most scientific example, but his point is clear: you may not need that sick bucket after all.
Lamia admits 3D TV support is an easier prospect for most game developers than say, film makers (“we already make games in 3D...all we're doing is enabling stereoscopic 3D”), but it's no light undertaking to throw in a feature like this at short notice. He insists the mode wasn't initially part of the game's scope, but rather a side project that blossomed into relevance at some undisclosed stage in development. It certainly has been a well-kept secret. When asked what the response from Microsoft's seemingly 3D-averse Xbox team has been, Lamia almost succeeds in keeping a smirk off his face as he states they found out about it “quite recently”.
In full effect
When switched on, the 3D mode itself is hard to miss. All user interface elements – your HUD, notifications, awards – all come to the forefront. Your weapon model – and we're can't recall seeing better models on any platform than the ones we saw in 3D mode – points “into” the field of view. Zooming or looking down the sights blurs the weapon detail in the foreground while leaving the remainder of the screen crisply rendered. At one stage in the “WMD” level, we're lying prone with the crossbow weapon equipped. Here a depth of field effect – and your cover - tightened points of focus and blurred the foreground. Standing up with the weapon cast the entire scene into sharp relief. Touches like this suggest the Treyarch team has been thinking carefully about ways to do more than just float squad name tags along a z-axis.
Character models – obviously already rendered in 3D – now have the illusion of more weight and heft to them. They look the same, but their motion has more spatial relevance, if that makes sense. So too it seems the effect will put the nail in the coffin of the “smeared-texture-on-a-wall-as-object” era. It's ridiculously easy to discern which objects in-game have three rendered dimensions now, even at range. We couldn't see any examples of Treyarch's level design falling into that trap, however it was noted that wall detail that would affect its contour– like cracks – are now rendered via normal maps. No word on bullet marks, but don't expect real-time, persistent terrain deformation just yet.
Combat plays out like the standard, non-3D mode version does. Any expectation that your crosshair floating in space might mess with your aim is for naught. The horizontal angle of convergence between the weapon model and crosshair is negligible, meaning that where the crosshair is, the bullets follow without concerns of objects approaching at odd angles.
Cut-scenes too enjoy more life. There's a little uncanny valley tug-of-war going on here – we found the depth offered by 3D mode was allowing us to disregard elements that normally stood out. When a properly animated and rendered face is conversing with your character in 3D space, quibbles like non-animated hair tend to fade into the background, figuratively speaking.
Three's the charm?
There's not much doubt Treyarch will have selected the levels which show the technology in its best light, however there was no really telling giveaways that a nasty, stuttering framerate surprise was lying in wait at retail launch. We saw plenty of gunfire and particles flying about in the demonstrations Treyarch undertook, and no shortage of character models on screen. In short, we were shown levels and gameplay that were “typical Call of Duty” renditions – in line with the action one expects from the series.
While there's been the odd optimistic rumour and rumble about 3D support in Black Ops, not many would have taken Treyarch to task if it hadn't eventuated. 3D TVs and monitors are still relative newcomers on store shelves, and even Sony's 3D FPS flagship Killzone 3 won't be putting out a 3D mode until next year, something Lamia made veiled reference to in his presentation. Further Lamia claims the impetus and responsibility for including the mode was entirely Treyarch's. Apart from the prospect of breaking fresh ground, if the 3D mode works throughout the entire Black Ops game as well as it did in our demonstration, it will won't do Treyarch's fortunes and profile within Activision any harm.