Activision’s annual festive treat is back. The IW engine is now in its ninth iteration and has remained relatively static since the beginning of the current generation. There has been some regression, at least on consoles, with Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War’s ray tracing shadows no longer present. The PC offers DLSS and FSR options, which are necessary even on my RTX 3080 if you want to achieve 4K/60fps at extreme settings. All three consoles offer two performance modes: a high-resolution 60fps mode and a 120fps reduced quality mode. The actual difference between modes is as follows.
Xbox Series X and PS5 are identical in their basic 60Hz modes. Both output the full 3840 x 2160 resolution at identical settings, and this is reconstructed from a base of 1920 x 2160, as in the previous two games. The Xbox Series S is visually almost identical, apart from minor reductions in textures, alpha effects, bloom and shadows. However, the biggest reduction is in resolution, aiming for 2560×1440 output and then scaling or reconstructing from a 1280×1440 base.
The 60fps mode on PS5 and Series X is boring from an analytics perspective, but great from a gameplay perspective. In one of the hardest levels early in the campaign, we get a locked and stable 60fps display from both the Series X and PS5. Even when overwhelmed with post-processing effects, alpha, enemies, and multiple shadow-casting lights, we don’t deviate from that flat line, something later levels confirm. All versions are likely to have Adaptive V-Sync, which supports any moments that fall below the required 16ms frame time and ensures it still feels as smooth as possible. The Xbox Series S is the only one that showed any tearing in my testing, as it struggles to stay close to the 60fps target at some levels. The first and largely most impressive mission is the worst case test. This is likely due to bandwidth and fill rate being limited during heavy rain, blooms, highlights, shadows and action. In these situations, there can be aggressive screen tearing across the height of the screen, leaving performance around the mid-40s to low 50s, but dropping more sharply in worse cases.
Later levels return to larger, more open areas and less scripted sections, many of which are simply multiplayer Warzone maps reused as a “mission” within the campaign. The AI is terrible and it plays like a normal Warzone game with bots, but these don’t tax the GPU as much and may tax the CPU more. Because of the open, wide planes, you get high geometry in the faster 120Hz mode. However, at 60 frames per second, these missions are much better at maintaining the 16 ms frame time, and with variable rate refresh enabled at 60 frames per second, we only drop a handful of frames, which fixes the tearing while also providing one maintains fluid control.
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A high refresh rate is the real MVP of such a fast-paced, high-octane shooter, especially when playing online, and that’s where 120Hz mode comes into play. All three consoles offer the mode, but you have to activate it in your operating system menu. We repeat the opening levels on both the PS5 and Xbox Series. Both consoles record almost identical GPU-limited performance here, and while there isn’t a huge increase over the 60fps mode, the graphics are almost identical, albeit at a lower resolution.
The open tiers rely a little less on the GPU, and as such we see faster performance. It’s much harder to match the action between both consoles, but if you follow the same benchmarking route, the average frame rates of both consoles are in the 100fps range, with the Xbox Series X offering slightly better performance – on average it was up to 12% faster in these tests. While this is a real advantage, it’s more academic at these high frame rates, as both feel very smooth and responsive when gaming and the difference goes largely unnoticed. This is where the variable refresh rate shines, as without it this mode can constantly tear across all formats. Turning on VRR is an obvious choice if you can. Even if the image quality is slightly noticeably impaired, the price for the performance gain is definitely worth it.
While I wouldn’t say variable rate refresh is necessary on all consoles, the Series S really benefits from it in both modes as it can be difficult to hit 60fps in some levels. Although these open-ended Warzone-like missions are less strenuous and we get much better performance, tearing is constant, meaning VRR noticeably increases input times and image quality.
Among all the current generation consoles, Modern Warfare 3 is a game that really benefits from 120 Hz and a VRR screen, especially on the Xbox Series S. The PS5 and the PS5 in this 120 Hz screen. I recommend playing with VRR enabled, and in both single and multiplayer modes you’ll be firmly planted on the ground, even if it feels like we’ve already walked a million miles in these boots.