We're in the future!
Three years ago this week, I made a bold prediction. I said that in 2013, cell phone games (in particular iPhone games) would be some 7 years behind current console graphics. If I was right, the iPhone games of 2013 should be reaching the graphical quality of console games from 2006. Come November, that will mean PS3 quality.
Of course, this isn't an exact science (nor is it November), but we can still compare old PS3 and Xbox 360 games with the latest mobile offerings to see if they're even in the same ballpark. Let's find out, shall we?
Before we start...
Let's just say, categorically, that cell phones can definitely 'do' last-gen games. Crazy Taxi, GTA III and GTA: Vice City, Jet Set Radio are great examples. The mobile versions of these games run smoothly, look superb and often boast higher resolutions than the originals.
So let's see how a current-gen racer stacks up against EA's Real Racing 3...
Gran Turismo 5 Prologue: PS3
With no realistic racer available from launch, the first 'proper' PS3 racing sim was Gran Turismo 5: Prologue, released in 2008. The game brought fully 3D-modeled interiors, reflective environment-mapped bodywork, high-resolution track textures and real-world tracks with little to no pop-in.
Real Racing 3: iOS
Real Racing 3 also has real-world circuits, 3D interior modeling, reflective bodywork and incredibly hi-res visuals. It also features cars made up of 30,000 polygons each. That's very high, but still some way short of GT5 Prologue's circa-200,000 polygon models.
However, even on iPhone 5, the frame rate isn't a rock-solid 60fps. Also, post-processing filter effects are less evident than in Polyphony's PS3 racer, leaving the iOS game looking a little too 'clean'. It's close enough to be compared side-by side, but not quite up to GT5 Prologue.
Forza 2: Xbox 360
However! Forza Motorsport 2 on Xbox 360 was released in 2007. And the clinical, slightly sterile environmental graphics look very similar indeed to Real Racing 3. We can do an exact comparison too, with the same corner on the same track. Ready?
Real Racing 3: iOS
Real Racing 3 has fewer incidental trackside details on the same corner. At first glance track textures and car detail look on a par with Forza, although the 360 game has superior anti-aliasing on the track in the middle-distance. Does the quality of the car model look better on iOS? It's a different car, granted, but it's a close call. Let's try a different genre...
Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy - iOS
Sky Gamblers: Air Supremacy was one of the first games to be properly optimised for iPhone 5, allowing full, widescreen display of some epic-looking dogfights. Crepuscular ray effects make the sun look all kinds of beautiful and the frame-rate is super-slick. Burnish effects on metal also make this look like a current-gen console game. But what was the early current-gen equivalent?
Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation - Xbox 360
The closest equivalent is Air Supremacy's stablemate at Namco, Ace Combat 6: Fires of Liberation, which launched in 2007. There is a little more ground-level detail in Ace Combat, but the planes and cloud effects are strong in both games. If anything, iOS' crepuscular ray effects make sky scenes more impressive, although the 360 game has a far superior sense of depth in its 2D picture.
Halo 3 - Xbox 360
Halo 3 came out in 2007, disappointing some gamers because it wasn't a massive graphical leap over the previous generation. Stylistically, it has plenty of similarities with the N.O.V.A. universe - largely because it inspired the N.O.V.A. games. But with N.O.V.A.3, has the mobile student become the master?
N.O.V.A. 3 - iOS
N.O.V.A.3 came out in 2012 and features full FPS movement as well as online play. With the functionality of a console shooter, you'd expect there to be some concessions when it comes to visuals; but no, there's some phenomenally good-looking eye nibbles here. Depth-of-field effects, impressive lighting, detailed character models... Up close (and especially blown up big), it isn't quite up to 2006's standards, but it's extremely close.
Resistance: Fall of Man - PS3
On the subject of FPS, PlayStation 3 launched with this under-appreciated classic from Insomniac. It is now sadly showing its age compared to modern PS3 shooters, but what game could possibly equal it on iOS?
Dead Trigger: iOS
Dead Trigger looks incredible. Smooth, high-resolution and featuring a decent polygon count, its characters and environments look amazing. Games like RAGE HD sacrifice freedom of movement in exchange for better visuals, but here the gameplay is totally free-moving too. Just when all looked lost for cell phones, this is arguably as good, visually, as Resistance: Fall of Man. On PS3. It's as-near-as-dammit and dead gorgeous to look at. Pun intended.
After Burner Climax: PS3 (PSN)
To finish up, let's do a straight comparison. After Burner Climax is not a game from 2006, but it is a game that has been recently ported to iOS using assets from the PS3 version. Therefore, it's a great indicator of how well iOS can imitate modern PS3 games. Any shortfalls will be brutally clear. So...
After Burner Climax: iOS
Here's the iPhone 5 version. Bar the occasional dropped frame, the game runs at a decent 30fps, which isn't as good as the PS3 version's 60fps. Close inspection also reveals a few graphical shortcomings, such as muddy textures, reduced special effect quality on smoke trails and exhaust flames, as well as an absence of lighting effects on the buildings. It's still devilishly fast and very pretty, but it's not on a par with PS3's version.
It's so close. What do you think?
Objectively, cell phone games are not quite there yet. But to even be talking about the finer aspects of graphcial quality in a straight comparison between mobile games and PS3 is incredible. Dead Trigger is almost up there with the PS3 launch line-up, and Real Racing 3 is a minor miracle, no question. Perhaps before the year's out we'll see parity. That's a better way to end this than saying 'prediction fail'. Let us know what you think in the comments.
And if you're looking for more, check out our list of the Best iPhone games and the original Can cell phone graphics hit PS3 quality in 3 years?