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Games, Continued

Gaming Graphics Charts For 2009: Updated!
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The Last Remnant

This role-playing game follows a more leisurely tempo because its battles come in predictable rounds, much like those in Final Fantasy. Visuals are driven by the Unreal 3 engine. Because you can’t boost anti-aliasing for this game manually (and the Nvidia drivers can’t deliver higher settings at all), we used the standard configuration, which is locked at 4xAF.

When set to High, graphics settings are maxed out for the game, so that’s what we used for our High-End tests. The graphics engine works very well with SLI, but we got lousy values from CrossFire because the game sometimes hung in dual-card mode, even though it ran perfectly with only a single GPU. It looks like ATI still needs to optimize games that use the Unreal 3 engine, or at least revisit compatibility on this one. As soon as a more agreeable driver becomes available, count on us to retest immediately. We used a real battle for the test sequence we measured with FRAPS; because game action and encounters vary, we averaged two different runs for our readings. Without anti-aliasing turned on, most graphics cards deliver decent frame rates; higher-end GPUs serve up absolutely fluid action throughout.

Tom Clancy’s Endwar

Endwar replaces the real-time strategy game World in Conflict in our tests. It uses an enhanced Unreal 3 engine that's visually appealing. This game really isn’t ideal for measuring graphics performance because its frame rate it capped at 30 FPS by a software limiter. This is typical for many current real-time strategy games, and limits our options for benchmarking to a narrow range.

Nevertheless, we observed that it was possible to hammer frame rates under 30 frames per second in Replay Kopenhagen. We could only use the 1920x1200 resolution without AF. In that case, the 3D engine and the fastest graphics cards all had enough headroom to hit the 30 fps limit, which produced identical results for all contenders. Borderline cards in this category include the GeForce 9800 GTX+ and the Radeon HD 4870, both of which achieved frame rates of 29.5 FPS, which rounded up to 30. Any faster cards were clipped to 30 FPS, though they probably could have delivered at least a few frames per second more.

When anti-aliasing was turned on, our measurements ended up being more meaningul, because the replay could more intensively load the most powerful graphics cards. The top-end graphics chip classes are sure to hit the 30 FPS ceiling more often, meaning all of the cards to bump up against that limit were rendering smoothly. At the bottom of the range, results are less ambiguous: if a graphics card lacks sufficient power, a difference of 10 FPS means a 30% decrease in performance.

The High settting was as high as we could go for graphics quality. SLI was well-supported and CrossFire appeared to deliver no advantage (again, this seems to be an issue with the Unreal 3 engine and ATI's cards).

Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X

H.A.W.X. will never challenge Flight Simulator X for realism, but this flight simulator delivers very pretty DirectX 10 graphics and hectic dogfights. Thanks to automatic image stabilization, daredevil flight maneuvers are rendered perfectly. In our testing, the game crashed with 8xAA settings. So, if you want to run 8xAA, you'll need to switch back to DirectX 9 (simultaneously yielding stable game play and frame rates up to 50 percent higher).

The difference in graphics quality is huge, though. The sunlight effects are sharply reduced and the haze over landscapes and cities is missing. For our tests, we used DirectX 10 and the High setting to achieve maximum graphics quality. We used the test sequence Mission: Glass Hammer over Rio to measure frame rate. Performance was good overall, but anti-aliasing reduces 3D performance by a huge margin. It’s also not unusual for this game to stutter or hiccup when running on only a single graphics card, even though frame rates consistently show over 35 FPS. When AA is enabled, this effect is particularly noticeable on ATI graphics cards. The performance boost from adding a second graphics card, either in SLI or CrossFire, is quite significant.

3DMark06

We continue to use this synthetic DirectX 9 benchmark, primarily because 3DMark Vantage doesn’t always finish error-free (and because it works only with DirectX 10 graphics cards). Thus, 3DMark06 remains relevant to our 3D charts, which measure various generations of graphics cards. In the meantime it’s become more of a diagnostic tool that we can use to compare CPU performance and 3D graphics values, to help us track down issues or problems with overclocking, SLI, or CrossFire. With that said, its results aren’t always meaningful because 3D performance in real games is often much lower than what 3DMark06 reports.

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