Seven Games For Our Graphics Tests
Here, we provide a precise description of the individual benchmarks and settings for the different graphics chipsets, including vendor tweaks and information about SLI or CrossFire compatibility.
This game is a mix of an RPG and FPS title, with visuals that come from the improved Oblivion graphics engine. Fallout 3 supports HDR rendering using Shader 3.0. If you want to activate surface textures and AA at the same time, you must use a high-end graphics card, because the older GeForce 7-series cards can only do one of these at a time. This graphics engine renders outdoor scenes very fluidly and interiors with short horizons pose no difficulties for capable graphics chips.
Those who want to bring their graphics cards to their knees can integrate add-ons for improved texture handling from mod Web sites (such as Fallout 3 Nexus). These will boost graphics quality to nearly photorealistic levels.
To maximize game compatibility, we ran our tests using the standard version of Fallout 3. We used a scene from Tenpenny Tower to measure frame rates with FRAPS during an outdoors scene, with a distant horizon and numerous objects and ruins in the visible landscape.
The Oblivion 3D engine supports SLI and CrossFire well. For our High Settings tests, we set the graphics quality slider to Very High (the maximum usable setting) where 8x AA was the highest value available for AA. For our Low Settings tests, we set the graphics quality to Low and deactivated HDR rendering, which enabled older graphics chips to use AA without difficulty.
Far Cry 2
Far Cry 2 is a 3D shooter in the grand tradition of Crysis. Its Dunia 3D engine displays very nice DirectX 10 effects, particularly when rendering fire, shadows, water, and background vegetation, and streaming sunlight through dust, fog, and so forth. We set graphics quality settings at Very High for the high-end tests, because the maximum Ultra bogs even the best of graphics cards down too much, which is why we elected not to use it. For our Low Settings tests, we set the graphics to Low in DirectX 9 mode, with HDR rendering disabled.
We ran the Ranch Small benchmark sequence for our tests, which shows people, a sweeping plain, burning grass, and various huts in great profusion. SLI worked well, but CrossFire ran even better, which made more graphics RAM and higher AA at 1920x1200 resolutions pretty important. Our highest test setting for AA was 8x.
This game is a horror-themed 3D shooter. Once Warner took over this label, the game was polished with professional Hollywood shock effects of all kinds. The interiors and short sequences run very smoothly and produce very high frame rates. SLI and CrossFire both work superbly, while the performance boost from adding a second card is stupendous. Overall, graphics quality is superior and dream or vision scenes benefit from beautiful shader effects on screen. We used the Maximum graphics quality setting for our High Settings tests. For the Low Settings tests, all options were set to Minimum and the graphics enhancements and HDR rendering were turned off inside the game. We used the elevator scene in the Mission Ruin for our FRAPS measurements.
Left 4 Dead
In Left 4 Dead’s 3D shooter game world, protagonists bite, claw, and blast their way through hordes of zombies. The game runs on an enhanced version of the Source Engine from Half-Life 2. Owing to very good support for multi-core processors and a modest appetite for 3D effects, gamers are virtually guaranteed completely fluid frame rates.
For our high-end tests, graphics quality was set to Very High, which guarantees the best possible graphics quality. The highest test setting for AA was 8x AA. SLI and CrossFire enjoy superb support, where CrossFire delivers higher frame rates for Half-Life 2 but falls off slightly for this game. We used a variety of timedemo items for our frame rate tests, where the group conducts a running street battle with countless zombies.
The Last Remnant
This role-playing game follows a more leisurely tempo because its battles are conducted in predictable rounds, much like those in Final Fantasy. Visuals come from the Unreal 3 engine, which keeps gaining more DirectX 10 content throughout. Because you can’t turn AF on for this game manually and the Nvidia drivers can’t deliver higher settings at all, we used the standard settings, which are locked at 4x AF. We used a real battle for the test sequence that we measured with FRAPS. Because game action and encounters varied, we averaged two different runs for our readings. Without AA turned on, mainstream graphics cards deliver decent frame rates, while higher-end GPUs deliver absolutely fluid action throughout.
When set to High, graphics quality settings are maxed out for the game, so that’s what we used for our High Settings tests. The graphics engine works very well with SLI, and CrossFire has finally been optimized to deliver three times more performance. This turns 20 into 60 FPS, and 15 into 45 FPS. Performance for the Radeon HD 4870 has also been improved in Catalyst 9.6. Alas, the Radeon HD 4670 is still hampered, so we’re waiting on another new driver version. It’s not unusual for games that use the Unreal 3 engine to require stepwise optimization, while in our experience, it takes one or two driver versions before they get things right .
Tom Clancy’s EndWar
EndWar presents the RTS game World in Conflict. It uses an enhanced Unreal 3 engine that looks very good on the screen. This game really isn’t ideal for benchmarking, because its frame rate is capped at 30 FPS by a software limiter. This is typical for most recent RTS games, for which settings options for benchmarking are limited to a narrow range.
Nevertheless, we observed that it was possible to decrease frame rates below 30 FPS in the Replay Kopenhagen scene. We could only use the 1920x1200 resolution without AA, while 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 GTS+ and the Radeon HD 4870, both of which achieved frame rates of 29.5 FPS (or 30 FPS when rounded up). Any faster cards were clipped to 30 FPS, although they probably could have delivered at least a few frames per second more.
When AF was turned on our measurements worked better, because our replay could even tax the most powerful graphics cards more heavily. The top-end graphics chip classes all hit the 30 FPS ceiling more often. At the bottom of the range, results are less ambiguous. If a graphics card lacked sufficient power, a difference of 10 FPS meant a 30% decrease in performance. The High setting was as high as we could use for graphics quality; SLI was well-supported; and CrossFire appeared to deliver no advantage.
Tom Clancy’s H.A.W.X
H.A.W.X. will never challenge Flight Simulator X for realism, but this new flight simulator delivers very pretty DirectX 10 graphics and hectic dogfights. Thanks to automatic image stabilization, daredevil flight maneuvers are rendered perfectly and contribute mightily to the excitement of the game. In our tests, DirectX 10 crashed at 8x AA and the game and screen went black. Switch to DirectX 9 instead, and the game works at 8x AA, with frame rates up to 50% higher.
The graphics differences are huge; 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. In our new Low Settings tests, we switched to DirectX 9 mode and turned off HDR rendering. This produced good results even from otherwise slow graphics cards.
We used the test sequence Mission: Glass Hammer over Rio to measure frame rate. Frame rates were good overall, but AA reduces 3D performance by as much as 50%. It’s not unusual for this game to stutter or hiccup when running on a single graphics card (or GPU), even though frame rates consistently show over 35 FPS. When AA is enabled, this effect is particularly noticeable with ATI graphics cards. The performance boost from adding a second graphics card, either in SLI or CrossFire, is astonishing.
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 and different generations of graphics cards, particularly older ones. In the meantime, it has 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. That said, its results when comparing different graphics cards to each other aren’t always meaningful, because 3D performance in real games is often much lower than what 3DMark06 reports.