Wrapping Things Up: What Have We Learnt?
Be under no illusions, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is a brutally punishing test for any PC. Even the latest 300 million-plus transistor graphics goliaths from ATI and Nvidia simply can't cope with Bethesda Softworks' genre-busting magnum opus at maximum detail. No matter how powerful your PC might be, you'll need to adjust your expectations in terms of the kinds of frame rates and screen resolutions you find acceptable.
If you expect to prance around the fictional world of Cyrodiil at a liquid smooth 60 frames per second, you'll be sorely disappointed. Likewise, if it's a completely stutter-free experience you demand, be prepared to run Oblivion at resolutions much lower than almost any other game on the market. 1280x1024 is the limit for super smooth Oblivion performance on the fastest cards currently available.
Moreover, if it's an explanation of Oblivion's relatively poor performance on current hardware you're after, the limited vertex throughput of current hardware is very likely a significant factor. With the arrival of the first unified architecture GPUs later this year, delivering for the first time the ability to dynamically balance the processing power of a 3D chip between vertex, geometry and pixel workloads, it's likely that we'll see an enormous boost in Oblivion rendering speeds.
Nevertheless, for now the good news is that the Oblivion engine is almost infinitely scalable and adjustable. Winding down the grass draw distance to 30 percent or less and cranking back the shadow detail a few clicks will release an awful lot of additional performance in those demanding forest scenes without ruining Oblivion's RPG-tastic gaming experience. You also need not worry if your system remains stuck in the single-core era. The performance benefits of a dual-core CPU are marginal at best.
But what of the age old contest twixt ATI and Nvidia? While we haven't covered every 3D solution on the market, we have seen enough to demonstrate that for single-card performance, ATI's X1000 series of GPUs is awfully tough to beat. Granted, it's not a comprehensive victory, with Nvidia's offerings looking extremely competitive in our Imperial City and Elven catacombs benchmarks.
ATI has the clear advantage over Nvidia in the Great Forest, where every frame of performance is at a premium. In theory, the Radeon X1000 cards can also boast the advantage of supporting HDR rendering with anti-aliasing. In practice it is purely an on-paper benefit as HDR and AA are resource-costly image quality enhancements. With frame rates routinely dipping in the low 20s, there's no performance spare to spend on the luxury of anti-aliasing, including ATI's king-of-the-hill Radeon X1900 XTX card.
As for the dual between SLI and Crossfire, well, there's isn't an outspoken winner but a pair of X1900s in Crossfire configuration is the weapon of choice for gamers lucky enough to own ultra-high resolution PC displays. Only ATI can currently offer a graphics solution capable of spewing out reasonably playable frame rates when rendering Oblivion at 2560x1600. Further down the range, however, SLI's superior dual-GPU scaling is certainly impressive.
If you already own an SLI-capable video card and motherboard, dropping in a second identical board will deliver very nearly double the rendering performance in Oblivion. For many gamers, that's a more attractive option than forking out $500 or more for a replacement high-end card.
You can check out our interactive VGA charts to see how many 3D solutions stack up against one another in a wide variety of games and benchmarks.