World Of Warcraft: Cataclysm--Tom's Performance Guide

Performance Conclusions

If you're a regular Tom's Hardware reader, a performance evaluation like this is par for the course. If you're new here, your head is probably spinning after seeing all of those bar and line charts, along with the talk of scaling, bottlenecks, and code paths. Let's break it all down though, piece by piece.

We'll start with graphics--specifically, the fact that Cataclysm includes support for DirectX 11. It's still not clear exactly what Blizzard did to optimize this particular code path, but enabling DX11 support on a platform with a compatible graphics card has the potential to enable significant performance gains on both AMD- and Nvidia-based boards. There's a catch, though. In order to realize those gains, you can't be limited by the graphics card's performance. That means you need a fast enough GPU to be platform-bound. As resolution increases, applying more of a GPU load, the increase attributable to DX11 tends to drop. With that said, I have friends running mainstream processors and mainstream GPUs who've seen 20 FPS boosts at 1920x1080 using the Ultra quality preset. Turn it on if you have a compatible card!

That takes us to the perpetual back and forth between AMD and Nvidia. Although AMD's Radeon HD 5800- and 6800-series cards demonstrate notable differentiation at 2560x1600, lower resolutions show the company's fastest boards running into a limitation in the mid-80 FPS range--below Nvidia's competing GeForce GTX 460. The high-end Nvidia cards start hitting their own platform-imposed ceilings up above 100 FPS. There's really no good explanation for this other than AMD's cards are more platform-dependent than Nvidia's in this game. Once you dip below GeForce GTX 460 levels, there's a huge drop-off to the GTS 450 and GTx 200-series cards. At the point, AMD's offerings become more competitive, with the Radeon HD 6850 and 5770 looking like particularly solid values for the folks who want in on Ultra quality settings without spending a ton of money.

And how about processors? After all, games are impacted most forcefully by the power of your GPU. WoW, it appears, bucks that trend to a large degree. Without question, we see the best performance on Intel CPUs with remarkable scaling from 100 FPS down to 60ish frames per second with a GeForce GTX 480 at 1680x1050 (Ultra quality) as you shed clock rate, cores, and cache. We've said it before and we'll say it again: when it comes to gaming, balance is everything. Don't buy a high-end graphics card if you're using a mid-ranged processor; you'll simply handicap the GPU, failing to realize its potential. In this case, an overclocked Core i5 serves up reasonable performance, but a Core i7 is undoubtedly the gold standard if you're rocking a fancy graphics card.

That's not to say you can't get playable frame rates from a processor from AMD. But wow--they turn in significantly lower average frame rates in Cataclysm. Like, even the fastest unreleased six-core CPU gets pegged at 60 FPS with a GeForce GTX 480 under the hood. Thinking the problem could have been with our graphics card, we even swapped in a Radeon HD 5870 and saw the same ceiling at 59 frames per second. You can get more performance for about $150 less from a dual-core Core i3-530. Sad.

With all of that said, it's safe to say that Blizzard effectively gave its Cataclysm expansion a healthy injection of eye candy without making the game inaccessible. It's still very much playable the way its developers intended with mid-range graphics and processors. Now, if you'll excuse me, it's time to dial-in my own optimized settings before my digital download goes live at midnight!

Chris Angelini
Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.
  • Odem
    Kind of unfortunate to see if I had gone with an i5 750 instead of a 955 I'd be seeing more fps. Although the money I saved for the same frames in most other games leaves me happy.
  • WOW only uses 2 cores by default. However youc an configure it to "quasi" use more cores. you have to manually edit your and change the variable: SET processAffinityMask "3" (3 is the default meaning 2 cores) to the following values for respective processors:

    i7 Qudcore with Ht- 85
    Any Quadcore chips with no HT - 15
    i5 Quadcore which does not have HT as far as I know - 15
    i5 Dualcore with HT- 5
    Dualcore with HT- 5
    Dualcore without HT - 5
    AMD tricore - 7

    There used to be a blue post explaining the settings and how to calculate it for different cores. But the old forums got wiped.
  • sudeshc
    not a that big fan of wow, but still happy to see that they do keep in mind that people also have low end hardware too.
  • SpadeM
    I'm impressed, if Chris went to all that trouble to benchmark the new expansion for a mmorpg in such great detail it can me only 2 things:
    1. Chris is a closet WoW-player
    2. Really bored
    With that said, i really do hope to see more of these articles, albeit with a more demanding title on the bench, even if it's from a "lesser" developer/publisher combo.

    PS: I do hope ppl appreciate my sense of humor :P
  • dirtmountain
    Damn fine job Mr. Angelini, the most comprehensive hardware guide i've ever seen for WoW. This will save me hours, if not days of time when talking to players about their systems. Much appreciated.
  • Bluescreendeath
    The Intel CPU scaling part was lacking...i7 980X at 3.7GHz? For WoW? Really?

    And why only Corei CPUs? Where are all the Core2s? 75% of Intel users still use Core2s and 775s!
  • voicu83
    i hate you so much tom's hardware ... now i have to go buy an intel proc instead of my phenom ii x4 :D ... and add a dx11 board on top of it ... oh well, there goes my santa's gift :P
  • Moneyloo
    Simply astounded by the time and effort that must have went into this piece. It also makes me greatly look forward to my new Maingear desktop arriving on the 23rd just in time for Christmas. Dual OC gtx580s in sli with a corei7 FTW. Ultra everything here I come!
  • cangelini
    SpadeMI'm impressed, if Chris went to all that trouble to benchmark the new expansion for a mmorpg in such great detail it can me only 2 things:1. Chris is a closet WoW-player2. Really boredWith that said, i really do hope to see more of these articles, albeit with a more demanding title on the bench, even if it's from a "lesser" developer/publisher combo. PS: I do hope ppl appreciate my sense of humor
    It's a little easier to talk about WoW since I've been playing it for way too long, but I definitely want to see us doing more comprehensive coverage of demanding titles on launch day. It's all a matter of trying to convince the software guys to give a hardware site early access to the game. That's the hard part :)
  • mitch074
    With hardware-accelerated cursor now enabled, OpenGL has finally become usable in WoW; was there any testing done on that? Not only does it sometimes give a boost to Nvidia cards, it's also the 'default' setting for Linux players - incidentally, the ones who were asking for the feature for a while.