Battlefield 3 Beta Performance Guide

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Introduction

Battlefield 3 Beta Performance Guide

September 29, 2011

By James Wang

Today, the Battlefield 3 Beta will be released to gamers worldwide. For many gamers, the first question on their mind is: can I run this game? And if so, at what setting? This will be primary focus on this article. Along the way, we'll look at the graphics options offered in Battlefield 3, how they affect image quality, and the some upgrade options if you're looking to purchase a new graphics card.

A Quick Primer on the Battlefield 3 Graphics Engine

The last time a graphics engine or game generated this much discussion and anticipation was with the launch of the original Crysis. So let's take a moment to review why Battlefield 3 is such a milestone for 3D graphics on the PC.

Game Engines: Frostbite and Unreal Engine 3

Prior to Frostbite 2, DICE used two different graphics engines in its games.

The graphics engine behind Battlefield 3 is called Frostbite 2. Prior to Frostbite 2, DICE, the developer behind Battlefield 3, worked with two graphics engines. The first engine, the original Frostbite, was created for Battlefield Bad Company. Frostbite was powerful in handling dynamic destruction but lacked a detailed lighting model. The second was Unreal Engine 3, which DICE licensed from Epic for use in Mirror's Edge. Mirror's Edge was noted for its beautiful lighting which was created using offline global illumination software, but since everything was pre-computed, none of the levels were destructible. DICE's goal with Frostbite 2 was simple: to create a graphics engine that combined the rich, global illumination lighting of Mirror's Edge with the dynamic destructible environments of Battlefield Bad Company.

Ultimate Game Engine: Global Illumination with destructible environments

GI, or Global Illumination, refers to lighting models that capture the complex interaction of light as it bounces around in an environment. The challenge with Battlefield 3 was to combine GI with destructible environments.

With Battlefield 3, DICE has fully achieved this goal. The engine makes use of such a dizzying amount of technologies that we will be devoting a whole article on the subject in the coming days. But for now, suffice is to say that Battlefield 3 is the first game that successfully combines full destruction with realtime radiosity lighting, deferred rendering with robust antialiasing, and richly lit indoor scenes with massively scaled outdoor levels. There are other games that make use of one or more of these technologies but none that use all of them. And no other game has that unique Battlefield 3 look.

Graphics Quality Options

Battlefield 3 Beta Graphics quality options

That Battlefield 3 was built for the PC is clear the moment you open its video options menu. Eleven graphics quality settings can be individually adjusted and four presets are available: Low, Medium, High, and Ultra. We will be publishing a detailed tweak guide when the game launches to go through each of the individual options. For this article, we'll focus exclusively on the image quality and performance of the four presets.

Graphics Quality  (Preset)LowMediumHighUltra
Texture QualityLowMediumHighUltra
Shadow QualityLowMediumHighUltra
Effects QualityLowMediumHighUltra
Mesh QualityLowMediumHighUltra
Terrain QualityLowMediumHighUltra
Antialiasing DeferredOffOffOff4x MSAA
Antialiasing PostOffLowMediumMedium
Motion BlurOffOffOnOn
Motion Blur Amount50505050
Anisotropic Filter2x4x16x16x
Ambient OcclusionOffSSAOHBAOHBAO

The four graphics quality presets in Battlefield 3 and how they translate into individual settings.

How Battlefield 3 Looks At Different Quality Settings

 

Low Quality

Even at Low Quality, Battlefield 3 looks very decent. The game uses the same realtime radiosity lighting engine is used across all graphics presets so even at low, there are tons of dynamic lights, colors reflect and bleed, and high dynamic range (HDR) lighting is in full effect. But the picture, though realistic, is fairly coarse. Shadows are jagged and can look like saw teeth. Textures are blurry unless viewed up close (a higher resolution loads when things get too blurry). And trees and grass look very flat without the rich self-shadowing that's provided by ambient occlusion. Fence aliasing is also very distracting at Low Quality.

Medium Quality

At Medium Quality, the fidelity and detail is significantly improved. The most noticeable difference is that all shadows are now soft; there are no more chunky pixels to be found. Ambient occlusion is also now enabled in the form of SSAO or Screen Space Ambient Occlusion. This means trees and grass cast shadows on themselves, giving them a richer, lusher look. "Antialiasing Post", which refers to antialiasing done as a post process using shaders is now set to Low. This removes most of the jaggies in the scene, making the image much smoother.

High Quality

Now this is what Battlefield 3 is suppose to look like. High Quality adds an extra layer of architectural detail on the beautiful Parisian buildings in the Metro level. Windows and columns are rendered with real geometry which in turn cast shadows on themselves thanks to ambient occlusion. Overall, objects and structures look a lot more 3D. Textures are also much sharper thanks to 16x anisotropic filtering. The game is simply beautiful at this point.

Ultra Quality

At Ultra Quality, everything looks better but in a more subtle than dramatic way. The most obvious improvement comes from the 4x MSAA setting which gets enabled at Ultra Quality. Up until Ultra Quality, all antialiasing is handled by a post processing shader , which though powerful, can miss certain objects. For example, at High Quality, fences and thin lines form crawling patterns when you move pass them. At Ultra Quality, the addition of 4x MSAA removes most of the offensive crawlies and moiré patterns.

Quality Setting Comparisons

BF3: Shadow Quality Comparison

At Low Quality, shadows are not filtered, resulting in hard edges and saw tooth patterns. At Medium, shadow edges are smoothed out. At High or Ultra quality, the resolution of the shadow map is higher, resulting in detailed but smooth shadows.

BF3 Ambient Occlusion Comparison

These set of images show the benefit of high quality ambient occlusion. At the Low and Medium, the buildings lack proper self shadowing. High and Ultra settings enable HBAO, or Horizon Based Ambient Occlusion, a self shadowing technique developed by NVIDIA that's now used in various games. Note the detailed shadows under the windows and arches.

BF3 Texture Quality Comparison

One of the most obvious differences between the quality levels is in texture detail. At Low Quality, the sign is barely readable. At Medium, the text becomes clear. At High, even fine details such as the bolts become razor sharp.

BF3 Anti-aliasing Comparison

At Ultra Quality, 4x MSAA (Multisampling Antialiasing) is enabled. This cleans up distracting crawling artifacts in fencing and thin wires.

How Battlefield 3 Performs

In this section, we look at how Battlefield 3 performs from three different perspectives. First, we look at how a wide range of GeForce graphics cards perform in the game. Second, we determine what the optimal playable settings are for the most popular graphics cards based on the four quality presets. Third, we look into how Battlefield 3 scales in SLI.

How Different Cards Perform

BF3 GeForce GPU Performance Chart

How we tested: We tested on the Metro level using an internal version of the beta that supports timedemos, allowing us to perform repeatable benchmarks.

To keep testing to a manageable level, we picked one resolution and setting that gets us the bulk of the Battlefield 3 look without going overboard. 1920 x 1080 High Quality captured this fairly well. This also enabled us to test a large number of graphics cards to get a better sense of relative performance.

The first take away from the chart is that Battlefield 3 is a very scalable game. Higher performing GPUs have plenty of room to stretch their legs. At forty frames per second, the game plays very well and rarely dips below thirty. The first card that satisfies this level is the GeForce GTX 560. The GeForce GTX 570 and 580 progressively perform better. The GeForce GTX 590, based on two Fermi GPUs, take the crown at just over 100 frames per second.

It's interesting to note that those who invested in the flagship GeForce GTX 295 almost three years ago can still play Battlefield 3 at near peak settings, though without the benefit of DirectX 11 features such as tessellation.

Optimal Playable Settings For Popular Cards

GeForce.com publishes optimal playing settings for all major games after launch and will certainly do the same for Battlefield 3 when it launches in October. For now, we've kept things simple and focused on finding the optimal playable settings for popular GPUs based on the game's quality presets.

To find the optimal playable setting, we toggled resolution and graphics quality until the framerate fell between the 40-60 fps range. We aimed for a minimum framerate of no less than 30 fps.

Graphics CardResolutionGraphics QualityFramerate
GeForce 8800/9800 GT1280 x 1024LowAverage: 40-60 fps
Minimum: >30 fps
GeForce GTX 2601680 x 1050Medium
GeForce GTX 4601680 x 1050High
GeForce GTX 560/5701920 x 1080High
GeForce GTX 5801920 x 1080Ultra
GeForce GTX 590/580 SLI2560 x 1600Ultra
GeForce 8800/9800 GT

We start the performance evaluation with the GeForce 8800/9800 GT—the most popular graphics card according to the Steam Hardware Survey and the GPU that is listed in the minimum system requirements of Battlefield 3. True to DICE's word, the GeForce 8800 GT does indeed play Battlefield 3, though at a humble resolution of 1280 x 1024 and at Low Quality settings. Needless to say, this is not how Battlefield 3 looks in the trailers, but the game does run, as promised.

GeForce GTX 260

The GeForce GTX 260 is the fourth most popular graphics card on Steam, used by 4.19% of gamers on the service as of August 2011. Though three years old, the card puts up a respectable performance. You can play the game at 1680 x 1050 at Medium Quality. As noted in the graphics quality section, at Medium, the game looks quite a bit better than Low but doesn't have the polish of higher quality settings.

GeForce GTX 460

The GeForce GTX 460 is the first card that gives you that unique Battlefield 3 "look" while maintaining solid framerates. At 1680 x 1050, the card lets you play at High Quality settings, which gives you most of the graphical bells and whistles, including antialiasing, ambient occlusion, detailed geometry, and detailed textures. The GeForce GTX 460 performs very well at this setting.

GeForce GTX 560/560Ti/570

With any of these three graphics cards, you are getting a full Battlefield 3 experience. Simply put, this is 1080p at High Quality at 40 fps or more. With the GTX 570, you can bump individual settings a little higher (for example, Ultra quality Textures or Effects) or you can opt to play at higher framerates on the same preset. If your budget is more limited, the GTX 560 is a perfectly sound option.

GeForce GTX 580

For those who are lucky enough to own a GeForce GTX 580, expect a near-perfect experience. We're talking about 1080p at fully maxed out settings (Ultra). You have to hand it over to DICE for their lighting engine; at Ultra quality, the radiosity lighting, soft shadows, and ambient occlusion come together and play off each other to produce scenes so rich and nuanced that they look like they had been art directed. At this quality, the game plays like a trailer.

GeForce GTX 580 SLI / GTX 590

With two Fermi GPUs, the game plays at maximum quality but at the expanded resolution of 2560 x 1600. Needless to say, the game is startlingly beautiful. Do not show this to your console friends. They will hate you.

SLI Performance

As you probably guessed from the performance of the GeForce GTX 590, Battlefield 3 scales exceptionally well in SLI. Scaling refers to the performance benefit that results from adding an additional GPU to the system. On the GeForce GTX 560, Battlefield 3 scaled just shy of 90% with the addition of a second graphics card. Two GeForce GTX 580 GPUs in SLI exceeds over 100 fps at 1920 x 1080 High Quality settings. Both setups can play Battlefield 3 at Ultra Quality without breaking a sweat.

Conclusion

Upgrade Recommendations

Performance and image quality are very personal preferences and only you know if an upgrade is needed for your PC. That said, if you are looking to upgrade, here are a few basic recommendations.

If your budget is under $200, the best upgrade is to a GeForce GTX 560. The GeForce GTX 560 lets you play Battlefield 3 at 1920 x 1080 at High Quality settings which delivers the bulk of the game's graphics fidelity without being too taxing on the hardware. The GTX 560 is essentially the modern incarnation of the GeForce 8800 GT—it's fast and affordable. Don't be surprised if three years for now, it replaces the GeForce 8800 GT as the most popular GPU on Steam.

If you want a bit more performance, for $249, the GeForce GTX 560 Ti is a solid offering. For a bigger boost in performance, consider the GeForce GTX 570; it gives you an 18% performance boost over the GTX 560 and is available for under $349.

If you want to play Battlefield 3 with everything maxed out at 1080p, the GeForce GTX 580 is the one to get. You can find it for less than $499 on Newegg.

Finally, those who want simply the best performance and image quality will want to take advantage of SLI. DICE has gone to great lengths to make the game scale well with SLI and the performance results reflect this. If you own a GeForce GTX 460 or higher, adding a second GPU is probably the easiest and most economical way to improve your Battlefield 3 performance.

Conclusion

In the history of PC gaming, only a handful of games have had a truly profound impact on 3D graphics. Wolfenstein 3D ignited the genre of the first person shooter. Quake introduced fully polygonal game characters. Unreal pushed the limits of lighting and high resolution textures. FarCry liberated shooters from the constraints of dark corridors and introduced lush, open ended worlds. And finally, Crysis came along in 2007 and put everything together to create a near perfect first-person shooter. Each of these games left a lasting impression on the genre and the games that followed.

Since then, many of the same pioneers of 3D graphics have shifted their focus to consoles. But DICE decided to do the opposite. In an interview with GeForce.com in April, Patrick Bach, the Executive Producer of Battlefield 3 stated emphatically that the goal of Battlefield 3 was to create the most advanced shooter possible given the power available on modern PCs. Looking at the Beta today, it's clear that DICE has succeeded at just that.

Frostbite 2 is not about this effect or that effect. It's not a lighting engine nor a destruction engine. It's all of the above. Like Crysis, it synthesized all the knowledge that had been built up over the years into a single, pristine package. And years from now, when we look back, it will be Battlefield 3 that will be remembered as the game that defined the look for a whole generation.

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