18 Aug 2010

Will My Computer Run Cataclysm?

The most common question I get asked about Cataclysm is “will it run on my computer?” Not something about mages, not what the new zones are like. Not even how I’m finding it, or how much testing I’ve done. It seems the biggest worry I come across is if people have to buy a new machine so that they can play Blizzard’s latest expansion.

As a result, I’ve done some basic testing in order to be able to answer this simple question. Trouble is, it’s not an easy one to answer. There are so many variables to consider – do you raid, what graphics settings do you use, etc. The best I can hope to do is give you a relative idea of how my machine performs in the beta and provide you with enough information so that you can make your own comparisons.

Before I begin, I’m going to be clear that this is beta software, and as such usually contains a bundle of debugging code. It’s not been compiled to produce the best possible performance. As a result, these figures are only likely to improve between now and release. If it’s not clear if you should upgrade, you might want to wait and see. Don’t let me stop you saving though, just in case.

The Baseline

To start of with, let’s establish some specs. My desktop machine is an Intel Core 2 Duo 6600 running at 2.4GHz. It has 4GB RAM and an nVidia 9600GT graphics card with 1GB on board RAM. I have a 20.1 inch TFT monitor, running at a resolution of 1680×1050.

Sitting in Stormwind at peak time, outside the bank, I can comfortably manage 64-70fps. In Dalaran that usually drops to around 30fps, although it varies hugely with the time of day and how many people are in the city.

10-man raiding runs with no problems at all, but I occasionally have to drop down a few settings to cope with 25-man raiding comfortably. By this I mean that my framerate drops below a comfort minimum of 20fps. Below this number, stuttering becomes noticeable and input lag can start to impact performance.

Smoothing Things Out

Before looking at the myriad of other settings (and believe me, there are lots) it’s worth looking at the bare basic settings that you use. Running in fullscreen rather than a window can improve performance, as can being strict about pruning addons that you don’t really need.

There’s also a setting about multisampling that you can tweak to improve the overall image quality. Put simply, it’s a technique used to smooth out jagged edges between two high-contrast models. You can see it clearly in the picture below – the battlements contrast against the red roof – on the left there’s no multisampling while on the right there’s the maximum applied.

While having full multisampling switched on might look nice, you might want to dial it back a few notches. Depending on your graphics card, you might find a significant performance boost with little or no multisampling applied. Of course, your mileage may vary.

The Five Options

Rather than going through each individual slider in this article (and tripling it’s length) I’ve chosen to examine each of the main performance settings available. These options are Low, Fair, Good, High and Ultra. As a guide, I generally tend to play on Ultra.

Now, remember I mentioned that I get around 67-70fps in Stormwind? In the current beta build that drops down to around 30-32fps at the same location with roughly the same population. Like I said before, this is beta code and performance is likely to improve before release.

Low detail (click to embiggen)

The lowest detail setting cuts things back to the bone. Low viewing distance and low texture detail help bring performance up to an impressive 110-130fps. If you’re happy to cope with this detail setting then it’ll help stretch your hardware as far as possible. If on the other hand you’ve grown used to all that nice detail, you might want to look at at the later options.

Fair detail (click to embiggen)

Moving up a notch, fair detail pushes out the view distance and ups the texture detail slightly. It also runs at a pleasing 64-70fps on my system. That said, there’s not a huge amount of difference between this and the next setting.

Good detail (click to embiggen)

At the Good detail level, things start to come alive. You can start to see the high resolution textures in areas like the pathways, while the background mountains start to creep into vision. You can also see doodads start to creep into camera range – notice the hatches on top of the nearest towers? Good detail comes in at 55-60fps while floating above Stormwind.

High detail (click to embiggen)

Moving up to High doesn’t introduce many changes. The most significant one is the introduction of dynamic shadows, along with a further extension of view distance. There’s also an increase in the doodad range (the banners on the canal fort are an example). High plays at 44-47fps in this beta build.

Ultra detail (click to embiggen)

At a glance, it’s hard work to tell the difference between High and Ultra Detail (even though Ultra runs at about 27-31fps). Looking at the details though, there are some subtle improvements to shadow quality. The view distance has also increased, with the edges of those mountains in the distance now becoming visible. The doodad range has increased further as well.

Although I’m confident that performance will improve on this between now and release, I think that falling back from Ultra to Good quality will be acceptable if it’ll save the cost of a few upgrades.

The Conclusion

Overall, if your computer runs Wrath then it’ll be able to handle Cataclysm. You might have to hop between the settings or even fine tune a few sliders to get the right balance between performance and quality, but overall you should be fine.

If you’re hoping to take advantage of the new water and sunshaft effects, as well as the improved shadows from Wrath, you might want to take a closer look at your system. If your machine comfortably runs Wrath without any issues then you should be fine. If however you’re struggling with framerate problems at the maximum detail settings you might want to look at upgrading.

In a future post I’ll be looking at some of the new settings, various upgrade options and what you can do to save yourself a few pennies at upgrade time. In the meantime, if you have any questions please fire away.

Photo taken of the Difference Engine, held at the Computer History Museum

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