Contemporary Graphics Cards in Call of Duty: Black Ops

It has been almost two years since Modern Warfare 2 established itself as one of the best-selling games ever, but now there is a new kid on the block - Call of Duty: Black Ops. In this review we are going to take a look at the latest Call of Duty franchise game and evaluate what upgrade your gaming machine might require.

by Yaroslav Lyssenko
01/15/2011 | 07:00 PM

When you get your hands on a brand new video game from a well-known and loved brand series, there are always mixed feelings of anticipation and fear present. Is it going to be “Terminator 3” or “Die Hard 4” of the video games? A newcomer has almost nothing to live up to, but a sequel as grand as Call of Duty series is something to be truly interested in.


There was not much promising about Call of Duty video game going on sale in 2003. The First Person Shooter genre was dominated by multiplayer oriented titles and it seemed that the coming decade was going to be all about Unreal Tournament and Quake Arena like games. The arrival of a single player campaign game with the main focus on storytelling rather than “Kill-the-Most” motto seemed a bit farfetched.


Call of Duty was an immediate hit. It sold millions and revolutionized the way we view FPS games in general. Despite using a slightly different id Tech 3 game engine, Call of Duty was a major success and won a number of “Best Game” and “Game of the Year” awards. It would have been a great shame if Activision decided to drop the title, but fortunately for everyone a sequel followed two years later.


Powered by an in-house IW Engine the second coming of CoD cemented the storytelling FPS game approach. Overall gameplay remained the same with focus on single player campaigns. Once again different characters had to make their way through major historic battles of World War II. The new engine was the major contributor to the success of the title since it added extra feel to the dusty struggles of the Allies and the Axis.

Not much has changed for Call of Duty 3 as the main features and engine remained relatively the same, and despite sales numbers the game itself seemed brief and aged. Rather than apply Botox therapy, Activision decided to drop the WWII theme and instead released Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Served as an entirely new game, although based on the same game engine, CoD: MW proved to be quite a pleasing experience and received a warm welcome from the gaming community which clearly would not have been lenient to a “yet another WWII” title.


Everything was modern and new: guns, planes, vehicles; everything but the things that made this series great. Plot and storytelling were on the same level as before and you really pushed hard until you got to an abrupt end with many questions remaining unanswered.


While some were expecting CoD: MW2 from Infinity Ward to hit the market next, it was actually Treyarch’s turn to provide. The Call of Duty: World at War made a detour to the World War II battle in the Pacific theater, where the protagonist was responsible for the abrupt dawn of the Empire of the Rising Sun. It may have been a true Call of Duty game, but this is where it seemed just that bit boring. Weak story combined with painfully familiar and scripted battles were a major disappointment and community’s reaction would have been grave if not for one addictive game mode – Zombie wave killing defend the fort.


Since the fans were longing for a Modern Warfare follow-up, Activation just gave that in 2009. Same ingredients, same recipe and even the same plot since it picked up where the first installation left it hanging. Immense success despite bringing absolutely nothing new to the table, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 posed the same question: where the series was going as it seemed like it had become something like your favorite TV show, with endless seasons yet to come. Disproving the critics and expectations, CoD: MW2 sold in millions and it seems that CoD: BO is going the same way straight to the Guinness Book of World Records.

Plot and Gameplay

The game starts when the main character finds himself in a chair in some strange facility with a lot of needles, drugs, monitors and questions.  From here you are pushed to remember and relive some events that may have potentially changed the course of history.

Actually the story begins in 1961 on Cuba, in a bar. From there you need to make your way to a top secret black op mission. There is no time to take a break and get used to the controls. As soon as you are capable of controling the protagonist, you need to shoot a trooper and drive a sedan automatic (hardly a black ops vehicle of choice, don’t you think?) through a military-infested city. The whole single player campaign is divided into chapters, each dedicated to a particular time and aimed at finally finding out why you were in a torcher chair and where Dragovich was.



The overall feel to the game remains the same as in previous installations and fans of Splinter Cell series should not expect any rivalry from the Treyarch developed black ops video game as there are almost no stealth elements to the game despite the name. The gameplay is as scripted as before, but since you care only about story-telling, you don’t become frustrated with the train tracks laid in front of you. What frustrates you is the lack of plot-related information flow. Long before the end you begin to treat every chapter as a single standalone mission and when the ending is near, you may find it necessary to re-read or re-play the game, as some major story-related elements may have already faded out from your memory by then.



If single player mode is not of particular interest to you in an FPS game or you have already cleared it on an impossibly difficult Veteran setting, there is a real treat for you bestowed by Treyarch. We are not talking about the multiplayer, which is not that fresh anymore. The next worthy thing that will carry you away for several weekends is the Co-op gameplay.



“ZOMBIES RETURN!” as the official web-site announces, it is time to free the world from the Nazi undead. According to the developer, this is the ultimate favorite co-op mode made famous in Call of Duty: World at War. The task is simple: you are in a fortified location, there are some weapons and you have some points to buy a gun. Every so often a group of zombies assaults your position and you need to kill 'em all, thus earning more points and opening up new locations, with more zombies. Sounds simple, but it is just an enormous amount of fun for you and three of your friends.

Engine Features

This is probably the place where Black Ops begins to disappoint. After 5 years of service you need to work hard to make an old engine look just as good. Essentially, the game uses the same IW Engine game engine developed by Infinity Ward for the original Call of Duty 2, albeit with a number of tweaks and enhancements.

The Call of Duty: Black Ops runs on a modified IW 3 Engine previously used in Call of Duty: World at War video game. The engine features the following key technologies:

Considering that the game runs as DirectX 9.0c-only software, the list can hardly be called ground-breaking. According to the developer, the main focus of their engine enhancements for CoD: BO was on lighting, special effects and vegetation, which should make the game more exciting.

One key innovation worth mentioning has come not from the graphics department, but from the acoustics. This is the first game in Call of Duty series where protagonist actually has his own voice. Never truly missed in the first place, the game developer itself said that it was the right time and the right place to give some lines to the main character as well.

With limited engine updates we believe that major hardware upgrade may not be necessary. But just what kind of a graphics card is going to be your sweet spot? Read on to find out!

Testbed and Methods

We are going to investigate the gaming performance duirng Call of Duty: Black Ops gameplay with the latest patch 1.05 installed on the following universal testbed:

We used the following ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce drivers:

The ATI Catalyst and Nvidia GeForce graphics card drivers were configured in the following way:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia GeForce:

Just like the previous Call of Duty games, the latest Black Ops offers flexible settings for the level of detail adjustment. In fact, this setup portion has been inherited almost as is from the original game and we didn’t encounter any serious modifications there. As before, there are several image quality adjustments. The table below shows what options each of the settings allows:

The summary testing was performed in FSAA 4x Extra mode and there were 19 testing participants in it:

Premium Category

Performance Category

Mainstream Category

We ran our tests in the following standard resolutions: 1600x900, 1920x1080 and 2560x1600. The testing consisted of a run inside and outside as well as intensive combat fighting. We measured the average and minimum speed of the cards using Fraps utility version 3.2.5. Each test scenario was run three times and an average number was taken for the analysis.

Premium Class

Nothing is one sided and Call of Duty: Black Ops proves that. Yes, the game may utilize an outdated engine, but as a benefit it can easily be rendered by any modern graphics cards in the Premium sector of the market. Flagships from both AMD and Nvidia camps have no problem running Call of Duty: Black Ops with highest settings. With 130+ fps of average performance, this truly is a walk in the park for Radeon HD 5970 and GeForce GTX 580. You can easily allow yourself an extra high FSAA setting, if you feel like it makes a difference.

Latest additions to the lineup – Radeon HD 6970 and GeForce GTX 570 – are armed and ready for the next game engine developed by Infinity Ward, as currently both have no problems in rendering 100 frames per second. It is also not the time to sell your good old Radeon HD 5870 or GeForce GTX 480. They are still more than capable of providing comfortable frame rates that ensure smooth gaming experience.

Summing up, every single participant in Premium segment of our review can be treated as an overkill solution for running Black Ops. If there is a deal on Radeon HD 6950 and GeForce GTX 470 graphics cards, then take it. You will save a significant amount of money and still be able to afford maximum quality settings in CoD: Black Ops.

Performance Class

Performance/mainstream segment of the market is the most popular and it comes to no surprise that the real battle intensifies here. Radeon HD 6870 and Radeon HD 6850 graphics cards manage to outperform both versions of GeForce GTX 460. At the same time, we must once again stress that even in 2560x1600 resolution all the competing solutions are capable of delivering comfortable level of performance.

This is probably the first case where it might be helpful to highlight minimum fps. The premium 2560x1600 resolution may prove tricky for GeForce GTX 460 768MB, although 46 fps is a low number only in comparison. In the more popular 1600x900 and 1920x1080 resolutions they do not load contemporary graphics cards significantly, so not a lot of people are going to be upset about this slight drawback.  

Mainstream Class


 If you thought Call of Duty battles are intense, take a look at mainstream solutions. The undisputed leader here is Radeon HD 5770, which is one of the oldest solutions by graphics card standards. It easily dismisses 1600x900 resolution with 120 fps and has no problem with calculations in 1920x1080. The highest resolution will probably reveal some issues in FSAA 4x mode.

Nvidia fights back with Fermi-light class - GeForce GTS 450 graphics card - and does a pretty decent job at it. It manages to outperform Radeon HD 5750 in the lowest resolution and goes for a photo-finish in other cases. The premium class 2560x1600 resolution is a definite no-flight-zone for both solutions with highest quality settings, as anything below 60 fps mark is unacceptable for a First Person Shooter game.

In the bottom market sector the entry level solutions such as Radeon HD 5670 and GeForce GT 240 are only suitable for 1600x900 gaming. The ultra-light Fermi based GeForce GT 430 is really not an option for someone interested in high quality Call of Duty: Black Ops gaming.

Instantaneous Performance and Image Quality

The tests we’ve done so far suggest that Call of Duty: Black Ops doesn’t have high system requirements. As I have mentioned earlier, this isn’t surprising at all: the game features a slightly outdated engine. While the engine remains the same, new GPUs are becoming much faster, so you can achieve a playable frame rate in Call of Duty even if you use inexpensive entry-level products like the Radeon HD 5770.

Now we want to check out how different game settings may affect the frame rate and image quality. We will take a few screenshots using two popular cards: an AMD Radeon HD 6870 and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 460 1GB. Being affordable, they deliver high performance in most of today’s games.

The test sequence includes an indoors and outdoors scene, a run across town in Cuba with an intense firefight. Thus, it covers most situations the gamer may find himself in. Like in the main tests, we measure the frame rate with Fraps 3.2.5. We also use this utility to capture screenshots for image quality comparisons.

And here are the results we’ve got:

Since the game has such a modest appetite towards hardware we decided to make an extra effort and test it with FSAA 8x in order to satisfy our most demanding readers. While the benefits of using such high anti-aliasing settings are questionable, knowing that you can do it without losing comfortable frame rate is heart-warming. The game engine bears significantly different loads depending on the scenery. We are glad to report that even with 8 sample FSAA setting both Radeon HD 6870 and GeForce GTX 460 1GB can maintain a good pace well above 60 fps. 

 The default standard for the industry FSAA 4x mode brings higher performance at roughly the same amount of eye-candy quality. Since CoD: BO has a built-in antialiasing support, the difference in picture quality between 8x and 4x modes is quite noticeable in some areas, such as wires and weaponry edges.

Overall, nothing has changed between Radeon HD 6870 and GeForce GTX 460 1GB graphics cards. Participants have no problems delivering comfortable frame rates with these quality settings.


Lose a FSAA setting and get some performance in return. All in all, this is a good approach, but what about the picture quality you are getting as a result? Of course, full-screen antialiasing is a must-have feature in contemporary games, and as we have seen previously, modern $200 graphics cards have no problems maintaining a good picture. 


More performance - more tradeoffs. Textures are of great quality but the drop is barely noticeable. This mode may still be treated as an alternative for someone with a lower performing gaming system. Roughly you are getting 80% of Black Ops with almost twice the performance, which is quite a bargain.

AMD Radeon HD 6870 graphics card is benefiting more from the lower quality settings and the difference between it and GeForce GTX 460 1GB becomes noticeable.


The game still looks decent enough with normal quality settings. The tradeoffs that you have to make are more evident. Say farewell to shadows. Textures look noticeably worse, but still have some level of detail. Overall, this is not as repulsive as you might have expected, especially compared to some other games earlier this year.

Welcome to the world of Doom 2 with extra strong blur. It may not look like it, but overall picture quality with the lowest graphics settings is appalling. Even if you are a proud owner of a Netbook, the best thing for you would be to save a few bucks and get yourself an entry level notebook or desktop PC capable of handling slightly heavier settings. You do want to play Call of Duty: Black Ops and not a 'shoot that pixel' themed game, don't you?!


Truth be told, if not for a somewhat unusual plot for an FPS title, we don’t think that this game deserves the credit it is getting. The whole series is in desperate need of a major refresh, not just a facelift. Even the best TV shows have to go and it is definitely the case with Call of Duty.

The game lacks in every aspect worth mentioning. There are no new visual technologies, no tessellation, no complex physics, no compute shaders. It would have been OK, but even textures can be considered slightly low-quality, thanks to console-related restrictions.

While the whole story seems solid enough, it still lacks overall blockbuster feel. Level designers don’t let you wander around even for a brief moment and level exploring should be left to Battlefield: Bad Company 2 Vietnam rival. Speaking of levels, they are on par with famous Doom 3 corridors: sidestepping is almost impossible.

But in this review we are not looking at the game, but rather at its hardware thirst and here CoD has displayed a relatively moderate appetite. Even the most basic hardware is more than capable of running this DirectX 9 API title.

The premium market is populated with recently launched Radeon and GeForce graphics cards. It is really hard to make any recommendations as every single participant is capable of insuring comfortable gaming experience. If there is you are planning an upgrade for the new CoD: BO, you might want to consider saving a bit of money and look at performance-mainstream solutions.

Mainstream solutions look more than respectable. Even products around the $100 price point seem to cope well with the lowest resolution settings. So, since you can always disable FSAA, it is highly unlikely that your gaming rig won’t be able to run Call of Duty: Black Ops game.


Pick your hardware wisely and enjoy the game, just don’t forget to set your alarm clock for the Zombie infestation co-op cleanup as time really does have a tendency to fly in this mode. :)