Doom III: Performance and Image Quality in Different Gaming Modes

We decided to compare a plethora of graphics cards using five demos and different quality settings of the Doom III title. The article brings you performance numbers and image quality analysis that should help you to decide which are the best settings of Doom III game for your graphics card in terms of quality and speed.

by Alexey Stepin
08/16/2004 | 09:10 AM

Testbed and Methods

A few days ago, we published our report on the new blockbuster game from id Software, the long-anticipated Doom 3. Besides clearing out some gameplay issues, we carried out tests with top-end graphics cards (you can view the results in our article called Be Doomed: Performance Preview of the Doom III Game).


This article is in fact a sequel to our first report, but we’re now going to examine the speed of Doom 3 its various graphics quality modes, from Medium to Ultra High Quality. We will also reveal the differences between these modes. Our testbed remains the same:

As you know, Doom 3 can be played in four graphics quality modes: Low, Medium, High and Ultra High. Each mode is intended for a certain class of graphics cards. Let’s browse through these modes.

Image Quality Modes

Ultra High Quality

The Ultra High Quality mode is intended exclusively for graphics cards that can boast a tremendous memory amount of 512 megabytes! There are no such products in the market yet; they are only expected in this fall.

The game uses uncompressed high-resolution textures in this mode. Normal, diffuse and specular maps also have the maximum resolution and no compression. As a result, the amount of textural data can be as high as 500MB, which is too much even for graphics cards of the last generation.

Well, nothing actually prevents you from turning the Ultra High Quality mode on even if your graphics card has only 256MB or even less of onboard memory, but you may suffer a performance drop, especially in high resolutions and/or with enabled full-screen antialiasing. We will try to estimate the value of this drop shortly. Anisotropic filtering is automatically enabled in this mode, if the graphics card driver permits.

High Quality

The High Quality mode is less demanding. Although it too uses uncompressed normal maps and textures, specular and diffuse maps are compressed with DXT1, 3 or 5 algorithms. The load on the graphics memory subsystem is thus reduced – only 256MB of memory is recommended for that mode.

All high-performance graphics cards today have that amount of memory on board (GeForce 6800 Ultra/GT, GeForce FX 5950 Ultra, RADEON X800 XT/PRO, RADEON 9800 XT). Some mainstream models, down to RADEON 9600/9200 and GeForce FX 5700, can have that much memory, too, as it only depends on the desire and ability of the manufacturer of the particular graphics card. If you choose an Enable Anisotropic Filtering by Application Request option in the driver’s settings,  the game, like in the Ultra High Quality mode, automatically enables 8x AF to improve the image quality.

As a rule, you can also enable the High Quality mode on a graphics card with 128MB of memory, but you are discouraged to turn on full-screen antialiasing in this case since it results in a terrible performance hit, especially in high resolutions. For example, the GeForce 6800, being an excellent card to play Doom 3 on in the ordinary mode, issued less than one frame per second after our attempt to force 4x FSAA in 1600x1200 resolution – the graphics memory subsystem just cannot digest the increased amounts of data.

Medium Quality

The Medium Quality mode is for the owners of graphics cards with 128MB of memory. To pack all the graphics data into this size, the game compresses normal, diffuse and specular maps as well as textures, but retains their regular resolution. Thus, image quality shouldn’t deteriorate too much, visually.

Low Quality

The last Low Quality mode is recommended for graphics cards with 64MB of memory on board. Everything is compressed here, and all the textures bigger than 512x512 pixels are scaled down to this resolution, while all the specular maps are diminished to 64x64 pixels. Of course, this negatively affects the image quality, but still allows playing Doom 3 on such graphics cards.

Comparing the Onscreen Picture in Doom 3’s Quality Modes

We took a series of screenshots in different quality modes of the game to look for any discrepancies in the image quality as provided by GPUs from NVIDIA and ATI.

Graphics Cards from ATI

Ultra quality

High quality

Medium quality

Low quality





Graphics Cards from NVIDIA

Ultra quality

High quality

Medium quality

Low quality





There’s no practical difference between the Ultra High and High Quality modes. You can only discern it looking at the screenshots in turns. On a close inspection, there are color patterns in the second screenshot, which are due to diffuse and specular maps compression, but they are very inconspicuous even on static screens. During the game, searching for any compression artifacts is a sure way to an immediate death of your hero J. Besides that, most of the game levels are too dark to allow noticing so small a quality loss.

In the Medium Quality mode, you can already see the specific square-shaped artifacts, most visible on small details of a scene. This is a tradeoff of the normal maps compression. The quality of the textures hasn’t become worse much in comparison to the High Quality mode, but they look blurry, especially in the distance, due to the lack of anisotropic filtering. Besides that, there are compression-related artifacts on complex textures – the same color patterns.

All these visual defects are also present in the Low Quality mode, but the texture quality goes down, too, due to the reduction of the resolution. Defects caused by compression of textures and normal, diffuse and specular maps are more visible on blurred textures than in the Medium Quality mode. In this mode, the game can hardly please you since many smaller details are simply lost, and all the texts, hieroglyphs, and pictures on the walls become shapeless smudges. It looks like a game of the year 2000 at best, rather than of 2004.

The difference between the images as provided by graphics cards from NVIDIA and ATI is really small, and mostly noticeable in light locations, which are very rare in this game. You can see them well enough in the second screen that shows a brightly lit passageway with numerous recesses. This difference is probably due to the specifics of the two realizations of anisotropic filtering, since you don’t see it in the Medium and Low Quality modes where AF is disabled by default.

Benchmarking Performance: Medium Quality Mode

We will first examine the speed of (performance-)mainstream graphics cards, as there are more users of such products than of top-end solutions like the GeForce Ultra/GT or RADEON X800 XT/Pro. We tested such cards in the Medium Quality mode since they all had 128MB of memory (except the RADEON 9800 XT and the 9800 PRO), and this quality mode is intended exactly for that amount of memory.

We had the following graphics cards for the Medium Quality mode:

We had also planned to add a Volari Duo V8 Ultra from XGI and a DeltaChrome S8 Nitro from S3 Graphics, but found that these graphics cards could not run Doom 3 correctly even with the freshest drivers. Here are a couple of screens to prove our point:

Volari Duo V8 Ultra from XGI


DeltaChrome S8 Nitro from S3


The image quality is awful with both Volari and DeltaChrome. It is evident that the OpenGL drivers from XGI and S3 graphics are no good at all. Well, between the two, the DeltaChrome is somewhat better. Besides the nasty image, the Volari Due V8 Ultra delivered a very poor performance, below one frame per second. Well, it was slow even in the game menu!

We hope the programming folk from S3 Graphics will do something about that, and the game will be running correctly on DeltaChromes. We have no such hopes about XGI, however, as their product was originally full of major defects and underdevelopments. Even if they correct the problems with the image quality, the low performance of the Volari architecture at large won’t become any better.

Mainstream graphics cards can hardly deliver a playable fps rate with full-screen antialiasing enabled, so we limited ourselves to anisotropic filtering of the maximum level. We benchmarked the cards in three standard resolutions in the pure speed mode, save for the 4-pipelined RADEON 9600 XT/PRO and GeForce FX 5700/5600 Ultra and the 8-pipelined RADEON 9500 PRO, for which we didn’t use 1600x1200 resolution.

For these cards, we only used 1024x768 resolution with anisotropic filtering enabled, while the faster models were benchmarked in higher resolutions. In 1600x1200, we checked out the fastest cards we had included into this review: the GeForce 6800, GeForce FX 5950 Ultra and RADEON 9800 XT.

CPU Level

This map is geometrically complex; it also has numerous shadows.

The GeForce 6800 is beyond competition – about twice the speed of the closest rival! The GeForce FX 5950 Ultra quite naturally takes the second position since it can process shadows quickly – and Doom 3 simply abounds in shadows. The GeForce FX 5900, which differs from the 5950 Ultra in frequencies only, occupied the third place. The RADEON 9800 XT can match it, but theoretically, it can do more – it is hamstringed by the obsolete OpenGL driver.

In the sector of 4-pipelined GPUs, NVIDIA’s superiority is less overwhelming, although the GeForce FX 5700 Ultra outperforms the RADEON 9600 XT. Surprisingly, the results of the latter differ but slightly from the GeForce FX 5600 Ultra, which has worse ALUs and a lower geometry-processing speed. The eight rendering pipelines allow the RADEON 9500 PRO to do like the GeForce FX 5700 Ultra.

Nothing extraordinary happens as we turn on anisotropic filtering. The GeForce 6800 remains in the lead. The RADEON 9800 XT has stepped up to the level of the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra, though.

Hell Level

With its lakes of lava and weird buildings, this map is in a striking contrast to the industrial CPU level.

The GeForce 6800, with its 12 pipelines and ability to process up to 24 Z-values per clock, is on top again. NVIDIA is victorious and the RADEON 9800 XT can only compete with the GeForce FX 5900 and 5900 XT.

The RADEON 9800 XT’s ability to efficiently work with the graphics memory allows it to reach the level of the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra, while the RADEON 9800 PRO is slightly better than the GeForce FX 5900.

It is rumored that the OpenGL driver from the Catalyst suite hasn’t been updated for a couple of years; sources say that ATI is now developing a completely new OpenGL driver. Regrettably, there’s no information yet about the date of its release.

Hellhole Level

The demo we made on the Hellhole level is the most complex of all the five records, as it is a record of a battle with a Cyberdemon, probably the most famous monster of the Doom universe.

Like in the previous two cases, the GeForce 6800 is unrivalled. The RADEON 9800 XT is somewhat more confident here, being just a little slower than the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra. The same goes for the RADEON 9600 XT with the GeForce FX 5700 Ultra.

We enable anisotropic filtering to see the RADEON 9800 XT to outperform the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra for the first time, although very slightly. This scene is very complex and, coupled with the enabled AF, loads the graphics memory subsystem much. The RADEON architecture is suited for such loads better than the GeForce FX.

Recycling Level

This level is not as complex as Hellhole; the record is about a skirmish with two Cacodemons in a relatively open environment. Otherwise, this map resembles the CPU one, but with simpler geometry.

The diagrams remained the same as on the CPU level, but the fps rates are higher somewhat. If we don’t take the GeForce 6800 with its 12 pipelines and UltraShadow II technology into account, the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra wins the test among 8-pipelined products and the GeForce FX 5700 Ultra – among 4-pipelined ones.

The GeForce 6800 is still the leader, followed by the RADEON 9800 XT and the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra. The GeForce FX 5700 Ultra is the winner among the junior models.

Deathmatch demo4

The demo record we made on the multiplayer level is the simplest of all – there are no fights with monsters that load the CPU as well as the graphics card.

The diagrams have the same look as the ones made on the Recycling level, only the fps rates are higher here.

The RADEON 9800 XT couldn’t catch the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra due to the simplicity of the scene, which cannot slow the GeForce FX down.

As might have been expected, the graphics cards on NVIDIA’s GPUs were overall better than the RADEON-based products. There’s nothing wrong with it, since id Software’s new game is oriented on NVIDIA’s graphics architecture. The game has no complex pixel shaders, but does have many complex shadows NVIDIA’s processors are most effective with. Besides that, Doom 3, uncharacteristically for many today’s games, uses OpenGL, and NVIDIA has always had an excellent driver for that API.

As for specific GPUs, the GeForce 6800 is beyond any competition here, at least until ATI Technologies releases a new OpenGL driver. The members of the GeForce FX family – 5950 Ultra, 5900 and 5900 XT – get nice results, too. The RADEON 9800 XT can only compete with the last of them, but sometimes provides the performance of the fastest of the GeForce FX cards.

It’s rather calm in the class of 4-pipeline solutions: the GeForce FX 5700 Ultra is faster than the RADEON 9600 XT, although not much so. The 8-pipeline RADEON 9500 PRO looks well enough, despite its low clock rates, by today’s standards. Its results confirm the simple truth that megahertz is not the only thing that matters in computers; high performance can be achieved by other ways rather than intensive frequency growth. The RADEON 9600 PRO and the GeForce 5600 Ultra are at the bottom of the table, and the latter looks preferable among the two.

Benchmarking Performance: High Quality Mode

This section of the review is about the performance of top-end graphics cards in the High Quality mode. We took the following cards through our tests:

As you see, nearly all the cards, save for the GeForce 6800 and one version of the RADEON 9800, are equipped with 256MB of graphics memory, so the High Quality mode is best suited for them.

We installed the latest ForceWare driver (version 61.77) for the NVIDIA cards, and Catalyst 4.9 beta for ATI cards. We only enabled both 4x FSAA and 16x AF on the graphics cards of the new generation, since all eight-pipeline solutions were indecently slow in this mode – you can play the game with so low a fps rate. Yes, Doom 3 is a real resource-devourer, more fastidious than Far Cry even. We don’t post the results of the GeForce 6800 in the eye candy mode in 1600x1200 resolution since this card with its 128MB of memory was found incapable of running the game correctly in this mode.

CPU Level

The first test brings nothing new to us – the GeForce 6800 Ultra and GT take the top positions. The new version of Catalyst allows the RADEON X800 XT to reach the junior model from NVIDIA, the GeForce 6800. The GeForce FX 5950 Ultra is the winner among the 8-pipelined cards.

After we enable full-screen antialiasing and 16x anisotropic filtering, the RADEON X800 XT is for the first time ahead of the GeForce 6800, thanks to faster memory. But that’s the only achievement – the GeForce 6800 Ultra and GT are still unrivalled. The situation is unlikely to be different on other levels, but let’s check it out anyway.

Hell Level

It’s the same again. The GeForce 6800 Ultra/GT are on top, followed by the GeForce 6800 and the RADEON X800 XT. The GeForce FX 5950 Ultra is the best of the old solutions.

The RADEON X800 XT repeats its feat but still cannot reach the GeForce 6800 Ultra/GT.

Hellhole Level

There’s nothing new on this complex map: the top-end GeForce 6800 models are superior, and the junior model of that family is contending with the RADEON X800 XT.

In the sector of old-generation cards, the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra is followed by the RADEON 9800 XT.

The RADEON X800 XT wins the eye candy mode in its struggle with the GeForce 6800, but its advantage is only about 2fps.

Recycling Level

NVIDIA’s cards keep their superiority on the Recycling level, too.

The RADEON X800 XT performs somewhat more confident in the eye candy mode, but makes no sensations.

Deathmatch demo4

Once again, Doom 3 shows its fancy towards NVIDIA’s GPUs: new and old GeForces are the best in their classes.

It is all the same as on the previous maps: the RADEON X800 XT is better than the GeForce 6800, but the GeForce 6800 Ultra/GT are still unattainable.

Like in the High Quality mode, NVIDIA’s graphics processors are better than RADEONs with the Medium Quality settings. Only with full-screen antialiasing and anisotropic filtering enabled, the RADEON X800 XT Platinum Edition could outperform the much cheaper GeForce 6800. The same situation is in the eight pipelines sector: the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra is preferable to the RADEON 9800 XT, which delivers the performance of the GeForce FX 5900, roughly.

Note also that the requirement to have 256MB of graphics memory is superfluous for mainstream cards: you can’t enable FSAA in high resolutions on such products, while 128MB is quite enough for typical loads.

Benchmarking Performance: Ultra High Quality Mode

Despite id Software’s claims that the Ultra High Quality mode is only recommended for graphics cards with 512MB of memory, we were surprised to see the game running very smoothly on cards with 256 megabytes. We saw no differences in performance with the five above-described maps: all the difference fitted into the measurement error range (1-2 frames per second), even with full-screen antialiasing in 1600x1200. For example, here are the results of the most complex Hellhole level:

There’s no use in posting diagrams we got in the Ultra High Quality modes, since they are practically analogous to the ones we got with the High Quality settings.

Well, it is possible that the records we made have less graphical data than 256MB, but we never had a moment in the real game when 256MB would be not sufficient for the Ultra High Quality mode. If there was a performance hit, it was too small to be noticed.


So, Doom 3 may offer an image of a varying quality, but we have a few tricky points here.

First, the Ultra High Quality mode is about 100% the same as High Quality visually, but the performance does not go down in it, despite all the warnings from id Software. That’s why we can recommend this maximum quality mode for all high-end graphics cards with 256MB of graphics memory. Then, you can also try to launch the game in this mode on a card with 128MB of memory, but refrain from enabling FSAA, which usually results in a catastrophic performance hit.

The second point is that the Medium Quality mode leads to considerable image quality deterioration, but the performance remains practically the same as in the High Quality mode. Graphics cards with at least 128MB of graphics memory (a majority of cards nowadays) should be able to run the High Quality mode – you do not have to deprive yourself of a high-quality picture in Doom 3. Of course, we are talking about performance-mainstream and mainstream graphics cards like GeForce FX 5900 XT/5700 Ultra or RADEON 9800 PRO/9600 XT, but not about those strange hybrids like RADEON 9200 256MB that you can occasionally run into in shops.

The things we said in our first Doom 3 report are still true as concerns the standings of the two GPU camps. Doom 3 prefers graphics cards based on GPUs from NVIDIA, and their advantage is more or less perceptible in every class, from high-end to mainstream.