Contemporary Graphics Cards in Prince of Persia

Our today’s article will discuss the performance of the contemporary graphics accelerators in the latest part of a well-known gaming sequel called Prince of Persia.

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
02/19/2009 | 03:39 PM

Introduction

The history of the Prince of Persia franchise goes far back into the dark ages when the PC was only emerging as a gaming platform. It was the year of 1989, still four years to go till the release of Doom that would radically change the world of video games. The PC had not yet become the dominating platform even but coexisted with the now-extinct Apple II, Atari ST, Amstrad CPC and others. It was the time when not all PCs could display even 256 colors. The VGA adapter that supported so many colors had been introduced just a couple of years earlier and, together with an appropriate monitor, was a rare and expensive innovation. 16-color EGA and 4-color CGA graphics subsystems were widespread, yet game developers already began to think about how to increase the realism of the game world.

 

One of them was Jordan Mechner, the author of the first game about the adventures of the Prince of Persia. He wanted to make the character’s movements natural and found an excellent solution of this problem. Instead of drawing the movements manually, which wouldn’t have been too realistic, he used the rotoscoping method. That is, he just traced the necessary frames over from a movie in which a real actor (his own brother David) performed.

Notwithstanding its simple plot, the Prince of Persia arcade turned to be a breakthrough in the industry. The character animation was outstandingly smooth and natural. As opposed to all other games of that time, the character didn’t stop in a moment but moved on by inertia, which increased the level of realism even more. Coupled with exciting sword fighting and sophisticated architecture of the levels which were not unlike puzzles in their own right, the game became a hit on various platforms from the PC to ZX Spectrum. Again, the plot was most simple: an unnamed hero is thrown into prison by vizier Jaffar who is planning to usurp the power of the absent Sultan. The protagonist is to thwart Jaffar’s evil plans and save the Princess, who is being held captive in a tower, during one hour of game time. Passing all the obstacles and defeating Jaffar in the final fight, the hero gets the Princess as his reward and becomes the Sultan’s rightful heir.

The second Prince of Persia game was released in 1994 and carried on with the plot of the original. It turns out that Jaffar didn’t really die. Using black magic he takes on the appearance of the Prince, changing the Prince’s own appearance, and usurps the Persian throne after all. The protagonist has to run away on a trade ship, and then goes back home in order to defeat Jaffar once and for all by means of sacred temple fire. Prince of Persia 2: The Shadow and the Flame was far more complex than the original game in terms of visuals as well as fighting system. The hero could face up to four enemies simultaneously, which was a challenge for the gamer.

The third game was released by the Broderbund division of Red Orb Entertainment in 1999 under the name of Prince of Persia 3D. Unfortunately, the game had not been tested well due to financial circumstances and was released with lots of bugs in the code. Therefore it did not enjoy any success.

Then, after a long while, Ubisoft decided to revive the legendary series by means of modern technologies and succeeded. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time not only kept up the atmosphere of the old game but added a new dimension to it, making the gameplay much more diversified. The plot of The Sands of Time is largely based on time paradoxes. The Prince unknowingly releases the horrible Sands of Time that turn every living thing into a monster. So, he must bring them back into the sand glass, return into the past and prevent the tragedy. Like Jaffar in the first two Prince of Persia games, there is an evil-doing vizier in this game, too. The Prince has to meet him in the final fight. The Sands of Time also features a well-developed love story. On the whole, this was the first game in the series that had a full-featured plot rather than simple arcade gameplay.

It was followed in 2004 by Prince of Persia: Warrior Within. The game picked up where Sands of Time had left off. Having repeatedly broken the natural flow of time, the Prince finds himself hunted by the Dahaka, the guardian of the time line, and has to return to the past to prevent the creation of the Sands of Time and thus get rid of the Guardian. The gameplay is even more complex, mostly due to fighting skills. For example, the hero has the ability to wield two swords simultaneously and wring out enemies’ weapons. The game atmosphere is far gloomier in comparison with the previous titles and the fighting is so bloody that Warrior Within is rated Mature for the first time in the history of the franchise. Jordan Mechner himself, who did not take part in developing the sequel, was very critical about that, but the game was received warmly by the fans of the series as well as by game reviewers.

Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones, released in 2005, completed the trilogy about the Prince’s adventures in time. The protagonist has changed his fate successfully and got rid of the Dahaka, but the traitorous vizier mentioned in The Sands of Time has not died from the Prince’s sword because the timeline has changed. Desiring eternal life, the vizier captures the Empress of Time, Kaileena, but the Prince acquires the Dagger of Time and is set to put an end to the Vizier’s evil-doings. A special feature of the game is that the gamer controls not only the Prince himself but also his dark alter ego brought to life by the Sands of Time. The trilogy ends with a victory over the Dark Prince.

Prince of Persia: Plot and Gameplay

Announced on December 9, 2008, the new Prince of Persia game for the PC platform is neither a remake of the original game nor a continuation of the Sands of Time trilogy. The only allusion is the name of the protagonist’s donkey, Farah, but the protagonist himself is still a nameless Prince, quite a different individuality with a good sense of humor.

The game plot draws much from Zoroastrian mythology, Zoroastrianism having been the dominant religion in Ancient Persia. The story begins with the Prince getting caught in a sandstorm.

 

The visibility being poor, the hero is looking for his donkey that carries a load of gold and slips down from a precipice. At the same moment a girl fleeing from pursuers falls down on him.

 

Not an auspicious beginning, but the intrigued Prince follows the girl, beating the armed pursuers off.

 

This section of the game helps you learn the basic acrobatic tricks such as jumping and running on walls. The game abounds in such tricks, some of which are not easy to perform. Therefore this training is most appropriate.

 

As the story unfolds, you learn that the mysterious girl is called Elika and that she’s going to a temple where the dark god Ahriman is held captive. There the Prince meets Elika’s father who’s going to destroy the seal that holds Ahriman and set him free. The Prince defeats Elika’s father but the latter cuts the Tree of Life and triggers the process of release.

 

 

 

The duo flees from the collapsing temple, and Elika tells the Prince about the Fertile Grounds that have to be healed in order to restore the Tree of Life and get Ahriman back to prison.

 

The Prince is not quite enthusiastic about having to save the world instead of leading his usual luxurious and easy life, but he takes up the job anyway.

The developers have moved away from the linearity of the previous games of the series and you can visit the Fertile Grounds in random order. Some of them will only open up later in the game, however, and you have to visit every location to complete the game. The gameplay is largely inherited from The Sands of Time trilogy, but with an emphasis on pair play: Elika not only saves the Prince from falling into an abyss but also helps him perform acrobatic tricks and fight the enemies. There are some RPG elements: you can gather Seeds of Life to open new magic abilities of the Prince’s companion.

The combat system is somewhat simplified in comparison with the previous trilogy. You won’t see hordes of enemies here. Most of the fights are one to one. The hero fights with a sword and also has a glove with diamond claws.

 

 

Elika can serve as an aide, too.

There is no health indicator. Instead, the game will inform you that the Prince has received a critical blow and is vulnerable. But even if the Prince is knocked down, he does not die. Elika throws the enemy away with a magic attack and helps the Prince to get up on his feet. The enemy will restore some health during that time, though.

You cannot die while performing various acrobatic tricks, either. If you make a mistake, Elika will catch the falling Prince and help him get back to the platform the unsuccessful jump has been made from.

This may look as taking the pressure off the gamer, but on the other hand, mistakes are unavoidable considering how much jumping and wall-walking you have to do, and you’d soon lose your interest in the game if you had to replay some sections of it often. This safe gameplay is complemented with the option of arbitrary saving, which is unusual for this game genre (the position at the beginning of the level is saved). These safety measures are all right with us because the game has a well-developed plot which makes it a good magic adventure rather than just a trainer for your reflexes.

 

 

 

The game runs on Ubisoft’s own Scimitar engine that had previously been used in Assassin’s Creed. The engine is modified for Prince of Persia to better match the fairy-tale setting. The game looks splendid indeed. The cel-shading technique creates a special magic atmosphere, concealing the few drawbacks such as Elika’s unrealistic hairdo or the lack of polygons. This can be explained by the fact that the project was developed for multiple platforms, but we can expect it to run fast on the PC. Let’s check this out right now.

Testbed and Methods

To investigate the performance of contemporary graphics accelerators in Prince of Persia we put together the following testbed:

The graphics card drivers were set up to provide the highest possible quality of texture filtering and to minimize the effect of software optimizations used by default. We enabled transparent texture antialiasing, and we used multisampling mode for Nvidia solutions, because ATI solutions do not support supersampling for this function. As a result, our ATI and Nvidia driver settings looked as follows:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia GeForce:

15 different graphics cards and multi-GPU systems participated in our today’s performance test session. They can be split in three categories according to their price:

Premium/High-End category:

Performance-Mainstream category:

Mainstream category:

We ran the tests in all resolutions including 2560x1600 only for the Premium category. Performance-Mainstream was limited by 1920x1200. Mainstream solutions were tested in 1680x1050 maximum resolution.

The game image quality settings are very simple: besides the resolution and antialiasing mode there is only one additional slider for Graphics Quality adjustment that also allows enabling high-resolution textures. We arranged the image quality settings into 5 profiles in order to study the instantaneous performance. Here they are:

We used the last one providing maximum image quality and also consuming the most resources to study the graphics cards gaming performance in Prince of Persia game. The test sequence included the first time Prince meets Elika, because it allows measuring the average and minimal performance more precisely than during a manual run, when it is fairly difficult to repeat the results. We used Fraps utility version 2.9.6 to record the average and minimal fps rate. To minimize the measuring error, we took the average result of three combined runs for further analysis.

Performance

Premium/High-End Category

The game has modest system requirements indeed. Every graphics card in this category, with the exception of the Radeon HD 4850 X2, easily ensures a comfortable frame rate at a resolution of 1920x1200. The 4800 X2 must be hamstringed by its low GPU frequency. It has a lower bottom speed than the single-processor GeForce GTX 285 as the consequence.

The resolution of 2560x1600 pixels is only playable on the 3-way Radeon HD 4870 CrossFireX subsystem. The GeForce GTX 295 can also be used to play at that resolution, but with occasional slowdowns to below 23fps in the most complex scenes.

Thus, the Radeon HD 4870 X2 and GeForce GTX 295 are both the best dual-processor solutions. The former delivers a higher average frame rate while the latter offers a higher bottom speed which can serve as a reserve for the heaviest scenes of the game. Nvidia’s solution is preferable in terms of consumer properties since it has lower power consumption and heat dissipation, but it is more expensive than ATI’s flagship. The GeForce GTX 285 is the leader among the single-processor cards, leaving no chance to the Radeon HD 4850 X2 if you base your choice of the graphics card on this game.

Performance-Mainstream Category

The GeForce 9800 GTX+ leaves the others behind at 1280x1024, probably because it has the highest frequency of the execution subunits (1836MHz) among all the cards in this category. For comparison, the execution domains of the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 and GeForce GTX 280 are clocked at 1242 and 1296MHz, respectively. Judging by these data and the downright low performance of the Radeon HD 4850 X2, we can suppose that the game does not make use of shaders that require parallel execution and is quite satisfied with the resources available on the G92 architecture.

The new G200-based models of the GeForce series go ahead at the higher resolutions, and the GeForce 9800 GTX+ is unable to maintain an acceptable bottom speed at 1920x1200. Perhaps it needs more memory bandwidth or rasterization resources (it has only 16 raster back-ends as opposed to the GeForce GTX 200 series models’ 28 and 32).

ATI’s solutions are inferior to Nvidia’s cards in every mode. Even though the Radeon HD 4870 1GB looks good at resolutions up to 1680x1050 inclusive, it is inferior to its opponents in terms of bottom speed anyway. The Radeon HD 4850 is barely able to maintain a comfortable frame rate even at 1280x1024, obviously due to its low GPU frequency of only 625MHz.

We guess the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 seems to be the optimal choice in this price category, especially in its newer version with a 55nm G200 core and lower power consumption. As for the cheaper cards, you may want to consider the GeForce 9800 GTX+, but the Radeon HD 4850 can be faster in other games. Therefore you should base your choice on the specific games you are going to play. You should not both about upgrading your GeForce GTX 280 because the GeForce GTX 285 is not much faster while the GeForce GTX 295 and Radeon HD 4870 X2 are considerably costlier.

Mainstream Category

The results of the mainstream cards agree with our supposition that the frame rate of Prince of Persia depends on the GPU’s shader domain frequency in the first place. The other parameters of the graphics subsystem such as the amount of ALUs and the width of the memory bus do not affect the performance much. Therefore it is logical that the GeForce 9800 GT wins in this category. It is closely followed by the GeForce 9600 GT but the latter’s bottom speed goes down below the acceptable minimum of 25fps at 1680x1050.

Neither card from the red team is competitive to Nvidia’s solutions in this test, at least with enabled 4x FSAA. Both have very low bottom speeds, and the Radeon HD 4670 also has a rather low average frame rate. So, neither the Radeon HD 4830 nor the Radeon HD 4670 is a good choice for playing Prince of Persia. You should buy faster hardware – a GeForce 9800 GTX+ or, better yet, Radeon HD 4870 or GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 – to enjoy this game’s visuals fully.

Instantaneous Performance and Image Quality

As we have already found out, Prince of Persia prefers graphics cards with a high clock rate of the execution subunits. Other technical parameters do not influence the game’s speed that much. This is good news for Nvidia’s solutions whose architecture provides for a high clock rate of the card’s ALUs.

To get more details about the behavior of ATI’s and Nvidia’s architectures in this game we performed another test using an ATI Radeon HD 4870 1GB and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 260 Core 216. To check out the influence of the computer’s CPU on the frame rate these cards were benchmarked on the main testbed as well as with a junior model of Intel’s new CPU series (Core i7-920 with a clock rate of 2.66GHz and a cut-down QPI).

We selected a display resolution of 1680x1050 as the most popular one among gamers today. Then we used Fraps 2.9.8 to record the instantaneous speed of the cards at five combinations of graphics quality settings for 1 minute. Besides, we captured a few screenshots to visually evaluate the difference in image quality between those combinations. Here are the results:

 

Oddly enough, it is at the highest graphics quality settings coupled with full-screen antialiasing that the CPU influences the performance the most, but only with the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216. The Core i7-965 EE system delivers an average frame rate of 52fps whereas the same configuration but with a Core i7-920 has a frame rate of 44fps only. It is interesting that the overall behavior of the Core i7-920 system resembles that of the system with a Radeon HD 4870 1GB. The GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 boasts a higher top speed, however: 89fps against 65fps. The frame rate is never lower than 25fps, so there is no point in turning 4x FSAA off on these graphics cards especially as these settings ensure maximum image quality. On the other hand, Nvidia’s solution provides a larger reserve of speed and looks preferable here.

 

The peak, average and bottom speed of the game grows up with every hardware configuration when we turn 4x MSAA off. The bottom speed of the Radeon HD 4870 1GB systems is somewhat lower than that of the same platforms with a GeForce GTX 260 Core 216, but never lower than 45fps.

What about image quality then? You don’t lose much in terms of image quality in many other games if you turn 4x MSAA off as this technique only improves the reproduction of small details such as tree branches, wire fences, cables, etc. Prince of Persia is a difference case, however. It uses cel-shading and every model in it has a thin black outline that seems to imitate an outlining with a pencil. The models are three-dimensions, so this outlining goes along the edges of the polygons and looks worse when the antialiasing is turned off. You can see this easily in the screenshots. The game’s visuals are seriously worsened, so you should not disable 4x MSAA if you’ve got a fast enough graphics card.

 

The performance benefits are low when you turn off the High Resolution Textures. The cards deliver almost the same speeds as in the previous case. The quality of textures degrades noticeably, though. This especially affects the fine sophisticated patterns on the floor and walls you can see aplenty in this game. Thus, there is no point in using such settings. The CPU doesn’t affect the frame rate here, either.

 

When the Graphics Quality option is reduced to the Medium level, you don’t lose much in terms of visuals, but the frame rate grows up considerably: the average frame rate can be as high as 200fps whereas the bottom speed is never lower than 70fps, ensuring a huge reserve of speed for graphics cards like Radeon HD 4870/GeForce GTX 260. Of course, these settings are not appropriate for such advanced solutions but may come in handy for weaker products like the entry-level Radeon HD 4670.

 

The frame rates are impressively high, up to 300fps and more, at the low settings, but the game uses a simplified lighting model and lacks shadows, which makes it far less eye-pleasing than at the Medium settings. On the other hand, we wouldn’t call it downright ugly even then. The game designers have done a good job and you can use these settings on a system with an integrated graphics core or an entry-level card like Radeon HD 4550. Like in the previous cases, there is no difference in performance between the systems equipped with the junior and senior models of the Core i7 processor.

Summing this test up, we can say that the CPU has nearly no effect on a computer’s performance in Prince of Persia if you use at least a junior Core i7. Installing the expensive flagship model of the CPU can increase the average frame rate at the highest graphics quality settings but the difference can hardly be perceived with a naked eye.

When it comes to the image quality aspect, the game’s using cel-shading means that its visuals worsen considerably if you turn full-screen antialiasing off. Therefore you should only disable this option on graphics cards lower than the ATI Radeon HD 4870, GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 or GeForce 9800 GTX+. We can recommend our Medium settings for such cards. There is almost no difference from the High settings but the game runs much faster.

Conclusion

Prince of Persia is not a truly unique game because many of its gameplay features could be seen in the earlier Sands of Time trilogy. However, it features an intricate and engaging plot, a charismatic protagonist with a good sense of humor, and excellent cel-shading based visuals. The pair acrobatics with Elika when fighting or performing jumps and other tricks is an innovation, however. The nonlinear way of passing the locations is a new feature, too. The only downside is that there is no dying in this game, which may discourage some hardcore gamers, but on the other hand, this makes it a nice and unobtrusive entertainment because you are not afraid of making mistakes.

Prince of Persia is not a demanding application when it comes to graphics cards from the performance and higher class. The game prefers graphics processors with a high frequency of the execution subunits. Nvidia’s solutions are such. The amount of shader processors and other GPU parameters have a lower effect on performance as is indicated by the results of the GeForce 9600 GT which is not far slower than the GeForce 9800 GT.

It is easy to give specific shopping recommendations basing on the test data. The GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 is the optimal choice for playing this game at resolutions up to 1920x1200 inclusive. This card allows using 4x FSAA, has low power consumption, comfortable noise characteristics and reasonable price. If you don’t care about the price factor, and you want to have maximum price whatever the cost, you may prefer the GeForce GTX 295 which allows playing at 2560x1600. If, on the contrary, your graphics card budget is limited, you may want to consider the GeForce 9800 GT, which ensures a good frame rate at 1680x1050. ATI’s solutions are not brilliant in this game, excepting the Radeon HD 4870 X2 and the bulky but absolutely fastest 3-way Radeon HD 4870 CrossFireX configuration.

As for the central processor, there is no point in choosing the Core i7-965 Extreme Edition. The considerably cheaper Core i7-920 provides the same conditions while the monetary difference should better be spent for a faster graphics card.

The new Prince of Persia is a top-class third-person action-adventure with a magic-inspired plot and superb stylized visuals which is going to please old-time fans of the series as well as any lover of this game genre. It won’t set your nerves on edge, but will make a nice pastime for a couple of evenings.