Contemporary Graphics Cards in StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty

The world has been waiting for the sequel of the legendary StarCraft for over a decade. While only time will tell whether the novelty will be as popular as the predecessor, the game has already captured minds of almost all gamers in the world. With the release of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, a question of possible hardware upgrade arises, and we are going to help you to come up with an answer.

by Yaroslav Lyssenko
08/06/2010 | 12:07 PM

That's what I love about the Protoss... They're so punctual

 

Blizzard Entertainment has rather long development times for its games and despite being a rather big company with 4600 employees, it has not published too many titles throughout its twenty-year history. However, almost nobody has ever criticized the company for that thanks to superb artwork, novel like protagonist cast, immersive musical score and other things that form superb game titles.

Every single game that came out under the famous Blizzard Entertainment logo has become a cult, spawning numerous spinoffs and an army of supporting and caring fans across the globe. Since games like Diablo or WarCraft offer adventures of a life-time, a lot of gamers have never actually said farewell to their beloved titles. But while games like Diablo or WarCraft eventually became franchises, StartCraft is a completely different story.

Originally released in 1998, the StarCraft quickly became a cult or even a separate type of cyber sport. There was only one major weakness in this real time strategy (RTS) legend - its age. Despite being a beautiful and interesting game, it became completely outdated in terms of image quality several years after the launch. But in the year 2010 Blizzard corrected the situation considerably: it released the sequel to the original title, StarCraft II: The Wings of Liberty. In spite of being released twelve years after the original game, according to market estimates the StartCraft II became the year's most commercially successful title in less than a week after the launch. That's the art of being punctual: not just show up in time, but to show up in the right time.

In this article we are going to take a look at this long awaited RTS and evaluate its hunger for graphics hardware capabilities.

StarCraft II: Crafting a Strategy

When the stars were young, the fighting took place in the world of Azeroth, without any laser guided tactical nuclear bombardments. Blizzard's first attempt to make a real-time strategy video game saw the light of the day back in November, 1994. The WarCraft: Orcs and Humans introduced breathtaking animation and ever influential lore.

 

In fact, while a lot of gamers actually missed out the very first title in the renowned series, the closely followed WarCraft II: Tides of Darkness sequel had such a massive impact on the community that sales of the original game grew as well. But that was in the mid nineties, who would have thought that successor to the first WarCraft franchise games would become a true phenomenon of online gaming known as the World of WarCraft or WoW.

 

Then, one day, Blizzard decided to trade bows and arrows for something more futuristic and introduced StarCraft RTS video game in 1998 closely followed by a StarCraft: Broodwars expansion, where mighty Protoss, numerous Zerg and resourceful Terran fought for the Koprulu Sector.

At a time when some game designers where struggling to make just two distinctive races, Blizzard introduced three completely incomparable yet very well balanced armies. Apart from music, graphics, storytelling and plot in general, the most contributing factor to the immense success of this game was virtually unlimited number of tactics and strategies to win.

 

The popularity of the original StarCraft was huge and the game has managed to set various records since its release. The game is still played today, despite being extremely outdated; as a result, the new game should really have to be brilliant in order to be at least just as good and successful as the original.

Promises of a StarCraft 2 started circulating soon after Diablo II action role-playing game hit the shelves in 2000. Everyone considered it a fact that Blizzard was working on a StarCraft universe related video game, but the game developer was tide-lipped about the details.  

 

Everything almost became clear in 2002 when Blizzard Entertainment released its award winning WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos strategy game and announced that the next-generation StarCraft project was in fact a third-person shooter called StarCraft: Ghost. The game was meant to give players a new way of exploring the StarCraft universe. In March 2006 Blizzard Entertainment announced an indefinite postponement on development of the Ghost project, without any remark regarding possible StarCraft universe related games in the near future. Although highly anticipated, the game was cancelled.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty

The year 2560, four years have passed since deadly battles for the Koprulu Sector. Jim Raynor is sitting in a bar on Mar Sara, drinking...

Straight away the game takes you on a survival quest as Jim Raynor and his cutthroat mercenary group is scoring a sector for supplies and supporters. Protoss are on a brink of yet another civil war among survivals of Aiur and their long ago exiled brethren - the Dark Templar. As for the Zerg, the Queen of Blades is nowhere to be seen, yet.

 

 

The campaign itself is a very pleasing experience. You spend almost the same amount of time interacting with other characters in pubs, laboratories and mission control aboard Hyperion battle-cruiser as actually carrying out missions. At some point the game feels like a good interactive Hollywood class movie or a novel bestseller.

While it is still a StarCraft interface from 1998, the gameplay itself has changed a lot. Thanks to evolution and scientific research, economy of your base gets a boost compared to the original game, e.g., one patch of crystals can now be worked by three workers simultaneously (vs. one worker in the StarCraft). There are handicaps/drawbacks too, the Vespene Gas deposit mining had changed a lot and you will be finding yourself with zero gas and a thousand minerals quite often.

 

 

Another significant change to the game is close integration with Battle.net and more importantly Facebook online social network. It seems that features like these are becoming popular and can already be seen in Settlers 7: Paths to Kingdom, launched earlier this year. The integration with social networks not only allows to add your friends to the in-game list, but you can also chat directly while playing. World of Warcraft Achievements system also found its way to StarCraft universe, so now you can show off your records to your Facebook friends.

 

 

The game itself is not only beautifully looking, but it has the spirit of the original StarCraft and you feel the emotions of the original game. You really do feel sorry for Jim and Sarah. Satire is not forgotten as well, and the interview with a Ghost operative is just hilarious. The StarCraft II game does have a lot of 'Easter eggs' too, just like the secret hydraulics back in Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. This game creates a really nice feeling that people behind this project have a good sense of humor and are more than glad to reward attentive gamers.

Speaking about 'Easter eggs' and treats:

All in all, the game leaves a positive first impression, and you will be hard pressed to find something better on the market today. Now let's have a look at the technology behind the StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty.

StarCraft II: Technical Aspects

The StarCraft II is one of the several modern highly-anticipated AAA games for personal computers that do not have a leading-edge graphics engine. Although Blizzard has no plans to bring the StarCraft II to video game consoles, it decided not to use modern applications programming interfaces, such as DirectX 10 or DirectX 11. Instead, the graphics engine is based on DirectX 9 API which should maximize the amount of potential gamers.

According to Blizzard, graphics card's performance is more important for StarCraft II than processing power of the system CPU. Since StarCraft II uses Havok physics engine, which is perfectly scalable on multi-core central processing units, we would still recommend getting a proper CPU for the new game. Still, since it is a DirectX 9 title, extra cores will only handle physics effects since the API cannot use them to speed up graphics rendering.

One thing you should keep in mind when dealing with StarCraft II is that its graphics engine supports two "modes" for different scene types: the game mode is tailored to provide decent performance in scenes with many units and a lot of action amid high-quality visual effects; the story mode is tailored for cinematic effects on several models in various environments. Since StarCraft II - just like its predecessor and virtually all modern RTS games - can create cut-scenes based on gamers' actions, we are still talking about the same graphics engine that is simply sufficiently scalable to handle different scene types.

In spite of being DirectX 9-based, the graphics engine appears to be pretty performance demanding. There is a lot of emphasis on local lighting and translucent shadowing when it comes to game mode. The game uses deferred FP16 HDR renderer (with multiple render targets) with screen space ambient occlusion (SSAO), which results in decent demands for graphics processing power. The story mode adds things like depth of field, soft shadows and more complex characters.

Since by design DirectX 9.0 API does not allow to support multi-sample full-scene antialiasing (MS FSAA) with MRTs, the StarCraft II engine does not support FSAA at all. Even though there is talk that eventually antialiasing will be enabled with a patch, at present FSAA should be forced from the drivers (provided that the hardware actually supports the functionality), which causes rather massive performance hit.

Since the game is not really geometry intensive (at the end of the day, this is a graphics engine from 2007 - 2008), we would not expect any particular graphics hardware architecture with bumped up geometry performance to have any advantages here. Generally, the game more depends on raw graphics performance rather than on any specific peculiarities of modern GPUs.

The time has come to find out actual performance that StarCraft II can show on different types of today’s hardware!

Testbed and Methods

We are going to investigate the gaming performance during StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty gameplay on the following universal testbed:

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

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia GeForce:

We selected the highest possible level of detail in the game using standard tools provided by the game itself from the gaming menu. The game configuration files weren’t modified in any way, because the ordinary user doesn’t have to know how to do it. We ran our tests in the following resolutions: 1600x900, 1920x1080 and 2560x1600.

The following graphics cards participated in our today’s test session:

Performance was measured with a game save atop of a fully built Zerg base with a hundred plus army of Protoss opponent arriving to present their proposition. We measured not only the average speed, but also the minimum speed of the cards where possible with the help of Fraps utility version 3.1.3. Each test scenario was run three times and an average number was taken for the analysis.

Performance without FSAA

The game engine does not support full-scene anti-antialiasing out of the box and ATI and Nvidia essentially use special hacks to enable MSAA on a DirectX 9 rendered with MRTs and HDR. This is why we decided to separate benchmark results with and without antialiasing in two different chapters.

Premium/High-End Category

As a rule of thumb, a real time strategy video game is expected to run around at 30 frames per seconds (FPS) mark to provide comfortable gaming experience. All of the premium/high-end category participants passed the test with flying colors.

With constantly hitting the 100 fps limiter, ATI Radeon HD 5970 is way too powerful for the workload presented by StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. ATI Radeon HD 5870 also shows excellent results, but a closer look at it reveals that the game indeed has an appetite for graphics performance almost halving the fps rate in 2560x1600 resolution (compared to 1600x900).

Owners or potential buyers of Nvidia's solutions shouldn’t worry. The GeForce GTX 480 comes second only to a dual chip competitor from AMD. Even the more affordable Nvidia GeForce GTX 470 manages to keep up with ATI Radeon HD 5870, and with 49 fps in top resolution, you can be sure that expensive products on Fermi architecture can handle Blizzard's latest RTS across the board.

If you are choosing the best graphics card for StarCraft II among the high-end offerings, then it is almost clear that the top-of-the-range solutions may not be required for gameplay without FSAA. ATI Radeon HD 5870 or Nvidia GeForce GTX 470 should enable decent performance in virtually all the scenes. Moreover, both are cheaper, colder and smaller solutions than their bigger brothers.

Performance-Mainstream Category

Every single graphics card in the performance segment of the market manages to surpass the 30 fps level. The latest addition to Nvidia family, the GeForce GTX 460 1GB, starts out with an early lead, but struggles to secure its position in higher resolutions against more expensive ATI Radeon HD 5850, which is logical, considering the fact that the latter has higher "raw" performance.

Given that StarCraft II is a DirectX 9-based video game, it is no surprise that even a somewhat morally outdated GeForce GTX 275 manages to deliver more than respectable level of performance. The only issue is that under massive amounts of in-game fighting, this graphics card tends to run significantly slower in comparison to the competition.

The recommendations for this particular segment could not be simpler. Choose whatever your heart desires. If you are an ATI fan or an Nvidia adept, your pick won't keep you from achieving Battle.net glory: the GeForce GTX 460 1GB is a better bang for the buck and the Radeon HD 5850 simply offers higher firepower.

Mainstream Category

The mainstream graphics cards camp is greatly segmented, so, here we are including a number of graphics cards that do not exactly compete head to head against each other.

For mainstream graphics cards, the StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty title may be a rather tough thing to render with all the eye-candy features enabled. Only the ATI Radeon HD 5700-series offer truly decent performance here, the rest are lagging behind. Even in the most intense scenarios Juniper-based ATI Radeon 5770/5750 graphics cards can output around 40-50 fps, which is more than enough for a smooth RTS gameplay experience.

Less expensive graphics cards do not seem to perform decently. ATI Radeon HD 5670 seems to be a better choice than Nvidia GeForce GT240, but the latter is hardly a bad choice for a sub-$99 graphics board. In any case, inexpensive graphics boards are begging for lower quality graphics settings in StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty.

Performance with FSAA

Blizzard Entertainment did not implement FSAA support in its latest StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty video game due to limitations imposed by DirectX 9 API. Nonetheless, both ATI and Nvidia quickly introduced a way to force multi-sample anti-aliasing from the drivers. Nvidia managed to enable FSAA in StarCraft II on the day of the release. While performance hit was massive, it did not make any statements, but just advised that their customers should enable it from the control panel. AMD's graphics business unit forced MSAA in the new title days after the release, with massive speed drop too, but first it issued a statement claiming that performance hit associated with enabling antialiasing was too high.

FSAA Off                                                                  FSAA On
 

 

The screenshots speak for themselves. Full-scene anti-aliasing does make a difference in the game, where buildings, units and environment details are close to each other and can be zoomed in. It is hardly a life changing experience, but an option one would generally like to have.

 

FSAA Off                                                                  FSAA On
 

There are also a lot of first-person shooter-like encounters in campaign mode, so smoother character edges is a nice addition. The only drawback is that in some areas, such as computer console displays, FSAA tends to blur the image, which might be one of the reasons why Blizzard decided not to override DX9 specs and enable MSAA.

Having found out that antialiasing can be enabled and that it does improve the quality of the game, we decided to test our graphics cards with the unsupported feature activated.

Premium/High-End Category

Considering the level of performance showed in "pure mode" it comes to no surprise that almost all of the premium competitors can pass this test at over 30 fps rate. Still, we must admit that forcing multi-sampling anti-aliasing in StarCraft II is a stress even for such a monster as ATI Radeon HD 5970. The performance is almost 50% down compared to the previous run for most of the rivals. If you are a lucky owner of a 2560x1600-capable display, you may want to consider dropping native resolution for this game.

Performance-Mainstream Category

Stepping down a notch to the performance class graphics boards we may observe that the only solutions capable of running FSAA-enabled mode at acceptable pace are ATI Radeon HD 5850 and Nvidia GeForce GTX 460 1GB. With 2560x1600 being too slow, the highest resolution that can be used on decently priced graphics boards is 1920x1080. Both of the above mentioned contenders will provide you with 40 fps average.

The Radeon HD 5830 may also be an option, since it can reach 30 fps mark, but this will not provide you with much of a performance reserve and, moreover, the GeForce GTX 460 1GB is only $30 or so more expensive. Unfortunately, owners of Nvidia GeForce GTX 275 will have to settle for 1600x900 resolution or even consider dropping FSAA at all.

Mainstream Category

Mainstream segment of the market does not leave much room for a choice. ATI Radeon HD 5770 and Radeon HD 5750 can barely cope with the increased workload and less expensive solutions just do not have enough horsepower to really use FSAA in StarCraft II.

Since StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty game engine does not support FSAA, the conclusions for our forced "eye candy" mode should be separate. The initial worries displayed by AMD's ATI unit have been justified.

The driver-forced FSAA mode is putting a huge extra stress on the graphics card. If you really want to see your system scream, build up an army and then cloak it with a Protoss Mothership. Another matter is that if you are planning on spending a lot of time in the campaign mode, you are going to see a number of game engine-rendered cut scenes (with additional effects like depth of field). And since that experience is closer to FPS rather than RTS type of games, you will be asking not for 30 but for 60 fps in order to enjoy smooth story telling.

Hopefully, FSAA in StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is still a work in progress. Future driver updates may ensure a performance increase, or maybe Blizzard and the two IHVs will find a way to enable more efficient MSAA. But until then use forced FSAA mode with caution.

Instantaneous Performance and Image Quality

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty so far turns out to be quite modest in terms of computer hardware appetites (without forced antialiasing). At the highest graphics quality settings you can achieve a playable frame rate with almost all contemporary graphics cards available on the market.

We decided to try the game at different graphics quality settings on similar graphics cards to check how scalable the engine is. Besides, we also wanted to check out the influence different central processing units have onto actual gaming comfort. We took two popular graphics cards for this test: an ATI Radeon HD 5850 and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 460 1GB. Both cards were tested together with Intel Core i7-975 Extreme Edition and Intel Core i7-920 processors.

For each of the four quality profiles we were recording the instantaneous performance with the Fraps 3.1.3 utility for 60 seconds. As usual, we tried to make the test scenario as variegated as possible. Anyway, we captured a few screenshots that can help us evaluate the difference in image quality between the game’s settings profiles.

Here are the results:

 

The game does respond to more CPU computing power. On average, extra performance provided by the Core i7-975 EE gives an 8% increase in frame rate. Even more significantly, minimum frame rate rises accordingly, which is going to help if two armies collide.

There is little difference between Radeon HD 5850 and GeForce 460 in Ultra mode. Both participants react similarly to dissimilar workloads presented in the game.

 

The Ultra mode provides the best possible picture quality, but what can you do if you need that extra bit of frame rate? Well, High mode is a real alternative in StarCraft: Wings of Liberty. A drastic improvement in frame rate with a small quality compromise is an acceptable bargain, when average fps skyrockets to a hundred. You are going to miss out on some fine detailed textures, HDR lighting and reflections, as well as several other special effects, but in reality you are still going to play the StarCraft II.

The difference between Intel Core i7-920 and Intel Core i7-975 XE is only 7 fps, so, it proves that CPU power is less important that GPU performance for the game.

 

Say goodbye to physics and more or less advanced lighting model in Medium mode. Water surface, shadow models and post-processing also suffer significantly from this quality option. In terms of performance, however, Medium mode raises the bar to an impressive level of 120 fps. You will be hard pressed to find any place in the game where Medium settings might seem to be hard to handle. With a different CPU the GeForce GTX 460 manages to establish itself as a winner at 128 fps, while the Radeon HD 5850 trails behind at "only" 120 fps.

 

Finally, the Low mode is the lowest-quality one in StarCraft II. The frame rate of the game does grow up significantly, but given the quality sacrifice you will have to bear, it is hard to imagine any one actually going to use this mode. It is miles behind Medium and you probably would rather play the original StarCraft game instead.

The CPU’s influence is roughly the same as seen in previous cases and 200 fps mark can be enjoyed at all times.

Summing it up, we can note that different quality settings affect the game a lot both in terms of quality and speed. If your system is incapable of providing adequate level of performance, try switching from Ultra to High. You will not be giving away that much in terms of quality, but your frame rate will benefit significantly.

In terms of CPU choice, it makes more sense to prefer the higher clock-speed to extra cores. Due to DirectX 9 and Blizzard's intention to make it work on the maximum possible amount of systems, the game is generally badly optimized for multi-threading and struggles to load up more than two cores despite of Havok physics engine.

In terms of GPU architectures there is virtually no difference with both ATI Radeon HD 5850 and Nvidia GeForce GTX 460 1GB showing similar patterns of behavior, as predicted.

Conclusion

When Blizzard first made the announcement that StarCraft II was going to be released as three separate games, a lot of people were concerned about possible large gaps between the parts. Moreover, the first StarCraft II beta reviews told that the game seemed massively under-developed and without any gem that could separate it from the original StarCraft series (some said that this is just a StarCraft clone with graphics engine version 2.0). We are glad to report that as always gossip has a tendency to massively distort reality.

If you have an upcoming vacation or holiday, cancel it. If you have to go to work, take a sick leave. This game is nothing like you have ever experienced before. Yes it may miss native FSAA support and the race balance is still to be sorted out, but at least for now, the Campaign mode is going to be more than enough to satisfy your need for StarCraft.

It is not easy to make a recommendation for a potential graphics card buyer. If you want the best possible experience you don't have to look for something bigger and better than ATI Radeon 5850 or Nvidia GeForce GTX 460 1GB. Both can handle resolutions 2560x1600 and below, without extra stress for your wallet or air conditioning unit. You really have no need to look for top-of-the-line GeForce GTX 480, Radeon HD 5970 or various multi-GPU configurations, unless FSAA is a must for you. The relatively inexpensive Radeon HD 5770 will be optimal for playing in the popular 1600x900 resolution whereas the less advanced graphics cards will call for lower level of detail.

Thanks to the DirectX 9 engine that is not exactly friendly to multi-core/multi-threaded microprocessors, there is hardly a true need even for a quad-core chip. Higher clock-speed will be much more appreciated in this case. In fact, since the latest multi-core CPUs have various dynamic acceleration modes, they will do the job.

This game took twelve years to hit the shelves and now the waiting seems worth it. Even if you are trying to be modest in your judgment, it is very hard to expect anything less than staggering from StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty real time strategy video game. Just like good cognac needs a few decades to mature, Blizzard's creation took its time. Some, such as StarCraft: Ghost might have been abandoned or left for future come back with a bang, but for now everyone's attention is on the Korpulu Sector and Protoss-Zerg-Terran triangle. Enjoy!