Contemporary Graphics Cards in World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

DirectX 11 API is already quite a mature piece of software that has been with us for a couple of years. Unfortunately for end-users its actual implementation in real life applications has been slow. But recently Blizzard has officially released its World of Warcraft: Cataclysm 4.1 Patch, which should attract just that bit more attention to this. Read on to find out why.

by Yaroslav Lyssenko
05/10/2011 | 10:31 AM

There was a time when Tetris, Pacman and Arcanoid ruled the world. Then again there was a time when the Alliance and the Horde ruled the world of Azerot. Thanks to the latest Cataclysm expansion pack the conflict remains just as unresolved as it was six years ago, and, just as fresh and at the same time contemporary as it was back in the launch year.


You might come to think, that an army of loyal fans and 12+ millions of active accounts just cannot be wrong. And you are right. Blizzard managed to essentially establish itself and World of Warcraft as a definitive MMORPG. No other game is like it, that’s without a doubt. 


In a world order where competition dictates future success, game developers from Blizzard truly mastered the art of MMORPG crafting. World of Warcraft manages to be many things in many places at the same time. You want to be a rouge undead world explorer - no problem; you feel that guild raiding and main-tanking is your kind of fun - feel free to raise a Human Warrior; and if the above mentioned options are not enough, summon your warlock minions and destroy opposing players onslaught in a battleground PvP scenario.

If you are new to the World of Warcraft game, then don't think that Blizzard actually made its masterpiece before initial release. One of the main appealing features of WoW is its real life evolution. No, there are no 'character dependent environment reactions' or highly anticipated and hyped 'living world NPC' model. Instead, World of Warcraft evolves constantly and, what is even more pleasing, with actual testing and contribution from mainstream gamers.

Six Years of Glory and Counting

Without any doubt, the main feature serving as the base for World of Warcraft is its pick for color palette and game world model design. Somehow Blizzard artists managed to create a timeless product, with never aging gene. Other games and titles have lived and died, in large part due to aging of their engines, but WoW, remarkably, still manages to look fresh and contemporary even today. If you are looking for an atmospheric inspiration as a game designer, you should definitely spend some time in Azeroth. 



If in the beginning the game lacked such simple and popular features as real time rendered shadows and shaders, new updates and expansion packs added them gradually. If something was not done in the initial release it was easily added in the later expansion packs. World of Warcraft: Burning Crusade introduced reshuffled balance, Blood Elf and Draenei as additional races alongside with some graphics engine tweaks. This gaming title was highly praised by the gaming community and boosted worldwide adaptation and sales to record heights. 



In the end after much struggle and raid group build up, even such iconic character as a hero class demon hunter Illidan Stormrage was defeated in Outland and Blizzard decided to release Wrath of the Lich King expansion pack. Backed by increased level cap, new Death Knight class and Northrend continental mass, Arthas awaited the raiding parties at his frozen kingdom. The game engine graphics part was not changed as significantly as before. At the same time new locations looked really stunning and in a way felt like a WoW 2.0.

WoW 11K

The latest expansion from Blizzard arrived in December of 2010. The World of Warcraft: Cataclysm pushed the boundaries even further. New scenery, fresh locations, 85 level cap and fully redesigned skill-talent system coupled with 'Old World-new experience' concept – all these make the latest page in World of Warcraft lore a definite must-have. Artists and writers may have been working hard on this latest cataclysm, but game engine programmers and engineers also managed to incorporate a very useful and contemporary feature. Thanks to a patch released on 21 of March, 2011, the latest treat from Blizzard became official. It may sound strange to some, but a seven-year-old game engine is now capable of supporting DirectX 11 hardware. 

The support of DirectX 11 API is a masterful implementation considering the age difference. The features are not immediately noticeable and that is not necessarily a bad thing. The only time when you might actually notice the difference between DirectX 9 and 11 modes is in scenes with large water surfaces and scenarios with high spell activity. 

Can you spot the difference? (DirectX 9 on the left vs. DirectX 11 on the right)

Thankfully, water surface still looks cartoonish, and that is really a good thing, since overall it does not stand as 'real life looking' water, which most definitely would have looked out of place. You might be asking why we dedicated a whole review to a minor feature change. Well, there is much more going on behind the scenes besides water and magic special effects.

Last time we took a look at World of Warcraft was about a year ago. Since then a whole generation of graphics cards has been released and with recent expansion pack engine update a lot of readers started to ask just how much more demanding WoW became in terms of performance on contemporary graphics cards.

Testbed and Methods

We are going to investigate World of Warcraft: Cataclysm graphics performance using the following universal testbed:

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

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia GeForce:

According to the Blizzard Support web-site, the main idea behind DirectX 11 API implementation in World of Warcraft game engine was to speed it up compared to the morally outdated DirectX 9 version. Therefore, we were interested in finding out just how much performance improvement we can get from a new rendering method.

The tests were performed in “Ultra” mode with FSAA 4x enabled and there were a total of 15 testing participants:

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 in a forest of Feralas as well as a small fight on the beaches near Night Elf base. This allows to accurately test graphics card load rather, because the network or server related lag slows down the gameplay in major cities and heavily populated areas. We measured the average and minimum performance using Fraps utility version 3.4.2. Each test scenario was repeated three times and the average value of the three runs was taken for the analysis, as always.


Premium Category


It seems that Nvidia based solutions have higher fps headroom in World of Warcraft: Cataclysm MMORPG. The main disappointment here is Radeon HD 6990 graphics card. After paying a costly price of $699 you will hardly be eager to settle for the second best result, but that is exactly where AMD's champion ends up in the end of the day.  AMD is definitely in need of a driver optimization at least for their top offerings.

Speaking about modes, I have to say that both Radeon HD 6990 and GeForce GTX 590 behave strangely in World of Warcraft video game. There are no artifacts, but it seems that their respected multi-GPU driver profiles work at some point and then don’t.

The new officially released DirectX 11 support is a clear Nvidia turf. Nvidia based GeForce GTX 590 and GeForce GTX 580 are definitely on top of the game here as both manage to easily push fps numbers over 100 in DirectX 11 mode. Having said that, AMD derived product benefit from the more contemporary render path as well, demonstrating an almost 50% performance boost without any extra costs.

Performance Category

Performance-mainstream competition is as fierce as ever. The performance gain due to the DirectX 11 implemented render path is almost incredible. Nvidia based products are still the favorites here as they manage to squeeze more performance from the recent patch in comparison to AMD Radeon HD graphics cards.

If there was little difference between GeForce GTX 570 and GeForce GTX 560 Ti in DirectX 9 battle, the picture changes significantly as soon as you switch to the DirectX 11 mode. The former boasts considerably higher fps numbers and is a favorite for the WoW rendering. On the other hand, even 50+ fps in 2560x1600 is more than enough to be the champion of Tol Barad with the help of a much more affordable GeForce GTX 560 Ti.

AMD based solutions may be lagging a bit behind their competitors, but they arrive at the scene in flying formation. If you have the money, go for the Radeon HD 6950 graphics card as it is probably the best all-rounder at the moment. Alternatively you may want to consider a Radeon HD 6850 based product. Thanks to the DirectX 11 patch, its appeal just got that much higher and any resolution up to premium class 2560x1600 is available at a significantly reduced price.

Mainstream Category

Unfortunately we didn’t have the recently released AMD Radeon HD 6790 graphics card in our testing laboratory at the time of this review. It would be most interesting to compare it against highly impressive GeForce GTX 550 Ti, which is a clear leader in the mainstream segment. Thanks to the patch influenced speed bump it is even possible to play at such demanding resolution as 2560x1600 with such an affordable solution.

The previous generation Radeon HD 5770 still has got what it takes to steal your heart. It may have been released in October of 2009, but this Juniper based graphics card running in DirectX 11 mode is only slightly behind GeForce GTX 550 Ti, especially in higher resolutions.

The entry level market can’t really bring anything new to the table even with the DirectX 11 afterburner enabled. Although AMD Radeon HD 5670 and Nvidia GeForce GT 430 graphics cards show increased fps numbers thanks to the faster API, the overall performance level begs for lower quality settings. Keep in-mind that this is Ultra mode with FSAA 4x enabled, so there is plenty of room for compromise.

Instantaneous Performance and Image Quality

One of many appeals of an MMORPG title is that it usually treats even the most basic hardware with respect. In order to appeal to as many potential customers as possible and not to scare them away with outrageous gaming rig specifications, companies try to make their gaming engines as simple as possible. This gets even more complicated since the average life expectancy of an MMORPG application is two, three or even four times longer than that of an average FPS title, for example.

Given the fact that World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is based on a somewhat outdated game engine written back in early 2000s, we did not expect it to present such a challenge as it did in the tests above. Yes, it might be representative only of the RPG genre, but you hardly expect such low fps rate on the cutting edge graphics cards of 2010s from a game launched in 2004. Luckily game engine programmers implemented very diverse graphics setup menu which offers a lot of fine-tune options: 

Now let’s check how well the game scales in terms of graphics settings and how different quality profiles may affect the frame rate and image quality. We will take a few screenshots using two popular cards: an AMD Radeon HD 6950 and an Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti. While both of them are quite affordable, they deliver high performance in most of today’s games and are, in fact, the most desirable purchase these days.

Besides the traditional picture quality comparison and investigation of preset profile effects, we are also going to check how gaming performance depends on the CPU clock frequency as we compare similar test runs on systems built around Intel Core i7-920 and Core i7-975 Extreme Edition processors.

The test sequence includes an outdoor scene, a run through forest and sea shore, as well as a short fight with a few boards using magic spells. It should cover most situations the gamer may experience during the actual gameplay. Just like before, we measure the frame rate using Fraps version 3.4.2. We also use this utility to capture screenshots for image quality comparisons.


Although I am personally not a really big fan of the game, I must conclude that Blizzard truly managed to create one of the nicest-looking virtual reality worlds you will ever see. The operating frequency of your central processor unit makes no significant difference in Ultra quality mode with enabled FSAA 4x. Apart from some minor differences both graphics cards perform exactly the same despite the frequency differences.


Trade off full-scene antialiasing and in return you are getting a healthy 25% performance increase. Changing your CPU will also makes more sense in this mode, as extra 600+ MHz in our case resulted in a 10% higher average fps numbers. Surely you can live without FSAA when possible raid party wipe is at stake.


In the High preset quality mode you do not necessarily turn everything off. In fact, you slightly lower the quality settings. In the end you will enjoy 150+ frame rates, so you will hardly be able to pin the blame for every loss or death on your underperforming gaming rig. If only server ping and bandwidth latency were just as simple to change! Different CPU models will make a difference in this preset, but overall you are going to gain mere 5% of performance.


Enter the realm of 200 fps and try to spot the difference. There are compromises here, but they are not really a deal-breaking change. It's not like you are going to miss an NPC or a magic spell discharge. Ultra and High quality settings are of pure eye candy nature and thanks to this can easily be turned on or off if you ever feel the urge. Higher performing CPU is going to provide extra fps as the GPU is considerably less utilized at this stage.


The last option for anyone looking for a World of Warcraft fix for outdated hardware is the Fair preset option. As long as you don't expect to see high quality water surface and crisp textures you are going to be just fine here. Note that a sub-$199 card shows 250 fps here, so if you haven't upgraded yet, now may be a good time to do so. 


 "AVOID!" is probably the best word that could describe this graphics quality option. No shadows, no filtering, no sun and you can't even tell where you are going. Are you sure that this is a viable preset for anything else other than Auction operations on your nettop?


If there were a Nobel prize for an IT company that made the most noticeable contribution to preserving world peace, it would most definitely be Blizzard. The phenomena of WoW universe has broken hundreds of records and sparked thousands of research papers covering anything from social sciences all the way to statistics and economics. The most significant achievement that will forever stay (till it is beaten and surpassed) with World of Warcraft is the sole fact that 12 million people have been engaged in a bloodless conflict for Azerot.

Some critics express concerns for the price of participation in Alliance and Horde battles. Potential players not only have to pay for every single expansion (three released with two rumored to follow) but also have to make monthly payments. Luckily, the money seems to go just where the end users can really appreciate it. Blizzard constantly updates and maintains its servers and even some minor patches bring not only fixes but new content to explore.

Engineers deserve due credit as well. Those people who designed the basics of WoW game engine back in early 2000s made a remarkable job at making it as upgradable as possible. Constant upgrades of the graphics features allow this game to be as contemporary as any other competitor title. The downside to the above mentioned improvements is the increasing graphics card requirements.

Current contemporary graphics cards proved quite capable of handling the loads created by World of Warcraft game engine especially with the recently delivered DirectX 11 API support patch. There is no apparent need for you to go all in and spend a little fortune on Radeon HD 6990 or GeForce GTX 590 products. Even fastest single GPU Radeon HD 6970 and GeForce GTX 580 are overkill for this title.

Performance mainstream market has a number of products and from our investigation it is clear that any of the $200-$300 graphics cards will be adequate for the task at hand. In the end of the day, there is really little difference between GeForce GTX 570, GeForce GTX 560 Ti, Radeon HD 6950 or even Radeon HD 6850 as long as you stay away from the super-large screen resolutions.

Despite some situations when World of Warcraft could run on Intel integrated graphics for laptops, a discrete add-on graphics card is still a must for someone really interested in 25-man raiding and Arena team glory, even if he or she is on a budget. This is where entry-level graphics cards come into play. If the money is really tight, get yourself a used Radeon HD 5770. Its street price should be dropping rapidly, considering the recent replacement release, and since it is a genuine DirectX 11 piece of hardware, it will allow you to experience Azeroth the way Blizzard artists and designers envisioned it.


...and now, back to Azeroth, as the time for chaos has finally come!