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Pc Graphic Settings Comparison Essay

By: - Posted on Friday, December 19, 2008

Back in 2006 (when the current generation of consoles was still called the next generation) we did our first Xbox 360 vs. PlayStation 3 graphics comparison. Since then we've released rounds 2, 3, and 4, but we hadn't touched the third rail--the PC--until now. The graphics comparison features started out as a way to examine which console had better graphics, but readers began asking us to include PC image comparisons for games available on all three platforms. We focused on more recent games for our current comparison, because those are the games people are still buying and playing. You'll likely recognize many of the shots from our previous graphics comparisons. The results aren't terribly surprising, but the differences are still interesting to see. A well-equipped PC beats both consoles easily--of course, that same PC also costs three to four times more than either of the consoles.

On the PC, we used FRAPs to capture images at 1920x1080 resolution. We equipped our test PC with high-end components, a GeForce 280 GTX, and a quad-core Intel Core 2 CPU. The PC allowed us to enable high-quality settings in most games and have plenty of power left over to kick antialiasing up to 4x and anisotropic filtering up to 8x. For the consoles, we captured all of our images over HDMI with games running at 720p resolution, and we enabled full HDMI range on the PS3.  

Each game has four sets of rollover images. The first image is a full screenshot set resized to fit the width of the page, followed by a zoomed-in image set that we created by cropping the original screen grabs to show you how the games look at a 1:1 pixel ratio. To easily compare the PC to the consoles, we scaled down the original 1920x1080 PC images to 1280x720 and cropped from there. The third and fourth image sets follow the same pattern. Mouse over the captions to swap the images back and forth. Keep in mind that these are large screenshots, so viewers with slow Internet connections should expect to wait a while for images to load.

Fallout 3

A Washington, DC, teeming with automotive executives seeking government aid isn't nearly as dismal as the postapocalyptic DC setting in Fallout 3. Shadows and lighting change according to the game's day-and-night cycle, and we made sure to match timestamps for our comparison shots. In what will come as no surprise, the PC shames both consoles in the image-quality comparison. Everything from the textures to the antialiasing to the reflections looks better on the PC. Foliage, piping, and far-off buildings look far superior on the PC due to transparency antialiasing effects. Even draw distance is better on the PC, as the rocks and a fence near the burned-out bus aren't even visible on the consoles.

Dead Space

Dark corners, slow player movement, intense music, and monsters with a propensity to crawl out of walls left us reaching for a pair of adult diapers while taking screenshots. Once again, the PC is the overall champ here. A high-end video card goes a long way when it comes to running a game at insanely high resolutions with detailed textures and superior antialiasing. Objects in the seating area and the sheets of paper in the middle of the room get blurrier and blurrier as you switch between the platforms. Even the text readout that's practically in front of your character's face looks better on the PC.

Call of Duty: World at War

Call of Duty: World at War puts you in the thick of both the Japanese and Russian WWII fronts. The platforms look largely the same, except that the PC edges out both of the consoles in antialiasing and textures, which you can see in higher detailed surfaces and smoother edges in the PC shots. Interestingly enough, we also noticed that the water-landing scenario shown in the second set of shots plays differently in the PC version. When your character gets pulled up from the water at the start of the level in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions of the game, he remains stationary. In the PC version, the waves actively push your character around, making screenshots more difficult to capture.

Grand Theft Auto IV

Grand Theft Auto IV finally made it to the PC; unfortunately, it arrived with its fair share of performance problems. At times we experienced massive texture issues that caused the game to render nothing but water with our lonely car sitting on top of the waves. The game's lighting and shadowing also rendered incorrectly, creating nasty shadow bands over the buildings and streets. We didn't include images of the graphical artifacts because we didn't see them frequently enough warrant documenting. Generally GTAIV runs fine, and RockStar has released a patch since our testing that should clear up most of these visual oddities.

GTAIV is the one game we tested for this comparison that didn't let us max out the image-quality settings on the PC. At the moment, no video card has enough RAM to load up high-quality textures with high resolutions at maximum-quality settings. We could, however, load up medium textures with very high-quality rendering and mostly maxed-out sliders. Surprisingly, GTAIV does not support antialiasing in any form, which heavily detracts from the game because the city environment has a lot of hard edges, wires, and random foliage. Even with all the problems, GTAIV looks better on the PC by a wide margin. The PC's high resolution and draw-distance levels keep higher-quality textures, lighting, and transparency effects visible farther into the distance.

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Released a couple of weeks after the console versions to avoid being crushed by the Diablo 3 juggernaut, Max Payne 3 on PC is no mere afterthought or lazy port. Put simply, it's by far and away the best version money can buy, embossed and embellished to a standard that should satisfy the majority of the PC userbase.

The secret of its success is simple: Rockstar has realised that enthusiast PC gamers typically run gameplay at high resolutions, and at 1080p and beyond, console-quality artwork simply doesn't cut the mustard.

This would also explain the frankly monstrous 29GB Steam download we had to endure last Friday once the game finally unlocked.

"The installed size of Max Payne 3 is attributed to the no-compromise quality of its assets which have already pushed console disc space to the limits," the publisher says.

"A good portion of the extra space on PC can be attributed to increased texture size which is four times that of the consoles. In addition, the audio quality is significantly higher than the consoles due to lower compression rates which increase fidelity. Again, this comes back to the range of possibilities that the PC platform opens up for us."

Before we begin, let's put this into perspective a little. Run the PC game next to console versions at 720p, and you may wonder whether that 29GB download is justified. Yes, the artwork is obviously more clearly defined, frame-rate is much smoother, and the blur invoked by cheap console post-processing anti-aliasing is gone, giving a far more pristine look to the game, but there isn't a Battlefield 3-style night-and-day difference. Below you'll see the Xbox 360 game up against PC, and we've also prepared a PS3 vs. PC video too.

The key word here is refinement. The basic FXAA anti-aliasing technology found in the console versions is replaced with the more advanced PC equivalent (with several quality settings) along with the option for 2x, 4x and 8x multi-sampling anti-aliasing.

The good news is that the FXAA options generally provide decent results, which is just as well because the bad news is that MSAA incurs a pretty horrific hit on performance. The video above, running at 50 per cent speed, is clearly smoother than the console equivalent, but the fact is that even at 4x MSAA, a Core i7 PC running at 3.33GHz in combination with the GeForce 680GTX couldn't sustain a locked, v-synced 720p60. Gameplay is no problem, but cut-scenes see noticeable judder caused by dropped frames. Also curious is that the actual anti-aliasing coverage seems to be fairly patchy, and "jaggies" are often noticeable - something you probably spotted in the video above.

The solution is fairly straightforward: rely on the PC's superior implementation of FXAA, bin off the MSAA and suddenly you'll discover that Max Payne 3 is actually a bit of a performance winner: with every other setting at the highest level and resolution locked to 1080p, high-end GPUs should be hitting in excess of 100FPS. To get some idea of the hit MSAA incurs, NVIDIA's stats on the extent of the impact to performance are quite remarkable. Clearly, removing it completely is the way forward for the smoothest frame-rates.

Once this has been sorted, the figures strongly suggest that ultra high-end PC users - including tri-screen "surround" and NVIDIA 3D Vision devotees - should encounter few problems enjoying a rich, smooth, 1080p experience even without shelling out for an expensive SLI multi-GPU set-up. Scale back on other processor-intensive features and even more modest PC gaming set-ups should still be able to produce a console-beating experience - even a fast Core i3 processor with an enthusiasts' favourite like the Radeon HD 6870 should do the job quite nicely (yes, the dual-core nightmare of GTA4 are a thing of the past). While there is a law of diminishing returns on the visual boost offered by the top-end quality settings, PC gamers who've invested in their kit should be quite happy with the additional bling on offer.

"The performance nightmare we saw with the RAGE engine on GTA4 is a thing of the past - Max Payne 3 runs well on modern dual-core CPUs and is impressively scaleable across the board."

Tessellation has been added to the DirectX 11 version of Max Payne 3, with characters and vehicles having low-poly edges rounded off pleasingly. The effect is only really noticeable in cut-scenes and it's rather subtle regardless.

Rockstar has certainly pulled out the stops on the additional rendering features. The screen space ambient occlusion (SSAO) found in the console versions has been improved significantly and if that isn't good enough, a higher fidelity HDAO (high-definition ambient occlusion) feature has been added. Shadows, reflections, water and shader effects have also been given higher-precision upgrades and selectable texture processing offers up to 16x anisotropic filtering. DirectX 11 features have been implemented that not just offer some of the more refined effects but also draw upon the improvements Microsoft has made to parallelism in the API to offer a useful performance boost.

Another DX11 feature implemented is tessellation - which procedurally increases poly count for smoother edges. In the case of Max Payne 3, only the characters and the vehicles have been upgraded and it's safe to say that the effect is fairly subtle overall, but regardless, the addition is obviously welcome. We suspect that this technology will only really come to the fore on all elements of artwork design once the next-gen consoles support it, hence the limited support we've tended to see thus far.

In short, this version of Max Payne 3 works because the rigid 720p focus we see on the vast majority of cross-platform games ported to PC isn't anywhere near as much of an issue here. Rockstar has recognised the shortcomings of low-detail textures rendered at high resolution and terrible-quality 720p FMVs upscaled to 1080p, and, to its credit, the publisher has gone the extra mile in making sure that the PC experience doesn't feature these compromises.

Rockstar's decision to go for the 29GB download was the right one: art remains crisp, vibrant and rich in detail at high resolutions. Meanwhile, the cinematics are an immense improvement over the console versions: they're encoded at full 1080p and given a decent amount of bandwidth to shine. The only disappointments here are a 30FPS frame-rate (at odds with the 60FPS enthusiasts will be aiming for in their gameplay, making the FMVs stick out somewhat) and the fact that - curiously - the base visuals seem to lack anti-aliasing.

To give you some small idea of the overall improvement the PC version represents, we have an interesting comparison. We captured the first level of Max Payne 3 with the Xbox 360 set to 1080p on the dashboard, with the GPU scaling up from the game's native 720p. Then we repeated the process on PC at very high settings with Max Payne 3 running at 1080p. For more comparisons, we've prepared an Xbox 360 vs. PC full HD gallery if you want to see more.

"Rendering refinements aside it is the visual scaleability of Max Payne 3 that is most impressive - it's a game that looks bright, vibrant and rich in detail at 1080p resolution."

720p comparison videos are all well and good but the precision and refinement added to the PC version of Max Payne 3 is best appreciated at 1080p, so here's a couple of shots to look at.

"We had always stated that our goal with Max Payne 3 on PC was to have a game that runs beautifully out of the box on day one across a wide range of machines. To achieve this goal we developed the PC version in parallel with the consoles instead of a direct port," says Rockstar.

"The PC is the only platform where you can really max out the high end if you want to, and we wanted Max Payne 3 on PC to have the potential to look beautiful on the highest possible resolutions on the biggest monitors available - so while we can still scale performance down to suit even reasonably low-end rigs, every asset is available at the highest resolution possible, from audio to video to textures."

It's difficult to argue with Rockstar's sentiments. This is clearly the best edition of the game available and the publisher deserves kudos if only for the boost to the core artwork alone, acknowledging that enthusiast PC owners left low resolutions behind years ago.

However, as welcome as the improvements are, it's important to put the final game into context. There isn't the revelatory leap in the quality of the overall experience that we see when we compare titles like Battlefield 3 or Crysis 2 at max settings up against their console equivalents. Max Payne 3 is clearly a game of the current-gen console era, built using an engine primarily created with the Xbox 360 and PS3 in mind. Its enhancements are more about boosting existing effects, improving artwork and making the experience work at 1080p and beyond. In that respect, it's a great success.

Max Payne 3 on Xbox 360 compared to the recently released PC version, with footage running at 50 per cent speed in order to maintain image quality within the constraints of streaming video. Use the full-screen button to resolve maximum resolution.