[Update 9-11-15] Treyarch have rolled out a PC patch for Black Ops III which looks to address performance issues suffered by players with Intel Core i5 CPUs, among other fixes. The team also suggest setting a frame cap just below your monitor's refresh rate to improve frame rate stability - 58FPS cap if your refresh rate is 60Hz, for example. Our test machines's fitted with an i7 CPU so we haven't sampled the i5 issue. Those of you with i5 CPUs: what have your experiences been so far? Has the patch helped?
[Original story] Treyarch made a lot of noise about the PC version of Black Ops 3 prior to release. Rather than outsource the PC port to another studio, they're developing all platforms concurrently. What's more, they've added in a bunch of PC-centric features such as an FPS counter and lock, a FOV slider, and split-screen play across all modes. But does the end product really reflect the franchise's renewed attention to PC? Well, yes and no.
Tested on a Intel i7-2600K @4.7 GHz, 16 GB of RAM, GeForce GTX 680 (4GB), Windows 10.
In some ways, Black Ops 3 is an improvement on previous PC outings for Call Of Duty - the above features do exist, as promised, along with a decent spread of graphics options and even planned mod support. So it's not like Treyarch were just blowing hot air when they spoke to us about giving the PC version the attention it deserved. However, promising "the best PC game in Treyarch history" was probably going a bit far.
Yes, there are PC-focused features, and yes, it's a scaleable engine - just not in the way you'd want.
I'm testing Black Ops 3 on a mid-range system with NVIDIA's game-ready driver installed - it's well above the modest minimum requirements, but not full of enough bleeding-edge hardware to excpect 1080p60 gaming on high/max settings as a given. And it's just as well I don't take that as a given, because Black Ops 3 really doesn't want to give it to me.
The game is quite good at analysing your specs and tailoring its default graphics settings accordingly - so in my case, the game runs at a smooth-ish 30FPS with v-sync enabled without any menu tinkering. However, inspection of those menus reveals that the game's had to be scaled down considerably to achieve that performance.
Let's look at those graphics options. It's a more robust set of menus than those found in last year's Advanced Warfare, and offers several genuinely interesting additions.
The one that catches my eye is "render resolution," which is effectively in-game downsampling. Without changing the actual screen resolution, you can force the game to output a resolution up to 200% bigger or 50% smaller than your native res, then use an algorithm to force it to fit your screen. The benefit is that using a bigger resolution makes textures appear incredibly sharp, and a smaller resolution boosts performance but doesn't degrade the fidelity quite as much as changing the actual screen resolution. I first became aware of downsampling via the Dark Souls GeDoSaTo mod, and later NVIDIA's Dynamic Super Resolution. This is the first game I've seen that supports downsampling natively - please do let me know in the comments below if you've seen it elsewhere, though. Either way, it's a bit of a surprise to see it in a COD, isn't it?
As promised, the frame counter and FPS lock are present and correct. 'Sync every frame' refers to v-sync, and will half your FPS depending on your monitor's resolution for an overall smoother experience.
In advanced options, things look a bit more familiar. Anyone who's played the last couple of CODs knows that any anti-aliasing option beginning with 'filmic' eats FPS like a hungry dog eating hot chips, and the difference my eyes can actually perceive between SMAA 1x and filmic SMAA T2x is minimal. If your eyes are like mine, this is a good port of call to eke out a higher frame rate.
The options that'll make a big difference to overall fidelity are the top three - texture quality, filtering, and mesh quality - along with ambient occlusion. Keep these as high as possible, or risk turning your game into GoldenEye.
There are no overall presets in Black Ops III's graphics menus, but as I mentioned it does a decent job of tailoring its default settings to your system. What I find a bit shocking is how low it had to set most of the options to get a decent, stable 30 FPS out of my rig. And more shocking still, how unplayably slow the game is on max settings.
The ageing GTX 680 4GB simply can't handle Black Ops 3 at its max settings (above). While frame rate is consistent and doesn't dip when things explode or smoke fills the screen, it struggles to keep its head above the waters of 20 FPS on my rig. This is without any GPU-intensive downsample, though admittedly I'm gaming at a slightly more demanding 2560 x 1600 natively. Here's the thing though - it's at max settings that Black Ops 3 looks the way you'd expect it to.
It couldn't be described as a beautiful game. It's not ugly either, but I struggle to see exactly what it is my system's having a hard time processing. It looks like the console versions, albeit running at slightly higher resolution. It's a surprise to see the FPS take such a tank.
Default settings (above) produce a much more stable 30 FPS, but there's a notable dip in overall fidelity. Textures drop from 'extra' to merely 'high' while shadows and volumetric lighting are set to medium, with a noticeable effect on visuals. Most dramatic though is the render resolution dip to 80%, giving the game the appearance of having been smeared with a very, very thin layer of vaseline.
The disparity between ultra and my mid-range system's playable defaults are best observed in the smoke quality, the detailing on the truck to the right, and the textures and shadows immediately underneath the fire at the centre of the screen. My problem here is that it looks notably worse at these settings than the settings I was able to get a stable 60FPS from in last year's Advanced Warfare.
It's worth noting that the pesky filmic anti-aliasing is enabled by default on my rig, though, so watch for that.
Dropping all the graphics settings down to low in seach of maximum stability and high frame rates (but leaving the render resolution at 100%), things get pretty ugly, as you'd expect. Texture quality is first up against the wall, making the game appear extremely washed out. Soldiers also take on the unfortunate appearance of Doom 3 cosplayers. In fact, everything in the game becomes esconced in plastic.
And, sure it's possible to get really high frame rates and stable performances at low settings - but the fidelity hit is massive. This is what I alluded to earlier: no one could accuse this game engine of not being scaleable, but it appears much of that scalability works backwards from what most would deem an acceptable fidelity level, not above it.
With a GTX 970, a 1080p panel, and a willingness to turn down the anti-aliasing a bit, you're unlikely to have major performance dramas - though you might have to drop the settings down still further to hit a locked 60FPS in multiplayer. For everyone else - those of us still using DX11 cards and below - Black Ops 3 is a perplexingly demanding game. And that's even with the help of NVIDIA's game-ready driver. If anyone's playing on an NVIDIA card and doesn't have that driver installed yet, I'd be interested to hear what kind of performance boost it offers. Let me know below.
However, I'm not out to give this game a kicking. Treyarch have obviously spent a lot of time and effort on this PC version, even if performance levels aren't as you'd expect. There are a host of really welcome options, big and small. I particularly enjoy having the ability to change any graphics settings without having to restart the game or even reload the level. It's a marked improvement on previous PC ports.
I also want to see its FOV slider, frame counter and FPS lock rolled out uniformly across PC games, so kudos is due for that. And let's not forget the addition of that fascinating render resolution, which offers a much higher fidelity ceiling for those with mutli-GPU setups.
Verdict: Passed (just)
How's your experience of Black Ops 3 going? What kind of performance levels are you getting, and from what specs? Let us know below.