Battlefield 3 Performance Analysis
With Battlefield 3 rapidly eating into our weekends, evenings, lunchtimes and any other period of time which we can justify dropping in for a few rounds, we were interested to see just how demanding it is on our PCs. After all, developer DICE has in the past stated that to run the game at its ultra settings would require a multi-GPU SLI or CrossFire setup. Is it really that demanding? Having waited a while for the launch patches and both Nvidia and AMD to release BF3-ready, WHQL-certified drivers, we grabbed our trusty graphics test rigs and 16 of the most popular DirectX 11 graphics cards and set about finding out just how much BF3 demands from our PCs.
Click to enlarge
BF3’s Graphical Settings
BF3’s four graphical presets are, as you’ll see, enough to accommodate the majority of the graphics card market; even sub-£100 cards such as the AMD Radeon HD 5770 1GB (sneakily renamed the 6770 1GB recently) can deliver playable frame rates at the lowest settings. However, some settings have a bigger impact on performance than others. Just for reference, here's a table of the four graphical presets, as well as comparison shots of Low, Medium, High and Ultra detail settings.
| ||Low Preset||Medium Preset||High Preset||Ultra Preset|
L to R: Battlefield 3 Graphics Presets on Low, Medium, High and Ultra - Click to enlarge
BF3's Graphics Settings Explained
Self explanatory this one; the higher the settings, the higher quality of the textures. The below shot, courtesy of Nvidia, demonstrates this clearly. However, in practice there’s actually very little visual difference between Ultra, High, Medium and Low, as the game will still load the Ultra textures when you’re up close. Instead, this really lets you set the level of detail; at Low you’ll notice textures popping through the different detail levels; at Ultra you won’t.
Texture Quality in Battlefield 3 - Click to enlarge
Rather than compromise on the number of shadows or remove shadows completely, even at the lowest setting BF3’s environments, vehicles, soldiers and even incidental details such as boxes still cast dynamic shadows. However, the difference between the lowest and highest detail settings concern the quality and softness of the shadows; as you can see below, at Low detail the antennae’s shadow is stark and blocky, looking like it’s been painted onto the landscape. However, at Ultra detail the shadow is much smoother and looks like it’s a part of the game world.
L to R: Shadow Quality in Battlefield 3 on Low, Medium, High and Ultra - Click to enlarge
Being honest, we struggled to find a difference between the lowest and highest settings in the Effects Quality settings; explosions, debris, smoke and clouds all looked just as good at the lowest or highest settings.
Mesh Quality has a big impact on BF3’s visuals as, like Texture Quality, it adjusts the model detail depending on its proximity to the player. It’s a subtle effect, but you can see in the below images that, as the mesh detail drops, objects further way from the player become simpler. Most obvious is the tree in the middle of the screen and the chain link fence, both of which are much simpler at Low detail than they are at the Ultra setting.
L to R: Mesh Quality in Battlefield 3 on Low, Medium, High and Ultra - Click to enlarge
Terrain Quality and Decoration
As with Effects Quality, we saw very little difference between the lowest and highest settings for these two detail options, even on large terrain and decoration-filled maps such as Caspian Border.
This is standard multi-sample anti-aliasing, reducing texture creep and generally smoothing edges and removing horrible jaggies to improve image quality. BF3 supports both 4x MSAA and 2x MSAA natively, but only enables 4x at the Ultra preset.
While not true anti-aliasing, this post-process effect has a similar purpose; smoothing edges and harsh lines and generally softening the visuals without the performance impact of full MSAA. It's not as effective at reducing and smoothing jaggies, though. BF3 offers four settings of Low, Medium, High and Ultra, but as we’ll see, the performance difference between Low and Ultra is fairly minimal.
Another post-process effect, this time to give a more convincing feeling of movement and motion.
Anisotropic Filtering (AF) is the process of enhancing the visual quality of textures when they’re viewed from sloped viewing angles, correcting texture blurring and making textures, particularly at a distance, look clearer and more defined. Oddly for a game that prides itself on outdoor environments, BF3’s Low and Medium presets set AF to just 2x and 4x respectively; we’d recommend forcing this to 16x due to the minimal performance hit and significant improvement to visual quality, particularly on large open levels.
Ambient Occlusion (AO) is a method of applying shading and more authentic lighting effects to models, even if they're not directly lit by a light source. BF3 supports both SSAO or soft shadow ambient occlusion, and the more modern horizon-based ambient occlusion (HBAO). While this has in the past been a largely unnoticeable effect that saps performance, BF3 makes significant use of ambient occlusion, especially in its urban environments. As the image below from Nvidia shows, at Low detail settings the windows are starkly lit, while at Medium detail with SSAO the lighting is softened and shaded. At High and Ultra settings, HBAO improves the effect, applying smooth and believable shadowing to the scene.
Ambient Occlusion in Battlefield 3 - Click to enlarge