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DOOM 3 high-end graphics comparo

Performance and image quality examined
— 12:15 AM on August 6, 2004

DOOM 3 HAS ARRIVED, and it's already turning the PC hardware world on its ear. Suddenly, after years where the capabilities of the latest graphics cards far outstripped the demands of current games, that $299 card you bought six months ago may be begging for mercy. DOOM 3 looks stunning, but it's not a cheap date. Yes, DOOM 3 will scale down fairly well in order to run on slower hardware, but it loses some of its visual impact in the process—and let's be frank: that's not what we really want. We want to find the right hardware for the job, the graphics card that can pump out the eye candy at an acceptable rate, no matter how sweet it gets.

To that end, we have rounded up a healthy contingent of the latest high-end graphics cards for a shootout in DOOM 3—cards that are relatively recent and available for about $299 and up. The list includes no less than four flavors of GeForce 6800, a bevy of Radeons, and even a GeForce FX. We've tested them all in both the single-player game and in deathmatch to see how they handle the game of the moment. And we've tested both performance and image quality exclusively with DOOM 3's "High Quality" graphics settings, the best logical choice for gamers with decent graphics hardware.

So this is a serious comparison of DOOM 3 performance. Even our test system means business—an Athlon 64 3800+ with a gig of dual-channel DDR400 memory running at uber-tight timings.

Will NVIDIA's prowess in OpenGL games translate into across-the-board dominance in DOOM 3, or will ATI's new Catalyst 4.9 beta drivers propel the Radeon X800 back into contention? What is the best high-end graphics card value for DOOM 3? Read on to find out.

About DOOM 3's High Quality mode
Before we go on, I should say a few words about DOOM 3's High Quality mode, which we used for all our testing. The graphics geeks among us will want to know that HQ mode uses texture compression for diffuse and specular components, but not for normal maps, which tend to develop artifacting problems with common texture compression methods. This mode also incorporates 8X anisotropic filtering, so it's always active in all of the tests you'll see on the following pages. If you want to know more about HQ mode, check out the July 26 .plan update from id Software's Robert Duffy. He explains more about what each mode is and why. DOOM 3 does have an "Ultra quality" setting that uses no texture compression at all, but Duffy says that setting is really most appropriate for future graphics cards with 512MB of memory onboard. All in all, HQ mode is what you'll want to use to play DOOM 3 on any current high-end graphics card with 256MB of memory.

The demos
We recorded a couple of custom demos for benchmarking with DOOM 3. The first one, with the amazingly exciting name "trdemo2," is a bit of action from the single-player game. If you watch it, you'll see me getting beaten on by assorted demons and zombies. The lighting, effects, and bad guys that show up in this demo seem reasonably representative of the first third of the game or so (I'm not done yet!).

A shot from our single-player DOOM 3 demo

The second demo comes from a deathmatch game on the map "The Edge 2." This map offers a rather different sort of environment than our first demo, with wider open spaces, different shader effects, and some very detailed "rocky" walls that I suspect use normal maps. You'll see what I mean in the screenshots.

Harold O. has a rocket coming, special delivery

To record this demo, I set up a quick multiplayer server and started running around in the map. To my surprise, some bots showed up when the game started, ready to play. I'd just clicked through the default menus, and I hadn't seen anything about bots, but there they were. I started recording and proceeded to get the stuffing beaten out of me by some bot named "Harold O." Harold O. had some really good moves. After a little humiliation, I quit recording, and shortly after that, the "bot" disconnected.

At this point I realized that Harold O. was a real person, and that my server was announcing itself on the Internet. I didn't know whether to be more humiliated, or less. Ah, well.

Now, let's move on to the results.