The WAR on snake-oil tweaks

A PC enthusiast with a repressed penchant for Macs, Matt Butrovich joins TR as a guest blogger. He'll be sharing his thoughts on all things tech, from digital photography to gaming.

Gamers will do anything to squeeze a few extra frames per second from their computers. With the recent releases of several high-profile PC games, the echo chamber effect for what I would call snake oil fixes has increased dramatically. I've been playing a good amount of Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (WAR from here on out) lately, and like most new PC games, it's got some room for optimization. When I began playing on what I would consider a high-end machine (at least for an MMO), I consistently saw frame rates drop to nigh-unplayable single digits during heavy combat, but my attempts to locate the bottleneck went unsolved. CPU usage wasn't being maxed out on any of my four cores, and there was still plenty of physical memory left available. Lowering my visual settings and throwing a modest overclock at my video card did practically nothing, which led me to believe graphics performance wasn't the root of the problem, either.

Not willing to give up, I decided to hit some forums to see what other players were saying about performance issues. Unsurprisingly, I discovered I was not alone, and I found hundreds of posts dedicated to slowdown and stuttering problems without a reasonable explanation in sight. Now, I had no problem accepting that the game just needed more optimizing from the developers—after all, MMOs are notorious for the incomplete that they ship in. "Just be patient. Give it a few weeks. Wait for Mythic to roll out some more patches." That's what I told myself to get by. But then, I started seeing posts entitled, "increase your fps by 20+!" and "Nvidia choppy/low fps fix!!!" I'll be honest: curiosity got the better of me.

I went into the discussion threads expecting very little, which turned out to be a wise approach, since the "solutions" did nothing but make my head spin. Almost every single one was a snake-oil fix, with questionable advice and unverified gains. Gamers were digging through the Windows Control Panel changing just about any option they could get their hands on, then coming back with reports of frame-rate or latency gains without any quantifications. I skipped past anything that had a link to Black Viper or otherwise recommended disabling system services, and I ignored anyone who advised disabling something but couldn't actually tell you what it did. One of my favorite tips involved disabling your network adapter's TCP checksum offload capability, supposedly in order to decrease latency and disconnects. For those users whose NICs didn't have that capability in the first place, a handy registry key was provided for them to disable it anyway—that way, they'll be doubly sure no checksum offloading will be going on!

Attacks on SpeedStep and Cool'n'Quiet were rampant, as well, with gamers telling each other not to let energy-saving profiles steal their precious CPU cycles, even though those technologies have minimal (if any) impacts on system performance. I'm sorry, but I'm not about to run my 140W TDP processor at full speed 24/7 just because some dude who apparently doesn't have a shift key told me to via an online forum. Windows Vista's User Account Control was another sacrificial lamb, not so much for performance gains, but because WAR requires elevated rights to run (presumably because of PunkBuster). The overriding consensus was to disable UAC with no thought given to the consequences this might entail for the largely uninformed users following these directions.

Moving past the remaining "fixes" that I deemed downright dangerous or damaging (flashing your video card BIOS with directions provided by XxLegolasxX), I landed on the slightly more rational but still out-there tips. To give you an idea of what I mean, I found one thread with thousands of views that said Nvidia users could create a driver profile to dramatically increase WAR frame rates. I was already forcing triple buffering, vsync, 8x anisotropic filtering, and 4x antialiasing in my global settings whenever I played WAR, which worked just fine despite the thread saying WAR didn't respect those settings. How would a custom profile generate performance benefits over identical global settings? Curious, I went ahead and copied my global settings into a new profile for war.exe and fired up FRAPS. Guess what? There was no frame rate change. I'm not about to call the dozens of posters that are reporting benefits liars, but it certainly did nothing for me, and I haven't seen any evidence supporting the argument other than, "It runs better for me!"

After an evening of entertainment provided by snake oil fixes, I decided to call it a night and admit that the game simply had room for optimization. Not all hope is lost though. Since I began playing Warhammer Online about six weeks ago, I have actually managed to increase my frame rates a significant amount. Though many of you likely practice these methods, I'll fill you in on my secrets anyway:

  • Keep Windows up to date via Windows Update. This is sort of a no-brainer: Microsoft is continually rolling out patches that increase the stability and performance of Windows. If you don't have Automatic Updates on, at least remember to check every month or so.
  • Keep your device drivers up to date, especially those that relate to gaming like graphics-card and sound-card drivers. Nvidia released new WHQL-certified drivers not long ago, and those drivers managed to improve my frame rates and stability in WAR significantly. I have to imagine more improvements like those are on the way.
  • Keep your games up to date. The majority of WAR's almost-daily patches over the last several weeks have been designed to improve client stability and performance, and in my experience, users are seeing benefits. This also means reinstalling with the retail version of WAR instead of the updated beta client. While the code-base should be the same, some users report a performance benefit after switching to the retail client. I honestly believe that any performance changes are caused by the game files being less fragmented after a clean install, but if you've got the 20 minutes it takes to make the switch, it can't hurt.
  • Keep your computer well maintained. That means watching out for malware, keeping your hard drives defragmented, and keeping non-critical processes (like instant messaging apps, media players, etc.) to a minimum while gaming. Also remember to pop your system's case open every once in a while and make sure all components are clean and working properly. A dusty computer leads to increased temperatures, and hotter components may throttle themselves down to slower speeds in order to remain stable.
  • Make sure your machine is configured properly, particularly if you assembled it yourself. This includes verifying that the CPU, RAM, FSB, and video card are running at their proper speeds and storage devices are running in their fastest mode (DMA for parallel ATA devices and AHCI for SATA ones if your hardware supports it).
  • Upgrade your machine. Be realistic about what to expect with regard to the minimum/recommended system requirements, and see what other users are reporting with their computers. Upgrading is easier said than done for some people, but there are several inexpensive ways (like adding more RAM if necessary) to improve your computer's performance without breaking the bank.

With all of that said, the only real solution to improving game performance without throwing money at the problem is patience, particularly if you're looking for fixes for a recent release. Spore will continue to get patched, as will Crysis Warhead and WAR. Until then, keep tweaking your BIOS, keep tinkering with .cfg files, but most of all, keep playing. That's what being a PC gamer is all about.

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