Blockbuster games capable of making high-end PCs sweat have become a rarity in recent years. That's unfortunate but unavoidable in a world where consoles remain saddled with six-year-old graphics hardware—yet are, sadly, far more popular than high-powered gaming PCs. Today's PC titles typically feature the same graphics engines and pull off the same visual tricks as their predecessors. They don't look bad... but they could look so much better.
We PC gamers respond with understandable giddiness when a game bucks that trend. From the get-go, EA DICE has boasted that Battlefield 3 was designed for the PC first and foremost, then scaled back to accommodate the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The impact of that design choice was apparent even in the first trailers. With a sophisticated rendering engine bolstered by DirectX 11 effects like terrain tessellation and DirectCompute-accelerated lighting, the war-themed shooter offers visual fidelity above and beyond most of today's shooters. Large swaths of the game look good enough to put Crysis and its sequel to shame. That's saying something.
Oh, sure, Battlefield 3 doesn't have the most engaging single-player campaign, as cinematic and visually awesome as it might look. EA's Origin distribution scheme and the awkward web-based server browser have also earned their fair share of critics. Nevertheless, this game looks gorgeous and features delightfully engrossing multiplayer. I've clocked in 10 hours of Battlefield 3 MP so far, and I'm still itching for my next fix. Few multiplayer games let players sneak around subway tunnels with silenced weapons, snipe enemies across vertiginous valleys, drive tanks around large wooded hills, and engage in dogfights with fighter jets. Battlefield 3 doesn't just let you do all of those things—it makes them all fun.
Such a game must benefit from a fast graphics card with the latest bells and whistles, of course... but which one? Nvidia has pimped Battlefield 3 since even before its release, and although the title doesn't feature any Nvidia-only graphical effects that we know of, one has to wonder whether it runs better on Radeons or GeForces. Just as importantly, exactly how much GPU horsepower does one need to enable most of the game's eye candy? Is this another Crysis, or is it more forgiving of mid-range graphics hardware?
To answer these questions, we enlisted three pairs of competing graphics cards: the GeForce GTX 460 and Radeon HD 6850, which are both priced just under $150; the GeForce GTX 560 and Radeon HD 6870, which reside closer to $180-190; and GeForce GTX 560 Ti and Radeon HD 6950 1GB, which you can usually find priced south of the $250 mark. These six cards represent today's mid-range landscape. You might have seen them, perhaps with slightly different coolers and clock speeds, in the three cheapest builds from our latest system guide. We fired up Battlefield 3 on each card and got to tweaking graphical settings, measuring frame rates and frame times, and keeping a close eye on our seat-of-the-pants-o-meter.