Introducing the graphics detail settings
Over the next few pages, you might catch a glimpse of screenshots showing Battlefield 3's video options screens. The various individual quality settings and sliders are largely self-explanatory, but what do they actually mean in terms of image quality?
EA DICE Chief Architect Johan Andersson provided some useful background information during his keynote speech at the Nvidia GeForce LAN 6 event. This slide from the presentation perhaps best sums up the different settings:
Andersson explained that the "low" detail preset roughly corresponds to the level of detail in the console versions of Battlefield 3. So, Battlefield 3's PC-centric goodness should be apparent even when we bump cards down to the "medium" detail preset—if they require it, that is.
One of the PC-centric goodies Battlefield 3 puts front and center is antialiasing, which is enabled by default in the "medium," "high," and "ultra" presets. The first two presets both rely exclusively on FXAA, which smoothes out jagged edges using a post-process shader instead of conventional multisampling. The "ultra" preset enables both 4X multisampling and FXAA, which produces the smoothest images but requires a powerful graphics card with lots of video memory. According to Andersson, running MSAA without FXAA leaves some jagged edges, because additional rendering stages are run after the multisampling is applied. (In our testing, we found that enabling MSAA by itself reduced average frame rates almost as much as combining FXAA and MSAA.)
Andersson says the "ultra" setting also enhances detail in other ways, by sharpening up shadows and increasing the amount of DirectX 11 tessellation applied to the game's terrain. Based on the slide above, though, it sounds like the "high" setting is the sweet spot. That's good news, because the game seemed to default to that preset when we first ran it on all six of our cards.
Now that we have a firmer grasp on things, we can try to dissect the implications of the three image quality settings we used. Here are three screenshots from the first mission of the game, Operation Swordbreaker. We tried grabbing screenshots in the two missions we chose to benchmark, but those featured too much movement across the screen—smoke, dust, and swaying tree shadows—to allow for fair image quality comparisons. This parking lot area in Operationg Swordbreaker stayed mostly static as we took our screenshots.
You can click the thumbnails for full-sized screenshots in lossless PNG format. Zooming in on certain parts of the scene gives us a better look at the impact of the different detail levels, though:
The game's ambient occlusion and shadowing effects look visibly nicer and more realistic as we ramp up detail levels. The "ultra" preset clearly delivers the smoothest antialiasing, as well. That said, the "high" preset isn't a huge step down in image quality, and FXAA alone does a reasonably good job of keeping jaggies at bay.
How do Battlefield 3's image quality settings affect areas with foliage and vegetation? Such areas are commonplace in the multiplayer mode, and they appear in several of the single-player missions. One of those missions is called Kaffarov, and we fired it up to take our next batch of screenshots:
The differences are much less obvious, but they're there. The yellow grass looks flat in the "medium" preset, but it gains shading in the "high" preset and subtle amounts of extra detail in "ultra" mode. The first screenshot looks a little brighter as a result.
Before we move on to our benchmarks, I'd like to encourage readers to open the full-sized screenshots for both Operation Arrowhead and Kaffarov, and compare image quality across the entire scenes. Slight image quality differences are easily noticeable in cropped closeups, but they can be tougher to identify if you're not specifically looking for them—especially when you're busy shooting bad guys and dodging grenades. With things in perspective, you may find yourself questioning the value of a GPU upgrade, or even wondering if you wouldn't be best served by dropping to a lower detail preset and enjoying higher performance.