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Age of Conan Hardware Performance Review

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FiXT

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Hardware Performance Review


Developer: Funcom
Platform: PC
Genre(s): MMORPG
Released: May 20 th 2008
Price: Click to Compare
Links: Age of Conan - Hyborian Adventures


Funcom, developers of the ever popular Anarnchy Online, are at it again with another big release. One of the year's most anticipated MMORPG’s, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures transports players into the fantasy world of the "Hyborian Age", inspired by writer Robert E. Howard over 70 years ago. The land of barbarians and magic not only immerses gamers in an epic adventure of conquest, but completely drenches them in graphics and game features never before experienced in the online realms.

The most notable attraction is that Age of Conan (or AoC) is one of the first ever MMORPG's with a DirectX10 capable engine, referred to as Dreamworld. Since the release of Windows Vista, game developers have been slowly incorporating DX10 as the new standard API; unleashing stunning visual and multimedia effects, making for a whole new gaming experience. Unfortunately, as it currently stands, AoC’s DX10 capabilities have not been unveiled and are not planned for released until late Summer 2008: crippling one of the most important attractions to the game. That said, the graphics quality of the game still surpasses anything to date and is truly a treat for the eyes.

Other allures are the closely simulated realism aspects in the game play. Users are able to control the direction and timing of their attacks in accordance with where foe shields themselves, motion captured animations that closely replicate the physical world, and while controversial, the mature rated play, which falls directly in line with what would be expected in such a fantasy era.

This review, however, is not intended to discuss the game’s amusement merits. Age of Conan undoubtedly has stunning graphics. The trade off is that unlike others in its genre, playing on a toaster is not possible. Funcom has pegged the bare minimum requirements with hardware that just a few years ago would have been considered high end and even the recommended requirements rival that of touted system killer, Crysis. We will be looking at different requirements of the game along with what types of hardware upgrades should be taken into consideration in order to get the most out of the Age of Conan adventure.

The video below is a trailer put out by FunCom documenting the Dreamworld engine used in AoC. Viewing is highly recommended in order to understand all aspects of the game’s system demands.

YouTube - Age of Conan - Glimpse of the dreamworld engine<object width="425" height="344"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/d7zwQIYhRWs&hl=en&fs=1"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/d7zwQIYhRWs&hl=en&fs=1" type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="425" height="344"></embed></object>​


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A Quick Look at our Testing Methods

A Quick Look at our Testing Methods
<img src="http://images.hardwarecanucks.com/image/fixt/games/aoc/images/sidebar2.jpg" style="float: right">
The focus of this review is the comparison of some of today’s more popular hardware in relation to its performance with various settings in Age of Conan. One of the biggest attractions and complaints about the game is its system requirements which break the norm of conventional MMORPG graphics which cater to a wide range of systems. The scenery is similar to something one may find in a photo journal and the real world replication adds all the extras to fully captivate the player. With this comes the need for some very hefty computing power and in the past few weeks since release, there has been much talk about exactly what type of hardware is required to perform at optimal settings.

Due to the fact that Age of Conan is an Online RPG, there exists no canned demo or repeatable run through like those traditionally employed in the benchmarking process. While many harp on how time-demos are inaccurate in relation to real-world game play, as any scientist knows, a test must be done in a completely repeatable and controlled environment to produce accurate results. Unfortunately that is not possible in this case. We have done our best to ensure that the results are as accurate as possible and represent what a user should expect to experience using the same or relatively similar hardware and settings. At the same time we also stress that the results are only directly comparable within the confines of this review and will differ depending on multiple factors including a user’s hardware configuration and game factors such as server, latency, time of day (in game), location in game and users in game in your location

In all of our tests, we have set specific "waypoints" for our characters, all of which must be reached before the run is finished; though we occasionally do deviate from the straight line between them. The camera is positioned at an approximate 40 degree angle to the character and zoomed out fully to take in as much scenery as possible. In areas that incorporate weather and day/night cycles our tests were run at set times during the day across all hardware to ensure that all graphical variances were taken into account. Any and all abnormalities were retested three fold to ensure accuracy and each test was run a total of 5 times, taking the mean of the average frames per second. Interestingly enough, very rarely did any average FPS differ by more than 1-2 between runs, and when doing a quick recheck after all testing was complete, the results were accurate every time.

We consider 30FPS to be a passing mark in this game as often this is the point in which the human eye can no longer decipher a noticeable difference of refresh in games, and allows for seamless game play with very little or no stuttering.

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Gameplay Areas & Quality Settings

Gameplay Areas Used for Testing

Test 1: Tortage Beach

Age of Conan includes a form of single player mode where gamers are often able to escape the hustle and bustle of the massive multiplayer world and work by themselves to further their character. This eliminates factors that otherwise would have a negative impact on frame rate. While you are not able to play the whole game in this state we have included results from Tortage Beach, the initial starting point, which features the visual feast of a tropical beach. We do a 5 minute loop which takes us around the beach to a point overlooking the ocean and through a group of pirates. We make our way back into the luscious jungle where we are again accosted by a pirate band and after kiting them through the foliage we find ourselves on a sandy shore in the midst of crocodiles (or alligators, who can ever tell?). A plunge into the water, with short trips beneath the surface, brings us back our starting point and the end of the loop.

tortagebeach.jpg


Test 2: Tarantia

Our second test throws us smack dab in the middle of the city of Tarantia, one of the largest hubs in the game. Filled with players from all over the realm, it is littered with a variety of textures and geometry; arguably one of the most graphically intense areas in the Hyborian world. Our test starts in Old Tarantia at the docks, an area you arrive at after leaving the Island of Tortage. Here we make our way up the Avenue of Honour and across a massive stone bridge, overlooking a cascading waterfall into the harbour. We decided against venturing into the Noble’s District as entrance into the district requires the the PC to load a new zone thereby distrupting the test. Making our way back across the bridge our character meanders through the streets of Old Tarantia, past the temple and through markets, eventually making his way down the back streets to the Avenue and ending up again on the docks to view the massive walls of the city.

tarantia.jpg



Test 3: Intro

Our final test is for those who prefer canned benchmarks. While not a perfect time demo, the starting intro after creating a new character uses the game’s engine for its visual rendering. While no where near replicating actual in game frames, it is an accurate and controlled demo for direct comparisons between hardware.

intro.jpg



Image Quality Settings

AoC includes a smorgasbord of customizable visual settings, mainly involving view distance of certain aspects, but also includes textures, shaders and AA/AF options. There is also 3 preset visual settings: Low, Medium and High. For the majority of our benchmarks we used the presets Medium and High; however, for a few, we did our own customizations or those recommended by the developers.
 
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Test Setup

Test Setup


Our Test Systems employed various combination's of hardware during the benchmarks and varied depending on what our particular focus was. As such the changes to basic system component combination's will be reiterated for each section. We have also listed them here along with the rest of the common hardware for reference.

hardware2.jpg



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Minimum Requirements Testing

Minimum Requirements Testing


Age of Conan’s rock bottom, bare minimum requirements run even higher than most office PC’s or people second computers. Users who have not upgraded for a couple years are finding themselves shutout from the game due to incredibly poor quality with almost anything that predates a 2006 PC. We wanted to find out exactly how accurate the minimum requirements were, and exactly what kind of experience users who met these requirements would have. We matched the specs almost perfectly, but were forced to use 1GB of DDR2-533MHz ram as our motherboard did not support DDR1.

Minimum Configuration (1024X768, detail reduced)
OS: Windows XP SP2
Processor: Intel Pentium 4 3GHz or equivalent
RAM: Samsung 1GB
Video Card: NVIDIA GeForce 6600 128MB
DVD-Rom: Quad-speed (4x) DVD-Rom Drive
Hard Drive Space: 32GB

Graphical Settings:
Resolution: 1024X768
Quality Settings: Low Preset

tortagebeach-minreq.jpg

Using our lowest preset and lowest available resolution, the game play on Tortage beach: the very start of the game, did not bode well at all. Not once did it peak over the minimum playable 30 FPS and with an average of 19.4 frames per second it was not at all enjoyable to play.

tarantia-minreq.jpg

As expected Tarantia fares even worse, with frames becoming like a slideshow in most areas.

Safe to say that even at its lowest point Age of Conan is not meant to be run on an aging PC and looking at the screenshots, who would want to anyways. The graphics of the game are half the fun. In fact, given the results, we suspect that even many relatively newer laptops will struggle to run at low settings.

We realized after, that the "detail reduced" description really wasn’t descriptive as to exactly what that entailed. We assumed it denoted the preset low settings, however there was room to take it down a bit further so we did.

We dropped the visuals from the low preset (left photo) to the lowest possible custom settings (right photo)

lowbeach.jpg
lowestbeach.jpg
Graphical Presets: Low (Left) Lowest (Right)

And the performance looked like this -

tortagebeach-lowestres.jpg

Even with everything a gigantic blob, the system was still unable to pull off passing frames. Given that it really couldn’t have taken that much graphics power to display our blob, one has to attribute the dismal numbers to the fact that the AI and detail requirements just could not be handled by a lowly single core processor and 1GB of ram.

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Recommended Requirements Testing

Recommended Requirements Testing


Next on the chopping block was the game’s recommended hardware. Upon first glance we were a little dumbfounded that an MMORPG would have last year's best gaming rig listed as recommended hardware, and not even at a decent resolution. In fact taking a further look, the game has some specs higher than Crysis; absolutely crazy!

For our testbed we did have to substitute the nVidia 7900GTX for an ATI Radeon 3850 due to availability. We felt that the quality of the 3850 was a perfect competitor to the nvidia 7900GTX in all around gaming performance.

AoC Recommended Configuration (1280X960, most features on)
OS: Windows Vista Service Pack 1
Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4GHz
RAM: 2048MB Dual Channel DDR2
Video Card: NVIDIA GeForce 7900GTX or equivalent (ATI Radeon 3850 256MB)
DVD-Rom: Quad-speed (4x) DVD-Rom Drive
Hard Drive Space: 32GB

Graphical Settings:
Resolution: 1280X960
Quality Settings: High Preset

tortagebeach-recreq.jpg

Our test on the beaches of Tortage yielded not only a gorgeous view, but for the most part, very smooth gameplay. We had a few hiccups when faced with an overwhelming number of foes, but for the most part was not especially disruptive. With an all around average of 31FPS, aside from the occasional dip, gaming with this configuration was excellent.

tarantia-recreq.jpg

Tarantia, as noted in the above graph, tends to jump around a lot. High quality textures are everywhere, and with so many different people doing different things, getting a stable framerate is impossible. Even the best PC is bound to get enormous dips. In the city, the system pulled out an average of 23FPS, but there were times we found ourselves wading through a slow motion slideshow. Definitely not a pleasant experience; at the same time, one does not spend as much time in the city as they do outside so it would be manageable and the recommended settings are about right.

In light of these results, with a resolution of 1280X960, anything widescreen or above a 19inch monitor is going to look terrible and stretched. It is by no means an ideal gaming resolution and falls below the typical 1280X1024. So you achieve high quality visual settings but at the price of a low resolution. With many gamers going to larger 20’+ widescreens it seems a little silly that the developers would expect users with a system such as the recommended, to be using a 17inch CRT.


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Processor (CPU) Comparison

Processor (CPU) Comparison

Our CPU comparison takes 4 mainstream processors and tests them together in our game scenarios. While most CPU tests are done at low resolutions - to get an idea of how they fair against one another - we chose instead to see how they would perform at settings a user is most likely to use, and what benefits one has over the other.

Test System:
OS: Windows Vista SP1 x64
RAM: Corsair XMS2 2GB Dual Channel DDR2
Motherboard: ASUS Maximus X38 / ASUS M3A32-MVP Deluxe
Video Card: nVidia GeForce 9800GTX 512MB

For these tests we used a 9800GTX so as to hopefully eliminate a GPU bottleneck, however, as is visible in the results, the game graphics are very much GPU bound.
cpu-beach.jpg


Our beach test shows a rather steady incline, though interestingly, we see the Intel dual core out performing the AMD Quad core. The difference between Intel CPU’s is roughly 5%, showing that while the game does use quad cores it definitely does not appear to take full advantage or utilize all cores evenly. However, all of these CPU’s make the cut and while the AMD systems provide lower numbers they can still keep up.

cpu-intro.jpg


The intro shows much of the same linear pattern just much higher frames.

cpu-tarantia.jpg


Tarantia is where we expected to see the CPU’s show their true colours and they did. Both of the AMD CPU’s failed to meet par, though, the X4 9750 was a hairline away at high settings so we would feel comfortable giving it a tentative pass. While the Intel E6600 just squeaked by it was not without a few drops which made certain areas of the city rather tedious to get through. The Q6600 not only took top spot, it eliminated nearly all the quick drops throughout the city allowing for much more seamless game play and appeared to distribute the load somewhat between all 4 cores, mind you, not evenly.

beachmed.jpg
beachhigh.jpg

Graphical Presets: Medium (Left) High (Right)



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Video Card (GPU) Comparison

Video Card (GPU) Comparison


Video Cards (GPUs), are the backbone to any 3D Game, whether it be plasma pong or Age of Conan. AoC has been set apart due to its unusually high requirements. Most MMORPG’s attempt to appeal to a wide range of gamers by making the game compatible with a variety of systems, however, as we have seen so far this is no ordinary MMO. In order to play at a decent level (graphics wise not your character) it has already been determined you are going to have to invest in something current and relatively mainstream. Your not going to be able to get full potential out of the game with something a few years old. But exactly what type of video card should one be considering?

Test System:
OS: Windows Vista SP1 x64
CPU: Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 2.4GHz
Motherboard: ASUS Maximus X38
RAM: 2GB Dual Channel DDR2

We went with the Q6600 quad core in order eliminate as much of the CPU bottlenecking as possible and allow the GPU to perform as best possible.

gpu-beach.jpg


The charts show virtually indistinguishable numbers with settings at medium; not much load on the graphics cards at all. This takes a sharp turn as we raise the resolution and detail levels. Unfortunately the ATI cards wind up driving off cliff, tumbling down into a ravine and erupting in a ball of flames. That is to say the ATI Radeon 3870 takes a 60% FPS hit over the nVidia 8800GT, even though in other arenas the two are fierce competitors.

gpu-intro.jpg


The intro scene reciprocates the same scaling and results we saw in our previous test


The Tarantian reports show some interesting information. First, we see a decrease in the gap between the 8800GT and the 3870 - while still very much separated, one easily surpass par, while the other continues to perform dismally - the impact appears to be lessened by other factors. Also, the gap between the 9800GTX and 8800GT is not nearly as pronounced as during our single player campaign. When comparing with our earlier CPU results we see that even with the quad core, in the city with all the player activity and heavy load, the processor is still a limiting factor.

gpu-tarantia.jpg



With such a large gap between nVidia and ATI based cards, it is quite clear that the nVidia logo on the game’s intro screen is not just advertisement, but a clear signal as to where Age of Conan’s optimization lies. While user reports give tweaks and changes to improve the frames with ATI cards it is nowhere near the level that an equivalent nVidia counterpart outputs. We are not saying ATI cards will function poorly no matter what. If you are a proud red owner however, you will want to look at spending some time adjusting certain aspect of the advanced graphical settings in order to achieve the best looking playable frames possible, which may require certain sacrifices. With ATI’s upcoming offering, the Radeon 4850 (check back here for a review in the coming weeks ), we hope to see some stunning performance boosts for users in AoC for a very reasonable price.

tarantiamed.jpg
tarantiahigh.jpg

Graphical Presets: Medium (Left) High (Right)



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Memory (RAM) Comparison

Memory (RAM) Comparison


With current pricing trends, ram is one of the most affordable pieces of computer hardware for a system, making an upgrade easier and cheaper than ever. It is often debated as to exactly how much ram is required to make a noticeable difference, and at what point does the excess ram begin to have little or no effect. Age of Conan’s developers set 2GB Dual Channel DDR2 as the recommended amount, but with so many people running Windows Vista -a notorious memory hog - is it worthwhile to add in even more? One thing we must note in order to avoid potential backlash, is that a 32Bit Windows operating system cannot address any more than 4GB of ram, this includes your other hardware. Many gamers have video cards with memory ranging from 256MB to over 1GB, as well as other system peripherals that factor into this equation. As such, if you are running a 32Bit OS with a high end video card, you may want to consider switching to a 64Bit OS, which can address far more (16 exabytes, give or take), or else be prepared to see a sizable chunk of your physical memory missing.

Test System:
OS: Windows Vista SP1 x64
CPU: Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 2.4GHz
Video Card: nVidia 9800GTX 512MB
Ram:
  • Corsair XMS2 TWIN2X1024-8500C5 1GB
  • Corsair XMS2 TWIN2X1024-8500C5 2GB
  • OCZ REAPER PC2-8500 DDR2 4GB
Our tests were only run on High settings in order to maximize load and clearly differentiate performance results.

ram-beach.jpg


The leap from 1GB to 2GB is enormous! With Vista eating up nearly ¾ of the available ram right off the bat, it leaves Age of Conan struggling to get its fair share. While detailed line charts are not available, our 1GB unit frequently took large dips into slideshow territory and loading levels and zones more than doubled.


ram-intro.jpg


The intro demo breaks the trend a little as it does not place as much load on the PC as our real game demos, but the results are still very much in line with expectations. Interestingly, our 4GB set does achieve more frames over the 2GB kit than in the other two benchmarks.


ram-tarantia.jpg


Tarantia was a run where we expected to see gaps widen, and while the separation between 1GB and 2GB grew, the 4GB set merely inched ahead, much as before. Doubling the ram for a 2% performance boost hardly seemed worth the effort to even snap it into the motherboard.

mountains.jpg

As evident in the results, the jump from 2GB to 4GB netted next to nothing performance wise, even using Vista. Keep in mind however, we are running with a fresh install of Windows Vista, the only background programs being drivers and monitoring programs, there are no other typical system stressors to factor in. Upon a fresh boot our physical memory usage sits at approximately 550MB of our available ram. With Age of Conan launched and running benchmarks, that jumps to between 1.6GB-1.8GB, on the verge of tipping the scales, but not close enough to create a altercation between programs. Our conclusion on the ram argument is this; your needs are very much dependent on your current situation. The facts are, that Age of Conan is going to eat up a good 1GB of memory during game play, potentially higher in areas we were unable to explore. You most likely will be chewing up the same amount if you are running Vista. That noted, check your system during idle to see exactly where your particular system stands. If you generally run programs in the background such as: Music, Anti-Virus, P2P clients or other such services, be sure to factor in their footprint. For most users all this is cutting it VERY close to an overrun with only 2GB, and given the ridiculously low price of ram, an upgrade would ensure smooth, quality gaming.




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All the Bangs and Whistles

All the Bangs and Whistles

We couldn’t finish off this review without showing you just how gorgeous the Age of Conan scenery looks, and exactly what kind of system power you need to reach maximum potential.

The test system was the review’s best performer, which never once failed us and allowed completely seamless graphics throughout.

OS: Windows Vista SP1 x64
CPU: Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 2.4GHz
Video Card: nVidia 9800GTX 512MB
RAM: OCZ REAPER PC2-8500 DDR2 4GB

Turning on and up every option possible we left no setting unchecked.

superhighres.jpg


bestres-beach.jpg


Even using today’s best single GPU video card solution we were unable to pull off passing frames. It came close, but frequent dips during large fight scenes pulled the card to below acceptable results. Even if it was not entirely smooth, the graphics were something to behold. Looking like something out of a brochure for a tropical getaway (aside from the rotting corpse), walking around and enjoying the scenery was almost more fun than actually playing the game. Though, once you move out of Tortage, many areas have a barren, rocky wasteland theme which makes the journey a little drab.

beachwater.jpg
jungle.jpg

Given that the beach couldn’t quite pull it off, Tarantia wasn’t much of a surprise.

Again it performed well for the most part, and while playable in certain areas, the computer’s struggle was evident.

bestres-tarantia.jpg


tarantiasunset.jpg
windmill.jpg


While boasting some of the best graphics of an MMORPG - and dare say any game on the current market - it is unfortunate that for most users, graphics such as these will be simply unobtainable. Given that at this time, the next step up to our video card is nearly double in the price and a better CPU is roughly a third of the cost more, views of this magnitude will only be for those with very deep pockets. For those with similar setups to our high end test bed, some concessions can be made to our maxed out settings and one should be able to achieve above par frames with very similar visuals.


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