Get your mousing fingers ready: the Diablo III beta is upon us. Its predecessors didn't require much of a computer to play on; however, games tend to get more demanding as time goes by. But as we found while testing with the Diablo III beta, you don't need to run out and upgrade aging rigs to powerhouses to get the most out of the upcoming game. If we haven't mentioned the word "beta" enough yet - keep in mind that performance can change between this version of the game and the final.
Blizzard kept the number of settings you can adjust to a minimum in the Diablo III beta. We could adjust textures, shadows, and physics settings. A pair of bars at the bottom of the settings page let you adjust draw distances for clutter, but they didn't seem to affect performance much. FSAA, while available in the menu, was nonfunctional--again, keep in mind, this is a beta, and these settings may change in the future.
We've taken a video to demonstrate how the various settings look. We noticed that high-quality settings have soft shadows that closely match the shape of characters. High-resolution textures have more detail in them, something that's easier to notice in the screenshot rollovers. High-quality physics change the way objects that get tossed around, like exploding barrels and crumbling structures.
When we switch over to medium-quality settings, the textures lose some detail, and the shadows become a little less accurate. Lowering the quality of the shadows is a great place to reclaim some performance, but we wouldn't move the textures down unless it were absolutely necessary. Low-quality shadows look amorphous and blobby. Disabling shadows entirely isn't recommended, because playing without them is jarring.
We tried the Diablo III beta on a variety of machines, and what surprised us the most was how low we could keep going. Our first experiences with the game were on the Windows 8 preview using a Phenom X3 and a Radeon HD 5770. The game ran fine at maximum settings and at a resolution of 1920x1080. We experienced some slowdowns, but the frame rate drops had more to do with a lack of proper drivers for the operating system than actual game-related demands.
Hopping onto our test beds, we thought we'd limbo down a bit and pair up an Intel Core i3 with a practically ancient GeForce 9800 GT. Frame rates ended up pegged at 60, the maximum the monitor allowed with V-sync enabled, and we were still running with everything cranked at 1920. Clearly, we were still overestimating the game's demands.
Off we went to our dusty 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo paired with a GeForce 8800 GT. This has to be the bottom, right? Wrong. We maxed out everything and still ended up with a machine that could output 60 frames per second under normal conditions and in average battles.
We finally got the game to chunk up when we dropped the video card down to a GeForce 8600 GTS, a midrange card that was released in 2007. At 1920x1080, with maximum settings, the game was playable if a bit jerky. Dropping the resolution down to 1280x720 resulted in smooth gameplay at 51 frames per second.
In practice, only the weakest computers will need to have their graphical settings adjusted. Any modern computer built in the past two years will be able to run the Diablo III beta with everything maxed out, and at extremely high resolutions, provided it doesn't have onboard graphics or a bargain-bin video card. In our performance tests, we could still run with maximum settings, although at slightly lower resolutions, on four-year-old computers outfitted with the slowest of Core 2 Duos and a middling-for-its-time GeForce 8600 GTS.
Again, these performance stats apply only to the beta version of the game and are subject to change. However, if the performance of the final version of the game doesn't deviate much from the beta, it's possible that the game could run extremely well at high settings on computers that are a few years old. Maybe not surprising coming from Blizzard, a company that typically makes sure its game scale well to a variety of different hardware setups, but good news nonetheless.