Age of Conan Hardware Performance Guide

We journeyed through the Age of Conan to test our hardware against the might of the Hyborian kingdoms.

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Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, Funcom's new massively multiplayer online role-playing game, lets players develop their characters and explore the mythical world of Hyboria. The game offers excellent graphics but also comes with equally breathtaking PC system requirements. Much of the game runs without a hitch, but like many MMORPGs, the true test of the hardware is in the large cities. High population counts, towering spires, long view distances, and tremendous amounts of shadowing all combine to make game frame rates about as viscous as corn syrup. Weaker computers will grind to a stop, while more powerful machines will limp along at less than half or even a third of their usual performance when faced with these large city environments. There isn't much you can do to avoid the frame rate hit, but you can upgrade a few key components to make the game a bit more playable.

Server conditions, population activity, and numerous other conditions make testing MMORPGs difficult. We increased our usual test duration to three minutes and used FRAPs to measure frame rates to compensate for the variability of our test runs. Our test ran through the streets of Old Terantia where we wound our way from the East Gate to the docks and back. The path has a mix of long view distances, heavily trafficked areas, and graphically varied regions that make the test brutal on the system hardware, as well as representative of the different scenery that the game offers. We found that the city test represents the absolute worst case scenario. We easily saw our frame rates double as soon as we stepped outside of cities, and combat instances in enclosed areas proved much less taxing than the civil environments.

Game Settings
Age of Conan has lots of adjustable settings and sliders, but most of them don't affect performance. However, there are a few settings you can tweak to easily double performance.

Graphics
The game's minimum system requirements starts with a GeForce 6600 video card, but we'd be surprised if you could do any more than look at the title screen with such an old card. We went through almost 20 video cards to identify the video cards that give you the most bang for your buck.

CPU
We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Toss your single-core processor in the dust bin of obsolete technology. Age of Conan practically requires a dual-core processor to run at all. We tested various speed quad-core, dual-core, and single-core CPUs from both Intel and AMD to help you decide where to devote your CPU budget.

Memory
Age of Conan requires 1GB of RAM to run, but that's barely enough to get the computer to boot in Windows Vista. We went ahead and tested the game with 2GB and 3GB of RAM to see what more reasonable amounts of system memory can do for performance.

Systems

A machine that featured the minimum system requirements--3GHz Pentium 4 processor, GeForce 6600 128MB video card, and 1GB of system memory--seemed reasonable, but we decided to build a test machine to see how the game performed on a system with the minimum required specifications. We didn't have many of the older parts, but we got close. We had to bump up the processor to a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 and blew the dust off an old GeForce 6800. Even with slightly more powerful components, the game could barely run. We got the game to move at a semifluid pace in city environments with rock bottom settings, but playing on the min-spec system wasn't an enjoyable experience.

The game runs much better on a PC with the recommended 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo, GeForce 7900 GTX 512MB, and 2GB DDR2 memory system components. The recommended hardware let us crank the detail up to medium settings and even bump the resolution to 1600x1200 while maintaining very playable frame rates. The game played buttery smooth outside of the city areas.

Our self-proclaimed awesome system, a 3GHz Core 2 Quad with a GeForce 9800 GTX and 2GB of DDR2 RAM, ran the game without a hitch. We turned the settings up to high to experience Hyboria in all of its splendor.

System Setup:

Awesome System: Intel Core2 QX9650, eVGA 780i, 2GB Corsair XMS Memory (1GBx2), 750GB Seagate 7200.11 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows Vista 32-bit SP1. Graphics Card: GeForce 9800 GTX, beta Nvidia ForceWare 175.16.

Recommended System: Intel Core2 Duo E6600, eVGA 780i, 2GB Corsair XMS Memory (1GBx2), 750GB Seagate 7200.11 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows Vista 32-bit SP1. Graphics Card: GeForce 7900 GTX, beta Nvidia ForceWare 175.16.

Minimum System: Intel Pentium 4 3.2GHz, Asus P4C800, 1GB Corsair XMS Memory (512MBx2), Seagate 160GB 7200.7 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows XP Professional SP2. Graphics Card: GeForce 6800, beta Nvidia Forceware 175.16.

Game Settings

Age of Conan has numerous settings, but most won't help you regain performance if you have a moderately powerful video card. As with most games, the one major performance guzzler has to be shadowing. If you disable shadows in all their forms, you can get immediate frame rate gains. We nearly doubled our performance simply by disabling shadows and leaving all the other settings at high quality. If disabling shadows isn't enough, we also recommend reducing the resolution and view distance to get the game to run smoother on less powerful video cards.

You might also want to look at the bloom setting. It saps performance, and its benefits are purely subjective. High quality settings with bloom-produced walls create an overly bright and unnatural appearance. However, bloom became a bit more enticing with shadows disabled because the added color and light helped to offset the lack of blacks that the shadows provided. Check out how it looks on the following page and decide if it's worth the performance hit.

System Setup: Intel Core2 QX9650, eVGA 780i, 2GB Corsair XMS Memory (1GBx2), 750GB Seagate 7200.11 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows Vista 32-bit SP1. Graphics Card: GeForce 8800 GT, Nvidia ForceWare 175.16.

Image Quality Comparison

Preset Quality Settings

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High Medium Low


Bloom

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Enabled Disabled


Shadow Settings

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Everything People Disabled

Image Quality Comparison Continued

Shadow Resolution Settings

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High Medium Low


Shader Model

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2.0 2.x 3.0


View Distance Sliders

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100% 75% 50% 25% 10%


Water Reflections

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Everything Ground None

Video Cards

Our test stresses video cards, but the CPU plays a much greater role in Age of Conan. The game runs well outside of the city, but all those extra frames don't do you much good if the game slows to a crawl once you get to the city. Our city-based test lumped almost all of the newer video cards into one big, CPU-limited basket. If you're going to upgrade your video card for Age of Conan, look no further than the GeForce 8800 GT.

During our testing, we found that Age of Conan doesn't play nice with ATI video cards. Aside from performance concerns, the ATI cards we tested locked two of the view distance sliders permanently to their maximum settings, and there isn't much you can do about it yet. Because of the locked sliders, we could only directly compare ATI and Nvidia cards at high quality settings. The game also has two entirely different preset medium quality settings for Nvidia and ATI cards; as a result, the "medium" image quality for the two sets of cards look nothing alike. The main difference between the two sets of medium settings comes from the main view distance range setting. On Nvidia cards, medium settings force the main view distance range to 2000 meters, down from 2800 meters in high quality mode. The draw distance number plunges to 200 meters on ATI cards. We tested both GPU brands with matching high quality settings but had to separate out the rest into their own charts for the other quality settings.  

We would have also liked to test DirectX10 on Age of Conan, but those features have yet to be added to the game.

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Nvidia ATI

System Setup: Intel Core2 QX9650, eVGA 780i SLI, 2GB Corsair XMS Memory (1GBx2), 750GB Seagate 7200.11 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows Vista 32-bit SP1. Graphics Cards: GeForce 9800 GX2 1GB, GeForce 9800 GTX 512MB, GeForce 9600 GT 256MB, GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB, GeForce 8800 GT 512MB, GeForce 8600 GTS 256MB, GeForce 7900 GS 256MB, GeForce 7600 GT 256MB, GeForce 6800 128MB, Radeon HD 3870X2 1GB, Radeon HD 3870 512MB, Radeon HD 3850 512MB, Radeon HD 2900 XT 512MB, Radeon HD 2600 Pro 256MB, Radeon X1950 Pro 256MB, Radeon X1650 XT 256MB. Graphics Drivers: beta Nvidia ForceWare 175.16, ATI Catalyst 8.5

CPU

A fast CPU is absolutely essential to Age of Conan. Single-core processors cannot run the game with high quality settings. These older CPUs fail to feed information to the other components in a timely manner. As a result, texture swaps occur at increasingly later points in the scene; sometimes they didn't happen at all until we stopped and waited for the game to catch up. It's like typing on a slow computer and waiting for the letters to appear onscreen seconds after you type them. You can get away with upgrading to a fast dual-core processor because the game doesn't seem to take advantage of quad-core processors at all. Clock speed is far more important than having an extra two cores in the game. If you have the means to overclock your CPU, we highly recommend doing so for Age of Conan. 

System Setup: Intel Core2 Extreme QX9650, Intel Core2 Quad Q9450, Intel Core2 Duo E8400, Intel Core2 Duo E8200, Intel Core2 Duo E6420, eVGA 780i. AMD Athlon 64 X2 FX-60, AMD Athlon 64 4000+, AMD Phenom X3 8750, AMD Phenom X4 9600 Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H. 2GB Corsair XMS Memory (1GBx2), 750GB Seagate 7200.11 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows Vista 32-bit. Graphics Card: GeForce 8800 GT, beta Nvidia ForceWare 175.16.

Memory

Windows Vista barely runs with 1GB of RAM, so it comes as no surprise that the game chokes with only 1GB of RAM. We could fire up the game, but load times were atrocious and the poor frame rate performance made benchmarking pointless. Performance improved dramatically when we moved up to 2GB. We didn't see frame rate gains at 3GB, but load times improved and the perpetual hard drive churn seemed to decrease.  

System Setup: Intel Core2 Extreme QX9650, eVGA 780i, 3GB Corsair XMS Memory (1GBx2 + 512MBx2), 2GB Corsair XMS Memory (1GBx2), Corsair XMS Memory 1GB, 1GB Corsair XMS Memory (512MBx2), 750GB Seagate 7200.11 SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows Vista 32-bit. Graphics Card: GeForce 8800 GT, Nvidia ForceWare 175.16.

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