Editorial: How Different System Components Handle the Most Graphic Intensive Wargames
Andy Houghton from Digital Storm, a maker of customized computer systems, shares with us how your computer hardware can affect your PC wargaming experience.
While most wargames don’t require the twitchy reflexes or crazy polygon-counts of the modern first-person shooter, latency and a lagging frame rate can be just as detrimental to a serious wargamer. One moment your squad is carefully trudging through a burned-out battlefield and the next they’re adding a little color to the scenery. All it took was a few too many soldiers on the field to bog the processor down and ruin an otherwise flawless plan.
There are, of course, a number of wargames that will start to really tap into hardware potential. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that the original Company of Heroes was credited with selling a lot of graphics card upgrades. So while most strategy games won’t require the same kind of PC specs as something like Battlefield 3 or Crysis 3, many upcoming games are going to need something a little extra to really get the smoothest performance at the highest graphical settings.
Company of Heroes 2
CoH2 is set to come out in early 2013. And since the exact release date hasn’t been specified, there hasn’t been a lot of information about the minimum requirements yet. This game is shifting the focus to the Eastern Front, but more importantly, it’s making the change to the Essence 3.0 Engine. Just like the first game, all reports point towards a game that is going to push the abilities of most off-the-shelf setups.
A high-end PC will make this game shine. The new graphics engine is going to allow dynamic battle tactics, with a new line of sight system and environmental destruction. The True Sight system is like a really advanced fog of war which, instead of a full 360-degree view of the area around the squad, you will only be able to see the things that the soldiers can actually see. This means that real flanking maneuvers, ambushes, and sneak attacks are actually possible in a RTS. The game will also feature DirectX 11 support, which will push the graphics even further than what we saw on the demos at E3 (which were run on DirectX 9).
StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm
The continuation of the StarCraft 2 series is one of the most highly anticipated releases of the upcoming year. While we’re not going to see a lot of changes in the underlying technology (beyond a couple graphical upgrades), there will be a whole new story and a number of new units. StarCraft also has the distinction of being one of the most competitive games that is regularly featured on the professional circuit. While you don’t have to play on that level to enjoy the game, the right system will still provide a much better experience even for casual players.
There’s something hugely anticlimactic about a “Zerg Rush” that has to deal with lag issues. The good news is that despite all the particle effects, lighting changes, and huge unit counts, StarCraft has surprisingly reasonable minimum requirements. You can get by with a Pentium 4 2.6 GHz, 128 MB NVIDIA GeForce 6600 or equivalent, and a single GB of RAM. They recommend a Dual Core 2.4 GHz, 2 GB of RAM, and 512 MB NVIDIA GeForce 8800.
What Your Hardware Can Do
A dedicated gaming computer can more than cover those requirements so your Zerg never have to stutter their way across the field again. The Digital Storm Marauder, for example, is a gaming PC designed for gamers on a budget, but it can still handle a game like StarCraft 2 comparatively easily. The Marauder features an AMD 3.6 GHz processor with 4 cores, has 8 GB of DDR3 RAM, and a 1 GB Radeon HD 7750 graphics card.
What does that mean in terms of the actual display? In some benchmark tests of the game (found HERE), StarCraft 2 performed quite well. On its ultra quality settings and 1680x1050 resolution, the Radeon HD 7750 was still able to deliver over 60 frames per second. At a slightly higher resolution (1920x1200), the FPS was reduced to about 36.
For gamers, though, this decrease shouldn’t mean much to the overall experience. Most estimates say that 30 FPS is the ideal rate for a consistent, smooth, and enjoyable display. 60 FPS may actually be a little bit of overkill, because the human eye can’t really pick up anything more than that. Some of the higher end cards, like the GTX 570, can deliver even higher frame rates which may make a difference on those first-person shooters, but aren’t going to make a significant difference in the performance of most wargames.
It may be significant to note that the Blizzard Entertainment website does warn that due to programming changes (patches) the minimum requirements may change over time. Still, most modern gaming computers will have the necessary specs to deliver high quality performance for at least a few more years.
Other Genres and Components
While most strategy games should be able to run really well on mid-level graphics cards like the Radeon HD 7750, when you start to move into other genres and styles you will need a little more power. Something like the new Ghost Recon: Future Soldier will require a 512 MB graphics card, a 3.0 GHz Pentium D and at least 2 GB of RAM. A budget gaming PC can still cover all of those requirements. But now that we’re getting into some serious 3D rendering on these environments, you will definitely want to look for a CPU with multiple cores and a graphics card with more than a “gig” of memory.
Of course, once you begin to step up your computer specs, it will begin to affect other components as well. For example, the more processing power you add, the more heat you will generate. That means that it may become necessary to look into other cooling options beyond the stock fan. Liquid cooling may be a bit much for most wargames, but be sure to keep your eye on the heat levels to determine how hard you’re pushing your system.
Another variable is: how long term storage affects your game play. There has been a trend toward Solid State Drives (SSD), but these can be a little expensive. They let you load your games extremely fast, which can eliminate bottlenecks and improve overall system performance. But if you prefer storage size over speed, the traditional HDD will probably be sufficient.
RAM, on the other hand, probably has a huge impact on lag and latency—two things that could really hurt if you’re playing competitively. While games like StarCraft 2 only recommend 2 GB, the more you have the better it will run. 4 GB is what you will see on most mainstream systems, but a good gaming computer should come equipped with at least 8 GB. With that much memory as your baseline, you’ll be able to handle wargames from many different genres.
About Andy Houghton
Andy Houghton has always been a huge PC gamer and has always wanted to become more involved in the gaming industry. He has worked with Digital Storm Online for the last 2 years. He currently lives in Palo Alto, CA and is pursuing a Master's Degree in Information Systems.