Battlefield 3 on the PC is arguably the best looking game ever created, so it’s no surprise that it requires some serious horsepower to enable every single retina-popping feature. Given that half the gaming world is looking to upgrade just for this game, we thought we should test NVIDIA and AMD’s most popular video cards to see just what you can expect at each price point. Read on to see which video cards cut through Battlefield 3 on Ultra like a heated chainsaw through butter, and which GPUs crash and burn like a noobie helicopter pilot.
How we tested.
Unfortunately Battlefield 3 doesn’t have a built-in benchmarking tool, nor does it have the ability to capture demos of gameplay to be played back for benchmarking purposes. Thanks Dice! Where other Battlefield 3 GPU performance articles tested the game using sections where the singleplayer game is on rails, we didn’t feel these were representative of the true multiplayer experience, so devised our own method. After loading a Conquest server with the minimum number of players necessary for the round to begin, we captured a demo walking from the antenna to the forest cap point, before destroying a tank in the middle of the forest area. We did this so many times that it played out almost precisely the same every time, and it was a much more demanding demo than anything the singleplayer game throws at the player. If this sounds like a pain in the ass to set up, that’s because it was – we can only hope demo recording is patched into the game in future.
Our test PC contained an ASRock Extreme Z68 Extreme4 motherboard, an OCZ RevoDrive SSD, ASUS Xonar DX sound card, 8GB of DDR3 1600MHz memory and – most importantly – an Intel i5 2500k CPU overclocked to 4.5GHz. This CPU speed was crucial in ensuring that the processor wasn’t the bottleneck in the system. All Battlefield 3 graphics options were set to Ultra, running at 1920 x 1080 with vysnch disabled. Both NVIDIA and AMD supplied special drivers for testing.
Average versus Minimum Frame Rate
We measured two stats using the most excellent FRAPS software, which is available as a free download from here. Average frame rate gives a good indication of the overall performance. However, the most important number is the minimum frame rate, which shows the performance in the worst moments – just as the tank exploded. While a high average frame rate is nice, a high minimum frame rate is crucial to ensuring your game doesn’t have those stuttering moments that can ruin your immersion. Anything over 40 frames per second as a minimum is acceptable, but ideally you wouldn’t want it to get any lower than 60 frames per second.
AMD Radeon HD 6950
Price from: $239
Minimum Frames Per Second: 27fps
Average Frames Per Second: 35fps
This mainstream video card from AMD packs 1GB of memory, which didn’t help when it came to Battlefield 3′s high resolution textures. The Radeon HD 6950 GPU uses a slightly cut-down variant of the higher end 6950, so we expected it to perform slightly slower than its big brother. Unfortunately it appears this card isn’t quite up to handling Ultra settings. While the average frame rate wasn’t too bad, at 35 frames per second, the minimum frame rate was an unplayable 27 frames per second. However, it is possible to play BF3 on this card, but you’ll need to disable anti-aliasing and run with a mixture of medium and high settings.
AMD Radeon HD 6970
Price from: $349
Minimum Frames Per Second: 29
Average Frames Per Second: 40
This is AMD’s fastest single GPU video card, and it carries a 50% higher price tag than the more affordable 6950. With 2GB of onboard memory it should be better equipped to handle Battlefield 3′s high textures, but it appears that NVIDIA’s dominance at DirectX 11 tessellation left AMD’s cards wanting. Despite the large price increase over the 6950, this card was just a few frames faster, and still not fast enough to offer a smooth Ultra experience. We expected more given the price difference.
GeForce GTX 570
Price from: $329
Minimum Frames Per Second: 36
Average Frames Per Second: 49
We’ve known for a while that NVIDIA’s DirectX 11 performance is very strong, and it appears that Battlefield 3 really leverages this. The GeForce GTX 570 is NVIDIA’s mid-range DirectX 11 offering, going head to head with the Radeon HD 6970, and is for all intents and purposes a slightly hobbled GTX 580. As our benchmarks show, this card can almost play Battlefield 3 on Ultra and still offer an excellent experience. However, we think 50fps or over is the bare minimum for a smooth gameplay experience, so dialing back several of the graphics options to High is recommended when using this card.
GeForce GTX 580
Price from: $459
Minimum Frames Per Second: 38
Average Frames Per Second: 53
Welcome to the fastest single GPU video card on the market. This expensive behemoth offers exceptional performance across the board, and like its cousin the GTX 570 is especially good at handling DirectX 11′s tessellation feature, which is used to add extra detail to objects and environments. However, even this brute wasn’t quite up to the task of providing a silky smooth minimum frame rate, hitting 38 frames per second at the worst of times. Thankfully these moments are few and far between, and the average frame rate of 58 is very close to silky smooth.
AMD Radeon HD 6990
Price from: $709
Minimum Frames Per Second: 48
Average Frames Per Second: 68
Welcome to the big leagues. This expensive slab of silicon packs not one but two GPUs on it, and each of these is a trimmed down 6970 GPU. As well as being expensive, this card is extremely hot, so generates quite a lot of fan noise when in action. If you want to play Battlefield 3 on Ultra with an AMD graphics card, this is the best that you can get… and it just about hits the minimum 50fps that we demand for perfect play.
Dual GeForce GTX 580s in SLI mode
Price from: $900
Minimum Frames Per Second: 69
Average Frames Per Second: 95
In the lead up to Battlefield 3, Dice mentioned that for the perfect BF3 experience it’d be necessary to pack dual GTX 580s, so we thought we’d test out this configuration to see why. Using the cheapest GTX 580s we could find, made by Zotac, we finally had a PC that could handle the very heaviest of Battlefield 3′s battles even on Ultra settings. With a minimum of 69 frames per second, the game felt silky smooth the entire time, though we did notice random slow-downs from time to time that could be fixed by alt-tabbing the game. If you’ve got money to spare and want the ultimate BF3 Ultra experience, this is the configuration for you.
So there you have it – to play this game on Ultra with no perceptible slowdown requires an insane $900 worth of polygon-punishing graphics hardware. Thankfully most of these cards will run the game well on High settings, and the game still looks amazing at this level. Even on medium, most users will be more than happy with how Battlefield 3 looks.