Taking on the Dark Lord, Mobile Style

There have been a few recent product launches, with more to come in the near future, from AMD, Intel, and NVIDIA. On the CPU side we have Intel’s Ivy Bridge and AMD’s Trinity, both arguably more important for laptop users than for desktops—and in the case of Trinity, it’s currently laptops only! The two products both tout improved performance relative to the last generation Sandy Bridge and Llano offerings, and in our testing both appear to deliver. Besides the CPU/APU updates, NVIDIA has also launched their Kepler GK107 for laptops, and we’re starting to see hardware in house; AMD likewise has Southern Islands available, but we haven’t had a chance to test any of those parts on laptops just yet. With all this new hardware available, there’s also new software going around; one of the latest time sinks is Blizzard’s Diablo III, and that raises a question in the minds of many laptop owners: is my laptop sufficient to repel the forces of Hell yet again? That’s what we’re here to investigate.

Before we get to the benchmarks, let’s get a few things out of the way. First, Diablo III, for all its newness, is not a particularly demanding game when it comes to graphics. Coming from the same company as World of WarCraft and StarCraft II, that shouldn’t be too surprising: Blizzard has generally done a good job at ensuring their games will run on the widest array of hardware possible. What that means is cutting edge technologies like DirectX 11 aren’t part of the game plan; in fact, just like StarCraft II and World of WarCraft (note: I'm not counting the DX11 update that came out with Cataclysm), DirectX 10 isn’t in the picture either. Diablo III is a DirectX 9 title, and there should be plenty of GPUs that can handle the game at low to moderate detail settings.

The second thing to bring up is the design of the game itself. In a first person shooter, your input is generally linked to the frame rate of the game. If the frame rate drops below 30 FPS, things can get choppy, and many even consider 60 FPS to be the minimum desired frame rate. Other types of games may not be so demanding—strategy games like Civilization V and the Total War series for instance can be played even with frame rates in the teens. One of the reasons for that is that in those two titles, mouse updates happen at the screen refresh rate (typically 60 FPS), so you don’t feel like the mouse cursor is constantly lagging behind your input. We wouldn’t necessarily recommend <20 FPS as enjoyable for such games, but it can be tolerable. Diablo III takes a similar approach, and as a game played from a top-down isometric viewpoint, 30 FPS certainly isn’t required; I have personally played through entire sections at frame rates in the low to mid teens (in the course of testing for this article), so it can be done. Is it enjoyable, though? That’s a different matter; I’d say 30 FPS is still the desirable minimum, and 20 FPS is the bare minimum you need in order to not feel like the game is laggy. Certain parts of the game (e.g. interacting with your inventory) also feel substantially worse at lower frame rates.

Finally, there’s the problem of repeatability in our benchmarks. Like its predecessors, Diablo III randomizes most levels and areas, so finding a section of the game you can benchmark and compare results between systems and test runs is going to be a bit difficult. You could use a portion of the game that’s not randomized (e.g. a town) to get around this issue, but then the frame rates may be higher than what you’d experience in the wilderness slaying beasties. What’s more, all games are hosted on Blizzard’s Battle.net servers, which means even when you’re the only player in a game, lag is still a potential issue. We had problems crop up a few times during testing where lag appeared to be compromising gameplay, and in such cases we retested until we felt the results were representative of the hardware, but there’s still plenty of potential for variance. Ultimately, we settled on testing an early section of the game in New Tristram and in the Old Ruins; the former gives us a 100% repeatable sequence but with no combat or monsters (and Internet lag is still a potential concern), while the latter gives us an area that is largely the same each time with some combat. We’ll be reporting average frame rates as well as providing some FRAPS run charts to give an overall indication of the gaming experience.

And one last disclaimer: I haven’t actually played through most of Diablo III. Given what I’ve seen so far, it would appear that most areas will not be significantly more taxing later in the game than they are early in the game, but that may be incorrect. If we find that later areas (and combat sequences) are substantially more demanding, we’ll revisit this subject—or if you’ve done some informal testing (e.g. using FRAPS or some other frame rate utility while playing) and you know of an area that is more stressful on hardware, let us know. And with that out of the way, let’s move on to our graphics settings and some image quality comparisons.

Update: Quite a few people have pointed out that later levels (e.g. Act IV), and even more so higher difficulty levels (Hell) are significantly more demanding than the early going. That's not too surprising, but unfortunately I don't have a way of testing later areas in the game other than to play the game through to that point. If performance scales equally across all GPUs, it sounds like you can expect Act IV on Hell to run at half the performance of what I've shown in the charts. Give me a few weeks and I'll see if I can get to that point in the game and provide some additional results from the later stages.

Diablo III Graphics Settings and Image Quality
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  • JarredWalton - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    Problem is, to test on Hell I have to play through all of Normal, then all of Nightmare. I know people who have already done that, sure, but I only got the game two days ago and I have a family and a life outside of playing games. Hence the disclaimer at the beginning. I'll update the text to mention slowdowns on later areas.
  • kmmatney - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    Can you use someone else's save file?
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    Not that I know of; everything is stored on Blizzard's servers. The only way to access your characters is to login to Battle.net.
  • Herald85 - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    If you want, you can use my account to test. You'll need to sign a contract I receive that MSI laptop if you abuse my account.

    Seriously though, I wouldn't mind you using my account (the greater good and all that). Only problem I see is I'm playing on Europe servers so the lag might spoil testing.
  • shank15217 - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    There is a basic reason why the game runs so well in Act 1 Normal.. play through Act 3 Hell then come back and redo your review. Only the 650M has a chance of playable frame rates in those levels and we haven't even covered multi-player. My 7870 OC to 1100 Mhz has some slowdowns in those levels under some high stress scenarios and basically the game becomes an absolute nut-fest in later difficulties. People will want to play through the later difficulties, its part of the game's progression. Now I get that its hard to benchmark through the randomness but you can make subjective comparisons or do several run throughs. I can say with absolute certainty, none of the apus have a chance in playable frame rates in scenarios where it will matter. D3 is a very unforgiving game, it can take a split second to die, smooth frame rates in non-normal difficulties is essential.
  • dingetje - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    +1 on that !
  • snakefist - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    agreed, act1 is much less demanding

    did the test included multiplayer? game staggers when more than one player is in game on some configurations, while it's totally smooth in single player...

    also, memory usage tends to increase greatly in later acts, may hurt performance if memory is shared....
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    Tell you what, guys: email me your account login and password and don't play the game for a day, and give me instructions on a good stressful area to play on Hell difficulty, and then I can test that area. Otherwise, I simply don't have the 40+ hours needed to get to that point in the game in less than a week.

    And in case it's not clear, I'm mostly joking here. I've got several items I'm working on reviewing that are going to be higher priority than revisiting Diablo III performance in later acts. Perhaps this summer I'll have a chance to go back, but by then it won't really matter that much. So I'd suggest taking these figures as a way of getting relative performance from the various GPUs/IGPs, and then extrapolate from there. If you need to play on Hell difficulty on a laptop with maximum details enabled, you're probably going to want at least a GK107 dGPU (or perhaps Southern Islands).
  • dingetje - Saturday, May 26, 2012 - link

    lol ;)
  • snakefist - Sunday, May 27, 2012 - link

    hehe, but it's not that hard - you don't even have to be on higher level difficulties - its only ACT 1 OF NORMAL, which is more like a tutorial and considerably less populated (and task manager is claiming ~300mb ram, which increases up to 1gb later, still on normal)

    all the things mentioned later, like having freezing monsters or duplicates or 100+ creeps on screen are happening on nightmare also, and even on late normal, so it shouldn't be that kind of bother...

    on account topic user/password, use freejack/demise001xp, that's mine :)

    (joking of course, but you could give me YOUR user/password and authenticate it with one of those mobile apps while on chat, and i could level you up pretty fast, playing since diablo1. being on normal, you don't have much to lose, i'll even leave you some nice gear to start nightmare with - seriously, talking about few hours job)

    and all is in good-faith, since i don't play d3 on laptop anyway :)

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