PC Gaming Power
If you want to play games with the highest detail, what kind of PC do you need?
If you’ve ever played around with the settings in a new, big budget PC game, then you’ll probably be aware that there’s a limit to how much your system can handle. Maybe it’s the ‘High’ setting or the ‘Ultra’ setting. Either way, we’ve been looking at what kind of power you can actually need to invest in to reach these heady heights of graphical beauty
Regardless of the gaming generation, if you’ve dabbled in PC gaming you’ll know that it’s a lot more involved than other platforms. Whether you’ve been a PC gamer since the days of the 486, Pentium, 3DFX, and OpenGL, or you’re only versed in more recent tech – such as Nvidia’s GeForce, ATI’s Radeon, Crossfire, or SLI – you’ll know that installing and playing a game is not exactly a plug and play procedure. Before you can take your first steps into any new digital world, you’ll need to ensure your PC can handle the task at hand and, depending on any technical issues, you’ll need to spend time tinkering with graphics settings to get the best possible performance out of the game.
Now, those who can afford to buy the best possible gaming hardware around will instantly eliminate much the need to look at much of what’s to follow. They’ll be able to crank up everything to the highest settings and still enjoy a fluid FPS rate. It will take quite a lot of cash, of course, but for gamers who want the very best experience, it’s probably the only way to play.
This breed of PC owner often doesn’t just spec their PCs for great gaming, but also out of a sense of pride. It’s desirable to build an impressive gaming PC, and it’s often a fact to brag about with others. They’re a kind of status symbol amongst gamers who care for such things, and graphical benchmark tests aren’t only for seeing how well your PC can run the latest software tech, but to also share scores with others in an effort to have the fastest kit. There are even world championships for such things, including overclocking. It’s big business, and a lot of people spend a great deal of their time tinkering with a system to make it as fast and powerful as possible.
For most users, though, simply having a PC that can run the latest games is the only real goal, and having one that can do so at the highest detail level is even more desired. Not having to reduce texture resolution, turn off shadows, disable god-rays, and so on can be a dream for some, but what does that dream entail? What specification of PC do you really need for today’s latest games?
The Test System
In a mission to see just how well various games perform, and to see what level of PC is needed we decided to check a number of popular games that have, or are known to tax gaming PCs. We’ve dug up their recommended specifications (the specs devs and publishers specify for high-end visuals), and we tested the games on a test system for average FPS. The test system is as follows.
Intel Core i7 5930K CPU running at 3.5GHz 16GB of RAM Three GeForce GTX 980 GPUs 4GB with the latest drivers available at the time of testing (375.70) 2TB Hybrid HDD Direct X 11.1 Windows 10 64-bit
The system is running a 4K monitor at 3840x2160, as we feel testing for high-end gaming really needs to take in the drag on resources you’ll get from a 4K display. Given that SLI cards don’t actually stack the VRAM, it’s limited to the RAM from a single card.
The best way to begin our look at the specification of PC you need is to flesh out exactly what we’re trying to quantify here: a system’s ability to play the games themselves. The thing is, AAA games change drastically from a technical point of view all the time, and although PCs don’t really have ‘generations’, as consoles do, the power needed to run games does jump up in leaps and bounds, promoting the development and need to purchase more powerful hardware.
There are countless games out there, of course, and to cover them all is impossible here, but the following examples will first tell you the recommended specs of some of the more popular games around right now and then the average FPS we got during our own tests with the above system. These are games that have been known to really push PC hardware, and need a powerful PC in order to run at full graphical settings.
For the most part, these are either first or third person perspective games – genres that tend to be the most graphically advanced. There are still some fairly taxing RTS and adventure titles around too, though. Simulators can be heavy on specifications at times as well.
Average FPS during tests - 75
Battlefield 1 is huge right now, and also one of the most demanding games in terms of hardware. As a large-scale multiplayer FPS, it demands a lot of visual muscle, processing, and RAM. Visually, the card you’ll need to get the best benchmarks will be something akin to the GTX 1060 or Radeon 480. You’ll need around 6GB of VRAM, or more if possible. As with many games released today, Windows 10 is the optimum OS, with DirectX 11.1 being ideal (the game will run with 11, though).
Despite being the newest game here, Battlefield 1 actually got a consistently high average FPS of around 70-75 during tests with our system. This is a testament to the game engine and how optimised it is. This means that you may need higher specs than some games on paper, but even with a less powerful PC, you’ll likely get better results than some games that are a few years older.
Star Wars: Battlefront
Average FPS during tests: 50
Very similar to Battlefield 1 (no surprise as it’s from the same developer), Star Wars Battlefront has similar hardware demands. However, while still visually stunning, the game needs less VRAM (4GB), and a lower-end CPU can still run it at max detail.
This comes with a drop in average FPS, though, which we found evened out at around 50. This is despite the game being older and having lower recommended specifications. Our system couldn’t top the FPS managed in Battlefield 1. Clearly, the newer games has a far more optimised engine.
Crysis / Crysis 3
Average FPS during tests: 60 / 30
We felt we had to include Crytek’s seminal FPS, not least because the first game in the series coined its own PC specification-related phrase: “Will it run Crysis?”
We’ve opted for the first and third game to not only show the difference in recommended spec over the years, but also to show how games in the same series can really change up the end result. As you can see, thanks to having a lower recommended specification, the original Crysis fares much better than the newer Crysis 3. Unlike Battlefield 1 and Star Wars Battlefront, the older game massively outstrips its sequel in terms of performance, hitting a regular average FPS of around 60, whilst the third game plodded along at 30.
Still, despite being nine years old, the original Crysis still runs worse than Battlefield 1 on our test rig. That may seem crazy but shows how the use of 4K takes its toll, an effect that’s possibly made worse as the game really wasn’t written for such displays.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Average FPS during tests: 30
It’s really not surprising that The Witcher 3 was such as strain, especially at 4K. The fantastic open world RPG has such impressive visuals for this kind of game, it’s one of the few that really makes you understand just how much is going on behind the scenes. Its game world is so detailed, with so much going on, right down to moving branches and leaves, the PC has to work very hard indeed. At such high resolutions and detail, your PC will be getting a major workout.
Having an average FPS of 30 may not sound pleasing to a lot of PC gamers, who can often tweak setting to achieve much higher FPS rates and thus get much smoother gameplay. With Witcher 3, however, it’s a very acceptable rating. Which leaves us to enjoy one of the most visually impressive, and taxing, games around.
Just Cause 3
Average FPS during tests – 25
A game notorious for long loading times and an engine plagued with performance issues, Just Cause 3 is also a very goodlooking title. It’s another open world game, and as such there’s a lot going on at any one time, both graphically and otherwise. Because of this, and an engine that’s just not as well optimised as others, it’s a title that’ll really push your machine, even if not out of design.
We only managed to get around 25fps on average playing this game, which isn’t great given the games that perform better that are more visually detailed and more recent. Still, Just Cause 3 is a very pleasing game to look at, and it has a lot of work going into the impressive physics engine, so there’s a little more reason here for a lack of overall performance.
Batman: Arkham Knight
CPU Core i7 3.4Ghz / F-8350 GPU 4GB Geforce GTX 980 / Radeon R9 290X RAM 8GB HDD 55GB OS Windows 8 DirectX 11
Average FPS during tests: 15-20
With all of the controversy upon release of the PC version of Arkham Knight, it really didn’t come as much of a shock that this would be one of the worst performers in our tests. The steep recommended specs give away a game that obviously needed a little more time in optimisation, and running it at 4K, even with a triple SLI setup, didn’t exactly generate impressive results.
An average FPS of 15-20 for a spec like the one we had in our test setup just isn’t good, and thanks to the numerous reports of many, many gamers online, the recommended specifications fared even worse at times, even when not running in 4K. It just goes to show that having a powerful PC that’s cost a lot of money doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get guaranteed performance, especially if a game has had a shoddy development. That’s PC gaming in a nutshell.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
CPU Core i5 2.4Ghz / FX-6120 GPU 4GB Geforce GTX 970 / Radeon R9 390 RAM 6GB HDD 25GB OS Windows 7 DirectX 11
Average FPS during tests: 20
Although this is a new release for PS4 owners, Rise Of The Tomb Raider has been around longer for PC players (and Xbox One, of course), so the specs aren’t as recent as other games around at the moment. Still, they’re quite high still, and the game is a real looker. The ‘open-world lite’ approach the game takes is a little more demanding than some more linear games, a factor that was certainly demonstrated when playing it using our test machine, which spluttered along producing an average FPS of only around 20.
Like Batman, this isn’t a great score at all, and although Rise Of The Tomb Raider seems to be a much more optimised graphic engine, it doesn’t run all that well at 4K, even on quite a meaty PC. True, our test system isn’t the most powerful in the world, far from it, but it’s still quite a beast when compared to a lot of PCs out there, and we’d expect more fluid results out of the game, if we’re honest.
ARK: Survival Evolved
CPU Core i5 3.2Ghz / FX-8350 GPU 2GB Geforce GTX 660 / Radeon HD 7870 RAM 8GB HDD 20GB OS Windows 8 DirectX 11 Average FPS during tests - 5-10
ARK: Survival Evolved has become one of the most popular of the waves of survival titles flooding the market. Rather than task you with fighting against undead in a typical zombie apocalypse scenario, Ark puts on a strange island populated by primaeval creatures. You have to defend yourself from these threats, as well as other players, all the time scavenging for resources to build shelter and new technologies.
As with all of these online, open-world survival games, Ark is a potentially stressful proposition on any system, as there’s going to be a lot to handle alongside the online requirement. Often, these games are visually stunted in order to make things manageable, but Ark has impressive graphics, and this certainly showed in our tests, which produced very low average FPS scores.
CPU Core i5 3.2Ghz / FX-8350 GPU 2GB Geforce GTX 660 / Radeon HD 7870 RAM 8GB HDD 65GB OS Windows 8 DirectX 11 Average FPS during tests – 5-10
As arguably the most popular game of the last couple of years, and a title that’s still in the charts today, Grand Theft Auto 5 is a huge success, and for good reason. However, when it comes to running on our 4K test setup it was a different story.
GTA V actually managed to get the lowest FPS score by a small margin between it and Ark, which is very surprising given the pedigree behind it, and the far superior scores of games that are far more demanding in terms of specifications. This is even more surprising given that GTA V is essentially a console port, meaning the intended hardware is less powerful than the even the standard recommended PC.
Clearly, the level of optimisation behind the scenes just isn’t up to par, and it shows, with very poor FPS on a machine that should easily be hitting much higher, even at 4K.
So, we’ve put a few popular games through their paces on a test system that’s more than capable of running them. We did have the added pressure of 4K, sure, but we’re looking at the best system you may wish to buy here, and 4K is the current major goal for gamers, so this makes sense. Obviously, the results would differ when running on a lower resolution.
Combine this with the recommended specifications we’ve listed, and we have a good picture of the kind of hardware you’re going to need if you want to run games at the highest detail and resolutions.
On average, if we eliminate the 4K issue, it’s safe to say that a good general specification for running most games at the highest details would include at least a 3GHz CPU and at least 8GB of RAM. For the GPU, you should be looking at a 4-6GB model, preferably one that’s in the last couple of generations. For Nvidia you’ll want to go with the higher mid-range to high-end, that’s sticking with the GTX range. For Radeon models, you’re looking for the R9 cards.
For system RAM we’d say the more the better is often the case, but at least 8GB will be good for most, and 16GB is a good target to go for as it should cover you all situations.
In terms of OS and other concerns, it’s really down to individual specification of software. You’ll need plenty of hard disk storage, and your OS should be at least Windows 7, with the ideal being Windows 10 for compatibility’s sake.
Going back to the 4K performance, it’s clear that this has a very big impact on overall performance, and this is one of the reasons we decided to implement this into our testing. It illustrates brilliantly how making the move to 4K means much more than simply buying a new monitor and/or GPU. There’s much more going on behind the scenes, and if you plan to move on to 4K gaming, you’ll need to be aware of the requirements and potential problems.
It also underscores an often ignored element of user questions regarding performance and requirements, and that’s the individual performance of the games themselves. As you can see, even with a monster gaming system, some titles perform much better than others, so no matter how much money you spend, you could still end up with a poor level of performance. Again, our test system without the 4K strain would run most games with no issues, but for the full, state of the art HD experience, there’s currently a high ceiling in terms of requirements.
How much does this kind of setup cost? The actual outlay will vary wildly, and depend on many things, but for the core makeup of any gaming system, we can provide a rough estimate of a decent, high-end machine. For this, we’ll focus on the main components – the CPU, GPU, RAM, and hard disk.
Let’s begin with the CPU: for around £280 you should be able to snag a good Intel Core i7 3.6GHz that can handle just about anything you throw at it with ease. AMD users can also grab a great model in the FX-8360 for around £150, a big saving on the Intel option. For the GPU, a 6GB Nvidia GTX 1060 will set you back around £250, whilst a Radeon 480 costs slightly less, at around £230. RAM is a lot more flexible, and there’s a tonne of it around for decent prices. We found many different 16GB DDR4 packs costing in the area of £100 – and DDR3 for less, at around £60-70. As for storage, a 2TB hard disk shouldn’t cost much more than £60-70. All-in, then, you can expect to pay in the neighbourhood of £700 for those components.
As with the CPU, your choice of motherboard will be a big decision, and to some degree this will also effect your overall performance. You’ll need to choose a one with room for expansion, and to handle your choice of GPU, be that single or multiple. As you’re looking at a high-end model, don’t concern yourself with on-board video, as you’ll not be using it. Instead, focus on decent audio if you don’t want a discrete audio card, and make sure there are plenty of connections for external devices and video outputs.
A great example for Intel users is the excellent ASUS Z170 Pro Gaming model. This costs around £150 and has been praised by critics for it’s great performance. We’ve certainly found it to be a very solid model, and one that should carry your high-end kit easily. AMD users could go for Gigabyte’s GA-990FXA-UD7. For around £140, it’s a very capable gaming board that boasts a great layout that can house the high-end hardware you’ll be slotting onto it.
That puts the guts of the system at around £850, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t a huge price to pay, certainly not in the realm of the thousands some users pay. Of course, your choice of case, monitor, and so on will increase this, but picking the best monitor is a whole different kettle of fish. Hopefully, this overview gives you a good idea of the hardware you’ll need and highlights the effects different games and their development can have on your end-user experience.
Rise Of The Tomb Raider
ARK: Survival Evolved
Just cause 3
Batman Arkham Knight
The Witcher 3
16GB RAM doesn’t cost too much
Grand Theft Auto V
Nvidia GTX 1060
ASUS Z170 Pro