Serious Sam 3: BFE Performance and IQ Review

Croteam's latest installment in the Serious Sam series takes us back to a time when first person shooters were designed around fragging endless waves of zombified enemies, cover did not exist, and rocket launchers were semi-automatic weapons. This DX9 game comes packed with graphics options that push the current generation of graphics cards to the limit.

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Image Quality

With over 45 different graphics options in Serious Sam 3: BFE, it's tough deciding where to start customizing. We have gone through and picked out the settings that affected visual quality the most, and the settings that had the largest impact on performance. For the comparisons we ran the game set to Ultra at 1920x1200 on an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580, and turned off all graphics options related to what we were examining at the time.


Preconfigured Graphics Options

Croteam did an excellent job of creating custom graphics profiles. These allow you to increase performance without losing all the eye candy. There are some noticeable differences between them all. We only had to lower the GPU Speed settings from Ultra to High once for the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560 Ti and AMD Radeon HD 6870. Included here are screenshots at the preconfigured Medium, High, and Ultra settings.

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The first screenshot is with GPU Speed at Medium, second is set to High, and third is set to Ultra. On the Medium and High screenshots aliasing is very noticeable on the power lines hanging from the buildings, but is much less noticeable on the Ultra screenshot.

The shadow quality behind the tree also improves from Medium to Ultra. It starts out as a blurry shapeless blob. At High settings, the shadow starts to take more shape, but still is not defined. The screenshot with Ultra settings gives shape to the top and bottom of the shadow. Ambient Occlusion quality also improves from Medium to Ultra.

Another thing to take notice of, is the quality of the terrain and buildings around the character, and off in the distance. These all see considerable improvements as the GPU Speed is increased.


Max 3D Rendering MPIX

This setting is effectively determines the resolution of the image you will see on screen. It works by rendering the image at whatever it is set to, and stretches that image to your screens resolution.

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In the first image, there are five screenshots with the setting increasing by .5 MPIX. The first screenshot at .5 MPIX was rendered at 800x600 and stretched to fit 1920x1200 which is why it's blurry and low quality. In the second screenshot 1 MPIX is not enough to remove the blurred image effect and provides a low quality image. The third screenshot at 1.5 MPIX improves texture quality, and provides an okay image. The fourth screenshot at 2 MPIX allows for higher quality textures in the background, and on the enemy. The last screenshot is set to Unlimited, which renders the image at your screens current resolution. This provides the best image, but carries a heavy impact on performance.

The second image contains two screenshots comparing the 2 MPIX or Ultra setting to the Unlimited setting. All of our video cards struggled handling the Unlimited setting except the SLI 580 and CFX 6970 configurations. Image quality when set to Unlimited is slightly better than 2 MPIX, but you won't have time to notice the differences while playing.


Antialiasing Settings

There are three AA technologies available in Serious Sam 3: BFE to help smooth edges and reduce aliasing on all in-game objects. The preconfigured graphics settings use both MSAA and FXAA. The first option we'll be checking out is MSAA.

Multisampling Anti-Aliasing (MSAA)

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In these screenshots, we see all four MSAA settings. These include No AA, 2X, 4X, and 8X. We did not see any significant visual difference between No AA and 2X MSAA, but experienced a 15% slowdown. With 4X MSAA the chairs edges become much smoother, but performance dropped up to 20% from No AA. At 8X MSAA quality improves even more but experienced up to a 30% performance loss. The games preconfigured Ultra setting enables 4X MSAA.

Fast Approximate Anti-Aliasing (FXAA)

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NVIDIA's new FXAA technology has been extremely impressive over the last few months. It provides smooth edges similar to 4X and 8X MSAA with only a 1-2% performance loss. The visual differences between Low, High, and Ultra FXAA are miniscule. The games preconfigured Ultra settings enables FXAA Ultra which is what we recommend.

Super-Sample Anti-Aliasing (SSAA)

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As you can see, traditional SSAA does nothing for polygon edges as usual, while bringing down performance as much as 60%. We feel FXAA is the better option if you want your alpha textures anti-aliased. The performance hit of SSAA is too great here.

MSAA vs. FXAA

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In these screenshots you can see the difference between all the MSAA settings compared to the FXAA settings. As we mentioned, MSAA takes a gradual performance loss from 2X to 8X while FXAA hardly loses performance at all. We found that MSAA did a better job of making objects as a whole feel smooth, while FXAA did a good job masking aliasing on edges.

MSAA and FXAA

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In this comparison FXAA is always on Ultra with different MSAA settings. In the first two screenshots with No MSAA and 2X MSAA enabled, edge aliasing is not very noticeable, but the left chair leg does not flow from top to bottom. With 4X MSAA enabled the entire screenshot flows correctly. This provided the best image with the least performance loss. As we mentioned earlier, the games preconfigured Ultra settings enable 4X MSAA and FXAA Ultra.


Shadows

Ambient Occlusion and Quality

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Ambient Occlusion does not have as big of a performance impact as it does in newer DX11 games. It does dramatically change the environment though. The first image has four screenshots with each of the Ambient Occlusion Quality settings. AO Quality sitting still looks best on the Optimal settings, but while you're running around playing the game AO Quality set to high creates a better overall image. The second image shows two screenshots. The top screenshot has Ambient Occlusion disabled, while the second has it enabled and AO Quality set to High. With AO enabled shadows are improved on all objects in game, and on the terrain towards the right side of the screen which looks and feels more realistic.

Shadow Anti-Aliasing

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Shadow AA is designed to reduce aliasing on shadows. This helps mask blurred edges and low resolution projections on all shadows in game. The visual difference between 2X and 4X Shadow AA was not significant, but performance change was. 2X Shadow AA lowered performance by 10% or about 7 FPS, while 4X Shadow AA lowered performance by 25% or about 18 FPS. The games Ultra settings enable Shadow AA at 2X.

Shadow Size

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In this comparison we're looking at a shadow cast on the ground of a palm tree. The Shadow Size setting effects all shadows in the game, not only by reducing or increasing the size of the shadow, but the quality of the shadow. The first screenshot looks more like some oil on the ground than a shadow of a tree. The second screenshot at Low setting is almost as bad with more jagged edges. Both the Medium and High settings have more form and are recognizable. Ultra provides a crisp projection of the limb above it with a defined stem and leaves.


Terrain and Miscellaneous Settings

Lens Flare

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The Lens Flare Quality setting does not have a big impact on performance, but does increase quality of many scenes. These top screenshot is looking at the sun with Lens Flare disabled. There aren't any rays from the sun, only a white glow. The second screenshot is with the max setting. It has several rays coming from the sun and looks more realistic.

Crumbs

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As we mentioned earlier in this evaluation, Crumbs add detail to the environment by adding low row quality terrain to the environment, that becomes higher quality as you approach it. These screenshots are focusing on the bush in the middle of the screen which is low quality far off, but looks much better close up.

Miscellaneous

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These are a few screenshots of things we thought were interesting and unique to this game. These include vegetation, enemies, and you guessed it, blood.