Star Trek Online DX11 Performance Review

Star Trek Online has recently added DX11 Beta support, and we wanted to know how AMD's latest Radeon HD 7970 compared to NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 580 in the game and if DX11 provided any kind of performance difference over DX9. Our results were not what we expected.

Introduction

We are always on the lookout for games that make use of DirectX 11, whether that be for just performance or to add visual quality to the game. In testing current video cards, we want to use games that push graphical effects and utilize the special features built into current generation GPUs. We also look for games which have been updating support from DX9 to DX11 to see if performance has been changed or to see if there are new 3D effects being used. We then compare video cards and find out which provides the best gameplay experience.

With AMD's new generation of video cards, starting with the Radeon HD 7970, AMD has added support specifically for DirectX 11.1. DirectX 11.1 allows target independent rasterization, flexible interoperability between graphics, compute, and video, and native Stereo 3D support. We don't expect DX11.1 to be a game changer, or to show us any differences compared to games using just DX11. That being said, we are always on the lookout for games that make specific mention of DX11.1. We have found the first game that makes specific mention of DX11.1, though it isn't functioning yet because we don't even have the API available for download from Microsoft yet. However, you can bet game developers do have this in hand for testing.

Star Trek Online

Star Trek Online is a massively multiplayer online game, or MMO. Star Trek Online is going free-to-play officially on January 17th, from its two year stint as a subscription-only MMO. We have used several MMO's in the past to look at video card performance and report the playable gameplay experience. We've used World of Warcraft, we've used Everquest and we've used Age of Conan. Up until now, Star Trek Online hasn't interested us much in terms of testing, even though it has a plethora of 3D effects and graphics options. That is changing though, as Star Trek Online now has DX11 Beta support. In a recent patch dated January 5th, 2012, Cryptic has added this in the patch notes:

This release contains DirectX 11 support.

  • - This new rendering API can drive video cards supporting DirectX 10 and higher: 10.1, 11, 11.1.
  • - The initial release is essentially a port of our DirectX 9 rendering features to DirectX 11.
  • - The game should mostly look the same, as we have not added a lot of support for newer DirectX 11 features, we’re just getting a base from which we will continue adding such features.

We have not ported all low-end video settings support, just mid-level and high-end features.

  • - Therefore, under the DirectX 11 rendering option, there may be some graphics problems with Video Options slider set all the way to Minimum.
  • - Also, on hardware that only supports DirectX 10, like Nvidia GeForce 8800s and 9800s, when Antialiasing is enabled we do not currently support many depth-dependent Video effects.
  • - This includes High-quality shadow mode, depth-of-field, and some others.
  • - This is because NVIDIA and ATI have not provided us a special driver back door we have available under DirectX 9.

The full blog post on DX11 support can be read here, and states:

The primary feature released is support for DirectX 11. By default, the game will utilize DirectX 9, but you can switch to DirectX 11. Some people report up to a 20fps increase when playing the game after switching to DirectX 11. To enable it, go to the "Options" window, switch to the "Video" tab, check the "Show Advanced Settings" checkbox, scroll down to the bottom and open the "Troubleshooting" section, and then use the pull-down choice on the first line to make your choice. Changing the setting will require a restart of the game client before it takes effect.

As you can see, in the very first line of the patch notes, this is the first game that has specifically mentioned DX11.1: "This new rendering API can drive video cards supporting DirectX 10 and higher: 10.1, 11, 11.1."

Of course, DX11.1 won't work yet until the API is released from Microsoft. We aren't even sure the game utilizes it yet, only that it was mentioned in the patch notes. So we have the hardware (Radeon HD 7970) that supports DX11.1, and potential upcoming support in a game, and now all we need is the API.

Still, it is quite interesting that this game makes mention of DX11.1, even if it doesn't utilize it yet. It tells us where Cryptic is heading with this game in terms of DX11 support in the future. As you can see from the patch notes, right now Cryptic has simply ported over the DX9 engine to DX11. What that will mean is faster performance, or it should at least. Cryptic has not utilized any specific DX11 features or 3D effects at this time. Also, this is in beta form, so it isn't even a finalized DX11 port yet. This is simply a base, from which Cryptic plans to expand on DX11 support and eventually add in specific features. The gaming engine behind Star Trek Online is an in-house engine, and completely flexible to allow these changes.

The gaming engine behind Star Trek Online was originally developed for Marvel. The engine was originally derived from City of Heroes, and City of Villains. Following City of Villains the engine was re-written from scratch and is now the same engine found in Neverwinter Nights, Champions Online and Star Trek Online. For Star Trek Online the engine was highly updated and customized, and is dubbed the "Cryptic Engine." Now with DX11 support being added, Cryptic has a base to add on DX11 features and make use of the latest and greatest effects that are out there. We are excited to see where this is going to go, and how graphically intense and visually stunning this game will be when DX11 features are added. It already is very impressive for an MMO under DX9.

Our goals are simple in this evaluation, we want to see what the difference in performance is between DX9 and DX11. We want to test the Radeon HD 7970, and the GeForce GTX 580 and see if DX11 provides a performance advantage. We also want to compare the Radeon HD 7970 and GeForce GTX 580 in performance and see where those end up. Make sure to read page 2 for our test setup to see what cards we are using, and page 3 for the explanation on where and how we tested in Star Trek Online including Graphics Options descriptions and how to enable DX11.