Borderlands 2 Gameplay Performance and IQ Review

Gearbox Software and 2K Games have released the much anticipated sequel to Borderlands. Borderlands 2 is a DX9 game that has unique comic-book like graphics called Cell Shading. We will be looking at the performance and image quality of this PhysX driven, visually refreshing game with a variety of AMD and NVIDIA video cards.

Introduction

Borderlands 2 was released on September 18th, 2012. It was developed by Gearbox Software and published by 2K Games. Borderlands 2 is an old school first person shooter game with a twist of role playing thrown in. The story is set 5 years after the end of the first Borderlands. Players will control "vault hunters" that are continuing their endless quest to level up, find new loot, and upgrade to more epic weapons, while fragging all monsters and enemies you come across.

The biggest thing that separates Borderlands 2 from other video games are the somewhat unique graphics it provides. The characters and terrain follow more of a cartoon, comic-like figure called Cell Shading. Borderlands 2 is a DirectX 9 game that uses a heavily modified Unreal 3 Engine. Some of the graphics options put into place to improve the overall quality of the game are FXAA, ambient occlusion, and PhysX. Metacritic has given Borderlands 2 on the PC a metascore of 89/100.

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Graphics Options in Borderlands 2

There are 14 different graphics options in Borderlands 2 including resolution, anisotropic filtering, ambient occlusion, and FXAA. There is no traditional Multi-sampling AA option available, only FXAA. If you change any graphics options at the in-game menu, you will receive a prompt that you have to restart the game for the changes to take effect. To avoid having to restart the client, users can change all graphics settings from the launcher.

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FXAA : This setting can either be enabled or disabled. FXAA does not cost much performance at all compared to traditional Multi-sampling AA, but still produces a similar quality image. Enabling FXAA reduces aliasing, or the jagged lines on the edges of all objects and terrain in game. The slight blurring that sometimes occurs because of FXAA is not a bother in Borderlands 2.

Framerate : The setting has several different options which will cap or constrain the framerate. The unlimited setting is what we will be using to experience the highest performance available on each video card. Users can choose to cap the framerates at 30, 50, 60, 72, and 120 FPS which will keep the video card from exceeding this number. There is also a setting to perform between 22 and 62 FPS, which is supposed to provide smoother performance without performance spiking.

Texture Quality : This setting has three options, Low, Medium, and High. The higher settings you enable on this will improve quality of the textures in game. Lower quality textures will be blurry and smudged, while higher quality textures will have sufficiently more detail. This setting does not have a large performance in game despite the significant visual improvement with higher settings.

Game Detail : This setting has three available options, Low, Medium and High. It does not have much of an effect on the games performance. Lowering this setting will not change much in the overall scope of the game, but during combat intense areas it does make a change. The higher the setting is, the more explosive or destroyable objects are in game and the number of enemies spawning increases slightly.

Ambient Occlusion : Ambient Occlusion can be enabled or disabled. This setting greatly improves the overall quality of shadows by giving objects a more realistic shadow compared to shadows without Ambient Occlusion which are cast from one point of light. This setting not only gives the shadows more depth, but makes the objects seem more real. This setting has a hefty impact on performance around 10 FPS at 1080p and higher resolutions.

View Distance : This setting can be enabled on Near, Medium, Far, and Ultra Far. This does not have the greatest impact on performance, but it can effect some areas of the game that try to load lots of enemies and textures in the distance. The higher the setting, the farther out the player can see.

PhysX Effects : PhysX can be enabled on Low, Medium and High. In Borderlands 2 PhysX improves the overall quality of the game by adding extra particles and effects, adding more objects into the game, and improving the quality of objects. PhysX adds many things like flags and signs everywhere which can be destroyed when shooting them. PhysX also improves the quality and quantity of particles that are present anytime bullets hit the ground or blood splatters or barrels explode. The negative side to enabling PhysX is that it severely affects performance.

There is a way to edit the games WillowEngine.ini file to allow AMD users to play with PhysX enabled on its Medium setting, however it is not as consistent at handling it as the NVIDIA video cards since it uses the CPU. We also experienced some issues that kept us from playing with AMD video cards with PhysX enabled at any setting. When loading up the game it would occasionally get in to game and either crash the game, or freeze the entire system forcing us to hard reset. In order for us to get our AMD run-throughs we used a clean installation of Windows 7 without any NVIDIA software installed. This completely disabled PhysX for the AMD video cards, but allowed us to play without crashing.

Testing Borderlands 2

To test Borderlands 2 we first played through the entire game, including as many side-quests and areas as we could find. We are looking for scenes, levels, or areas which produced lower framerates than others. Towards the beginning of the game there was one area that stood out to us that incorporated all of the graphics options the game has to offer.

Our run-through takes place in Chapter 3, just after defeating the brothers Boom and Bewn. We start our testing procedure before getting our first glimpse of "The Soaring Dragon," the large tower that plays home to Captain Flynt and Claptrap's ship. This area has a plethora of enemies and countless exploding barrels that have different visual effects that push the video cards when these explode. We fight our way up "The Soaring Dragon" killing all enemies and barrels until we get to the boss encounter at the top of the tower versus Captain Flynt. The entire run-through takes about 5 minutes to complete. The ideal framerate that delivers smooth and enjoyable gameplay in Borderlands 2 would be between 40 and 45 FPS, as long as the framerate never dropped and stayed below 35 FPS for an extended period of time.