Summary: It's been over 9 months since we first took a look at NVIDIA's 3D Vision stereoscopic 3D glasses. In that time, several new titles have been released with native 3D Vision support. Join us as we re-examine how 3D Vision looks and performs with newer games like Borderlands, Left 4 Dead 2, Batman Arkham Asylum, and more inside!
We can use large arrays of surround sound speakers to fool our ears into thinking we are somewhere else, but what about our eyes? Giant displays that can wrap around 180 degrees are already available, but no matter how good a game looks, it is still just a picture on a screen. In order to make it truly realistic and immersive, you must make it deeper than a 3D image painted on a 2D surface. You must make it appear to be truly three-dimensional.
NVIDIA intends to bring a 3D gaming experience to the mainstream gaming audience, something that has never been done before. Utilizing LCD shutter lens technology, these glasses look just like regular shades you might wear on a sunny day, and when paired with a modern GeForce video card connected to select high-resolution displays, the 3D Vision glasses will deliver the ultimate visual experience! Or something like that…
Earlier this year, Brandon introduced you to the 3D Vision system. Now, more than 9 months later, I’ve taken a look at some of the latest games to support this fancy-schmancy stereoscopy stuff. Yes, the effect is incredible, but does it really make a difference? What about the performance? Turn the page to find out!
Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800 2.93GHz
If you’ve ever seen a 3D movie, you know that a major draw of the experience is the out-of-screen effects. Usually a ball or hand or whatever would move directly toward you and seem to come out of the screen, often to incite a reaction of astonishment or fear. Well, thanks to 3D Vision, the same sort of thing is now possible in games. Thrown objects miss their mark, blood splatters every which way, debris is ejected from explosions… each is an example of a moment when a part of the game flies straight at you!
The very method by which the stereoscopic illusion is achieved has an inherent performance impact; your video card simply has more work to do when displaying the game. The handy in-game benchmarking tool is fully 3D-compatible, so I’ve run a few tests to see what sort of effect it has on the framerate. The fixed test result is useful for comparing results with other machines, but the variable test is much more indicative of actual game performance. The resolution is 1680x1050 and all settings are on high, but motion blur is disabled as per official recommendation for achieving a “better 3D effect.”
As you can see, playing with 3D enabled will cut your FPS down by a decent amount – 38% in the variable test and 20% in the fixed test. However, when you consider that there is a hard cap of 60 FPS when 3D Vision is active, it may not be fair to count anything over that when it’s disabled. If you want to look at it that way, it comes out to a 20% reduction in the variable test, which is consistent with the fixed test result.
On another note, I want to make a correction to something I noted in the RE5 review. Capcom told GameSpot that DX10 is required for 3D Vision, but I just discovered the contrary. In testing the AA on DX9, 3D Vision also worked perfectly well. So, to find out if there is any difference between the two modes, I ran the same tests again.
There is no real performance variation between DX9 and DX10 with 3D Vision turned off. However, with it enabled, a discrepancy of 10-15% is seen. DX10 has the edge, presumably due to some of its inherent optimizations. Whether or not this was intended is unknown.
The PC version of Batman: Arkham Asylum takes you on a wild ride through the infamous prison it’s named for. It was also branded “3D Vision Ready,” even though it doesn’t meet quite the same standard of compatibility as RE5. The primary issue is that all of the cinematics are pre-rendered and so are only two-dimensional. It would be possible to have 3D versions of them shown when the stereoscopic 3D option is enabled, but that’d be a lot less practical than simply rendering them in real-time as they should’ve been. Other minor glitches include some 2D reflections and the occasional redundant depth-of-field effect.
Concerning unique out-of-screen elements, Batman has brought along his fair share. The most common involves the swarm of bats that appears to spring out of defeated enemies or from various UI elements. They tend to fly toward the camera and, when 3D is turned on, straight for your face! Otherwise, I’ve seen the zip-line and cape “pop out,” as well as several particle effects like sparks and smoke.
Like RE5, Batman: AA includes an in-game benchmarking tool that is compatible with 3D Vision effects. While there is an option in BmEngine.ini to enable DirectX 10, it’s just a remnant of the Unreal Engine 3 and doesn’t actually do anything. So, there is only the default mode of graphics, DX9. The tests were run with Very High settings (including High PhysX) at 1680x1050, again with Motion Blur disabled.
Stereoscopic 3D in Batman: Arkham Asylum comes at the cost of about 33% of the framerate. It still ran mostly smooth throughout the game, though, barring a few extra large open areas. I threw in the AA tests to round out the chart, and to give you an idea of the performance hit you could expect. I wouldn’t recommend playing with that much anti-aliasing and 3D Vision on a rig of the same caliber I use – you’ll be sure to experience FPS in the low teens or possibly even single digits in some areas. At 16x, I didn’t have the patience to let the benchmark finish its slide show…
Its seamless blend of action-RPG and FPS makes Borderlands one of my favorite games of ’09, but what does 3D Vision bring to the experience? It was rated “Good” in terms of compatibility, although I’m not sure how you can call it good when dynamic shadows are completely borked and have to be turned off. Fortunately, updating to the newest NVIDIA drivers and patching the game to 1.01 will fix that.
Additionally, the crosshairs (both regular and scoped) aren’t rendered in 3D and so go out of focus when you’re looking at a “deeper” part of the scene. This makes it really difficult to shoot the enemy because either your sights or your target will appear in blurry double-vision. Maybe you like the idea of closing one eye when you look through the scope, but it’s really more trouble than it’s worth. Lastly, there is a problem with the occlusion of such things as water and smoke. Specifically, the game renders these things as if the opposite eye’s image is obstructing it, even though it’s not visible. This even translates to 2D screenshots, so see examples below.
Borderlands for PC has a built-in timedemo function, which I used for benchmarking. A 60-second fly-by through one of the later levels of the game includes a big battle in a pretty wide-open area, which may be slightly more demanding than most gameplay. For the tests, all settings were cranked up with the resolution at, what else, 1680x1050.
The decrease in FPS is about 36%, which is pretty consistent with the results of the previous games running in DX9. Borderlands runs pretty smooth in 3D overall, but there are so many issues, it’s clear that the implementation was a sloppy afterthought. As a result, I have to rank it as the worst of the games I’ve tried. It’s still a great game – just stick to 2D when you play.
NVIDIA rated compatibility as “Good,” noting that the sky renders at the incorrect depth and water reflections are 2D. Nothing about the sky really bugged me, but the water thing is insanely ugly! Essentially, it makes your eyes hurt when you look at it, because they’re freaking out trying to decide what to focus on: the 3D object or the multiple reflections that are at the wrong depth for the scene. If you’re looking to play L4D2 with 3D enabled full-time, you might want to figure out a way to disable those reflections completely.
For this benchmark, I created a demo of the bridge finale from The Parish. At 1680x1050, all settings were at the highest possible level, with varying levels of AA for each test. It is recommended that the film grain effect be disabled for 3D viewing, so it was.
It seemed rather odd to me that enabling high levels of anti-aliasing had no impact on performance, but I suppose that’s a good thing. Since it causes about a 45% drop in framerate (weighted from a max of 60), you might as well be able to crank up the AA and make it look as good as possible for free, right?
The forested environment in the demo of James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game is one of the prettiest I’ve seen. Too bad the controls and camera perspective are rather poor, but that’s neither here nor there… The bright side is, the game supports a heaping handful of stereoscopy methods, which isn’t surprising considering all the hype surrounding 3D effects in the movie. Included in that, of course, is full compatibility with NVIDIA’s 3D Vision, which has been appropriately rated “Excellent.” The only issue I noticed is with the main menu being partially cut off at the sides of the screen, depending on the depth setting.
Other than that, the 3D effects are quite stunning – it really succeeds in creating the illusion of depth on the screen. Looking down a corridor of overgrown vegetation, I could almost swear I was peering into a diorama that stretched clear into the next room! Your character (viewed in the 3rd-person) and anything else that gets close to the camera will appear to stick out past the HUD. The coolest thing, though, is watching the trail of a grenade or bullet as it flies into the distance, becoming smaller and smaller. Avatar is by far the best implementation of 3D Vision I have witnessed.
I played through the demo several times with 4 combinations of 3D Vision and DirectX, taking benchmark data with FRAPS to come up with an average framerate. As such, keep in mind that the margin of error is higher since each test was a little different. Otherwise, it was set to 1680x1050, with all options on High. Many of them go up to Ultra High, but cranking them up put the FPS into the mid-20s even without 3D enabled, so it’s not quite a realistic scenario for me.
Admittedly, these numbers are a rough estimate at best, considering the variation between each test. There may have been huge explosions I wasn’t always looking at, or a large number of characters on-screen that weren’t always in the same spot, etc. Mostly, gameplay with 3D Vision was smoother than it looks, though still below the 30 fps “sweet spot” that I usually consider the minimum. Also, there is a noticeable image quality difference between DX9 and DX10, including more detailed lighting, shader, and particle effects. This only makes it more impressive that DX10 holds the advantage it does when 3D Vision is enabled.
As with any new technology, there are… quirks. The most major to me is ghosting. When viewing any game in 3D, a triple-vision effect is produced by the left and right frames flashing back and forth so quickly on the screen. These after-images are most noticeable in scenes of higher contrast and seem to be exacerbated by slight backlight bleed-through, but can be present all over the screen. Increasing the depth amount has a direct effect on the severity of ghosting, since it results in the two images being farther apart.
Knowing I couldn’t be the only one to notice this anomaly, I googled “3D Vision ghosting” and found other reviews and forum topics containing references to the matter:
And the list goes on.
Another, more minor issue with 3D Vision is just a result of the way the LCD shutter glasses work. That is, they cause serious dimming of the monitor’s image, as if they were real sunglasses that you wore inside your house. The Samsung 2233RZ automatically sets itself to the highest brightness setting when 3D is enabled, but it’s still a much darker image than I would like. This leaves little choice but to tinker with the gamma or brightness settings in-game.
So, what have we learned?
It’s still in its fledgling stages, but 3D Vision is here, and probably not going away any time soon. Comfortable and a lot more aesthetically pleasing than its predecessors, these glasses are already more than capable of transforming most of your favorite games into whole new experiences. NVIDIA is pressing display manufacturers to come up with true 120Hz LCD displays, which is good for more things than 3D.
If RE5 and Batman: AA are any indication, 3D Vision Ready games are starting to roll in. Even without the official endorsement, though, some games put the system to very good use, a la Avatar. I wish I could show you how amazing the stereoscopic effect is, not only in these, but the huge library of compatible DirectX titles previously released. Everything looks smooth and sharp, no matter how far away you are from the screen or the angle you’re viewing it from. It’s something you have to see to believe.
The performance hit is not too outrageous when rendering a game in stereoscopic 3D. If you take a logical thinking approach, you might guess that if a graphics card is rendering twice the frames it normally would for a scene, it would be slowed by at least 50%. That’s not too far off; the FPS drop is very significant, especially in DirectX 9. All of the games except RE5 and Avatar do not have the option for DX10, which has a distinct speed advantage according to the benchmarks. Also, it would seem that the “3D Vision Ready” titles had some extra optimization, since their penalty is not as severe.
The prevalence of ghosting is disheartening, but not quite a deal-breaker. The nature of LCD technology lends itself to such visual anomalies, regardless of how fast the response times or refresh rates are. It is more noticeable in some games than in others and there are slight adjustments you can make to refresh rate and convergence depth to minimize it, but it seems there is no way to eliminate it completely. I can only hope NVIDIA addresses this with a software solution sometime in the near future.
When it comes down to it, 3D Vision is very much a luxury. There are a lot of gamers out there that dream of being able to max out the settings of a new game at even barely playable framerates, so you’d have to be pretty bold to ask them to cut their FPS nearly in half to see it in 3D. The glasses kit itself costs almost $200, which is more than many people spend on a video card. Factor in a 120Hz 3D-ready display and a rig beefy enough to take the performance hit in stride, and it’s simply not practical for the majority. That said, if you’re in that niche and would be interested, you should definitely think about checking it out.
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