Expansions to World of Warcraft typically bring about some sort of graphical improvements. The Burning Crusade brought some fire and sky texture effects, Wrath of the Lich King brought about fog and more particle effects, as well as the whole idea of phasing. Now we come to Cataclysm, and the entirety of the original two Azerothian continents is being overhauled on a geographical, as well as a purely visual level – there is more going on than ever before, new particle effects and phasing everywhere, higher resolution textures in many zones and cities and new water effects with real-time reflections.
Players have been clamoring for a major graphical overhaul for some time, and with Cataclysm comes about the biggest update to those aspects of the game we’ve seen since the game launched in 2004. Blizzard titles have long been praised for their scalability – even those running on rather outdated hardware can run the titles amicably. I was running Wrath of the Lich King on a computer I bought in 2004, and, with the exception of a few hiccups, it ran fine. It also ran rather well on my year-old laptop, although not at the highest settings in every regard.
So, now we’re getting that graphical update – in fact just looking around Stormwind now the textures tend to pop more than they used to, especially on the streets and brick walls. Higher resolution textures mean more graphical strain on a system. This leads to the possibility of some people not being able to handle the new textures on their dated systems.
I was skeptical that they would change things enough to show a noticeably sharp decline in FPS, but I became a believer. I just purchased a new desktop PC for purposes of gaming. Once I got both live WoW and the Cataclysm beta installed, I played around with both just to see how awesome they would look on my new 24” HD monitor. What did I find? A very noticeable drop in FPS between the two versions.
Wrath of the Lich King (live servers): In Orgrimmar, with everything at max except shadows (they were set to Low because the drop in frame rate just wasn’t worth it and shadows absolutely aren’t needed to enjoy the game), I was getting 60-65FPS. In Dalaran with the same settings, it was around 40FPS. That was awesome, I had never had those frame rates in WoW at any time in the last six years of playing! (Note, screen resolution 1920×1080.)
Cataclysm (beta servers): In Orgrimmar, with everything at Ultra except shadows (which were, again, set to Low), I was getting 15-20FPS. When I dropped everything down to High (shadows remaining at Low), that improved to about 30FPS. This is mildly disappointing, although it probably won’t make much of a difference, considering the human eye can’t really notice an issue until frame rates drop down into the teens. Still, is this huge graphical change a good thing or bad? I guess that depends how current your hardware is. (Note, screen resolution 1920×1080.)
My new system isn’t a massive gaming juggernaut by far, but it can still handle some decent gaming. I’m not a PC gamer for the most part, nor do I have the cash to drop on a $2000 gaming machine, so I compromised and am happy with what I got. Still, the drop in frame rate required to keep seemingly the same graphical settings (everything on High except shadows) is a bit disturbing.
On the one hand, players have been clammoring for some hefty graphical improvements for a while now. On the other, the possibility of losing some of their lower-end players is a possibility, simply because the game won’t be performing up to their expectations anymore.
While I’m on this subject, I need to mention one more thing that I absolutely hate. I’m not sure if this is just for the beta, if it is a bug or what, but in one of the latest builds, I can no longer even access some graphical settings that I used to be able to on my laptop (the system I’ve played on for the last year). I was at a “happy place” with turning certain things fairly high up, but others fairly low, to keep an amicable frame rate, but now it seems to block you from adjusting some settings based on your hardware, and that just isn’t right. Where I could once put the new water graphics on high, it now won’t even let me do that. I could also turn on sunshafts, but now I’m stuck with that option off. Is this intentional? What’s the deal? Of course, since I have my new PC up and running, it isn’t an issue (all those options are available), it still is a bit disheartening that I can’t mix and match graphical settings on a lower-end machine the way I want and previously could.
Needless to say, I do think the graphical improvements to Cataclysm are a plus, overall. The new water looks amazing, the sunshafts add a lot of depth to the environments and just the general look and feel of everything is top-notch. It’s unfortunate that some lower-end users may find their quality of play lowered, but I somehow don’t think many won’t be able to play at all. All in all, some great additions to the game from a graphical perspective.