I don’t know if it’s been obvious, but we’re pretty excited about the upcoming launch of Battlefield 4 around here. I’m not even necessarily a big fan of the franchise, isolating most of my online multiplayer to games like MechWarrior Online, but I love technology and I love seeing new games really push the limits of modern hardware. The tail end of 2012 saw games start to push hardware again; BioShock Infinite may be Unreal Engine 3, but it’s still capable of being punishing. Meanwhile, Far Cry 3 and Tomb Raider both made major advances in both graphic fidelity and required hardware commensurate to their visuals, and even the underwhelming Crysis 3 had some very impressive technology under the hood.
Yet all of that almost pales in comparison to how far EA and DICE have been willing to push the envelope with the Frostbite Engine 3-powered Battlefield 4. Here’s a game that flat out requires a 64-bit operating system and will use a not inconsiderable amount of system memory; EA actually recommends you have a minimum of 8GB of RAM! 8GB has been the “sweet spot” for Windows just for basic users for a while now, with 16GB really the most ideal for enthusiasts, but now 8GB is turning into just a baseline.
Interestingly, Battlefield 4 takes a pretty holistic approach to the system it runs on. Isolating bottlenecks used to be pretty easy: you were either CPU limited or GPU limited. Either your graphics hardware was holding you back or your processor was. As long as you weren’t running 4GB or less system memory, RAM wasn’t an issue. Yet with Battlefield 4, your RAM is important again in more ways than you might have expected.
I’ve been doing testing on Haswell to determine whether or not higher speed memory could improve system and specifically gaming performance, especially with multi-GPU systems. My intuition and some of the research I’ve read online suggests that Haswell’s “sweet spot” memory speed has actually jumped from the time-honored 1600MHz to 1866MHz. What I found with Battlefield 4 is remarkable, though. Testing on an i7-4770K overclocked to 4.4GHz and two overclocked GeForce GTX 780s in SLI, I discovered that memory speed affects Battlefield 4 performance in a very measurable and perceptible way. Check this out:
Running at 1920x1200, or slightly above the most common resolution of 1920x1080, bumping our 32GB of Dominator Platinum from DDR3-1600 to its XMP speed of DDR3-2400 raised the average framerate a staggering 22.7% and the minimum framerate a still impressive 9.7%. Keeping in mind these framerates are both still well above the magical 60fps, nonetheless it stands to reason a user with less GPU horsepower might get a healthy amount of mileage out of faster memory.
Where things get really exciting is in surround at a monstrous 5760x1200. Ordinarily this is a situation where the system will become totally GPU bound, yet Battlefield 4 again demonstrates a performance uptick going from DDR3-1600 to DDR3-2400. Average framerates are up 15.2%, and the all-important minimum framerate goes up 22.9%! Recognizing that these are rough figures culled from FRAPS runs in fairly empty maps, it’s still a large enough difference to be outside of the margin of error and more importantly, it’s a perceptible one. Playing the open beta in surround, I found that the faster 2400MHz on the memory made the game noticeably smoother and eliminated a substantial amount of stutter.
The takeaway is that Frostbite Engine 3 is capable of pushing the memory subsystem in ways we hadn’t anticipated. Other games are due to be released on Frostbite Engine 3, too, and they’re not inconsiderable titles. We’re talking about Dragon Age: Inquisition, Mirror’s Edge 2, Need for Speed: Rivals, and the next Mass Effect. If you’re still running DDR3-1600 and Battlefield 4 or one of these other games is on your radar, now may be the time to upgrade to some faster Vengeance, Vengeance Pro, or Dominator Platinum memory. I don’t think 1600MHz is going to cut it anymore, and frankly, I’m kind of excited to see where the technology goes from here.