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August 3, 2018

Think ‘World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth’ can play on any PC? Think again.

by John_A



World of Warcraft is 14 years old. Its success comes with challenges most games never face, and graphics are chief among them. Blizzard’s MMO released the same year as Battlefield Vietnam, Half-Life 2, and Gran Turismo 4. Load those games today, and you probably won’t like what you see.

Blizzard is in a running battle with its own art. Expansions like Battle for Azeroth introduce new worlds, but the game’s artists must refresh the old as well, selectively polishing what’s most important. That polish has consequences for performance. The game has new graphics features, new textures, and new character models with higher polygon counts. The latest expansion even upgrades the game with DirectX 12 compatibility, while ditching DirectX 9 support.

What do you need to run World of Warcraft’s latest incarnation, and what settings should you change to improve performance?

The results are in

Before we dive into specific recommendations, we need to set a baseline. How does World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth perform on a modern computer? Might modern systems struggle with it? Or can virtually anything run it?

We fired up one of our most powerful test rigs, packing an AMD Threadripper 1920X processor and 32GB of RAM, all slapped on an Asus ROG Zenith motherboard. We tested with a Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti, GTX 1060, and GTX 1080 Ti. Of course, not everyone has such a powerful system, so we also tested on a Dell G3 gaming laptop. It had an Intel Core i5-8300H processor, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050 Ti graphics chip, and eight gigabytes of RAM.

Our test loop began in Kul’Tiras, a major city in the new expansion, and ended in the wilderness of Tiragarde sound.

The results weren’t what you’d expect.

That’s right. The laptop significantly outpaced the beastly Threadripper 1920X system at every resolution and every detail setting. We also saw small differences in performance between each video card. Strangely, the GTX 1080 Ti wound up slightly slower overall than the GTX 1050 Ti.

Old man Warcraft

These are puzzling numbers, but they’re correct. We tested several times over and double checked every parameter we could imagine. This is how the game performs. The question is, why?

Blame its age.

World of Warcraft was released in 2004, which of course means its development began years earlier. At the time, most people were running Pentium III or AMD Athlon processors, and most developers believed that single-core processors running at insanely high speeds was the future. Dual-core processors weren’t found in gaming PCs. World of Warcraft, like its peers, was developed to make as much use of a single core as possible.

That doesn’t translate well to modern computers. There’s no shortage of games that make poor use of multiple cores, but World of Warcraft is exceptionally bad. It generally hammers just one core, leaving a few scraps of code to another three, and the rest remain untapped.

Our numbers make sense if you keep that in mind. Geekbench’s single-core test reached a score of 4,456 on the Dell G3 with its Intel Core i5-8300H processor. The AMD Threadripper 1920X hit a score of 4,364. Though its has fewer cores, the Core i5-8300H is quicker in single-core tasks, and that seems to be a deciding factor here.

We wanted to further confirm the result, though, so we took an even more direct route. We overclocked the Threadripper 1920X, upping the base clock from 3.5GHz to 4.2GHz.

As you can see, overclocking the processor netted a performance boost of about 10 percent. That’s not massive, but it was consistent enough to be noticeable, and reinforces our belief the processor is holding back performance.

It’s fair to say World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth is CPU-bound, but that’s not the entire story. You can’t pair it with any processor and expect the best results. You’ll need a processor with fast cores. That means Intel hardware is likely your best bet, and you’ll want to give preference to processor frequency over core count.

Direct X 12 processor performance comparison

World of Warcraft: Battle for Azeroth isn’t blessed with the most modern game engine, but Blizzard has made efforts to modernize it over the years. Patch 8.0, released just ahead of the new expansion, makes that obvious by ditching DirectX 9 support and adding DirectX 12. DirectX 11 remains available, and it’s the new default option.

That’s for the best, because DirectX 12 doesn’t fare well in World of Warcraft.

We saw a major performance hit with every tested configuration, and most configurations saw the DX12 option performance 10 to 15 percent behind DX11. That’s a big gap, enough that you’d likely notice it in gameplay.

Just ignore DirectX 12 for now and stick with DirectX 11, the default setting.

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