Dragon Age: Inquisition Reviewed And Benchmarked

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GPU Performance in Direct3D And Mantle

Dragon Age: Inquisition is powered by the Frostbite engine and, as such, received a guarantee of Mantle support earlier this year. It's easily the game I was most excited to test -- does Mantle's low-level API support give AMD a performance advantage?

Dragon Age: Inquisition contains a built-in benchmark, but after evaluating that test we've elected not to use it. The reason is simple -- it's a cutscene style test that does opt for some tough visuals, but produces frame rates much higher than those we saw in actual gameplay. It also favors AMD, at least at this point, with Radeon cards consistently turning in higher framerates than their GeForce counterparts.

Our in-game play test consists of a series of battles in the village of Haven as it comes under attack. We tested the last set of encounters, which begin at the doors of the Chantry and continue to a trebuchet mounted lower in the village. The area is saturated with flame and fire effects, which should help ensure a suitably difficult encounter.

Before deciding not to use the test, we compared performance between AMD and Nvidia cards using both it and our in-game benchmark selection. The built-in test is always faster than our in-game benchmark.

We tested a custom quality level that pegged most settings at Ultra, but turned Tessellation and Shadow Quality down to High. No MSAA was used -- even on the GTX 980, MSAA hits the frame rate hard. We opted for standard HBAO as opposed to HBAO+ for the same reason.

We'll look at the results in several ways. First, here's the standard FPS rate between the various cards in both Mantle and Direct3D.

DAi Perf
Based on these results, we see the R9 290X keeping neck-and-neck with the GTX 980, but Mantle blows everything out of the water. Hurrah for Mantle!

Right?

Well, no. Unfortunately, Mantle is currently bugged in Dragon Age: Inquisition. First, load times can be insanely long -- 2-5x longer than a typical scene. There's some evidence that the engine is caching shaders locally, it creates some hefty shader files when Mantle mode is activated.

Occasional long load times might be tolerated if they were the tradeoff, but unfortunately they aren't. Have a look at the frame time comparison between Mantle and Direct3D when using the R9 290X.

R9290X Mantle vs D3D
In this graph, the dark red line is the R9 290X in Direct3D, while the salmon-colored line is Mantle. Direct3D kills Mantle in this game -- it's easily the best API, and it avoids the huge stuttering pauses that absolutely come through in the shipping game.

How about the R9 290X against the GTX 980? AMD's GPU is generally viewed to be fighting at a disadvantage against Nvidia, so what we saw here may surprise you.

DAI GTX980 Time

DAI R9290X Time
33.3ms corresponds to 30 FPS. The GTX 980 spends much more time above this line.

We graphed these results using the open-source FRAFS benchmark viewer. What they show is that the R9 290X has vastly better frame rate delivery than the GTX 980, despite the similarity in the final results. The 0.1% worst frame time for the R9 290X is just 38.5ms or 26 FPS. The GTX 980 is at 46.7ms or 21 FPS. AMD takes home an overall win in Dragon Age: Inquisition, even if Mantle isn't the API that delivers it. It's unfortunate that Mantle support is so rough, but we're glad to see that the D3D performance story is as good as as it is. The game runs well on modern hardware, but you can expect to turn things down a few notches from Ultra, even on 1080p and a GTX 980 if you prize high frame rates over raw detail.

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