The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, which was developed by Bethesda Softworks, is probably the most technologically advanced open-ended role playing game (RPG). Graphically speaking, Morrowind's visual elements are eye-catching as the quality and attention to detail are a step above most RPG's. Pixel shader technology is used for rendering realistic-like water, while transitions between day and night and a robust weather system are features that immerse the player deeper into the game.
Morrowind was architected using Numerical Design's NetImmerse 3D game engine. NetImmerse is a cross-platform development tool for the PC, PlayStation 2, Xbox and Gamecube and was used in the development of Star Trek Bridge Commander, Freedom Force, Dark Age of Camelot, and Call of Cthulhu.
Unfortunately, a powerful processor and graphics accelerator are required for experiencing the best graphics that the PC version of Morrowind has to offer.
GAME PLAY CONFIGURATION
The following sections list the graphics and sound menu settings in Morrowind that were used during game play sessions. Note that real time shadows were disabled.
Version - 1.2.0722
Full Screen - 32-Bit Color
Pixel Shaders - On
Menu Transparency - 75%
AI Distance - 25%
Crosshair - On
3D Audio - Hardware Accelerated
Real Time Shadows - Off
View Distance - 50, 75, or 100%
The following sections are a listing of my system specifications.
AMD Athlon XP 2700+ @ 2.17GHz - Thouroughbred Revision B
ASUS A7NX8 Deluxe nForce2 Motherboard With DualDDR Memory
Windows XP Professional with Service Pack 1 / DirectX 9.0
Expert System Performance
166MHz Front Side Bus
Memory Timing 4-2-2
CAS Latency 2.0
APIC Mode Disabled
Frame rate data was collected using FRAPS, which ran as a background task. Results are based on averaging the frame rates obtained from two walkthroughs per test case. The minimum, average, and maximum frame rates reported by FRAPS could vary from 1-2 frames per second due to the walkthrough technique that I used to measure performance.
GAME PLAY SCENARIO
Measuring graphics performance in Morrowind was based on a walkthrough, which involved navigating my character, at normal speed using a first person view, through Seyda Neen while leaving the town. Details of the walkthrough consist of the following:
After loading a saved game with FRAPS running in the background, I waited a few seconds at the starting point for the frame rate to stabilize and then enabled frame rate logging. Note that the minimum frame rate always occurred at the starting point.
I headed for the stairs located on the house directly in front of my character (first checkpoint).
While approaching the stairs, I began to veer off to the right to get my character in position to cross the bridge (second checkpoint).
After crossing the bridge, I headed for the street sign post (third checkpoint).
While approaching the street signpost, I veered off to the left and stopped logging frame rates when I was positioned in the middle of the small bridge next to the tree.
The following screenshots illustrate portions of the walkthrough area.
I chose an outdoor setting to measure performance, but I had no control over the number of non-player characters that I encountered during each walkthrough. A single walkthrough takes approximately 45 seconds to complete.
GAME PLAY RESULTS
Performance is shown with bar charts that display the maximum (red), average (green), and minimum (blue) frames per second.
The first chart shows my results with no antialiasing and no anisotropic filtering using a 50%, 75%, and 100% view distance at a resolution of 1600x1200.
The view distance setting can significantly effect the performance in Morrowind. At 1600x1200, the average frame rate with a 50% view distance was 49. Increasing the view distance to 75% caused the average frame rate to drop to 40, while a 100% view distance resulted in an average frame rate of 35. Notice that the view distance had little affect on the minimum frame rate.
Based on the screenshots below, increasing the view distance causes a greater level of detail to be rendered per frame. To take in-game screenshots in Morrowind using the Print Screen key, modify the line in the morrowind.ini file from Screen Shot Enable=0 to Screen Shot Enable=1.
50% View Distance
75% View Distance
100% View Distance
Let's see what happens when the resolution is increased to 1920x1440. Those of you with big screen monitors will appreciate that :)
The GeForce4 Ti 4600 remains a capable graphics card when no special image quality enhancements, such as antialiasing or advanced texture filtering, are used.
Unfortunately, Morrowind exhibits a large amount of texture shimmering, which can be minimized through the use of antialiasing at high resolutions. For example, in the screenshot below I've outlined in green the areas that exhibit severe texture shimmering while approaching the house head-on. Texture shimmering can be described as textures that "crawl" along the edges of objects.
Areas With Texture Shimmering
Is Morrowind playable with antialiasing enabled at high resolutions? Along with 2X anisotropic filtering to slightly improve texture quality?
These settings significantly reduce the amount and severity of texture shimmering, with Quincunx antialiasing at 1280x960 and 2X antialiasing at 1600x1200 being especially effective. While the latter setting is a personal favorite for Morrowind, the performance can become a bit sluggish in heavily populated scenes. Fortunately, a conservative 5% overclock in core and memory clock speeds, from 300MHz/650MHz to 315MHz/683MHz, bumped the average frame rate from 29 to 32 and the minimum frame rate from 18 to 21. Performance will increase by a couple more frames if anisotropic filtering is disabled altogether or the view distance is knocked down to around 65%.
Working on this article was enjoyable and it reaffirmed that there is a dilemma associated with owning a capable graphics card. Eventually, you'll need to spend some time to figure out the settings that you want to use. Decisions, decisions, decisions :)
Update: Thanks to our visitors for informing me about the Morrowind FPS Optimizer. I'll certainly be checking it out and updating this article with my findings.