Graphics, Hardware

Living with 3D: NVIDIA 3D Vision Gaming Experience

Editor’s note: Today we continue with third installation in our Living with 3D series of articles. You can read the introduction to the series here, our first experience with AMD HD3D and an introduction to NVIDIA 3D Vision here. In this article, we focus on gaming experience with NVIDIA 3D Vision. 

3D Games: How we got here?
The introduction of 3D games is proving to be one of the biggest motivators for 3D adoption on PC. The problem with 3D as it stands now is that unless you have experienced it you more than likely do not know what to expect from a 3D game whether it is NVIDIA driven or not. This could also apply to any other form of 3D content and the misconceptions out there seem to outnumber the truths.

These misconceptions could easily be attributed to the current climate of 3D marketing and some less than accurate (and I am being kind by labeling it that way) marketing practices. To be fair to the PR departments out there, it is very difficult to convey 3D when not doing so in person, as its a complete subjective experience. When marketing HD resolution it is easy to slap up a screenshot and compare it to SD, anyone can see the differences and easily agree on HD?s supremacy… 3D is a whole another ballgame. If you post up a 3D screenshot the problem that you have is that only those that already have a 3D setup can view them… which doesn?t do a whole lot for you when you are trying to attract new customers. What we tend to see instead are static 2D shots depicting scenes in which images appear to pop out of a 3D screen. The connotation here is that watching 3D content will transport you to this netherworld of screen images flying around your room, explosions will be so in your face that you will feel your eyebrows burning and watching a 3D baseball game will have you ducking the ball every time someone hits a line drive.

The problem I have with this is that this is more often than not the exact opposite of what you will experience. If I could sum the 3D experience up in one word it would be "depth". When you put your 3D Vision specs on and fire up a game the first thing that hits you when the 3D kicks in is depth. As you fire up a 3D game a few things happen. First the software detects that you have launched a game file (via .exe association) and the hardware knows it needs to get ready for some 3D action. Before the splash screen of the game even loads the glasses dim almost immediately (the active shutters begin doing their job) and you know something is about to happen. Depending on the gaming title you can be caught a little off guard, if the beginning cut scenes and menu navigation are not rendered in 3D you find yourself wondering if everything is working correctly. Once you click play and actually get into the game the initial experience can be breathtaking.

On the great games it seems as if someone just flipped a switch and knocked the backside of your monitor back a few hundred feet. All of a sudden this game which you had previously thought was pretty cool and 3D in its own rite takes on a life of its own. More than images popping out at you, it seems as if you are looking through a window where everything has depth to it. Essentially 3D Vision gives your gaming experience depth perception. In a racing game the leader actually appears to be in front of the car in second place… and you can almost perceive the amount of distance the leader has on the follower. In a first person shooter your rifle now has depth. The muzzle appears to be a foot or two in front of the rear sight. When playing an RPG your top down view takes on a whole new meaning, you get a sense that you are high above the battlefield looking down upon the combatants.

There is also a downside. There are games that do not work well in 3D, the whether they visually stunning or not. The negative experience can run the gamut from lackluster 3D performance with little added enjoyment to downright unplayable titles. NVIDIA has developed a ranking system to give would-be 3D gamers an indicator as to what type of 3D experience they can expect from a given gaming title. Here?s how it works, NVIDIA breaks down the 3D compatibility of games into six tiers. At the top end we have NVIDIA 3D Vision Ready, essentially these games are going to be the pinnacle of your 3D gaming experience. Earning a 3D Vision Ready rating generally means that the game was designed from the onset to support 3D Vision. In most cases NVIDIA has worked closely with the game developers to ensure that 3D Vision is implemented correctly and results in a stunning 3D experience.

NVIDIA 3D Vision Ready Titles: Out of 16 titles, three are just demos
NVIDIA 3D Vision Ready Titles: Out of 16 titles, three are just demos

Moving down the tiers the names are pretty self explanatory; Excellent, Good, Fair, Poor and Not recommended. The thing to note here is that the dispersion of rankings does not seem to favor or penalize any certain genre. In the 3D Vision Ready tier you have Just Cause 2, a third person shooter and in the Not Recommended tier you have Rogue Warrior, also a third person shooter. With 3D Vision currently supporting over 500 gaming titles you are sure to find numerous titles in every tier but the good news is that you will find the vast majority of supported games in the Good and above tiers.

So it?s great that NVIDIA had a ranking system, but how exactly does that translate to gameplay and more important your 3D experience? As I mentioned previously, when you launch your game, quite a few things happen. The rating system even comes in to play as your game is firing up. The NVIDIA software displays an onscreen overlay that states the 3D rating, suggested setting tweaks that will improve your 3D experience as well as any known 3D issues, such as "water does not render in 3D" and so on. This information stays on screen as long as you need it and can be toggled on and off. Generally the higher the 3D rating the lower the 3D issues and suggested tweaks. I found the overlay to be incredibly helpful as the information I needed was right in front of me and could be toggled off at any time. The last thing I wan
t to do when I am ready to game is ALT+TAB out of the game to search through a driver for known issues and adjustments. The entire process of playing a game in 3D Vision is identical to playing that same title outside of 3D Vision. You simply double click the games shortcut and you are in business as 3D Vision starts up automatically, Should you decide that you are not in the mood to get your 3D Vision on then you can easily hotkey out of it via CTRL-T, there is no need to end the game and restart as you can essentially "hot swap" in-and-out of 3D Vision on the fly.

This brings up a good point. With many gamers/enthusiasts that I have spoken with that are not entirely familiar with 3D Vision or even 3D technology in general, there is the misconception that 3D is an all or nothing deal. I have been asked repeatedly how difficult it is to read an email (or other similar general computing task) in 3D. To clear up any confusion, 3D Vision is not a full time implementation. The 3D only kicks in once you are launching/inside of an application the NVIDIA software detects as a 3D application (game, photo viewer, 3D Blu-ray, etc) and the software automatically shuts off the 3D once you exit that application. For general non-3D computing tasks 3D Vision is transparent and has no effect.
Test System
In order test NVIDIA’s 3D Vision we were supplied with the Asus VG236H 23" 1080P Monitor and included 3D Vision bundle. Fulfilling the PC requirements will be our standard Sandy Bridge test rig running an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560 Ti. Instead of using high-end hardware such as GeForce GTX 580 or 590, we decided that since 560Ti is a great performance card and can play today’s latest games at reasonable frame rates without breaking the bank, lending itself well to providing the median user experience for 3D Vision.

Testbed Configuration
?Intel Core i7 2600K Processor at 3.4GHz (Supplied by Intel)
?MSI Z68A-GD80 B3 motherboard
?NVIDIA GeForce GTX 560Ti video card
?2x 2GB Kingston DDR3-1600 MHz Memory
?160GB Intel X25-M SSD
?Enermax Revolution 1000w PSU
?ASUS VG236H 23? Full HD 3D Monitor and 3D Vision Bundle

As part of my due diligence in writing this review series I have had the arduous task of playing multiple games in 3D, but I have been willing to make this sacrifice in order to provide you with a better understanding of the 3D experience… well, that and I love playing games. In an attempt to get a feel for the entire range of 3D game content out there we will be looking at numerous titles from multiple genres as well as choosing titles from different tiers on the NVIDIA ranking system to best showcase what 3D opportunities are available.

Just Cause 2 11 minute gameplay trailer demonstrates the level of action you’ll experience in this game. However, not all is sweet once 3D is turned on

The first title on deck is Just Cause 2, a game most of you are already familiar with if for no other reason than its inclusion in our video card benchmarking suite. Just Cause 2 has a ranking of 3D Vision Ready and therefore should prove to be a stunner of a 3D experience. Taking the game at face value it has all the underpinnings necessary for providing a solid 3D experience. The game itself has a lot of visual depth, whether you are racing down a dirt road on a motorcycle or flying the friendly skies in a plane you just hijacked, the Just Cause 2 world is massive. There are large open spaces and great draw distances. The sunny tropical locale makes for a visually bright game which works well with the dimming effect of the active shutter glasses.

Starting a game brings NVIDIA's overlay with the 3D compliancy. In the case of Just Cause 2, the game is complete compatible with 3D Vision technology
Starting a game brings NVIDIA’s overlay with the 3D compliancy information. In the case of Just Cause 2, the game is complete compatible with 3D Vision technology

With my 3D Vision glasses on I launched Just Cause 2 directly from Steam and 3D Vision didn?t miss a beat, instantly recognizing the title and switching into 3D immediately. The title and navigation screens in Just Cause 2 are not rendered in 3D and therefore at first there was no discernable 3D effect, but that soon changed. Once the game loaded the 3D effect was apparent immediately. The opening scene from my most recent autosave had the main character Rico standing in front of an open beach scene with palm trees in the distance. The depth of that initial scene was intense. The trees in the background actually appeared to be in the distance. The main character in the foreground seemed incredibly close, while not exactly a "jumping out of the screen" sensation. 

Just Cause 2 screen with 3D Enabled. As you can imagine, without having 3D glasses it is difficult to explain how the scene feels
Just Cause 2 screen with 3D Enabled. As you can imagine, without having 3D glasses it is difficult to explain how the scene feels. This scene offers around six levels of depth 

In playing through the game the 3D effect was constant with every gameplay scene showing additional depth. The in-game cut scenes are not rendered in 3D and therefore seemed to break up the 3D experience. In doing so, the cut scenes seemed to illustrate the added depth of 3D Vision as they provided a stark contrast to the depth of gameplay itself. The longer I play… errr tested, the more the 3D effect seemed to blend in. This is not to say that the game lost its depth, more so that the depth became natural, much the same as you stop noticing the bezel around your TV when you are engrossed in movie. Even as the depth became more natural there were still plenty of "wow" moments that drove home the 3D experience. In one instance I was piloting a helicopter that I had "liberated" from a local military base. As the helicopter took on damage from small arms fire it began to billow black smoke from the fuselage. The depth and apparent volume to the smoke was incredible. It seemed as if you could reach inside the monitor and touch it and really added to the feel that the helicopter was not merely on screen, instead that it was some distance inside the screen. 

This scene in 2D mode looks typical scripted action. But in 3D mode, the depth is just amazing
This scene in 2D mode looks typical scripted action. But in 3D mode, the depth is just amazing

Riding a motorcycle through traffic at speed takes on a whole new meaning. The cars you pass seem to come up on you with surprising realism. When floating around under Rico?s parachute you get a sense of your altitude and lazily floating down through the tree?s canopy swallows your character in 3D foliage. 

For all of the impressive 3D aspects of this game under 3D Vision I found myself somewhat underwhelmed with the aspect of free fall. Jumping out of an airplane or helicopter allows Rico to freefall until you decide to deploy his parachute. I had anticipated that this would make for an awesome 3D scene due to the natural distance involved when hurtling towards the ground. In practice however the actual depth (or height) has some depth but not to the level I was expecting. In all fairness however this could be due to few factors.

First I have never launched myself out of a real airplane so I honestly have nothing to compare it too (I did a few times and you don’t care about what you’re seeing… the adrenaline pumping trough your heart and the sensation of flight takes over your visual experience, Ed.). Secondly, 3D imagery does depend on depth but much like real life in order to truly sense depth you need depth or distance indicators. For example, when looking at the moon or stars in the sky, you realize that they are obviously far away, but does one start seem further or closer than the next? Even if they do, are you able to discern the spatial distance between them? The same would hold true for this freefall scenario. When free falling from great heights the only real distance indicator is the ground and since there are seldom any other objects between your point of view and the ground itself the true scale or distance is difficult to perceive. 

Overall Just Cause 2 definitely earned its 3D Vision Ready title and proved to be great showpiece for 3D Vision gaming. The 3D aspects in this title felt natural and fit the game well. If this is any indicator as to the future of 3D PC gaming then 3D has a bright future indeed.

Just Cause 2 is just the beginning of our 3D Vision game testing. Stay tuned for our next installment of Living with 3D coming next week, covering one of most anticipated titles of all times.