NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 Review: Does Maxwell Bring Maximum Gameplay?

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by Rob Williams on September 18, 2014 in Graphics & Displays

NVIDIA’s next-gen GeForce series is here, and it brings with it a slew of new features and enhancements worth knowing about. Based on Maxwell, the GTX 900 series delivers much-improved performance-per-watt, with the GTX 980 in particular performing better than the 780 Ti – but with a TDP of 85W less. You read that right. Let’s dig in.

Best Playable: Single Display

For about as long as GPU-accelerated games have existed, an ideal performance target has been 60 frames-per-second. Owing thanks to this is the standard 60Hz monitor, which delivers its best result when the framerate matches its refresh rate. To make sure the monitor’s refresh rate and game’s framerate keep aligned, to avoid visible tearing, VSync should be enabled.

While I believe our Best Playable results will appeal to any gamer, they could especially prove useful to those intrigued by livingroom gaming or console replacements. The goal here is simple: With each game, the graphics settings are tweaked to deliver the best possible detail while keeping us as close to 60 FPS on average as possible.

Because our Metro Last Light and Total War: SHOGUN 2 tests are timedemos, and because this kind of testing is time-consuming, I am sticking to six out of the eight games I test with for inclusion here.

 Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9805160
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Environment:Very HighShadow:Soft Shadow High
Texture:HighReflection:High
Anti-aliasing:FXAAGod Rays:High
Ambient Occlusion:HBAO+ HighVolumetric Fog:On
Motion BlurOn 
Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti5261
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Environment:Very HighShadow:High
Texture:HighReflection:High
Anti-aliasing:FXAAGod Rays:High
Ambient Occlusion:SSAOVolumetric Fog:On
Motion BlurOn 
Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X5161
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Environment:Very HighShadow:High
Texture:HighReflection:High
Anti-aliasing:FXAAGod Rays:High
Ambient Occlusion:SSAOVolumetric Fog:On
Motion BlurOn 
Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag - Best Playable - AMD Radeon R9 290X

Both AMD’s Radeon R9 290X and NVIDIA’s last-gen top-end GTX 780 Ti were able to handle Black Flag at the settings we use in our apples-to-apples comparisons, but because the GTX 980 offered a bit more oomph, I decided to test out HBAO+ and soft shadow modes. When all said and done, I was able to go with the High mode for each, while hitting exactly 60 FPS on average.

 Battlefield 4
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9804763
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Texture Quality:UltraTexture Filtering:Ultra
Lighting:UltraEffects:Ultra
Post Processing:UltraMesh:Ultra
Terrain:UltraTerrain Decoration:Ultra
Anti-aliasing Deferred:4x MSAAAnti-aliasing Post:High
Ambient Occlusion:HBAO  
Battlefield 4 - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti4362
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Texture Quality:UltraTexture Filtering:Ultra
Lighting:UltraEffects:Ultra
Post Processing:UltraMesh:Ultra
Terrain:UltraTerrain Decoration:Ultra
Anti-aliasing Deferred:2x MSAAAnti-aliasing Post:Medium
Ambient Occlusion:SSAO  
Battlefield 4 - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X4360
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Texture Quality:UltraTexture Filtering:Ultra
Lighting:UltraEffects:Ultra
Post Processing:UltraMesh:Ultra
Terrain:UltraTerrain Decoration:Ultra
Anti-aliasing Deferred:2x MSAAAnti-aliasing Post:Medium
Ambient Occlusion:SSAO  
Battlefield 4 - Best Playable - AMD Radeon R9 290X

Both the 290X and 780 Ti had to see their anti-aliasing dropped slightly in order to attain 60 FPS on average, but with the GTX 980, not only could 4xAA be retained (an Ultra preset), but so too could the higher-end HBAO mode (versus SSAO).

 Crysis 3
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9804465
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Anti-aliasing:FXAATexture:Very High
Effects:HighObject:Very High
Particles:HighPost Processing:High
Shading:HighShadows:High
Water:HighAnisotropic Filtering:x16
Motion Blur:MediumLens Flares:Yes
Crysis 3 - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti4266
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Anti-aliasing:FXAATexture:High
Effects:HighObject:High
Particles:HighPost Processing:High
Shading:HighShadows:High
Water:HighAnisotropic Filtering:x16
Motion Blur:MediumLens Flares:Yes
Crysis 3 - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X4161
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Anti-aliasing:FXAATexture:High
Effects:HighObject:High
Particles:HighPost Processing:High
Shading:HighShadows:High
Water:HighAnisotropic Filtering:x16
Motion Blur:MediumLens Flares:Yes
Crysis 3 - Best Playable - AMD Radeon R9 290X

The GTX 980 once again shows the other two cards just what it’s made of. Instead of sticking to the same settings I use for normal benchmarking, this card managed higher texture and object detail while delivering well over 60 FPS.

 GRID 2
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9806988
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Multisampling:4x MSAANight Lighting:High
Shadows:UltraAdvanced Fog:On
Particles:UltraCrowd:Ultra
Cloth:HighAmbient Occlusion:Ultra
Soft Ambient Occlusion:OnGround Cover:High
Vehicle Details:HighTrees:Ultra
Objects:UltraVehicle Reflections:Ultra
Water:HighPost Process:High
Skidmarks:OnAdvanced Lighting:On
Global Illumination:OnAnisotropic Filtering:Ultra
GRID 2 - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti7383
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Multisampling:4x MSAANight Lighting:High
Shadows:UltraAdvanced Fog:On
Particles:UltraCrowd:Ultra
Cloth:HighAmbient Occlusion:Ultra
Soft Ambient Occlusion:OnGround Cover:High
Vehicle Details:HighTrees:Ultra
Objects:UltraVehicle Reflections:Ultra
Water:HighPost Process:High
Skidmarks:OnAdvanced Lighting:On
Global Illumination:OnAnisotropic Filtering:Ultra
GRID 2 - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X6776
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Multisampling:4x MSAANight Lighting:High
Shadows:UltraAdvanced Fog:On
Particles:UltraCrowd:Ultra
Cloth:HighAmbient Occlusion:Ultra
Soft Ambient Occlusion:OnGround Cover:High
Vehicle Details:HighTrees:Ultra
Objects:UltraVehicle Reflections:Ultra
Water:HighPost Process:High
Skidmarks:OnAdvanced Lighting:On
Global Illumination:OnAnisotropic Filtering:Ultra
GRID 2 - Best Playable - AMD Radeon R9 290X

In truth, 8xMSAA could have been enabled for any one of these configurations, but I’d argue that it’d be a bit pointless. The performance on all three of the cards is outstanding, and when not even the minimum dips below 60 FPS, that’s a very good thing.

 Sleeping Dogs
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9806578
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Anti-aliasing:HighHigh-res Textures:On
Shadow Resolution:HighShadow Filtering:High
Ambient Occlusion:HighMotion Blur:High
World Density:Extreme 
Sleeping Dogs - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti5471
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Anti-aliasing:HighHigh-res Textures:On
Shadow Resolution:HighShadow Filtering:High
Ambient Occlusion:HighMotion Blur:High
World Density:Extreme 
Sleeping Dogs - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X5970
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Anti-aliasing:HighHigh-res Textures:On
Shadow Resolution:HighShadow Filtering:High
Ambient Occlusion:HighMotion Blur:High
World Density:Extreme 
Sleeping Dogs - Best Playable - AMD Radeon R9 290X

Like the lowbie cards, the GTX 980 stuck to our regular benchmark settings, which includes the mid-range anti-aliasing setting. The top-end AA setting was a no go, as it’s hardcore enough to bring us from a comfortable 78 FPS to about 55 FPS.

 Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Blacklist
MinimumAverage
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 9805060
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Texture Detail:UltraShadow:Ultra
Parallax:OnTessellation:On
Texture Filtering:16xAmbient Occlusion:Field AO & HBAO+
Anti-aliasing:TXAA 2x 
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980
NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti5871
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Texture Detail:UltraShadow:Ultra
Parallax:OnTessellation:On
Texture Filtering:16xAmbient Occlusion:Field AO & HBAO+
Anti-aliasing:FXAA 
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist - Best Playable - NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780 Ti
AMD Radeon R9 290X5465
Graphics Settings
& Ingame Screenshot
Resolution: 2560×1440
Texture Detail:UltraShadow:Ultra
Parallax:OnTessellation:On
Texture Filtering:16xAmbient Occlusion:Field AO & HBAO+
Anti-aliasing:FXAA 
Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Blacklist - Best Playable - AMD Radeon R9 290X

For the first time in a Best Playable result, I’ve enabled NVIDIA’s TXAA with Blacklist. To use that and keep a truly playable framerate, 2x had to be used, and with that, we’ve managed to keep the 60 FPS we fight so hard to retain.

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Rob Williams

Rob founded Techgage in 2005 to be an 'Advocate of the consumer', focusing on fair reviews and keeping people apprised of news in the tech world. Catering to both enthusiasts and businesses alike; from desktop gaming to professional workstations, and all the supporting software.

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