Alex shows you how to muck about with your graphics to make even older games look incredible.
By Alex Walker on January 16, 2014 at 4:55 pm
Being a PC gamer has some wonderful advantages. Games are cheaper, look better, run faster, and are infinitely modifiable. To this end, PC gamers like to prove a point by pushing the boundaries where possible by running the latest game on the highest-end hardware. “See, you console scum,” they say. “See how much finer and more intricate the detail and lighting is on our superior hardware?”
Okay, nobody really says that, but it is superior, without question. Anybody who’s played Skyrim with graphical mods knows that. But did you know you can get the most out of your hardware while pushing your library of aging games well beyond their limit as well?
Welcome to downsampling.
(Click on all pictures in this article to open hi-res versions, and see the difference for yourself!)
Down down, pixels are down
When talking about gaming, downsampling is simply the process where you run a game at a higher resolution than your native monitor normally supports. By creating custom resolutions through the Catalyst or NVIDIA Control Panels, you can take your 1920×1080 monitor and start playing at 1440p resolutions or higher, instantly giving you a massive graphical boost and a huge reduction in aliasing.
The game still looks like it’s being played at your normal native resolution, but in reality the graphics card is just squeezing everything in to fit within the confines of your monitor. Whenever you take a screenshot though, the file is rendered at your larger-than-life sized resolution, which can then be compressed down into a standard 1080p image.
Sadly, or happily in my case, I don’t own an ATI video card. So for those poor souls who’d like to get in the action, you’ll want to read this handy guide over at Guru3D. NVIDIA people can check out this guide at NeoGAF, although I’ll explain the basics below.
The basic principle requires that you allow your monitor to render resolutions that aren’t supported. Once you’ve enabled that, you simply create custom resolutions as desired. My native resolution is 1920×1080, so above that I’ve created 2560×1440, 3200×1800, 3600×2025, 3680×2070 and two different settings for 3840×2160.
Each monitor is different and will cope with higher resolutions differently. You may find you have to reduce the refresh rate by 1, 2 or 3hz before it works properly. You may even find that 4K doesn’t work at all, in which case: bad luck. Conversely, those of you with lovely 27” monitors may have success at resolutions well beyond that. If you’re prepared to reduce your refresh rate to as low as 30hz you can achieve some ridiculous resolutions, like this lucky chap (he’s running one of the Korean overclockable QNIX monitors, which is why he can get 90hz at 2560×1440, in case you’re wondering).
The higher you go, the more detail rendered and the higher the workload on your GPU. Playing at silly resolutions like 5120×2880 will result in single-digit frame-rates, so you need to be sensible if you actually want to enjoy gameplay.
A new world of screenshotting
But what if you want even better images? What if downsampling just isn’t enough? Then meet one of the most fun (and frustrating) tools I’ve become acquainted with over Christmas: the SweetFX injector.
If you want to get the most out of a game, then SweetFX is a great place to start. CeeJay, the maker of SweetFX, explains. “It’s a mod built on the InjectSMAA shader injector, that allows you to apply a suite of post processing shader effects to your games … you can add SMAA anti-aliasing, sharpening and tweak the color, gamma, exposure and more. It’s meant to allow you to improve the look of your games and change the look and mood of it to your liking.”
Here’s just some of the options you can add with SweetFX: Bloom, a faux-HDR effect, sharpening effects, additional vibrance, sepia and vignette filters, adjust contrast curves and tonemaps, add a monochrome effect if you want, dither the image or just turn everything into a cartoon. It’s bloody powerful.
The only downside with SweetFX is that it’s not originally meant to work with 64-bit games. You can download a separate injector package for that from the fine fellows at Guru3D. Now, you’re thinking, “Great, now I just need the one package and it’ll work with everything.” Sadly, that’s not the case either.
Right now, I have four separate SweetFX folders. Two are clean copies of SweetFX 1.4 and 1.5.1 — 1.5.1 usually works for most things, but I’ll use 1.4 when it doesn’t. (Bioshock Infinite, for instance, refused to recognise any version, even modified SweetFX installs with a 64-bit injector, bar the clean 1.4 install. You’ll find a download link for 1.5.1 above with CeeJay’s quote, while you can find a download for a 1.4 copy at NexusMods.)
To avoid the ignominy of having to install SweetFX manually, I use SweetFX Configurator, which reduces some of the hassle. And just because I could, I’ve got RadeonPro, the unofficial but completely amazing utility for AMD video cards, running too. Most of the features don’t work on my dual GTX 780 setup, but it will let me switch between SweetFX versions without the hassle of manually installing them.
RadeonPro also lets you toggle FXAA and SMAA with the touch of a button and it’ll dump screenshots into the folder of your choosing, which is far more convenient than digging through your entire Steam library. A simple but effective interface lets you change settings quickly without the hassle of dealing with Notepad and INI files.
Irrespective of what version or installer you use though, SweetFX is designed to be flexible. Across all versions, all of the shaders and post-processing filters can be activated or reloaded entirely with the touch of a button, allowing users to make a small tweaks and then test them out quickly. This lets you continually play with the setup until you achieve your desired visual effect, or even if you just want to play with the crazier filters without having to reload the game entirely.
If you’re unsure about where to start, however, then the SweetFX settings database is a great place to start. Fellow enthusiasts from all over the internet will post their own settings files here, along with some great before and after screenshots to help you decide.
A new lease on life
After spending a few weeks trying out various settings in different games, I can’t go back. Games are more sharper, colours look less washed out, the contrast levels can be adjusted to my preference and the overall quality is just that little bit nicer.
Whatever look you want to achieve is purely up to you; it’s just a matter of trial and error. The same applies for the excellent NVIDIA Inspector program. It’s traditionally used to display GPU information, but the more adventurous can use it to modify the settings for every single game in much greater detail than you would normally be able to achieve through the NVIDIA Control Panel.
There’s a short guide here with a full list of the compatibility flags you’ll need. Another guide here also gives a much more detailed explanation of each of the settings, with some Skyrim-specific advice. In my experience, however, you’ll can simply skip ahead and modify the NVIDIA profiles directly, advancing to the more extreme anti-aliasing options such as the higher levels of Sparse Grid Super Sampling Anti Aliasing (SGSSAA) and Ordered Grid Supersampling (OGSSAA). Either one results in better image quality than the standard multisampling technique available through the NVIDIA Control Panel, although trial and error is required to find the right trade-off between a playable frame and a stunning picture.
This isn’t by any means an exhaustive guide, but more of an introduction into giving a new lease on life on your gaming library. If the wealth of high-end graphical modifications for Skyrim are one example of pushing a game to its limits, then the combination of NVIDIA Inspector/RadeonPro and SweetFX can do the same for everything else.
I’ve taken some screenshots of several games to show you what can be done with the following tools and tricks above. Try it out yourself and venture into a whole new world of possibilities.