Dark Souls II PC Port Featurette

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The graphical options are varied enough that one can formulate a solid performance for a variety of hardware; but not detailed enough to tweak the frame rate within the range of a single frame (click to enlarge).

Dark Souls’ port was poor. Unmodified, it displayed only at a resolution of 1280×720 (720P); and, even more unforgivable given the importance of Dark Souls’ community, playing with a friend online was at best a chore—and at worst impossible. So: has From Software and Bandai Namco Games learned from their mistakes and given the PC port the attention it deserves? And is the PC version the superior version? This featurette will focus on Dark Souls II only in the context of its success as a port; and not as a game. For a more in-depth look at Dark Souls II, why not check out Gareth Newnham’s review here? Spoiler: it’s good. Very good. And the game isn’t bad, either.

For the purposes of testing, I used two computers: one representing the archaic; and the other a more realistic median. The archaic computer has embarrassing riches—not an embarrassment of: 4GBs of 800mhz DDR2 ram, and a factory overclocked HD4870; supported by a state of the art Core2 Duo E8500. The more modern computer features a modest GTX770, a Core i5-3570K and 8GBs of 1600mhz DDR3 ram.

There is little to say about the latter: Dark Souls II locks the frame rate at 60 frames per second (FPS), which was consistently achieved across any and all graphical settings (see the screenshot above for details) at a resolution of 1920×1080 (1080P).

The archaic is where things become more interesting. An equally consistent 60FPS was achieved at low settings with a resolution of 1080P (the resolution used across all settings for the purposes of these tests), which is hardly surprising given that even with such old hardware, the minimum requirements are reached or surpassed across the board. (Technically the system requirements list an HD5870 as required, but the HD5870 is in no way analogous to the listed Nvidia equivalent: a vastly inferior GeForce 9600GT; one can only hope proof reading is to blame for this absurdity.) But more interestingly, if one picks a few smart settings to raise to medium; then the frame rate never drops below a very steady 55FPS; and rarely even below the locked 60FPS. And even on medium settings across the board, the frame rate rarely drops below 50FPS—45FPS being the lowest frame rate clocked which, while noticeable when dropping from 55FPS, is certainly acceptable for those who want Dark Souls II to look a little more pretty on older hardware. Just as impressive, on high settings the frame rate never drops below the console versions’ target frame rate: 30FPS; and usually hovers around 55-45FPS. Even on old hardware, a noticeably superior visual experience is achieved in comparison to the console versions: and the higher frame rate is a godsend in a game where reflexes and timing are often so vitally important.

Comparison screenshot: high settings.

Comparison screenshot: high settings (click to enlarge).

However, although Dark Souls II does look noticeably better on PC than on console, the improvements themselves are disappointing in a PC context: Dark Souls II only uses DirectX 9, which means that more advanced visual wizardry must be left to modders—and those used to playing more ambitious console ports or original PC games, will find little technically impressive in the world of Drangleic.

But not only do the minor technical improvements increase how well Dark Souls II plays, they also affect the visual tone and atmosphere. The sharpness of higher resolutions than 720P helps to punctuate the dark, moody visual design that permeates the world of Dark Souls II. And this tone is tangibly more effective and pervasive thanks to the superior lighting and visual effects. Foreboding lighting follows the player as they creep through moist, dank castle caverns—the stone walls shimmering with a moss-like moisture; effects that the console versions only offer pale, less effective imitations of.

Unfortunately, menu navigation is little improved. Counter intuitively, one cannot merely click the back button to return to a previous section of the menu; but must move the mouse cursor off the menu, and then left-click; or alternatively hit backspace. Similar idiosyncrasies are especially awkward when one needs to change equipment mid-battle. The keyboard and mouse controls are improved in actual gameplay, but are still not viable for most players: double-clicking for powerful attacks makes a quick flurry of light attacks awkward; and controlling the camera with the mouse lacks the positive stiffness of an analogue stick—not to mention that aiming at enemies with WASD while rotating the camera is sans any nuance. In a game where finesse is important, taking advantage of the full controller support is a necessity.

Comparison screenshot: medium settings (click to enlarge).

Comparison screenshot: medium settings (click to enlarge).

Perhaps the most important improvement over the port of Dark Souls, is the online connectivity. Although minor firewall issues do persist when trying to play with friends, these instances of frustration are far rarer than they were in Dark Souls—and this is without any mods; whereas Dark Souls needed a mod to make playing online viable at all—and even then major issues did still persist for some players such as poor old Australian me.

The lack of graphical ambition is certainly disappointing, but it does look satisfyingly better than the console versions; and the positive effect of the superior frame rate cannot be overestimated. The crash-on-loading that many players experienced upon release was unacceptable, but has since been remedied via a patch (a promising sign of commitment?). And the menu navigation alone makes playing with a keyboard and mouse unviable—before one even encounters an enemy; but this is already being tweaked with mods. And the graphical deficiencies will eventually be somewhat alleviated with mods, including one already released which imitates the impressive lighting visible in early trailers. And the minor connectivity issues, too, may be improved in the same way.

Dark Souls II is not a very good port; but it is a good one; and thus it is a big improvement on Dark Souls’ port. And it is optimised well enough that the experience on old hardware is still effective in terms of both gameplay and graphics (a most noble attribute). And, most important of all, it is undoubtedly the best version of Dark Souls II—the frame rate alone proves that.

Comparison screenshot: low settings (click to enlarge).

Comparison screenshot: low settings (click to enlarge).