When the original Crysis dropped six years ago, it quickly became the gold standard for visual splendor—and enthusiast agony. Gamers the world over fired up the demo, only to find their previously potent GPU coughing and sputtering. Thus began The Great Upgrade Rush of 2007, as we all upgraded just to play Crysis, and the game became the benchmark for PC gaming for years to come. Whenever a new GPU arrived, the first question on everyone’s mind was, "Will it run Crysis?" When Crysis 2 came along it was a console port, and somewhat scaled-back technologically. The environments were small by PC standards, and developer Crytek didn't expose advanced settings for us to mess with. With Crysis 3, though, Crytek has claimed it would make your PC its bitch, and we must say after benchmarking it that we agree; bitches will be made.
So, for this month's Build It, we set out to tame the beast by putting together a bang-for-the-buck Crysis 3 machine, settling the question of whether or not you need a $500 video card or CPU to run the game at 40-plus frames per second at 1080p. It sounds like a tall order, but we'll talk you through the build, explain all the choices we made, and what mistakes we almost made.
The rugged C70 case makes our Crysis 3 system look battle-ready.
At Maximum PC, we get a steady trickle of $5,000-plus systems that would handle Crysis 3 just fine. But we won’t be using any of them for this project since it would be cheating. It would also be easy to go with a Core i5-3570K system, stuffed into a Z77 motherboard. That would perform well out-of-the-box, and the CPU is overclockable. There's just one problem: Haswell isn't available as this issue goes to press, and the Z77 chipset is about to be retired. Sure, it would last us a few years, but our upgrade options would be slim. Or we could go with an AMD build. Its FX CPUs look impressive on paper, but they have consistently fallen short of a 3570K in most of our benchmarks.
The answer then, both for performance and longevity, appears to be X79, aka Socket LGA 2011. It takes the smokin’-fast Sandy Bridge-E CPUs (and Ivy Bridge-E CPUs, expected in late 2013). It also provides enough PCIe lanes to handle multiple GPUs without a bottleneck. With our socket chosen, we settled on the "entry-level" Core i7-3820 CPU for less than $300. We wanted Gigabyte’s GA-X79-UD3 mobo, for its combo of price, features, and build quality, but it was in short supply, so we tapped its big brother, the GA-X79-UP4, to act as a stunt double.
For the GPU, we picked an MSI GeForce GTX 670 Power Edition for its balance of performance, price, quiet operation, and features (Note: This is the video card we went with at time of print, but we now would recommend going with the GeForce GTX 770). AMD didn't have quite what we wanted for this build. We chose the Corsair Vengeance C70 for a case, and Cooler Master provided a snazzy Silent Pro M2 720w power supply. We loaded our OS and game files onto a Corsair Neutron GTX SSD, and cooled our CPU with an old standby after abandoning a more ambitious cooling plan.
|Case||Corsair Vengeance C70||www.corsair.com||
|PSU||Cooler Master Silent Pro M2 RS720||www.coolermaster.com||$120|
|CPU||Intel Core i7-3820||www.intel.com||$290|
|Cooler||Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo||www.coolermaster.com||$30|
|GPU||MSI GTX 670 PE (Update: We now recommend going with the GTX 770)||www.msi.com||$375|
|RAM||Corsair 4x 2GB Vengeance||www.corsair.com||$50|
|SSD||Corsair Neutron GTX 240GB||www.corsair.com||$210|
|HDD||Seagate 1TB Barracuda||www.seagate.com||$70|
|OS||MS Windows 7 64-bit OEM||www.microsoft.com||$100|
The X79's i7-3820 is an ideal choice because it has more features than the i7-3770K for about the same price. For example, the latter’s Z77 chipset doesn't support more than 16 PCIe 3.0 lanes, while X79 chipset can handle up to 40 PCIe lanes. That gives us enough headroom to add a second GPU without hitting a ceiling. As for AMD, we considered the FX-8350 for its eight unlocked cores and 4GHz stock clocks. But in testing, it’s just not as fast as the Core i7s, and its 990FX chipset doesn't support PCIe 3.0, which has twice the bandwidth of PCIe 2.0. Admittedly, the lane thing is irrelevant for a single GPU. A Z77 or 990FX board will have plenty of room for every modern GPU, but we prefer an expandable system.
We gave Corsair's Vengeance C70 a good review a few months back (8 Verdict), so we decided to give it a shot for our Crysis box. The NZXT Phantom 410 was also considered, but we needed to move this case around the office a few times, and the C70's all-metal housing and built-in carrying handles were better suited to the task. Plus, the side panels are latched, so we didn’t have to worry about losing thumbscrews. It's also perfectly suitable for our build , with its modest cost and military aesthetic. It’s blessed with large fan mounts, quiet stock fans, and lots of airflow, so it should help us with overclocking. We also like that both drive cages can be removed, giving our intake fans an unobstructed path to the parts that need to chill. By default, the two front fans are mounted on the cages. We moved those into the front bezel and removed the top cage. The bezel also has cutouts to feed the fan wiring back inside the cage. We left the bottom cage in place because it was easier to manage the SSD and HDD that way.
Cooler Master's Silent Pro PSUs are known for running quietly and reliably, so we wanted to try one for this build. The RS720 model we used is the sequel to the original, and has the same great features, including a 135mm fan that dynamically adjusts its speed according to conditions instead of running full-blast all the time. We also like its flat cables, which are more flexible than standard rounded cables. Otherwise, it offers the same high-quality specs, plus four PCIe connectors instead of two, making it easier to run dual GPUs when Crysis 4 arrives. The flat cables made for an easier build, but be warned that this model still uses rounded cables for the motherboard and CPU power.
One Downside of having a motherboard that supports quad-SLI is there is very little space between the first PCIe slot and the CPU socket. In fact, we discovered while building this rig that we were unable to use a CPU heatsink bigger than 120mm, which torpedoed our plans to use an NZXT Havik 140 cooler. The Havik 140 is a massive cooler with dual fans in a push-pull config, so we figured it would let us overclock to our heart’s content and stay quiet about it. But in practice, it was just too damned big. Sure, we could have installed the Havik, but it would have meant rotating the heatsink 90 degrees, which means that its fans would have been sucking air straight off a sweltering GPU, instead of the cooler air entering the case from the front intake—not a great idea. Undaunted, we decided to use our favorite low-cost CPU cooler, the always-popular Hyper 212 Evo from Cooler Master. It’s not sexy but it gets the job done and is quiet, sort of like an intern.
Update: We originally recommended the GeForce GTX 670 at the time of print, but we now recommend the GeForce GTX 770 for this build's GPU.
MSI kind of nailed it with its GeForce GTX 670 Power Edition. Its core clock is bumped up from 915MHz on the stock card to 1,020MHz, which is a slightly higher clock than that of a GTX 680, though the memory clock is left alone. Its boost clock speed of 1,080MHz is also higher than the GTX 680, which lets it keep pace with its big brother despite costing about $100 less. Its proprietary "Twin Frozr IV" cooler has dual fans and a huge heatsink with copper pipes, and it let us overclock the board even further to 1,100MHz core and 1,700MHz for the memory. We could have gone with a Radeon HD 7970, but most of them are voltage-locked and noisy. The GTX 670 Power Edition, meanwhile, is fully tweakable, and we know from past testing that this card will not give us any troubles since it’s always been quiet and reliable. So, there's a low potential for frustration, a high potential for performance, and a lack of excessive noise and heat. And since we're playing at 1080p, the HD 7970's additional gigabyte of VRAM and wider data bus aren't significant enough factors to bring us to team Red this time around.
An SSD is not the cheapest choice for storage, but when you can turn on your computer and be in the desktop in less than 20 seconds (as opposed to just staring at a boot screen while your HDD thrashes around), it's kind of a big deal. Of the current generation of drives, we have the OCZ Vector and Samsung 840 Pro alone at the top, and they cost a pretty penny at around $250–$275 for the 256GB versions. Corsair's Neutron GTX, though, hovers around $200 for the 256GB drive, despite offering nearly the same performance as the class leaders as well as the same 5-year warranty. It’s our opinion that once you get to these speeds, you simply won't feel a subjective difference between the top-tier SSDs and the second tier, so why not save a little money? As a bonus, the Corsair’s C70 case features slide-out drive trays with mounts for SSDs, so we didn’t even need any 3.5-inch conversion kits.
Perhaps we over-prepared. Our plan was to maintain over 40fps in Crysis 3 using the game's "High" graphics setting. As it turns out, we nearly hit that mark on "Very High" without even needing to overclock, though we were using 4x SMAA instead of 4x MSAA. The latter did not seem to have an improvement in visual quality that would justify the loss of about 5fps. The machine was also whisper-quiet throughout our testing. You could hear the 670's fans crank up a little, but it wasn't distracting, even when pushed to 1,100MHz core clock (nearly 200MHz above the reference board clock). However, if we were running a 2560x1600 display, the GTX 670 would not cut it. We’d have to get a second GPU for SLI action, as there’s simply no way a single GPU other than a GTX Titan could run this game at high settings at that resolution.
Otherwise, the system was a pleasure to build and test. The C70 chassis was roomy, cool, and quiet, though the thumbscrews on the PCI slot covers required a screwdriver to loosen, which kind of defeats the point. Having the intake fans on the drive cages instead of flush against the chassis also doesn’t make a lot of sense since they are set back from the front of the case by several inches. But moving those two 120mm units into the front bezel was fairly painless.
We’d like to point out that the Hyper 212 Evo CPU cooler let us take our Core i7 CPU from 3.6GHz to an overclocked 4.25GHz without breaking a sweat or making a peep, despite using just a single 120mm fan. Stock temps were around 30 C idle, with temps dipping into the mid-50s under load. The GPU hovered around 70 C when overclocked—not bad for a core clock running 17 percent faster than stock speed. MSI's copper heat pipes and dual fans helped there, for sure.
Overall, we rate this system a success both in terms of performance gained and money spent. And unlike most of our lab experiments, we do recommend you try this at home. A gaming system with these specs will last you at least until Crysis 4 comes out, when we’ll do this all over again.
|Stock Speeds||Overclocked||Percent Difference|
|Crysis 3, "Very High" (fps)||38||42||+10%|
|3DMark 11 Extreme||3,280||3,449||+5%|
|3DMark 11 Performance||9,204||9,702||+5%|
|3DMark (2013) Extreme||3,035||3,298||+8%|
Note: This article originally appeared in the May 2013 issue of the magazine.