Unigine Heaven DX11 Benchmark Is Beautiful, Free, and (to Gamers) Useful
At a Glance
High-end video cards are hungry, demanding beasts. They eat money, suck down power, run hot, and occasionally require complex driver configuration or other special care in return for the visual thrills they provide. Moreover, the benefits of such a setup can be hard to appreciate over a well-chosen mid-range alternative, especially at the time of purchase. Unless multiple monitors or very high resolutions come into play, the extra FPS and features you pay for won’t matter until later, when you're able to skip next year's upgrade cycle or play games which implement those new technologies. That's pretty thin soup for most gamers, who want to see the prowess they paid for onscreen now, not next winter. Unigine's Heaven is a synthetic gaming benchmark that provides next-generation graphics today, delivering the visual goods while doing its best to entertain you in the process.
Designed as a showcase for DirectX11, Heaven provides a fully realized, outdoor 3D environment filled with lush vegetation and highly detailed models. The floating islands are dotted with dragons, dirigibles and other surprises lovingly rendered by an engine that supports ambient occlusion, stereo 3D, tessellation and other advanced features that are only just now starting to appear in top-shelf computer games. The built in flyby test provides a score for comparison to other systems, but the real fun here resides in the open nature of Unigine's world; by taking down the fences and allowing users to explore they've made Heaven the Skyrim of benchmarking.
Using simple keyboard controls familiar to most gamers you can freely navigate the environment and alter just about every visual setting in real time; a more interactive and entertaining experience than a static flyby. This instant feedback allows you to easily separate the options that run smoothly from those that stifle framerates. You can also alter the time of day (the gas lamps turn on at night), toggle the soundtrack on or off and select between several camera modes. Although designed for DX11, Heaven also supports DX9 and 10 along with OpenGL, making it a one-stop tool suitable for a wide range of systems. It was written with higher-end rigs in mind, however, so you’ll need a beefy and fairly recent videocard to pass through Unigine's pearly gates.
While generally stable, a few curious situations occurred that suggest the code remains unfinished. Occasional DX11 error messages during startup on multi-display systems, clipping issues in free form movement and unimplemented features displayed in the settings tabs indicate a lack of polish and optimization. Fortunately, these don't appear to impact accuracy or usability. A fantastically expensive Pro version exists for close to $500 USD, but the differences between the free and pro versions boil down to automation, data export, and commercial licensing, aspects more relevant to developers than to most gamers. While products such as 3DMark Basic may provide more comprehensive data and other frills, Heaven is faster to run, more flexible and definitely more fun. I also think it looks better than 3DMark Basic 11's murky underwater world. If you’re a gamer with a mid- to high-end system and want to see what games will look like in a year or two, Heaven awaits.