Tweak Your Graphics Card for Gaming

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Whether you use in-game settings or the graphics board control panels, you'll run into problems. Graphics drivers and 3D games are complex pieces of software, and the interactions between them are often unpredictable. Let's take a look at several typical issues and solutions.

Lack of Feature Support

I've already mentioned how games using the Unreal Engine often don't support antialiasing. In a few games, such as Borderlands and Mass Effect 2, you can't even override the lack of in-game antialiasing with the control panels. Certain rendering techniques in games, like deferred lighting or render-to-texture, can also interfere with multisampling antialiasing.

Some tricks are available, such as downloading third-party utilities like RivaTuner, but many of them are old and don't work under Windows 7 64-bit. Occasionally, driver updates will permit you to force a feature such as antialiasing or anisotropic filtering, or the game will be updated to allow that feature, but the only thing you can do is wait for the update.

In other cases, one particular feature in the game may prevent another from working. For example, some games won't work properly with antialiasing and high dynamic range (HDR) lighting, even though both features may show up in the game settings. Try them out for yourself, and if you run into extreme performance degradation or image-quality issues, just disable one of the conflicting features.

Driver Problems

Earlier, I mentioned how Catalyst AI would result in missing textures in Borderlands. It's not uncommon for new games to have problems with existing 3D-card drivers. All drivers make heavy use of optimizations, and sometimes that will cause a problem with a new game that may use the latest build of DirectX.

Missing textures in Borderlands.

These issues may manifest as image corruption, game crashes, or very low frame rates. In such cases, one tactic is to go to a very basic driver level and disable certain advanced features in-game. For help, check the various online forums or do a Web search combining the game name and your graphics card model.

On rare occasions, you may even have to wait for driver updates before playing a particular game--thankfully, both nVidia and AMD are good about issuing driver "hotfixes" for popular new titles that may encounter problems.

One other tactic that may seem counterintuitive is to roll back to an earlier driver. Sometimes compatibility issues are accidentally introduced in newer driver releases, meaning that if something breaks you'll have to uninstall the new driver and reinstall the old one (which is usually still available from the manufacturer's Website).

Game Bugs

Sometimes you may encounter obscure bugs in a game that cause graphics issues. Given the large array of hardware, PC game developers can't always test for all possible combinations.

For example, I've seen SSAO (screen space ambient occlusion) allowed as a setting on graphics hardware that can't possibly support it. The result may be image corruption, a game crash, or, if you're lucky, nothing happening aside from the feature not working.

Driver Residue

Driver Cleaner in action.
The general rule of thumb is always to uninstall your existing driver before installing a new one. If you don't, it's possible for traces of the old driver to remain on the system; it may be a stray DLL, or a Registry entry that conflicts with a new driver entry.

If you've been installing new drivers over older versions, you'll likely encounter game crashes and severe image-quality problems. One solution is to download Driver Cleaner. Though it used to be free, Driver Cleaner is now a $10 download--but it's worth it.

You're in Control

You may care about frame rate above all else, or be the kind of person to tweak every available setting for the best possible image quality. Either way, don't forget to check both the in-game graphics settings and your graphics card's control panel. Just a few tweaks can result in a much more immersive and satisfying experience.

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