So I've finally started to have technical issues with Age of Conan. Despite being in the original closed beta, the launch weekend headstart, and several bug-ridden months of playtime after that, I've never really been unable to run the game until recently.

I'm playing with the same PC I used back when the game debuted in 2008; the only concession to hardware advancements I've made in the past two years is an updated video card. For some reason though, Khitai has become increasingly unplayable on my rig. This is curious because I was in the Godslayer beta with no problems, just like I tooled around in the Gateway zone when the expansion went live with no problems.

After the last couple of patches though, I'm unable to play in Hyboria's far east for more than a few minutes before a memory crash takes me back to the desktop. Also, I've had to completely bottom-out my graphical settings to be able to load into the new zones (and even with this concession, it literally takes four to six minutes -- yes I've timed it -- of staring at the loading screen and progress bar).

Slog past the cut for more.

Excuses to upgrade

So what's the solution? That's the question of the day, and Funcom's tech support doesn't have any answers for me other than "it can take up to 15 minutes to load into some of the maps in Khitai such as Northern Grasslands." This is quoted directly from a support email from GM Astallia.

I wish I were kidding, but apparently Funcom really does consider 15-minute load times to be acceptable. To be fair, my current gaming rig is no spring chicken. It was a year old when Age of Conan launched (if memory serves, I built it specifically to play Vanguard in 2007), so I can understand having to run with degraded graphics. However, the fact that I haven't had to do so prior to the last couple of weeks tells me that something has changed with the game rather than with my rig.

All that being said, I assume they'll fix it when they darn well feel like it, and we'll probably never even know what the issue was, since developers rarely communicate such details to the press or their playerbase. In the meantime, these frustrations, coupled with the fact that I was only getting 12 to 18 frames per second in Khitai back when I could actually load into it, have compelled me to build a new gaming machine. While The Anvil of Crom obviously isn't a column for tech-heads, I thought it might be nice to have a reference point for game performance, as well as some tips for people that might be thinking of building or upgrading their own equipment.

If you've never assembled your own computer before, let me assure you that it isn't rocket science. A few minutes spent perusing the forums at sites like Tom's Hardware will give you an overview of what you're getting into. Unless you're the type of person who boggles while trying to use a microwave or goes into cardiac arrest at the thought of using an all-in-one media center remote, you'll do fine. Disclaimer: Discussing gaming hardware is a bit like talking sports, politics, or religion; everyone's got a favorite and you'll inevitably be "wrong" no matter what you do. That said, this is what I did.

PC casePrerequisites

First off, as I have quite a bit of PC hardware lying around the house, I'll state up front that your costs may not match mine exactly. For example, I'm not including the price of a couple of terabyte hard drives (approximately $200) or a DVD burner (a measly 20 bucks) in my build because I already had them. Also, due to my pre-existing monitor (a 30" Apple Cinema Display) and the fact that it gobbles up video ram like a fat kid at a buffet, I have to take it into account when selecting components. I'm also leaving out the cost of Windows 7 ($100 for 64-bit Home Premium) since it's already on the PC I'm replacing, and I'll be transferring it over rather than buying a new copy. Finally, my existing G15 keyboard and G7 mouse are quite satisfactory, so that's another bit of savings (or expense, to the tune of $150) that you might want to take into account.

With all that said, what am I aiming for? In a nutshell, anything less than 30 frames per second at 2560x1600 resolution with all of AoC's graphical sliders maxed is unacceptable. Also, I'd love it if I could run Fraps underneath the full-screen game and maintain upwards of 30 frames per second, but realistically I may have to run the game in a smaller window due to the monitor size. In terms of cost, I'd like to keep the whole enchilada under $1500 if possible.

Building the perfect beast, fairly cheap

So, without further adieu, here is my shopping list:
The grand total comes to $1574.46 (including taxes and overnight shipping, a criminal two hundred and fifty bucks), meaning the parts themselves were right at $1300. This was well under my target goal, but as I stated above, I saved a bit by having spare hard drives and an OS. If you're truly starting from scratch, plan on around $1450 unless you just have to have the biggest hard drive currently available.

If you're doing your own shopping as opposed to taking my word for it, keep in mind that there are hundreds of different PC parts manufacturers, and the market is quite competitive. I originally ordered from NewEgg, but due to a complete lack of customer service on their part, I canceled that order and used TigerDirect instead. No matter whom you buy from, you should be able to get a comparable build for the same amount of money (maybe even better if RAM prices drop a little bit). You may choose a different case, or prefer ATI graphics to Nvidia, or any number of other options, but the end results should be similar if you do your homework.

PC vid cardResults

Everything went together in about an hour; in fact, the most time-consuming part of upgrading or building a new PC is re-installing all of your software and setting everything up just so. After a bit of tweaking and tuning, I fired up Age of Conan and ported over to Khitai to see if I'd just wasted a lot of money.

First, the good news: Khitai is as jaw-droppingly gorgeous as I remembered from my old machine's glory days, particularly with DX10 enabled and the viewing distance sliders maxed. I ran with every box checked and every option on "high" (or the equivalent; frankly AoC's video options pane is a huge litany of stuff that I don't have space enough to list). Anti-aliasing settings did have a big impact on frame rates. I settled on 4x as the performance degradations of the higher options simply weren't worth the barely noticeable visual improvements.

Frame rates stayed between 25 and 30 frames per second as I ran around the entirety of the huge Northern Grasslands zone. I didn't venture into any of the instances, as performance is usually better there since they have far fewer objects and textures to render. The bad news is that Fraps dropped anywhere from 10 to 15 frames per second off my performance. This is still playable, but it's very noticeable and not ideal, particularly for the reaction-based melee combat in Age of Conan. The other bad news is that the game client did occasionally stutter while loading new textures. It certainly wasn't game-breaking, but it was there, and I'm interested to see if someone with an even better machine experiences the same hiccups at the same settings. This stuttering only took place in Khitai; Tarantia, Khemi, and Kheshatta were noticeably free of it. Also interesting is the fact that I consistently got 8 to 10 more frames per second outside of Khitai.

One final thing to note is the heat put out by this rig. Honestly, the thing could probably heat my gaming room in the dead of winter, if not my entire house. Despite the ginormous 200mm fans included with the case, I've taken the liberty of ordering an additional CPU cooler and, in the summer months, will probably end up pointing one of the those cheap Wal-Mart desk fans toward the case. Despite all this, it runs much more quietly than the old machine.

Since I hit my performance target (sans Fraps), I didn't bother testing with a windowed/lower resolution or with a smaller monitor. It's safe to assume that you'll get even better numbers if you run at 1680x1050 on a 22" monitor, for example. You'll also get fantastic single-player gaming performance out of this rig, as you can see by the benchmarking tests over at Tom's Hardware. Out of curiosity, I fired up EverQuest II as well and was pleased to note that my frame rates basically doubled in comparison to my old configuration. I ran all the options full-bore and achieved a maximum of 20 frames per second at 2560x1600 on my older machine, while the new one clocks in at anywhere between 35 and 40.

That's all the time we've got for now. Feel free to flex your own hardware muscles in the comments, or ask questions. Until next week, I leave you with the hardworking billing department at NewEgg, where their only goal is your satisfaction.



Jef Reahard is an Age of Conan beta and launch day veteran, as well as the creator of Massively's weekly Anvil of Crom. Feel free to suggest a column topic, propose a guide, or perform a verbal fatality via jef@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.
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