The quest for playable Dawn Of War III on a laptop

Something I enjoy doing, because my capacity to be tedious is matched only by my willingness to waste time on doomed endeavours, is trying to get games working on below-minimum spec PCs. Specifically, my aged Surface Pro 3 and its lousy integrated Intel graphics. Offline mode confusions aside, Warhammer 40000: Dawn of War 3 [official site] is exactly the kind of game I want to play on train rides, but officially it requires a 2GB dedicated graphics card. Unofficially, not so much. I’ve got it running, and made it look like an early 2000s RTS in the process.

First, here are the official minimum specs:

Processor: 3GHz i3 quad logical core or equivalent
Memory: 4 GB of RAM, 1 GB of VRAM RAM
Graphics: NVIDIA GeForce 460 or AMD Radeon 6950 or equivalent DirectX 11-card

And my Surface Pro 3’s specs:

Processor: 2.50GHz i5 dual core (with hyperthreading)
Memory: 8GB of RAM, no dedicated VRAM
Graphics: Intel HD 4400 integrated

Oh dear, basically. Once in a while I can get a new game running at 30 fps at 720p and bare-minimum settings on this thing, but that’s becoming rarer and rarer as time goes by. I just had this feeling that DOW3 might be possible, though, so I persevered.

The problem with the SP3 goes beyond simply its specs, however. This is an ultra-portable laptop (and tablet hybrid), which means it’s sacrificed cooling for slimness, and that in turn means that it brutally underclocks itself if it gets too hot. And “too hot” means “more than about five minutes of CPU load.” Games make it run super-slow super-quickly, so even if I can get DOW3 playable, it will cease to be so within minutes.

The solution is this:

A USB fan angled to blow cold air at the top-right corner of the device, which is where its heat concentrates. It’s very noisy, it looks stupid and I always lose some skin trying to make it point just so, but it works. The CPU speed doesn’t drop through the floor so long as this thing is blowing.

Which leaves the matter of settings. Obviously, rock-bottom everything is required, but in the case of DOW3, turning off all the post-processing stuff makes surprisingly little difference so long as you’re not looking too closely. Resolution was the problem – even 720p meant about 10 frames per second. As did 1024×768.

Fortunately, DOW3 offers the increasingly common option for reducing rendering resolution. I.e. I can set it to 1024×768 and that’s the image ‘size’ I get, but the game is actually rendering at half of that (or 66% of it, depending on what you choose). Essentially, I’m playing a high-end 2017 game at VGA resolution. The UI is still rendered at the higher setting, however, so doesn’t become illegible. And this is how it looks:

Awful, right? Oddly, in practice I quite like it. It puts me in mind of the limited-but-characterful animations of the pixel people in olden Command and Conquers and Ages of Empire, which pleases the old nostalgic in me. Occasionally, performance will spike to 30 or even 35 fps, but by and large it’s sat around 20-25 – which is absolutely fine. In an FPS it’d probably be horrible, but an RTS doesn’t seem to suffer for it.

Sure, it all looks and sounds abominable on paper, but here’s the thing with game graphics settings and even performance: you only really notice while you’re trying to notice. Learn to stop worrying and the blockiness, Harryhausian jerkiness and soft edges all fades away after a few minutes. You’re playing a videogame, caring about videogame things like building and fighting and upgrading, and that’s what you really see, what you really care about. Sure, this is an extreme case, but how many times has beefing up a game’s settings to the max – e.g. by buying a new graphics card – really, honestly improved the experience?

Anyway, now you know how I spend my weekends.

53 Comments

  1. Sin Vega says:

    It’s disappointing that so many devs/publishers don’t take more care to make their games playable on low end machines. Even if it comes at a fairly drastic cost, a sale’s a sale, and a lot of people will gladly play anyway and not think less of the game for it, assuming of course that it’s properly signposted before you start that “these settings will make the game look like shite”.

    Fair play to those that do, mind. It’s sometimes rather puzzling exactly which games work and which don’t – you’d assume that being 3D was the big factor, but on my cheap and now old laptop, I can run some 3d games just fine (Left for Dead 2 comes to mind), but even a fair few 2d games are either a slog or outright unplayable.

    • ColonelFlanders says:

      I know, and to be honest it’s outrageous that they don’t take the time to develop their game three times so that people from the past can have a go as well.

      • automatic says:

        That’s not game devs work, it’s work for ppl that build game engines. And considering the continuously growing amount of ‘ppl from the past’ that there is out there it may as well be worth it.

        • ColonelFlanders says:

          You’re absolutely right, those bastards should make it so that UE4 works with Windows 95!

          • Premium User Badge

            Panther_Modern says:

            The game is terribly optimized, it isn’t a question of handling a weird use case that no one cares about.

            For the average user the game is going to have mediocre performance, and this inherently alienates a large portion of the playerbase.

            Inversely, the ability to run LoL WC3 and Starcraft on low end systems was part of the reason for their success and popularity in general

          • Ferno says:

            Is it badly optimised? I must be lucky as I’ve had no performance issues whatsoever!

          • Revoran says:

            Pather Modem – DoW3 isn’t badly optimised though? It runs fine on a wide variety of systems.

            The graphics options menu is lacklustre, yes.

            What the devs need to work on is fixing bugs and crashes and providing more detailed gfx options. But performance-wise the game is generally fine.

            SC2, LoL and WoW run fine on old systems today because they are OLD games. SC2 and LoL are 7 years old. WoW is 13 years old.

    • TheSkiGeek says:

      Even if it comes at a fairly drastic cost, a sale’s a sale…

      Well… that’s exactly the problem. Do you spend extra months of development time trying to make your game run better on hopelessly obsolete hardware? Or take time away from making the game look super-shiny on modern hardware to do that? In the hope that people who can’t or won’t spend $100 every few years on a GPU (or paying a similar amount to put a discrete GPU in their shitty laptop) will pay $60 for your game? Their minimum specs are already basically “anything that’s not the worst available Intel integrated graphics”.

      It’s one thing if you’re making an F2P game like League or DOTA, but for premium-priced AAA titles it seems like this would be unlikely to pay off unless you are very sure you’ll sell a bajillion copies (say… Overwatch.)

  2. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    Not sure I could face playing through modern games like that… I’ve got Dishonored 2 installed at the moment but I’m struggling with it because my laptop isn’t good enough to run it on any decent settings.

    Mind you, I don’t think you can reduce the settings quite as much as you have done with DOW3 here.

    The worst game I’ve played recently to stress out my poor laptop 860M is Black Mesa, which feels incredibly badly optimised (or perhaps just really hates laptop graphics cards?).

  3. Premium User Badge

    Styxie says:

    Nice, but can it run The Witcher 3 at 4 FPS, like my i7 4790k’s integrated graphics?

    This new GPU can’t get here quick enough. I’ve been surviving on nothing but Battle Brothers, Crusader Kings 2 and Spelunky for three months now.

  4. fuggles says:

    I could point you at some lovely Dow soulstorm mods?

    Hey it was that or something pithy about how it looks no different. So droll and on trend. Sadly my poor pc won’t run it whatever, so don’t even get to try. Boo!

  5. Mister eX says:

    I’m doing this a lot too, mainly out of necessity. I’ve had my first “proper”, new PC in 2003, and used that until october of 2015, when my friends gifted me a much better one for my birthday. Since I’m a grown, working man, I can’t play games as much as I’d like to, so while I went through a dozen of games that I couldn’t since about 2007, there is still a lot of stuff I want to try.

    This machine is looking like this: Core 2 Duo E8400 (3ghz), 4GB RAM, Gerforce GT730. So it’s not enough for today’s (AAA) games, but it doesn’t bother me much – as I’ve said, still a lot of stuff to try, and almost every big game from 2007-’08 looks great to me. :D

    But occasionally there is a newer game I’d really love to play, and then comes the tweaking. :D The first one I thought I’d never be able to play was Dragon Age: Inquisition. I’ve already played through the first two, and in fact, I was still playing 2 when I started to research running DAI on dual cores, and below min. reqs in general. Looking at youtube videos and reading forums, I didn’t have much hope. But I’ve tried anyway, and I’ve worked out a setup where it still looked beautiful to me, and could keep a more or less steady 30 fps. Judging by my research, I may be the only one with a dual core who could play it without those annoying “freeze frames” every few seconds. :D

    Then, since it uses the same engine (and while I used cfg tweaks in DAI, ingame settings were far from the lowest), I thought I’d try Mass Effect: Andromeda. Results: while the gpu could handle it on below minimum (with cfg tweaks) settings, now I had those annoying “freeze frames” ’cause of the cpu.
    But, here comes my latest “triumph”: I’m playing, and enjoying DOOM (2016). :D Granted, it almost looks as Doom 3, but man-oh-maaaan, gameplay! :D

    Btw, RPS has been my favorite store on the C… I mean, place on the internet for about this past one & a half years now, and this was my first post. So, Hi! :D
    (And sorry if my english is shoddy here and there – not my native language. :))

    • Hydrogene says:

      Great post! I always have a great satisfaction at running a game below spec on an old laptop so I know exactly how you feel.

      • Mister eX says:

        Thanks! Yeah, thankfully a lot of games can be run on below min. spec PCs and sometimes you don’t even have to go full low with the settings. :) Like, when there’s some resource-heavy post process setting that you can’t turn off in the game settings (only turn it to low), but in a cfg file you can, and then maybe turn a few other options up, and it ultimately looks better. :D I’ve had that exact situation with Mad Max for example, if I remember correctly.

        Oh Lord, I’ve just spotted that I’ve managed to misspell GeForce… :’D

        • emotionengine says:

          You might find this video (and indeed the whole channel) interesting where a guy tries to get demanding games such as DOOM running on less than impressive hardware. His channel is aptly called “Low Spec Gamer” and with some choice console commands he squeezes the last drops of performance out of DOOM running on a Celeron and Intel HD Graphics: link to youtube.com

          • Mister eX says:

            Yeah, I know him! His channel I mean… :D Helped me a bit with DOOM too, and I didn’t even had to go as low he did in those videos. :) As I’ve said, it barely looks better then Doom 3, but the gameplay is just epic, and mostly fluid. I enjoy it, so it’s waaay better than waiting for years to be able to play it. :D

        • Hydrogene says:

          Ah ah! When you’re as old as I am and remember having had to tweak config.sys and autoexec.bat files in DOS to free memory at boot, editing a small confil file is no big deal! :))

          • Mister eX says:

            It’s by no means a big deal, but not every game allows that kind of outside tweaking – like an optional “user.cfg” file with the Frostbite engine – where you can change stuff that’s not available in the game’s or config util’s settings, or in the default settings file. You have to do research on what kinds of parameters you can put in there, etc…

  6. Railway Rifle says:

    “my capacity to be tedious is matched only by my willingness to waste time on doomed endeavours”

    This man will go far. I feel he could have done well in finance or politics.

  7. Doomlord says:

    Yeah, not worth the hassle. Just buy a better Laptop, is what I’d do instead.

    • Premium User Badge

      malcneuro says:

      Playing on older/weaker hardware has a lot to be said for it… For those of us that have to travel a lot, or can’t afford new hardware, the lowspec life is a reality!

      • Tigris says:

        Well from a computer game journalist one would expect to have a better laptop though, since playing games is kind of his job.
        I mean he could most likely even get a laptop for free if he put a review up here about it.

        Especially when you have to do such a hassle every time you want to play a new game, at some point the time loss makes it just worth to get a new laptop.

        Also a side note: I had “supporter” written in red on the top oif my screen below the “Howdy Tigris” this kinda seemed like a bug.

        • rustybroomhandle says:

          This is not his main gaming rig, it’s an experiment he did for fun and to write about it.

        • ogopogo says:

          …but if he’s writing an article on low-spec gaming, he’s going to have to play on a crappy machine??

          Articles on bleeding edge GFX cards are interesting, sure, but probably only really relevant to a few % of the readers. Low-spec gaming articles are probably relevant to a much higher percentage.

          Also, how much do you imagine a journalist gets paid? Look that up, then adjust down for “gaming journalist..” (your words!) and adjust again for “…for a blog.”

          Aww great, now it sounds like I’m beating on an author that has my dream job. Love these low-spec articles– I can always read hardware porn on Tom’s or Ars, but this here blurb addressed a topic that’s underserved.

      • BlueTemplar says:

        I have to point out that the Surface Pro 3 he’s using would have cost more than £1000 new. (He got it second-hand.)

  8. haldolium says:

    Do you use streaming?

    My laptop had the same issues, clocking down and getting too hot and also way too loud, so I tried streaming instead. With not too fast paced games that delivered solid FPS on my main rig it worked quite well. Haven’t had too much time to try it out more intense since my HDD crashed shortly after I began using it, but it sure delivered a better result as native rendered games did. At the end even older games frequently caused too much heat and noise, video encoding though was bearable and steady.

    • Kasjer says:

      Well, streaming is not a viable option while traveling. Maybe in hotel, but not during long train ride or flight.

      • haldolium says:

        Well I don’t know about others, but for me playing core games isn’t viable most of the time in any train or plane anyways, unless you pay a tremendous amount of money for traveling in a (good) 1st class in which case you might be able to get a proper rig anyways.

        I already abandoned deeper games on my PSP pretty fast back a decade ago, since I found an unstable environment distracting and disruptive to any kind of more involved gameplay. Turn based stuff might still work, but anything that needs fast action is out of the question for me personally.

  9. icarussc says:

    Your baby is cute. That’s all. Keep it up.

  10. Rack says:

    I really can’t stand turning settings so low. I get a real kick out of playing games in pristine condition, at high resolution without or pop in aliasing or other compromises. For me laptop gaming is about going back far enough in time to get games that can still look their best. Dawn of War 1, Vampire Bloodlines and Crypt of the Necrodancer all worked great.

    • Syrion says:

      I love playing lots of older games and actually prefer the graphics of many of those to more recent games, like the old X-Com, Doom or Quake. Also, I always try as much as possible to play games “as they were intended by the developer”, which means I played through Doom at 320×240 resolution and Quake with a software renderer that looks exactly like the DOS release (not just as a matter of principle, I just love the look!).
      For newer games, though, that means I also really don’t like turning down graphics options, as I just don’t want to lose details that were specifically made to be there. So, I’m fine with lowering resolution and not using anti-aliasing, but anything else always seems rather critical to me.

      So far, my “gaming laptop” has held up and I think the best it did was running Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag at 720p with high settings. But, when I get around to playing Fallout 4 and Doom 4 I suppose it’s going to get a bit trickier.

  11. Frankie The Patrician[PF] says:

    The graphics remind me of the Myth RTS series, which is not bad! For 90s, anyway.

    Yeah, I have been there – I remember trying to get Bioshock Demo get to work on my PC, which had a dedicated graphics card without a TnL functionality (GF2 MX, I think). I did get it to work via a specialty tool, but it ran really bad with many missing effects. Still, I was pretty excited to play it at least for a little bit. I got to play the game a few years later on a better machine.

    • Premium User Badge

      MajorLag says:

      It’s the landscape texture in Myth it’s reminding you of. Those games had brutally small textures stretched over the map mesh. It’s really noticeable with a modern patched version.

      Also, high-five for remembering that Myth existed.

      • Enkidum says:

        I wish someone would remake Myths I and II. The basic gameplay was superb, both in single-player and multiplayer, and I’ve never played anything else with that specific type of pure tactical combat with no resource management at all. And the writing + art assets, both sprites and loading screens, were so much better than… honestly virtually anything I’ve played before or since. Shame those developers disappeared and have never made anything at all since…

  12. jtdiddy says:

    Whats the best settings i can get away with playing dow3 on a i7 SP4?

  13. hoho0482 says:

    Spent most of a flight to Sydney trying to get shattered union (fab, under rated turn based strategy) to work on my eee pc 7. Finally an arcane choice of settings on some Gpu hack software go it running at about 10fps, about half hour before landing…

  14. napoleonic says:

    Alec, I do the same thing but with my Surface Pro 2.

    My best successes have been in winter, playing it on the sill of an open window. You have to wear thick clothing though!

  15. SirCanealot says:

    Have you tried undervolting via Intel Extreme tuner?

    Results may vary, but I’ve had 2 Surface Pro 3s for work and both got to around -25mv on the GPU and -50mv on the CPU (I think that’s both pretty bad too). Google it, however, as you may need to look into disabling connected standby (which I hate anyway).

    With the the undervolt it will barely throttle at all under just CPU load and will take quite a lot more heat when gaming. (no, there is no chance of hardware damage, just crashes and a slight/minute chance of software corruption or losing unsaved work)

  16. poliovaccine says:

    As someone currently doing most of their gaming on a laptop with almost exactly the same specs as the “clearly underpowered” one in this example, I gotta say, the struggle is real. The big broad bouncer of technological limitation keeps me out of the current gen of games – if it werent for titles like Tyranny and Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor I wouldnt be playing anything newer than 2014..! Gee you guys, The Witcher 2 was pretty interesting, wonder what they’ll cook up next..?

    • Kaeoschassis says:

      On an ancient, physically broken laptop bearing a particularly terrible intel graphics setup (which has all sorts of fun quirks, for example, glitching out like crazy anytime anything tries to do v-synch ever), and yeah, I know the feeling. There are entire generations of gaming I haven’t got to try yet. Sometimes, like Alec, I can get modern-ish games running pretty well if the devs were gracious enough to let me switch off unnecessary shine in the .cfg or .ini, but that’s always a big ‘if’.

      On the other hand, it’s really made me appreciate some games from the previous couple of generations that I might not even have bought otherwise, so there’s definitely a silver lining.

      • poliovaccine says:

        Totally hear you there – frankly, I’m in less of a hurry to upgrade than I could be – I took a years-long hiatus from gaming, so when I got interested again I was left with a huge backlog of classics I’d never heard of before. I only really feel the pinch when I remember the existence of things like MGSV.. or The Witcher 3… or Fallout 4, or DXMD, or Dishonored 2, or Dark Souls 3, or Resident Evil 7, or Prey, or…

        But some stuff really surprises me. For instance, I can run Shadow of Mordor at a solid 30-35 FPS. It’s because the devs let me ramp down the settings so low it damn near looks like Populous, but hey, I still play Populous sometimes too!

        That’s also why it bums me out to find I wasted a purchase on things like Anno 2270, which I thought should run fine, since it’s ostensibly the same thing as Anno 1440 in a spacesuit, right? Wrong, apparently. I can run a 3D open world with complex combat and dynamic, group AI out the hind area, but I cant run too recent of a city builder? What is it even doing that makes it so needy??

  17. vorador says:

    I still wonder why AMD has never released any tablet PCs, seeing how their APU line has GPUs that are leaps and bounds beyond the Intel HD line.

    Maybe Ryzen will change that.

  18. haldolium says:

    /del

  19. shenhan says:

    Does this mean that I can play this game at a locked 30 fps on my i7 Surface Pro 3? :P

  20. OmNomNom says:

    A respected and popular game reviewer deserves a more powerful laptop. Why try and make something run on crappy hardware?

    • shenhan says:

      I bet he’s got a better desktop but use surface pro 3 for work. (Because I have the same setup)

  21. caff says:

    When I’ve had crap PCs, I’ve discovered some of the best games I’ve ever played.

    It makes you truly evaluate the core essence of gaming.

    Just get yourself on itch.io or read RPSs freeloaders column.

  22. goon buggy says:

    GTA V ran on my laptop with hd4400 at launch. I didnt even realize it wasnt swapping to nvidia until I checked the forums.
    Relics essence engine is awfully out dated these days. Theyre always looking out for potatoes. Thats why all previous games have had a crappy zoom out, but better model detail. Now theyve zoomed out a bit and the model quality has dropped.

  23. BlueTemplar says:

    The Surface Pro 3 has a native resolution of 2160×1440 (3:2 or 13.5:9), which is _way_ too high in pixel density (216 ppi) for a 12.0 inches (30 cm) screen.
    You have to run it with scaling, which causes all sorts of issues with older software and additional screens – annoying for what is supposed to be a “Pro” device.

    So recently I settled on running it directly at 1440×900 (16:10), with no scaling.
    It’s the native horizontal resolution of 2160 divided by 1.5, so the blurriness is minimized, it has a pixel density of a bit more than 140 ppi, which feels not too dense, and the integrated graphics can better withstand games at that resolution.
    This also means I can run some games windowed at 1280×720.

  24. Nolenthar says:

    Fun times. In the case of the author (being, an user having one normal PC and one non gaming PC), it’s good fun I admit. I have good fun as well playing on my laptop, even though I generally stick to old games just because, technically, a game is fun irrelevant if it was made in 2005 or in 2017. New games on a crappy hardware, it’s better to avoid it imo, as a new game on low settings generally look a lot worse than an old game on medium or high settings, for some reasons

  25. Kamikaze-X says:

    What is the point of trying to run modern games on hardware that can’t handle it if it ends up looking like older games anyway?

    I had an Atom based tablet for a little while, and it was perfectly content running games like Rise of Nations, an absolutely fantastic yet by todays standards ancient game and it ran it great. we just cannot expect devs to cater for every single hardware combo out there, and you would buy hardware for a particular use case.

    Its like buying photoshop for your ZX Spectrum and complaining to adobe that it won’t work.

    • bill says:

      “What is the point of trying to run modern games on hardware that can’t handle it if it ends up looking like older games anyway?”

      Er.. usually the point is to be able to play modern games when you have older/weaker hardware.

      Playing older games is also an option of course.