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The quest for playable Dawn Of War III on a laptop

VGA res and 20 FPS - but it's fine!

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 1024x768.

Fortunately, DOW3 offers the increasingly common option for reducing rendering resolution. I.e. I can set it to 1024x768 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.

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