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Dragon Age 2 Mac vs PC

Decided it was time to do a little testing…

I bought DA2 through Steam (PC) and have been playing it there, and decided to give it a run through OS X.

The good news is… if you bought the Windows version (through a service like Steam), your serial number will probably work on the Mac (mine did anyway). You’ll have to borrow an install disc from somebody however. If you have the retail box copy, it includes both installers. In fact, if you have the retail disc copy, you can try it out on OS X, and if you hate it, bootcamp into Windows and just install/play it in Windows. And the game itself is quite good. So that’s the good news.

The bad news is… the Mac version blows.

Update/Edit: That statement has been controversial, so let me be clear. The Mac version blows compared to the Windows version (you’re reading a comparison after all). The Windows version is well-tuned. The Mac version isn’t tuned at all. The Windows version gets 2x the frame rate of the Mac version. The Windows version was QA-tested, whereas the Mac version clearly wasn’t (2 of the 3 bugs I came across were very obvious and there’s no way they’d miss QA). The Windows version is native, the Mac version is a Cider port (wrapped and translated rather than actually programmed for Mac OS).

That’s not to say that you’ll necessarily have a bad experience with the Mac version – you may very well have an enjoyable experience. If it meets your standards then great. If on the other hand you find the experience…. wanting…. you may want to consider trying it through Windows. This is in stark contrast to other Mac games out there (Blizzards, Valves, and even the latest Civilization), where the Mac experience is just as good as the Windows experience.

UPDATE2: Ran the game again through a brand new 2011 MacBook Pro, with the 6750m GPU. It plays very well, and is a very reasonable gaming experience. That said, it’s truly disappointing that you need a top-of-the-line Mac for DA2 to have what I’d consider a reasonably good playable experience in OSX.

If you’ve got a mid-range Mac, or a Mac from 1-2 years ago, you have my condolences. Try the game in Mac OS X first, and if you find it “acceptable”, then great. If you find the performance to be wanting, fire up a Windows bootcamp partition, and you’ll get the higher framerates you expect/deserve.


PART 1 – A FEW QUICK SCREENSHOTS

Let’s hit up some details.

First, a quick couple screenshots to show the location that was loaded:

The Windows Screenshot – Click the image to see it in full-size (warning… it’s kinda huge)
The OS X Screenshot – Click the image to see it in full-size (warning… it’s also kinda huge)

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You probably won’t find any substantial differences between them. Meril’s face is lighter in the first one, but I believe it’s just the lack of clouds overhead (in previous testing with the demo, I noticed that it was tough to get consistency when it came to face brightness).

You can skip the following grey¬†section if you’re not interested in the game’s overall differences between quality settings – it’s not terribly important to the Mac/PC comparison.

The above screenshots are at the “low” setting, with everything else turned off. I have screenshots of the higher quality settings, but for anyone interested, rather than upload them all, it basically goes like this:

  • Low (as you see above) seems to rely on ambient lights (no difference between PC and Mac). Objects don’t appear to cast their own shadows, and this includes characters. You don’t see shadows coming from anyone in the party, and if you look at the dwarves in the scene (left-mid), there’s only a circular shadow below them. Note that I also grabbed a “low” with the DX11 renderer, but it looked identical.
  • Medium adds character shadows, and objects appear to cast their own shadows as well. Much of the scene looks different – everything from the stone shadows on the left (the shadows add depth) to the wall/pillars on the right (shadows add realism). Fairly important to note that “medium” on the PC is the same as “high” on the Mac. Yes, the Mac has “low” and “high” settings, but they’re actually “low” and “medium”. Note that I compared “medium” under DX9 and DX11, and there didn’t appear to be any difference in visual quality.
  • High (PC-only) actually had no discernible difference from Medium. It’s possible that some of the character shadows were slightly smoother, but I didn’t take enough screenshots to verify it. Important to note that this is just 1 area – there could actually be significant differences when it comes to spell effects, or in other locations, but since that wasn’t the primary focus of this write-up, I didn’t do further testing.
  • Very high (PC-only) had fairly significant differences. In particular, shadows were smooth and had blur (couple ways of doing this, but from the screenshots, I don’t believe every light was able to cast a shadow or anything… possibly raytracing rather than shadow maps, or shadow maps with really high depth map resolutions). The other largely obvious change had to do with the ground tiles. Rather than explain it, I’ll just stick the very-high screenshot below…

Here’s the very-high screenshot (only available in the Windows version of DA2):

Very High settings in Windows (DirectX 11) – Note that all the fancy options were turned OFF. No ambient occlusion, no AA, no AF, no “high quality blur”, etc.

Here’s the gist of the visual quality: The Mac version basically has “low” and “medium” settings. Basically, the same settings as a Windows user with a DX9-only video card. The Windows version on the other hand has “high” and “very high” as well for those with DX11. Nothing quality-wise seems to be lost in the conversion from Windows’ DirectX9 to the Mac’s OpenGL, aside from the higher DX11-only options.

However, that doesn’t mean the total experience is anywhere close to the same. Read on to find out why.

PART 2 – FRAME RATE COMPARISON

A playable framerate’s kinda important. Does the Mac port hold up?

Nope.

I also tested at medium, but since “low” is about all you’ll be using on the Mac (for reasons listed below), I didn’t upload the chart. 52/48/35 are the numbers (dx9/dx11/mac) if you’re curious. On High and Very High (only available on Windows in DX11), the numbers are 42/19. Yes, “very high” is quite taxing on the video card.

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Windows hit about 60FPS. The Mac OS X port hit about 40FPS.

Still playable though, right?

WRONG.

Normally 40fps would be reasonable. However, the Mac OS X port of DA2 suffers from serious graphical anomalies when VSYNC is off. Visually, it looks like screen-tearing without actually tearing. As you walk through Kirkwall, flickering lines appear across buildings, and “blocks” along the walls update sporadically. It looks pretty hideous.

Unfortunately, when VSYNC is turned on to correct the anomalies, the Mac’s numbers plummet from 39 FPS all the way down to 26 FPS. That’s a whopping 33% drop in framerate to correct an issue that shouldn’t exist. Below 30fps things start to get into “painful” territory.

I don’t think I can express how absurdly poor this is. For reference, this is running at 1600 x 900 on a mid-2010 iMac with an ATI/AMD 5730m. That’s a fairly high card, not even running the iMac at full resolution. What’s worse is that the game is basically using DirectX 9 – something that hasn’t been cutting-edge since 2004.

So in Windows, the game hits a very respectable 60 FPS at low settings. Run the same game on the same machine, but through Mac OS X, and it’s choking along at 26 FPS.

Half the quality options? CHECK.
Half the frame rate? CHECK.

If you wondered why I said “the Mac version blows” at the beginning, you’re probably starting to understand why.

Not convinced? Don’t worry, there’s a part 3.

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PART 3 – MAC BUGS

UPDATE2: I tested for all 3 bugs on a 2011 MBP, and it appears they no longer exist. It’s possible they were quashed in the OS X 10.6.7 update, or the DA2 1.1 patch. You can see the original write-up for this section here, though note that since the issue doesn’t present, it’s no longer a good argument against the OS X vesion:

To be fair here, the following are only the bugs I came across during this test. There are probably a lot more in this broken Mac port of a game that I’m not giving it proper credit for.

1) VSYNC switching. If you’re in the game, and decide to turn VSYNC on or off (perhaps to deal with the above problem I mentioned), I hope you saved first. The game becomes unresponsive. You have to quit and restart. Actually, the game still runs in the background – the display just never refreshes. You get to look at the options screen until you realize that’s all you’re going to be looking at if you don’t do something, and quit.

2) Anti-Aliasing. The good news is that it works. You’ll be running at 15-20 FPS, but it’ll remove those unsightly jaggies. The bad news is that the same non-responsive issue occurs here as with #1. Hope you saved.

3) Poor OS X integration. I tried to make this sound nicer than it is… you know like they just left out some cool integration feature or something. The truth is that certain actions in the Mac OS (like taking an Apple-Shift-4 screenshot of the game window as I did a few times) cause the keyboard to go unresponsive in-game. ¬†Again… hope you saved your game before you popped into OS X.

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PART 4 – WHY IS THE MAC VERSION SO AWFUL?

The Mac port is done through a “wrapper” known as Cider (made by a company called “Transgaming”). The game was never actually made for the Mac OS.

What Cider does is… it essentially fakes a Windows environment. The Mac version of DA 2 thinks it’s running on Windows. Cider intercepts all the DirectX (Windows) calls, and converts them to an OpenGL (Mac) equivalent on the fly, along with a bunch of other system calls. This is a very slow, lazy, and buggy way of doing things.

EA’s been working with Transgaming for years. That’s why games like the Sims, Dragon Age, etc all end up with substandard Mac ports. The Windows version is always better, because the Windows version is done properly. To make the Mac version, rather than doing the work they should, they hand the game to Transgaming who crams it into their aging Mac wrapper. Everyone crosses their fingers and hopes for the best.

If the Mac wrap kinda works (as in doesn’t instantly crash and burn), it’s released as the Mac client.

That’s what we have here. Dragon Age II for the Mac OS is buggy (update: fixed), and performs poorly even on new hardware. Boot up Windows on the same machine, and you go from a painful game experience to a quality game experience.

Unfortunately, this all creates a self-fulfilling prophecy:

  1. They don’t create high quality native mac ports, because they don’t believe there are enough Mac gamers to make it worthwhile.
  2. Instead, they create awful Mac ports through a wrapper (and have to split some of those profits with the wrapping company – Transgaming in this case).
  3. Mac users buy the game. Being an awful wrap, it’s unsurprisingly… awful. They say “never again”.
  4. Go back to #1.

As it stands, the behemoth known as “Blizzard” is the only large developer to consistently create quality native Mac ports (though Valve’s started recently as well). This actually works out well for them, because most of the Mac users buy their quality games, knowing they’ll have as good or better experience than the Windows users. This is in stark contrast to EA, who presently allows wrapped Mac ports which ensure a worse experience than their Windows counterparts.

Part 5 – CONCLUSION

Quite clearly, the Windows version is superior, as it’s not done through a wrapper the way the Mac version is. Really, the Mac version is just the Windows version, but crammed through Cider which makes it slower and buggier (appears to be fixed).

In Windows, you get twice the frame-rate, no bugs when adjusting video options, and have the option to utilize DX11 if your video card supports it. On the Mac side, even a high-end video card can’t make up for the massive performance hit caused by Cider. You’ll be playing at the lowest of settings, yet your framerate will be so poor you’ll wish you could turn something down. It’s that bad.

If you have an older Mac, the game probably won’t be playable unless you choose a very low resolution (800 x 600 for example). You’ll probably get twice the frame rate if you bootcamp into Windows however.

With a newer Mac, at the lowest settings you might survive at a higher resolution, though the native resolution on the iMacs might be tough – the frame rate doesn’t drop much at full-screen-native-resolution (compared to a lower resolution in windowed mode), though the large screen makes the < 30 FPS quite obvious.

Regardless, if playing on the Mac, be sure to save before changing video options, and turn on VSYNC to remove the tearing-but-not-tearing graphic anomalies (appears to be fixed).

Playing through Windows is almost certain to garner twice the frame rate, and provide a better game experience overall. You’ll have to run bootcamp, have a copy of Windows, and restart your Mac every time you want to play, but it’s almost certainly worth it. The Mac port’s just too awful to recommend.

PART 6 – TESTING

The machine used was the iMac (11,2) with an i3 processor (3.2Ghz), 8GB RAM, and a Mobility Radeon 5730m.

OS X 10.6.6 was used on the Mac-side, and Windows 7 Ultimate (x64) was used on the Windows-side (through bootcamp).

Screenshots and FPS testing were done by loading the same save-game and essentially sitting/watching the meter.

In Windows, frame rates were grabbed with fraps. Frame rates were consistent in this location (+/- 1 fps).

On the Mac, OpenGL Profiler (part of Xcode) was used to grab frame rates. The fps tended to wander, so I ditched outliers, leaving me with numbers in the +/- 1 range.


I’d hoped to do full-screen testing at the native resolution (1920 x 1080), but since I couldn’t watch OpenGL Profiler when in full screen (only when Apple-Tabbed), I decided not to use those numbers, and to stick with 1600 x 900 in a window on both sides. Since full-screen-full-resolution was pretty brutal on OS X (and I don’t expect many would find it acceptable), windowed seemed to make even more sense.

There aren’t FPS numbers while moving/playing, as it’d be tough to run/fight a specific path. The only notes I can provide are that on DA2 for OS X, moving forward seemed smooth enough, but any rotating was painful. The stealth effect also severely dropped the frame-rate from what I could tell visually. I didn’t specifically test those 2 aspects on Windows, as I’ve played an entire playthough on Windows (medium settings through DX11 at native resolution) and didn’t come across similar issues.

  • Jonathan Dumainee

    Thanks for the write up! I also noticed all of those crappy anomalies while playing the $#!^ty cider version — guess I gotta make a bootcamp partition now.

  • tehsmythe

    At first I was skeptical that you were just going to trash on mac ( as many comparison articles do ) however, I think you did an honest and thorough job explaining. I hate transgaming, they are responsible for so much of the perception that macs CANT play games. I really hope cider stops being used some time soon and more companies pick up with the same strategy as Blizzard. I cant wait for the day I can have Windohs! off of my computer forever. At this point gameing is the only reason I use it.

  • Perry

    I am only going to buy games that have native Mac versions form here on out (and a couple of AAA titles that I can’t miss). No more Cider.

  • Steven

    Where can I find out what game are Cider ports, so I can keep away from them?

  • Nick

    The performance of Dragon Age 2 on my mac has been a terrible disappointment. I’m not that hard to please; I will take low settings for good performance. But even attempting to run the game in the Cider port on my 2.4 ghz Intel Core 2 Duo MBP at 800×600 is a pain in the ass.

    It’s really just unacceptable. I played through DA:O on pretty much the highest settings using bootcamp and vista on the same machine (with 2gigs less RAM actually) with almost not problems. That the OS X the version of graphically similar sequel is near unplayable is just terrible.

    Though I guess you can’t blame Bioware, who really care about mac games anyway? I just wish I had done a little research first and reinstalled windows before purchasing.

  • milkytoast

    I don’t mind cider ports… when I wrap the game myself. I know there is going to be a poor performance hit and I’m braced for that. I don’t think that cider is really ready to be sold as a product in the manner it is. People will expect the same quality from the mac release as a windows release and that just isn’t happening. When it comes to games, I often ignore titles because they don’t have a mac release (and I don’t need another time sink really.) Because the mac market needs developers to seriously look at it, I don’t mind spending the money on a mac version. Unless the game is incredibly light I just can’t trust cider to do the job that a full native port will.

    I had a friend work for Giants Software, he told me when they decided to make a native mac port they hired an expert at mac porting. I was shocked when he told me that he had the game running natively in OS X by the end of the day. He said that to actually iron out all the bugs of the translation it would take alot longer, like more than a month. I think the actual formation of a adequate cider wrapper probably takes around the same amount of time. Unless they just stuff the game in the wrapper and say “good enough” of course.