How to conquer the world of Blizzard’s ‘Overwatch,’ even on a wimpy gaming PC

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Although it may not be the peak of next-gen graphics, Overwatch cuts an attractive figure. The visuals, while slightly cartoony on the surface, are the perfect housing for Blizzard’s unique sense of humor and style. It’s also one of the more demanding games to find its way onto the Digital Trends test bench in quite some time, which means tweaking and optimizing performance is a trickier subject to get a handle on.

Especially in fast-paced games like Overwatch, balancing performance and pretty visuals is a crucial task. You certainly don’t want the game running at 640 x 360 just to stay smooth, but you also don’t want to be left behind as the rest of your team heads for the objective, or miss a perfect shot because of input lag.

First thing’s first. If your system is packing Intel integrated graphics, keep on walking. Even the HD 540 attached to the Core i7 in our Dell XPS 13 hovers around 20 frames per second at 1080p. As we’ll discuss, there are a few options that may allow you to push your resolution low enough to play, but Overwatch is a game best meant for those with a real gaming PC. As we’ll see though, this game might not even be that easy for them to run.

Presets and render scaling

The presets aren’t all they appear

Before we dig into the finer points of tweaking performance, it’s worth noting there are a few oddities in Overwatch’s graphical settings. The first has to do with presets. There are the typical low, medium, high, and ultra settings, but Blizzard also includes a show-stopping epic setting at the top end. The difference is pretty minor, flipping shadow, model, and effect detail from high to ultra. While those settings, which are visible and changeable in-game, clearly aren’t the only changes to the graphical performance of the game, which leads us to more interesting conclusions.

While all of these presets affect the visible graphics settings, it also became clear to us that these presets also affect settings not normally accessible to users on the front end. Turning the graphics preset to epic and then turning all of the settings down to their lowest possible option by hand didn’t produce nearly the same performance boost as selecting low on its own.

That means if you’re seeking maximum performance, you’re best of starting at the low preset, and tweaking up from there, rather than the other way around.

There are a few other catches when it comes to presets. For one, the low preset doesn’t actually turn the settings down all the way, leaving textures set to high. Similarly, turning the preset up to ultra leaves anti-aliasing quality at 8X instead of the maximum 16X.

Render Scaling is strange, but effective

Aside from the presets, another setting that makes a big difference is render scaling. Though it appears an esoteric graphical setting, but actually makes a huge difference. Put simply, this modifies the resolution at which Overwatch renders the graphics you see relative to the native resolution you’ve selected. So if you’re playing at 1080p and choose 50 percent scaling, the actual render resolution is 960 x 540.

Controlling the render resolution and screen resolution independently is a novel solution to a lot of problems that arise when gaming on lower-end PCs. In the case of one of our test systems, the ThinkPad P50 (which had a 4K display) it means being able to maintain native screen resolution, HUD and menu clarity, and easy application switching, while adjusting performance to your needs.

Running at 1080p with full render scale, with settings on epic, the ThinkPad was capable of about 37 frames per second. Playing at 4K with 50 percent render scale produced the same result. If you had a 4K display, but your GPU can’t handle Overwatch rendered at 4K, using Render Scaling is a good option. The in-game interface will maintain 4K clarity, but you’ll see the performance you would if you selected native 1080p.

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