Here's a game that just might have snuck in under your radar if you don't closely follow the PC gaming sector: The Talos Principle. The game was created by Croteam, the guys behind the silly but fun Serious Sam series, with writing by some excellent talent from indie gaming talent behind FTL, The Swapper, and The Sea Will Claim Everything. The game has also been compared quite favorably with Portal and Portal 2, and having played the game a bit I can say that it's not simply hubris creating such comparisons. Still not sure if this is your type of game? There's a free demo of the game that should help answer that question, or you can look at the reviews and see the 87% overall rating at Metacritic; in other words, this game is certainly worth a look.
The Talos Principle - Performance and Analysis
We're not here to review the game, though, as that's a well-trodden path and others are in a better position to do so. What we want to find out is how well the game runs and what sort of hardware you might need. To that end, we've run The Talos Principle through our usual collection of hardware. Using the Serious Engine that has previously powered various iterations of the Serious Sam games, The Talos Principle was originally supposed to be a PS4 title, but it later became a cross-platform release. Serious Sam 3: BFE was the last game in the series, released over three years ago on the PC, so the Serious Engine has undoubtedly seen some updates in the intervening years; it's also worth nothing that Serious Sam 4 is supposed to come out this year (or maybe next), which again points to some updates to the engine. Anyway, let's see how The Talos Principle runs....
As usual, we have a variety of settings available, ranging from "Ultra" down to "Very Low". We've confined testing to Ultra, High, Medium, and Low -- though we snagged some screenshots at the Very Low setting below if you're interested in seeing what that looks like. As far as requirements go, a single fast GPU will handle QHD at Ultra settings, but if you're looking to run 4K Ultra you're currently best served by picking up a pair of Radeon R9 290X cards (or the R9 290 should perform decently as well). Even with two such GPUs, at Ultra detail The Talos Principle can still drop down to 30FPS rates at times, but it's not a fast-paced game so that's generally okay. For single GPU performance, the GTX 980 still reigns supreme, but it's also the most expensive GPU in our list. In fact, if all you're looking to do is hit 30+ FPS, a single R9 280 (or the similar performing R9 285) will get you there at QHD Ultra. In other words, The Talos Principle isn't going to chew up GPUs for breakfast like some other games, which is sort of nice.
One potential problem that we encountered is that at present, The Talos Principle doesn't scale with NVIDIA SLI configurations at all. We did try to force the SLI rendering modes, but they both resulted in problems that made them unplayable for the time being. We've notified NVIDIA of the issues with SLI and we should at some point see an updated driver, but it seems that The Talos Principle also managed to fly in under NVIDIA's radar. That makes this one of the very few instances where an apparently GPU-agnostic game runs better with CrossFire than with SLI, and in fact quite a few AMD Gaming Evolved titles have done better on NVIDIA SLI than on AMD CrossFire. Score one for Team Red.
Dropping down to lower tier hardware, The Talos Principle still needs a bit of GPU performance to remain playable at 1080p High, so a card like the R7 250X is really best served by running 1080p Medium or lower. Also note that the game runs into a CPU bottleneck with our Core i7-4790K equivalent at around 170-185 FPS -- not that you need to run such high frame rates, but it does mean that scores bunch up at our Medium and Low settings. Finally, we haven't had a chance to test Intel's HD 4600 with several games yet, but we'll hopefully get those scores this week; we wouldn't expect to be able to run much more than 1366x768 Low on the HD 4600, though we're curious to see what the newer Broadwell GPU might be able to do.
Round up our coverage with a quick look at image quality, The Talos Principle looks good at both the Ultra and High settings, with the chief difference between the two being a drop in shadow map quality. Dropping to Medium further reduces the shadow quality along with some other image quality aspects, and the differing levels of MIP maps start to become rather noticeable. At Low, the shadows have a hard drop in quality that seems to be just a few meters in front of your character, and while a still image doesn't show this very well it's very distracting in motion; in this case, Very Low almost works better, as it disables all real-time shadows and just uses pre-calculated shadows I believe, but no question that the image quality at lower settings looks pretty poor.
Also note that there's a setting labelled "Max 3D Rendering MPIX", which potentially limits the rendering quality to a lower value than your target resolution. By default, Ultra graphics setting limits this to 1920x1200, High drops it to 1680x1050, Medium sets it at 1600x900, Low uses 1280x720, and Very Low uses 1024x768. We run all of our testing with this set to "Unlimited", which means the game renders all of the assets at the selected resolution rather than using some form of scaling. The game does have a built-in benchmark, which is useful, and we use the 60 second run with frame rate logging using FRAPS to collect minimum frame rates as well as averages.