First published on GameSpot.
It is hard to deny the popularity of multiplayer online battle arena games. With titles like League of Legends and Dota 2 breaking records in online viewership and competitive gaming prize pool money respectively, the numbers speak for themselves.
Nvidia's GTX 950 is specifically targeting users who want high performance in MOBA games. The company touts this video card as one that provides "reduced input latency" for MOBA gamers at a competitive price point. At $159, the GTX 950 sits between the $199 GTX 960 and the $149 GTX 750 Ti.
Nvidia technical marketing manager Alex Chang described the card to me as "not an entry-level, but an entry-gaming GPU" for users who play MOBA games. That is, Nvidia is not targeting the super hardcore technical audience, but a player base made up of users who want to get an excellent experience out of their most played games, without forking out for the most powerful GPUs.
To test Nvidia's assertion that the card was ideal for MOBA games, I took it for a spin on some of the most popular titles in the genre: League of Legends, Dota 2, and Heroes of the Storm.
Nvidia claims that the GTX 950 provides a 45ms response time in input latency. That is, the time it takes for a mouse click or keyboard press to come to action on the screen. Here are the card's specifications versus that of its closest-priced siblings.
Riot Games' League of Legends was first released in 2009, but the developer has given the game a graphical overhaul since then. At present, Riot Games recommends at the very least an Nvidia GeForce 8800 or AMD Radeon HD 5670 equivalent video card to run. Since the game recommends a nine-year-old card, I confidently cranked up all graphical settings to very high for the more modern GTX 950.
League of Legends offers the option to lock the frame rate at 144 frames-per-second at the maximum, which I chose. Unsurprisingly, even with all graphical options maxed out, the card handled 144 fps without breaking a sweat. Frame rate held consistently at 144 fps, and only at one point during a particularly busy teamfight did it dip ever-so-slightly, and even then only for a fraction of a second. To the untrained eye, that dip was hardly noticeable.
Curious to see how the card would deliver in League of Legends if unrestrained, I ran the game with the uncapped frame rate option selected. The fps count jumped erratically between 125 and 385--far beyond the capabilities of the monitor I was testing on. It's hardly practical, but nice to know.
Valve's Dota 2 runs on the developer's proprietary Source engine and recommends at least an Nvidia 7600 or ATI X1600. Similar to League of Legends, these cards are quite old, so I switched all graphical settings to maximum and set the fps cap to 144 for comparison. The resulting frame rate varied wildly, swinging from 100 to 144 fps. Bumping the cap down to 120 fps gave much more consistent results, even during fights in which many skills with visual effects were employed.
Still, these results came from standard pub games. I wanted to see what the GTX 950 could handle when it came to some of Dota 2's crazier offerings, so I booted up a Wtf Mode game. With hero skill cooldowns and mana costs removed from the equation, it was time to see where the limits of the GTX 950 lay.
Despite an unholy number of spammed spells and explosions happening on screen, the frame rate dropped to a steady 60 fps at its lowest point--still enough to play the game comfortably. This is particularly important as Valve prepares to launch the Dota 2 Reborn update that moves the game over to the Source 2 engine and will bring with it a host of wacky new custom maps--including a 10v10 map--which veer far outside of what a standard match contains.
Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm sports the most demanding recommendation for a GPU of the three games tested. While a GeForce 7500 GT/Radeon HD 2600 XT will suffice as the bare minimum, Blizzard lists a GTX 650/Radeon HD 7790 or better as the recommended graphics card. The game offers settings up to extreme in graphical quality, which--for testing purposes--I opted for.
Extreme graphical quality took a noticeable toll on performance. During the calmer phases of matches the frame rate remained steady at 60 frames-per-second, but this number dropped sharply when a multitude of skills were cast during the busier team fights, stuttering to 40 fps at key moments. This translated to a noticeable amount of input lag during fights where half a second of delay meant the difference between life and death. Screen stutter was also much more noticeable when panning around the in-game map.
Tweaking the graphic settings down to ultra alleviated the heavy lag input during hectic fights, with frame-rate hovering between 40 and 70 fps. I still experienced a minuscule amount of input lag during effect-heavy fights, something that hardcore players might want to be aware of. Finally, bumping the graphical settings down to high delivered the smooth experience I was after, with the frame rate sticking closer to the 65 fps mark with minimal lag.
Priced at $159, the performance of Nvidia's GTX 950 should hit the sweet spot for many fans of League of Legends, Dota 2, and Heroes of the Storm. Even when the crazy skill-spam matches were thrown at it, the card handled its workload quietly, thanks to MSI's Twin Frozr cooling system which featured on the make of the card tested.
Outside of this, the GTX 950 also supports the recently-released DirectX 12 API, Nvidia's Shadowplay software which has live-streaming capabilities, and GeForce Experience for one-click optimisation of games. These may not rank highly on the priority list of Nvidia's target audience for this card, but they are nice features to have access to. For gamers who often find themselves on a familiar-looking map with four other teammates, the GTX 950 is a solid choice for its price.
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