Despite the poly-flinging power of graphics cards like the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 1080, a speedy processor should still be the cornerstone of any modern gaming PC. Why? Because with the increasing popularity of open world games like The Witcher 3, Fallout 4 and Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, titles are becoming more complex and CPU-intensive.
While a GPU renders what you see onscreen, the CPU orchestrates it, taking care of crucial behind-the-scenes computations like game logic and AI. While a first person shooter like Star Wars: Battlefront might astonish with its high-resolution visuals, underneath the Frostbite engine’s photogrammetric textures and volumetric lighting, the game mechanics are fairly simple. Only the multiplayer aspect puts a strain on the CPU.
Conversely, a simulation or open world game needs to perform a never-ending stream of calculations below the surface. In GTA V, for example, the vibrant city of Los Santos wouldn’t feel alive without people wandering its streets, cars driving on its roads or aircraft zooming across its sky. But this means thousands of objects to track, interactions to calculate and consequences to process.
Extreme processing power
The CPU is often pressed into service for basic game physics too. Not everybody has the same graphics hardware, so the processor can be tasked with computing the path of a speeding supercar or computing the aftermath of an explosion. The chaotic destruction in Just Cause 3 might have a minimum Intel Core i5-2500K requirement, but it’s best played on a much faster sixth generation Core i7.
While you might not need a processor as fast as the Intel Core i7 processor Extreme Edition, a zippy CPU will make the most of today’s top-level graphics hardware. Games aren’t just chasing photorealism, 60fps frame rates and 4K these days, they are getting more ambitious every year. We’ve already seen Fallout 4, The Witcher 3 and The Division. But there are bigger open world games to come…
Simulating a whole universe
Part Elite: Dangerous and part FTL, with some The Long Dark-esque survival elements, No Man’s Sky is big. Eighteen quintillion planets big.
In so many games, legions of artists painstakingly sculpt content by hand, building levels and landscapes individually. No Man’s Sky’s gaming universe is forged by algorithms and maths equations, functioning according to the rules of simulated physics and chemistry. Because of this, it’s a game that’s CPU-intensive. The faster your processor, the better.
Playing open world games
Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, meanwhile, is set in a dark and futuristic Prague, part cyberpunk first person shooter, part stealth/hacking RPG. A great GPU will make the most of its Blade Runner colour palette and augmented action sequences. But a great CPU will be required for the game’s clever AI, branching storylines and extraordinary metropolitan detail.
Forza Horizon 3 couldn’t be more different. Set in Australia, it’s bright and colourful, mixing open world freedom with high-speed multiplayer racing. That’s a ton of data for any CPU to keep track of, not to mention simulating over 150 cars that range from the 1964 Aston Martin DB5 to the 2016 Audi R8 V10 plus.
Serious computing power required
A game like Civilization VI, meanwhile, won’t require the world’s greatest graphics card. But a fast processor should lessen the time it takes for the game to calculate the effects of your turn-based empire building on large-scale maps contested by AI-driven foes. In Civilization V, the game often struggled to process the sheer volume of information when sessions extended beyond 300 turns.
Our last two open world games have more in common with GTA V than they do with top-down strategy, and like GTA they face the same problems of scale.
Mafia III, set in the New Orleans-inspired city of New Bordeaux in 1968, casts you with the task of taking down the mob. Its missions support multiple approaches and its sandbox design keeps the gameplay unpredictable. Immersion is crucial to the storytelling here, but it isn’t just about high-res textures and pretty reflections, it’s about being inside a world that feels alive, believable and consistent.
Watch Dogs 2 is another ambitious open world game that will require a potent combo of GPU and CPU technology. If the E3 2016 gameplay walkthrough is any indication, your PC’s processor will need to keep track of AI-driven cars, trams, bikes, boats, not to mention the countless San Francisco inhabitants who you can interact with. Ultimately, the more chaos you cause in this sun-drenched world, the harder the processor must work to manage it all.
While other big 2016 games like Gears of War 4, Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare and Battlefield One will demand the best graphics cards money can buy, open world games require brains as well as brawn. It’s why a speedy processor should still be the cornerstone of any modern gaming rig or VR-ready PC.