World of Warcraft Cataclysm: Optimize Graphics

Posted: September 24, 2010 by ryanlecocq in Features

There are many such posts on various boards and I have gleaned information from so many of them that I couldn’t even begin to cite sources.  The aim of this guide is to be comprehensive and current to maximize performance for the upcoming Cataclysm expansion.  Fortunately I have access to the beta client so I have reliable evidence from active testing on a PC running up to date hardware.  This guide will attempt to be inclusive of older systems as well as I also played on a 2006 era Pentium 4 system.  This is a novice friendly guide that doesn’t go into modifying settings with console commands.  You can find information on this easily on google.

Basics – Running WoW

There are a few things to remember just in running the program.  First of all which source you play from.  Always play from the fastest hard drive available.  I’ve known people that play WoW from a USB hard drive to save main disk space.  USB drives are even slower than IDE hard disks.  WoW loads all the time.  Simple.  Also WoW is a game that uses the Hard Drive cache a lot.  So depending on your Windows OS, look up how to set your Hard Disk virtual memory and set it to the max.   If you are running in Vista or Windows 7, always right click and “Run as Administrator” on the WoW.exe so you don’t get any annoying popups when Background Downloader tries to update your game.  While running, hit CTRL+ALT+DEL to bring up the Windows Task Manager.  Go to the processes tab, and find the process for WoW (WoW.exe) and right click it.  Make sure processor affinity is set to all cores.  Also you can change priority of the process to high if you aren’t running anything else.  This will make WoW use most of your system resources without argument from pesky subprograms.

Video Card Settings:

World of Warcraft is not very friendly to outside graphics engine interference.  Forcing better anti-aliasing or better texture filtering often results in reduced frame-rates.  So make sure Anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering are set to application preference.  If you are using ATI, set Catalyst A.I. to off or Medium.  At Advanced it seems to cause problems with many games.

In Game Graphics Settings(These reflect post 4.01 patch menu arrangement):

Tab1 Graphics: I’m going to assume people can figure out resolution.  Multisampling is the same as Anti-Aliasing.  This smoothes the edges of every object in the image.  4x is the best setting for a balance of graphics memory drain to image improvement.  AA is pretty easy for newer video cards, so most people with new systems can set it to 8x.  Vertical Sync removes the screen tearing and lines while moving.  I can’t play with this off, it drives me nuts.  Some people would tell you to turn it off to save resources but that is old-school nonsense.  Modern GPUs can handle this with ease as long as you turn triple buffering on in the Advanced tab.  More on that later.


Texture Resolution: If you have any kind of modern computer set this to high.  This is how detailed every object and feature in the game is, especially at middle and long distances.  Turning this to low makes the game look like a PS2 game.

Texture Filtering: This is mostly for the ground and terrain.  The lower you set this, the more blurry the ground in the distance will become.  At the lowest setting there is a very visible line about 15 feet in front of you where the world becomes shitty.  At 16x anisotropy the scene should look clear until the edge of the games draw distance (where it gets foggy).  This feature uses up GPU RAM.  So if you have a card with less than 512mb, set it to 4 or 8x and you should be happy with the compromise.

Projected Textures: This is for effects on top of surfaces.  Like raindrops hitting the ground and water, or spell effects lighting up the ground.  Doesn’t take much so turn it on.


View Distance: This is how far away things fade into fog.  This requires CPU power to do the geometry, but RAM to load the textures from the cache,  so choose accordingly.  If you have 3gb or more you should handle ultra just fine.  With 2gb I would recommend High and Med to Low if you have 1gb or less.

Environment Detail: How far away creatures and objects appear.  Like View Distance this takes CPU to maintain but also loads constantly from the cache into the RAM when new objects appear.  Set this to the highest if you have even a decent amount of RAM (over 1gb).  Seeing creatures pop-up right near you as you run across the Barrens looks really crappy and removes any shred of immersion left.

Ground Clutter:  This used to be 2 separate options, radius and density.  Radius is now the same as your environment detail radius (keen) and this now controls only density.  Set to preference.  With lots of grass and clutter, the game feels a little more natural, but most of these clutter objects also look like ass.  So if you’re one of the people that hates low res textures, you might want bare shiny ground instead of blocky flowers all around you.  I personally like lots o stuff.  Makes it more realistic feeling.


Shadow Quality: When you highlight it will show descriptions, but the bottom line is this.  Never use Low unless you have an ancient video card.  Blob shadows look terrible.  The next step up Fair has real character shadows, but still blurry object shadows.  Good looks a little better and takes only a little more graphics card draw.  High is the cutoff where you’ll suddenly notice a frame-rate drop.  If you have a newer video card (any gaming card in the last few years) Ultra should be no problem in most resolutions.  nVidia does WoW shadows a little faster, so ATI users might need to set this a little lower for the same framerates.

Liquid Detail: This also has description when highlighted.  The bottom line is Low is the old WoW water with some slight improvements, especially on the ocean.  Fair is the lowest setting of the new reactive water, with no reflections.  High adds world reflection.  Ultra adds object reflection and light refraction on the surface when lit by anisotropic lighting.  If you have an old DirectX 9 card like the Radeon 9800SE I used in my shitty test system, it will hurt a lot to try to go above Low.  If the water even works, you will see a serious frame-rate loss.  Most newer cards should handle High or Ultra.  This new feature is absolutely gorgeous at high settings.  At Fair the water almost looks worse since it’s kind of flat, but when you add reflections it looks amazing.  I looked out at the ocean from Westfall during a sunset and I almost felt real emotion.

Sunshafts: This is the shafts of light that shine through trees and such when you look towards the sun.  Same as above this will slow down old cards.  On newer cards it’s well worth it though.  The occasional warm glow through the trees in Elwynn forest is almost magical.  Set it to high if at all possible.

Particle Detail: This is a big one as it affects smoke, spell effects, weather, fire and nearly anything that is moving in the environment.  If you have any modern GPU set it to Ultra.  Even High isn’t too greedy and looks pretty good.


Tab2 Advanced

Triple Buffering:  This adds an extra screen-buffer to reduce tearing and stuttering in fast movement.  This will help reduce the massive slowdown when turning suddenly or entering a large area when the GPU is suddenly more taxed and the frame-rate is dropping.  This feature is necessary if you have V-sync on, as it makes the dreaded V-Sync slowdown near nonexistent.

Hardware Cursor:  Makes the mouse pointer move smoothly across the screen, without sudden jumps.  Doesn’t take much, makes a huge difference, turn it on.

Reduce Input Lag:  This will stop that lag in things like damage numbers appearing or items moving or being used.  It uses RAM to cache data, so base it on how much you have, since it’s purely cosmetic and patience related.

UI Scale:  This is how big your menu and icons are.  If you have a large monitor it’s nice to make it all small, since it’s still plenty large enough to see.  That leaves more visible area even with lots of menus and bags open.

Max FPS Foreground:  How many Frames Per Second WoW will max at when it’s open.  If you have a graphics card with a fan, leave it at 100.  If you have a passively cooled or discrete card, I would recommend setting this to 30-50FPS.  WoW is known to burn out GPUs by making them render really fast in empty areas and frying them, especially old ATI cards.  30 FPS is very playable and if you have a crap card, about the best you can expect.  50 is smooth and recommended for cards without cooling.

Max FPS Background: How fast WoW runs when it’s minimized.  If you set this too low, there will be a jolt when you ALT+TAB back to WoW, the default 30 works fine.

Gamma:  Brightness.  Use desktop brightness will make it the same as it normally is or use the slider to make it brighter.  Simple.

That’s it for the menu.  I’d cover sound, but it’s pretty simple.  Look below for tips on upgrading your PC as cheap as possible to run Cataclysm fast.


Upgrading Your System

The cheapest thing to update that will give the most benefit is RAM.  Fortunately how fast isn’t as important.  WoW is an old game and doesn’t benefit much from running dual-channels and sometimes even crashes with too much fast DDR3 RAM.  Even DDR 400mhz is fast enough so get as much as you can lay your hands on and fit in your motherboard and it will help(not to say faster isn’t better, just not as necessary).  As you can see above, a lot of settings rely on RAM, so the ideal amount is 3gb or more.  Yeah the system requirements make it sound like 1.5 should be plenty to max it out but they lie.  Even with 3gb you will sometimes be held back by your RAM, especially when entering crowded areas.  4gb seems to be the most WoW can ever possibly use in any circumstance.  Normally WoW idles at only about 500mb-1gb of RAM used, but it can easily spike in crowded zones.  With a healthy 4gb you will never experience those spikes.

Since the new graphics UI changes were fully implemented, DirectX 11 is now more important.  If you have a multicore processor DX11 will make better use of it to give you 5-10 FPS increase in every zone.  You can use other means to force WoW to use 2-4 cores all the time, but it’s nowhere near as efficient as how DX11 does it.  For the cheapest quality GPU, I would recommend the Radeon HD 5670 as it’s DX11 compatible and runs WoW fantastic.  It will only run Crysis on High, not Gamer, but for about $75 it’s the best there is.

I should have put this at the top of the article in bold, but UPGRADE YOUR MONITOR (if you have a 26″ 1080p monitor, not you).  Cataclysm is the biggest graphical leap since WoW was first released.  If you upgraded your system to run the game well, you owe it to yourself to see it in all of it’s glory without leaning forward and getting a hunchback.  Fast response time is not as important if this is the only game you play, you don’t move very fast.  High resolution and bright color and picture are the priorities.

Other than that, most processors will run WoW fine, even old 3.0 gHz P4s, so don’t sweat that one.  Any decent hard drive should suit you fine, just don’t play off a portable.  A nice Headset with surround will change your life.  Enjoy and I’ll see you in the shattered Barrens.




  1. lagunawsu2 says:

    Some advice for running the game on lower end systems:

    WoW is incredibly segmented graphics wise. It has an incredibly broad range of options (though computers that could run WoW five years ago probably couldn’t now) that allow you to tone up and down with a ton of different features. As someone who raided, I did not mind any graphics suckiness if it meant my heals hit that tank with that much more clarity/assurace.

    Cataclysm’s soundtrack added a whole new level of awesome, and a whole new level of processing power necessary. Do yourself a favor and just put some headphones on to your Ipod and kill everything but the sound effects.

    Oh my god the day I discovered this !@## I was so impressed. Now i’m not so sure about Windows 7 (godmode might lead you to a similar idea) but if your running XP, just ctrl+alt+del, goto the process tab and they’ll be one called explorer…it’ll be one of the biggest things running memory wise (or it should be). Now, KILL THAT PROCESS. Your desktop will disappear…DON’T PANIC! You can do everything you want to, WoW wise or otherwise, right from this nifty little thing called task manager which, trust me, is much much easier on your old beast than windows was. Okay. So now, if you drag down the “File” menu, you can choose Run Task. You’ll have to browse to find where your WoW startup is, but it’s usually just in the folder called “desktop”. Run that sucker! Now close task manager and VIOLA! Your computer is running a much less burdened WoW! With this tactic on my older rig a couple of years ago I was able to improve performance DRAMATICALLY. Like 10-15 frames per second. And then, when you are finished enjoying the awesome, just hit ctrl+alt+del again, and then up comes the task manager. Now if you want your desktop back (cause it looks cool or something) then just goto Run and type “explorer” into the bar and presto, your desktop is back (taking up all that memory again too.)

    I really hope anything I said helps. Patience is key and if you are really stuck, forums can provide most any answer imaginable, with some diligence wit the search function.

    EDIT: Mr. Lecocq has clarified already but to be sure, don’t try this unless your running a 32-bit version of windows XP on an older single core processor. Trying to do so on any other OS version is definitely not recommended.

    • ryanlecocq says:

      You silly man with your ancient computer. Rather than disable sound, always enable hardware sound as it takes 100% of the load off the CPU, giving the same effect. Ending explorer is still true for XP users though with single core systems. If you have a multicore, this does nothing as WoW will never need the part of one core the OS uses.

      • lagunawsu2 says:

        Ah! But on my rig I had a 5.1 creative card, for my surround sound! Also I never needed to turn off the music, I just know that cataclysm’s sound is dynamic and a bit more of a hog than previous clients.

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