Just over one year ago we were able to run our very first set of benchmarks using Valve's Half Life 2 and while we though that, at the time, the game was going to be clearly an ATI dominated title we were not counting on it taking a full year to actually come to market. 

With Half Life 2 finally out we go back and look at how a year's worth of driver releases and GPU launches have changed the playing field in this multipart article on Half Life 2 GPU performance. 

The first part of our Half Life 2 GPU series focuses on the performance of today's latest and greatest GPUs, but we will have follow up articles for owners of older hardware as well.  There's quite a bit to talk about here so let's just get right to it.

The Love Triangle: ATI, NVIDIA and Valve

It's no big surprise that ATI and Valve have been working very closely with one another with the development of Half Life 2.

Valve would not let either ATI or NVIDIA have a copy of the final Half Life 2 game in order to prevent any sorts of leaks from happening.  Judging by the fact that Half Life 2 is the only game in recent history to not be leaked before its official street date (we don't consider being able to purchase an unlockable copy to be "leaked"), Valve's policy about not letting anyone have the game worked quite well.

ATI and NVIDIA both spent a little bit of time at Valve benchmarking and play testing Half Life 2 over the past couple of weeks.  From what ATI tells us, they spent a full week with Half Life 2 and NVIDIA informed us that they spent two long days at Valve.  Immediately there's a discrepancy with the amount of time the two companies have had to benchmark and toy around with Half Life 2, but then again ATI is paying the bills and NVIDIA isn't so you can expect a bit of preferential treatment to be at play.  NVIDIA did tell us that honestly their limited time at Valve wasn't solely dictated by Valve.  Valve extended an invitation to NVIDIA and things just ended up working out so that NVIDIA only had two (albeit long) days with the final version of the game. 

ATI managed to run quite a few benchmarks and even created some of their own demos of Half Life 2, all of which showed ATI hardware outperforming NVIDIA hardware.  While ATI did share the demos with us for use in this article, we elected not to use them in favor of developing our own benchmarks in order to be as fair to both sides as possible.  We did extend the offer to NVIDIA to provide their own demos for us to look at as well, to which NVIDIA responded that they were not allowed to record any timedemos.  Their testbed hard drives were kept at Valve and will be returned to them sometime after the launch of the game.  NVIDIA mentioned that their main focus at Valve was to perform QA testing to ensure that the game was playable and that there were no significant issues that needed to be addressed. 

Both ATI and NVIDIA have supplied us with beta drivers for use in our Half Life 2 testing.  ATI's driver is the publicly available Catalyst 4.12 beta, which is specifically targeted to improve performance under Half Life 2.  NVIDIA's driver is the most recent internal build of their ForeWare drivers (version 67.02).  There are three main improvements in this version of NVIDIA's drivers and they are as follows:

1) Some game-specific texture shimmering issues have been fixed

2) The Flatout demo no longer crashes

3) Some shader compiler fixes that should improve shader performance

As you can see, only #3 could potentially apply to Half Life 2, but NVIDIA indicated that the fixes were not Half Life 2 specific, although they could yield a positive performance gain. 

ATI seemed quite confident in their performance under Half Life 2 from our conversations with them before the game's launch, while the atmosphere at NVIDIA was considerably more cautious and often times, downright worried.  From our talks with NVIDIA we got the distinct impression that we had more information about Half Life 2 (courtesy of ATI) than they did, in fact, they were not able to provide us with any insight into how their hardware would handle Half Life 2 other than that it would be playable and seems to run surprisingly well on even the older GeForce2 cards. 

We're here today to find out for ourselves where things stand between ATI and NVIDIA when it comes to Half Life 2 performance.  We've spent every hour since Half Life 2's official online launch play testing, benchmarking and investigating image quality in the game in order to bring you the first of a series of articles on Half Life 2. 

Today's article will focus on the performance of today's most popular DirectX 9 GPUs; our following articles will delve into the performance of older DirectX 7 and DirectX 8 class GPUs, but for those users on the verge of upgrading their systems today, this article will give you the best recommendations based on your price range. 

Benchmarking Half Life 2
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  • araczynski - Thursday, November 18, 2004 - link

    yawn, i'm too busy enjoy the game (6800gt) to read the article and/or care which card is better :) i'm playing at 1600x1200 0AA/4AF (2.4@3.3/1GB) and have absolutely no complaints, other then knowing that the game will eventually end :( Reply
  • Jeff7181 - Thursday, November 18, 2004 - link

    #57... poorly :) Reply
  • blckgrffn - Thursday, November 18, 2004 - link

    I would also like to to see how the 9200/9000 series Radeons perform too, and if you have extra time, the 8500/9100.

    Again, Thanks!
    Reply
  • Jeff7181 - Thursday, November 18, 2004 - link

    #16... that's correct, although the only REAL observation that needs to be made is that Half Life 2 makes heavy use of pixel shaders which is very GPU dependant, and GPU's are just now growing the required testicles to process those shaders :) Reply
  • blckgrffn - Thursday, November 18, 2004 - link

    Anand -

    I would like to see how the 6600 performs. As an 8 pipe card, it should perform better than the 9600xt and a little under a 9700 Pro, but it would be interesting to see if that is true. It is a great budget PCIe card along with the x700.

    Thanks!
    Nat
    Reply
  • eva2000 - Thursday, November 18, 2004 - link

    nice review downloaded your demos to run on AMD64 3700+ @ 12x 222 = 2664mhz with 1GB BH-5 @ 222mhz 2-2-2-6 1T and Powercolor X800XT PE @ 520/560 and all demo results were within 3-4fps of the reviews :) Reply
  • Live - Thursday, November 18, 2004 - link

    Good reading as always. Would like to see minimum FPS tough. I find it very important to see how low the cards drop when stressed. You can't see that with only average FPS. Reply
  • housecat - Wednesday, November 17, 2004 - link

    So... wheres the Nvidia SLI versus ATI results??

    Muwahahaha.
    Reply
  • Avalon - Wednesday, November 17, 2004 - link

    Hey Anand, I have an interesting request. Could you try Rivatuner on your 6800, unlock its pipes, and then bench it again? :P
    Just kidding. Actually, I'm glad you've confirmed what I've been thinking...that AF hasn't been doing much for me. Since I'm running on a lowly 9700, I think I'll just turn it off now, and enjoy a nice speed boost.
    Reply
  • PrinceGaz - Wednesday, November 17, 2004 - link

    How about throwing a GF 5600 and maybe even a GF 5200 in as well for part 2, as an awful lot of people have them. Ultra versions of either if you prefer.

    I don't have one of them myself as I'm still using a Ti4200, but it would be interesting to see how they stacked up in the DX8 codepath against the Ti4600 you are planning to test. And it should be worth a giggle to see just how "fast" the 5600 or 5200 can manage the DX9 codepath :)

    Thanks to the resolution scaling-graphs this review included and how the fastest cards were generally CPU limited with that A64 4000+ when the resolution was dropped to 1024x768, I'm not sure how much a CPU scaling article for part 3 will show that can't already be quite accurately guesstimated from how different CPUs generally tend to perform in games. But a comparison of the Athlon 64 4000+, against an Athlon XP, a Prescott, a Northwood, and if time permits a fast P3, Duron and Celeron also, would be great.
    Reply

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