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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  • Nuke Waste - Thursday, December 16, 2004 - link

    Would it be possible for AT to update the timedemos to Source Enigne 7? Steam "graciously" updated my HL2 platform, and now none of my timedemos work! Reply
  • The Internal - Friday, December 03, 2004 - link

    Which x700 XT card was used? How much RAM did it have? Reply
  • VortigernRed - Tuesday, November 23, 2004 - link

    "Remember that we used the highest detail settings with the exception of anisotropic filtering and antialiasing, "

    That is not what you are showing on the SS on page 2. You are showing there that you have the water details set to "reflect world" not "reflect all".

    I would be interested to see how that affects the performance in your benchmarks with water in them, as some sites are showing larger wins for ATI and it seems possible that this setting may be the difference.

    It certainly looks much better in game with "reflect all" but does affect the performance.

    PS, sorry for the empty post above, trying to guess my username and password!
    Reply
  • VortigernRed - Tuesday, November 23, 2004 - link

    Reply
  • Warder45 - Sunday, November 21, 2004 - link

    I'd like to know what you guys think about X0bit's and other reviews that have ATI way ahead in numbers do to turning on Reflect All and not just reflect world.

    http://www.chaoticdreams.org/ce/jb/ReflectAll.jpg
    http://www.chaoticdreams.org/ce/jb/ReflectWorld.jp...

    Some SS.
    Reply
  • Counterspeller - Friday, November 19, 2004 - link

    I forgot about my specs : P4 3.0 3HD 8, 16, 60Gb, MB P4P800-E Deluxe, Samtron 96BDF Screen. Reply
  • Counterspeller - Friday, November 19, 2004 - link

    I don't understand... I have a GeForce 256 DDR, and the ONLY game that I have not been able to play is DOOM 3, only because it asks for 64Mb of VRAM, and I only have 32. I'd like to play HL2, but I don't have it. Perhaps it'll be like D3... not enough VRAM, and in that case, the 2nd game I can't play with that board. What I don't understand is this : how can anyone be complaining because x game or y game «only» gives us 200 fps... Can YOU see 200 fps ? we're happy with 24fps on TV, 25fps in the theaters, and we're bitchin' about some game that only gives us 56.7 fps instead of the «behold perfection» 67.5. I know there is a difference, and yes, we can see that difference, but is it useful, in terms of gameplay ? Will you be fragged because of a 1 or 2 or even 3 fps difference between you and your opponent ? Stupidity gets us fragged, not fps. I believe that anything below 30/40 fps is nice, but unplayable, when it comes to action games. I'm happy with 60. Anything above it is extra. I have played with this very board many demanding games, and I can say that yes, some parts are demanding on the board. But I never lost because of it. Resuming : I don't understand this war between ATI lovers and NVIDIA lovers. I've been using the same board for years, and I never needed to change it. Unless it crumbles, I'll stick with it. Reply
  • Counterspeller - Friday, November 19, 2004 - link

    I don't understand... I have a GeForce 256 DDR, and the ONLY game that I have not been able to play is DOOM 3, only because it asks for 64Mb of VRAM, and I only have 32. I'd like to play HL2, but I don't have it. Perhaps it'll be like D3... not enough VRAM, and in that case, the 2nd game I can't play with that board. What I don't understand is this : how can anyone be complaining because x game or y game «only» gives us 200 fps... Can YOU see 200 fps ? we're happy with 24fps on TV, 25fps in the theaters, and we're bitchin' about some game that only gives us 56.7 fps instead of the «behold perfection» 67.5. I know there is a difference, and yes, we can see that difference, but is it useful, in terms of gameplay ? Will you be fragged because of a 1 or 2 or even 3 fps difference between you and your opponent ? Stupidity gets us fragged, not fps. I believe that anything below 30/40 fps is nice, but unplayable, when it comes to action games. I'm happy with 60. Anything above it is extra. I have played with this very board many demanding games, and I can say that yes, some parts are demanding on the board. But I never lost because of it. Resuming : I don't understand this war between ATI lovers and NVIDIA lovers. I've been using the same board for years, and I never needed to change it. Unless it crumbles, I'll stick with it. Reply
  • TheRealSkywolf - Friday, November 19, 2004 - link

    I have a fx 5950, i have turned on the x9 path and things run great. 1st and all the graphics dont look much better, you see slight differences on the water and in some bumpmapping, but minor things.
    So i guess its time for Ati fans to shut up, both the fx and the 9800 cards run the game great.
    Man, doom3 showed all the wistles and bells, why wouldnt hl2? I think is very unprofessional from Valve to do what they did.
    Reply
  • SLI - Friday, November 19, 2004 - link

    Umm, why was the Radeon P.E. not tested? Reply

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