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


View All Comments

  • zhangping0233 - Thursday, January 5, 2012 - link

    Try xecconlight.com and Flashlightbox.com, you will find the best flashlight for the world. Shipping to all the world. Reply
  • nthexwn - Thursday, November 18, 2004 - link

    I've also noticed that having the steam client running in the background can place quite a load on your entire system! After downloading all the content to cut down on network/disk/buffering wierdness I did some tests benchmarking UT2004 with the ons_dria demo from nvnews and noticed that my fps drops up to 10 when steam is running in the background!

    Might it be possible to compare performance between the retail version of Half-life 2 and the steamed version available for internet purchase to see if there's any sort of performance difference? Or does the retail version just run through an offline steam client anyway? (I bought over web)
  • cryptonomicon - Thursday, November 18, 2004 - link

    if your game crashes when switching to fullscreen it is because you have refresh overrides in place.

    -width X -refresh Y

    to your command line, for example
    -width 1024 -refresh 100

    it fixxed all my video problems.
  • meatless - Thursday, November 18, 2004 - link

    #10 - That's a pretty stupid thing to say. Kyle used the cards that his readers were most likely to buy; I know I wouldn't waste my money on a non-BFG nVidia 68xx card, and I know most other gamers wouldn't either. It's a part of [H]'s focus on doing real-world-style benches instead of OMG LETZ C IF NV RULZ ATI 2DAY IN HL2!!111111

    With all that said, it's great to see stiff competition in the video card arena, finally--should make for exciting product lines on the next go-round.
  • Jedi2155 - Thursday, November 18, 2004 - link

    there is a hidden HL2 MP in the game....however its not yet complete....


    11/17/2004 22:58 PST | Half-Life 2 | by MarmaladeMan
    HL2 World is reporting that they've found a working Half-Life 2 multiplayer built in to standard retail HL2. Here's the story, including how to do it:
    Here's how:
    sv_lan 0
    deathmatch 1
    maxplayers (whatever you want)
    map (mapname)
    It will add you to the master server and it works. I know, it looks like the leak, but I assure you this is the retail HL2.
    They have a screenshot, as well as a test map for you to check out if interested. Head on over to HL2 World for the full story.


  • jonmcc33 - Thursday, November 18, 2004 - link

    Get back to Half-Life 2? Why? There's no point other than the fact it's a pretty single player game. If I wanted single player than I would have raved about Max Payne 2, which I didn't. Why Valve didn't think to make a Half-Life 2 MP side is beyond me. That's where the market is these days. Single player games, you play them once and you are done. Multiplayer is always changing. I don't want to wait for any stupid MP mod either. Curse you, Valve, for making us wait a year longer and then only giving us one piece of the cake! Reply
  • TrungRacingDev - Thursday, November 18, 2004 - link

    you do realize that the fx5900 is default directx 8.1 right? if u think its beautiful now...try a directx 9.0 card =) Reply
  • Motley - Thursday, November 18, 2004 - link

    I'm glad I didn't read this article before actually playing HL2.

    My system:
    P4 3.4GHz, 2GB Ram
    5900 Ultra video card
    ASUS P4P800 Motherboard

    I was playing HL2 at 1280x1024 with 6xAA, and 16xAnitropic Filtering, with everything else turned on to maximum. Besides a half-second stutter just after loading a new level, the game played GREAT, looked GREAT.

    Then again, maybe I'm not expecting the world, but, I can say that I was pleased, and maybe the x800 or 6800 can turn out better numbers, HOWEVER, at no time did I feel that I needed (or even wanted in the slightest) faster frame rates, or smoother gameplay. It just owned from the beginning to the end.
  • southernpac - Thursday, November 18, 2004 - link

    Anand, In light of the significant ATI X800XT DX9 (HL2) performance over the nVIDIA 6800 Ultra, would you today favor the X800XT PE graphic card in combination with the MSI K8N Neo2 motherboard? In your last High-End Buyers Guide (30 August) you recommended the nVIDIA 6800 Ultra be used with the MSI K8N Neo2 because Wesley thought that motherboard performed "a bit better" with a nVIDIA card. What would your recommendation be today? Can we anticipate another High-End Buyers Guide this month(its been 3 months)? Bill Reply
  • blckgrffn - Thursday, November 18, 2004 - link

    I know, I know, but if gf2 can play at 800*600 MQ than maybe they can handle 1024*768...that would mean that a bunch of my friends wouldn't have to upgrade from their $60 cards, and they would be overjoyed :) Reply

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