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

  • alexlck - Wednesday, November 17, 2004 - link

    In map AT_coast_05.dem, GF6800U have no performance penalty with 4xAA@1024x768? Reply
  • HardwareD00d - Wednesday, November 17, 2004 - link

    hey, #27, I was gonna say that ;) Reply
  • jediknight - Wednesday, November 17, 2004 - link

    Well, it's obvious from the benchmarks. They don't lie.


  • bob661 - Wednesday, November 17, 2004 - link

    Do you need HL2 to play CS: Source? Thanks. Reply
  • wien - Wednesday, November 17, 2004 - link

    #24 There is.. It's called Counter-Strike: Source Reply
  • bob661 - Wednesday, November 17, 2004 - link

    Anyone know if there's multiplayer support in HL2? Thanks. Reply
  • L1FE - Wednesday, November 17, 2004 - link

    Nice and thorough comparison. That 6600GT looks more and more enticing... Reply
  • Rekonn - Wednesday, November 17, 2004 - link

    Great article, looking forward to reading the next one with slower cpus. Being cpu limited with an A64 4000+ is a little scary, I wonder what kind of fps an XP3200+ gets when paired with an AGP 6600GT. (still running an overclocked Barton 2500+) Reply
  • Jalf - Wednesday, November 17, 2004 - link

    I'm surprised at how well NV stacks up... And good to see the 6800 GT beat the X800 Pro. Not because I'm an NV fan, but simply because it makes it easier to choose. When the 6800 GT wins over the equivalent ATI card, even in an ATI-optimized game, then it's kinda easy to choose what to buy... :D
    It's a lot harder with the other cards, where both companies scores some wins in different games.
  • Regs - Wednesday, November 17, 2004 - link

    Yeah, I'm hoping a CPU round up will come after part two! I can afford a 400 dollar video card but not paired with a 700 dollar AMD CPU.

    I did notice a lot of stuttering in my gaming experience with a A64 3000 + 6800 GT/1024 MB pC3200. I was playing at 1280x1024 with 4x/8x max details. So likely I would have to cut out the 8x Aniso to have smooth gameplay. I don't know if that was what Anand was mentioning about with the "Shimmering" of textures with the Manhatten calculations.

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