After more than 14 hours of benchmarking, 144 graphs and 48 image quality pictures and a whole lot of other work, my look into Half-Life 2 performance is done.  The data is thorough but now its time to kind of summarize what I think it all means.  I’m going to quickly go over each benchmark demo and discuss it and then do the same thing for each card and then finally, give my thoughts overall.

Edit: I’ve gotten more comments on this demo situation, so let me add a few more thoughts on it.  The demos were chosen based on the fact that they strained the GPU and it turns out that when this happened, our results showed that most of the ATI cards pulled ahead.  When NVIDIA did show a performance advantage, it was almost always in an indoors environment, when both GPUs were above a frame rate that would make a difference in the gaming experience.  The difference between running at 190 FPS and 165 FPS isn’t noticeable but the difference between 50 FPS and 40 FPS is noticeable.  Thus, we looked for parts to record in demos that showed strain on the GPU, where strain is defined as below average framerates

pcp_town01 – This level takes place mostly indoors and utilizes a lot of the lighting and fire shaders that Valve wrote for HL2.  There is a lot of these effects in game, so they are pretty important to overall performance.  Getting to set enemies on fire is one of the draws to the game!  This level showed pretty even performance on the ultra high end cards until the very last test in which we saw ATI come out with a noticeable lead, though all cards were playable.  The 6800 GT and the X800 Pro were well matched in the high end card battle and in the mid-range the 6800 was the top.  For the $200 segment we saw the 6600GT best the 9800 Pro.

pcp_canals09 – Based mainly on the water effects of HL2, this demo doesn’t reflect a large portion of the entire game, but water is seen many times through the levels in various places.  The ATI cards were clearly the winner on the water shaders here on both ultra high end and high end cards.  On the mid-range cards we saw the 6800 card beat out the 6600GT and the 9800 Pro. In fact the 9800 Pro did poorly against the 6600GT here too. 

pcp_c17_12 – As it is in this demo, a lot of HL2 is outdoors in wide open areas with physics and AI abound. This level resulted in the lowest overall scores for HL2 as well as the smallest delta between the low and high resolutions.  Several items in this demo make it particularly CPU bound keeping the framerates in check, varying only from 75 FPS to 60 FPS on the ultra high end cards.  The same is true for the 6800GT and X800 Pro cards as well.  In the mid-range cards, the CPU bottleneck was released at 1280×960 resolution in which the 6800 card took off with a win, leaving the 6600GT and 9800 Pro basically tied. 

pcp_trainstation02 – This demo is also outdoors with a heavy use of lighting and detailed texturing.  Reflections off windows are done in real time adding to the complexity and resulting in another basically CPU bound level on high end systems. The NVIDIA cards did see an advantage at the high end resolutions, though the differences were rather small.  In the high end cards, the bottleneck mostly lied in the CPU still, but in the mid-range we see the 6800 card again take a lead over the other two cards.  The 6600GT and the 9800 Pro remain in a stalemate as well.

X800 XT Platinum Edition – There is little doubt that this is the best performer on HL2, able to run all our tests at 1600×1200 with 4xAA and 8xAF enabled.  If you can find one; good luck with that.  Most people have basically written this card off as DOA and I can’t say I blame them — availability has been nearly zilch and word that I have from some credible sources is that yields are bad enough that the chip is being redesigned.

6800 Ultra OC – This card is rare to find, but not impossible.  Coming in both the form of the Asus V9999 Ultra Deluxe as well as the BFG 6800 Ultra OC, this card did very well in the HL2 benchmarks.  There was only one case where I feel that running at 1600×1200 with 4x/8x enabled might cause a problem and that was on the Canals_09 map with the heavy water shaders, bringing the card down to 21 FPS or so a couple of times. 

X800 XT – I consider this to be the flagship card from ATI as the availability of the PE is, well, bad.  The good news is that the XT can do what the XT PE does with very little drawbacks.  You save some money and can still run HL2 at 16×12 with 4xAA and 8XAF, no problems.

6800 Ultra – The non-OC version compares very well to the OC version, just like the ATI X800 XT compares to the ATI X800 XT PE.  I didn’t find any cases where the “regular” Ultra wouldn’t be able to do what the OC version did, with only minimal performance hits.  1280×960 4x/8x is no problem and 1600×1200 4x/8x is a good possibility depending on your system.

X800 Pro – The cheapest X800 line card, the X800 Pro does very well in the HL2 tests, and I think that 1280×960 with 4xAA and 8xAF shouldn’t be a problem in most cases. 

6800 GT – This card did better than I expected on these results, coming in with the X800 Pro except on the Canals_09 level.  Based on my results, I’d say that 1280×960 with 4xAA and 8xAF is feasible, or you can run it at 2xAA and 4xAF for the best possible performance and IQ.  There were a few cases of the 6800 GT out performing the X800 Pro as well, but both cards did adequately there.

6800 – Though I placed it in our mid-range card section, it should be noted that this card is MSRP’d at $299, where as the other two are MSRP’d at $225 or so.  In most cases I saw the 6800 card running at 1280×960 with 4xAA and 8xAF turned on though in places reducing the AA and AF made a noticeable impact on performance.  I’d say that for the best experience you could run HL2 on this card with 2xAA and 4xAF at the 1280×960 resolution and be pretty happy.

6600GT – The newest card in this article, the $225 6600GT card is making a splash for its great performance and low price in many games.  It would seem that HL2 is no exception.  The 6600GT was able to run at 1024×768 with 4xAA and 8xAF pretty easily, making for a great gameplay experience.  Moving it up to 1280×960 was possible but after enabling the AA and AF we saw a hit on performance that affected gameplay enough to make me want to move back down. 

9800 Pro – The ATI mid-range AGP card was able to hold its own on the test, though most of the time fell behind the 6600GT card from NVIDIA.  In some cases running the card at 1024×768 with 4xAA and 8xAF made gameplay a bit of an issue, but most of the time it was okay.  You might find that running at lower AA and AF rates makes the game more enjoyable for you.

Final Thoughts

Though many might have feared differently, it looks like Half-Life 2 may be as accepting to older hardware as Doom 3 was.  Running at resolutions below 1024×768 definitely made the game less enjoyable, but still playable.  And unlike Doom 3, using AA and AF made a big difference in noticeable image quality pretty much the entire time.  Getting away without them seems to be something only Doom 3 can do with its continuous dark corridors.  If you have pre-Radeon 9700 Pro hardware, I’d say you’ll want to upgrade for the best experience in HL2, but its not required.  You can use our benchmark results (and your wallet size) to determine what you want to upgrade too.

Also, unlike what many may have thought, ATI did NOT run away with the best performance on HL2.  The GeForce 6800 series of cards does very well in the HL2 engine and only falls behind on very particular parts of the shader code.  I am quite confident that NVIDIA will be addressing these issues now that they have access to the game and we should see even newer drivers than the 67.02 improving performance in the short and long term. 

If you are interested in getting my custom demos, just send me an email and I’ll see what I can do.  They come in at just under 10MB so I am trying to avoid having them posted publicly on the site. 

In the end, it looks like both users of NVIDIA and ATI cards are going to be able to enjoy all that is Valve’s Half-Life 2.  Congrats go out to Valve for making such a steller game as well as to ATI and NVIDIA for making hardware and drivers to allow us to play it so well. 

I welcome discussion to my article in email or in this thread I started in our forums!

Feel free to use our PriceGrabber service to find great deals on Half-Life 2!

« PreviousNext »