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Mafia II: Perfection for NVIDIA’s Graphics Plus Technologies?

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SKYMTL

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Over the last few months, there has been an amazing amount of buzz about a number of games and while some of them have not been released yet, others are already setting sales records. Starcraft II is one game that has proven to be a boon for the computer industry and could usher in a bit of a renaissance for the PC as a gaming platform. However, the latest Starcraft title is about to be joined by another game and this one in particular is looking to push the limits of what we expect in a blockbuster title. The game we’re talking about is Mafia II and it will be released today on multiple platforms.

Mafia II very much follows in the footsteps of games like Grand Theft Auto (the similarities are actually shocking) in terms of both gameplay and mission layouts. However, this game is set during the 1940s and 1950s when the mob had reached the height of its power. You follow the path Vito Scaletta as he progresses up the ladder in the crime family where jacking cars soon leads to hits against rivals and more nefarious deeds as time marches along. It’s downright good fun and looks the game itself looks quite good.

One of the more interesting aspects of this game is the fact that it incorporates several advanced features which promise to bring gameplay to the next level. Since NVIDIA has taken Mafia II under its wing; PhysX, 3D Vision and Surround gaming have been carefully built into its framework. Many may bitch and whine about these additions but our opinion stays the same: anything that strives to make the PC gaming experience unique is perfectly fine by us. Unfortunately though, Mafia II traces its roots back to the dreaded consoles which have worked to stymie PC game development for the last several years. As such, it still uses the ages-old DX9 API with all of its limitations and performance-hogging anti aliasing routines.

This particular article will be a bit different from the other gameplay performance summaries we have posted in the past. Instead of pitting NVIDIA against ATI, we will be taking a closer look at the features NVIDIA bring to the table and what kind of impact you can expect when enabling 3D Vision, Surround and PhysX.

 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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NVIDIA’s APEX Modules in Mafia II

NVIDIA’s APEX Modules in Mafia II


By now everyone and their mothers have likely already heard about NVIDIA’s PhysX technology which brings physics processing to the GPU. Utilizing the highly parallel nature of today’s graphics cards, complex physics calculations can be done in a fraction of the time they are processed on a standard multi core processor. What you may not have heard of up until now is APEX.


In its more basic form, APEX gives game designers a scalable ecosystem where they can create high-level dynamic and interactive environments without having to get their noses dirty in the programming aspect of things. Anything created within APEX can be can also be scaled across multiple platforms – from the CPU to the GPU to consoles- which creates a simple all in one solution. This could help bring in-game physics to a wider range of gamers and even help optimize code for different applications.

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Within APEX, there are a number of modules including Destruction, Clothing, Vegetation, Particles and Turbulence of which one, a few or all can be used within a game. Within Mafia 2, 2K games have decided to use the Clothing and Particle modules for lifelike cloth animations and detailed, persistent debris.

APEX Off

<iframe src="http://player.vimeo.com/video/14350744?byline=0&portrait=0" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0"></iframe>​


APEX On

<iframe src="http://player.vimeo.com/video/14350845?byline=0&portrait=0" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0"></iframe>​

Above we have a quick comparison of persistent debris with and without APEX enabled in the game’s main menu. As you can see, there are a number of differences when it comes to portraying the way the debris moves, interacts with its environment and stays on the floor. For those of you who are wondering: yes, you can shoot apart the concrete columns in order to uncover enemies hiding behind them. There are additional items like some pretty heavy collision detection and cloth interaction as well but the videos above don’t show either of these features all that well.

Below is a breakdown of how the processing is done in each of Mafia II’s APEX modes.



 

SKYMTL

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Test System and Setup

Test System and Setup



Main Test System

Processor: Intel Core i7 920(ES) @ 4.0Ghz (Turbo Mode Enabled)
Memory: Corsair 3x2GB Dominator DDR3 1600Mhz
Motherboard: Gigabyte EX58-UD5
Cooling: CoolIT Boreas mTEC + Scythe Fan Controller (Off for Power Consuption tests)
Disk Drive: Pioneer DVD Writer
Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB
Power Supply: Corsair HX1000W
Monitor: Samsung 305T 30” widescreen LCD
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate N x64 SP1


For Specific Testing (where indicated)

Processor: Intel Core i5 750 @ 2.67Ghz (Turbo Mode Enabled)
Memory: 2x2GB OCZ Platinum PC-15000 @ 6-7-6-17 1066Mhz DDR
Motherboard: Gigabyte H57M-USB3
Cooling: Thermalright TRUE
Disk Drive: Pioneer DVD Writer
Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB
Power Supply: Corsair HX520
Monitor: Samsung 305T 30” widescreen LCD
OS: Windows 7 Ultimate N x64


Graphics Cards:

EVGA GTX 460 1GB (Single & SLI)


Drivers:

259.32 Beta


*Notes:

- The OS has had all the latest hotfixes and updates installed

- All scores you see are the averages after 3 benchmark runs

All game-specific methodologies are explained above the graphs for each game

All IQ settings were adjusted in-game
 

SKYMTL

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Built in Benchmark Performance Analysis

Built in Benchmark Performance Analysis


In a recent article, we took the time to look at and analyze the different (or lack thereof) between certain benchmarking methods. In some games, the built-in benchmark provided an accurate representation of in-game performance but in others there was a huge difference between the rolling demo the developer provided versus reality.

Mafia II provides a built-in rolling benchmark that gives a more cinematic view of a section Chapter 5 than the player will ever experience. The scene begins with an assault on a pair of cars and ends within a distillery amidst a firefight. Below we have two situations: the built-in benchmark and the “worst case” scenario we found after playing through the whole game. Our own worst case benchmark sequence is detailed below. Caution: the language contained in the clip below may be offensive to some.

<iframe src="http://player.vimeo.com/video/14377977?byline=0&portrait=0" width="640" height="360" frameborder="0"></iframe>


A built-in benchmark is a luxury very few games have but what’s the use of a benchmark when it doesn’t reflect the realities within the game itself? Due to the massive and frankly unrealistic number of particles, chunks of debris and close-in camera angles the CPU performance of our setup was severely hindered in some cases when compared to even the worst case in-game scenario.

However, the other tests which didn’t rely on CPU generated physics both methods were actually quite close in comparison. We’re of the opinion that the addition of built-in benchmarks should be applauded but only when they have a firm grounding in reality. In this case 2K wins a polite round of applause from us due to their benchmark actually reflecting in-game performance…in most cases at least.
 
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SKYMTL

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DX9’s Achilles Heel: Anti Aliasing Performance

DX9’s Achilles Heel: Anti Aliasing Performance


With the introduction of Windows 7, DirectX 11 quickly became the toast of the town and yet for all its benefits, it has only been used in a handful of games since its release. The reason behind this is the ever increasing slant of the video game market towards consoles and the supposed security against piracy they provide. As such, the vast majority of new games being released still use the tried, tested and true DX9 rendering path.

But what does this mean for overall in-game image quality? Not much actually, considering that for all their vaunted features the first generation of DX11 games didn’t look all that much better than their DX9 counterparts. What really set the DX11 titles apart was their performance. When properly programmed, a DX11 title should offer a more efficient rendering option for features like anti aliasing and ambient occlusion than anything DX9 can offer.

Mafia II uses Super Sample Anti Aliasing (at a 2x level to be exact) with two options: on or off. Unfortunately, while on paper SSAA is able to provide better image quality than MSAA, it is hugely resource-hungry under the best of conditions. What does this mean for the inefficient DX9 renderer used in Mafia II?


The use of SSAA without a doubt hamstrings Mafia II’s GPU performance in a massive way. The picture quality does improve quite a bit but make sure to take these numbers into consideration if you are experiencing unacceptable framerates. Honestly, we would have much preferred to have MSAA options available for this game with a selectable SSAA setting if necessary. We applaud the inclusion of anti aliasing in a game that normally doesn’t have this feature but the performance hit is quite steep unless you have a high-end system.
 

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Intel i5 750 System PhysX Scaling

Intel i5 750 System PhysX Scaling


While our main test system makes use of a rip-roaring i7 clocked at 4Ghz (which we will be looking at on the next page), we also wanted to see how Mafia II would perform when played on a much more affordable system. So, we took our stock-clocked quad core i5 750 and paired it up with an inexpensive GTX 460 1GB.

The reasoning behind this test is to see what kind of impact NVIDIA’s PhysX has on both processing load and performance in a budget-friendly system. Note the PhysX processing was controlled through the NVIDIA control panel.


Before we analyze these results too closely, we need to give both 2K and NVIDIA some real credit here since Mafia II seems to be one of the few games out there that is able to take full advantage of more than two CPU cores. Naturally, when APEX is turned off things like cloth movement and debris interaction are sprite-based which means they put a heavy load on the CPU. We’re just happy to see that the load is almost evenly dispersed across four cores.

Things get a little less straightforward when APEX is set at medium or high since instead of processor load increasing due to true physics calculations being done, it actually decreases. As you will see below, this drop in load goes hand in hand with a significant drop-off in performance but there is more to this than what first meets the eye. Enabling GPU physics on the other hand results in substantially less stress across all cores on the CPU as the GTX 460’s GPU is partially utilized for high-level calculations which frees up cycles on the CPU.


It is quite obvious that APEX routines are not fully optimized for a multi core CPU due to the drop in utilization. Luckily though, enabling physics on the CPU does not completely cripple performance as it did in past games. Even with APEX set to medium, it looks like a good multi core CPU can keep up with a GTX 460 being partially used for PhysX. The reason behind this equality between the GPU and CPU at medium settings is due to a processor bottleneck being substituted for a graphics bottleneck on the GPU. Mafia II is a graphics-heavy game so losing a single SM on the GTX 460 to physics processing results in decreased rendering performance even though physics calculations may be done more efficiently.

When the high APEX settings come around, the CPU does tend to get bogged down and the single GTX 460 is able to pull out ahead. Adding an $80 GT 240 hooked up to a meager 4x PCI-E bus makes a world of difference as well. The CPU is left doing the tasks it should be working on while the GTX 460 can use all of its power for rendering. This results in excellent all-round performance.


Just note that in all of these situations, there is a fair amount of GPU bottlenecking going on as enabling the super sampling AA in Mafia II makes a huge impact upon overall performance. As we saw, disabling AA in the tests above will likely net you a gain of about 25 to 30 percent.
 

SKYMTL

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Intel i7 920 System PhysX Scaling

Intel i7 920 System PhysX Scaling


Unlike with the i5 750, we’re now going to look at the other end of the spectrum: a high-end eight threaded system with 6GB of memory and a price of over $1200. Again, the entire point of this test is to see how the APEX PhysX options scale in relation to the setup chosen. Note the PhysX processing was controlled through the NVIDIA control panel.


Again we see extremely good scaling across all eight threads when APEX is turned off and that same odd drop in load when it is enabled on the CPU. The change from Medium to High settings doesn’t really have an impact upon the overall CPU load either. Again, this could be due to anything from optimizations to the load balancing of APEX.


When using a highly clocked i7 system, things look a lot better when it comes to PhysX processing. The same 20% performance hit is still there but the eight-thread Intell processor is actually able to keep up with the GTX 460 with APEX set to high. That isn’t really saying all that much since neither solution provides what we would describe as playable framerates (at least with AA enabled).

Once again adding a GT 240 really turns things around and brings performance up to expectations.
 

SKYMTL

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3D Vision Performance

3D Vision Performance


Note: i7 test system was used for these benchmarks


Mafia II is one of the few games released over the last few months that boasts a 3D Vision-ready certification. This means it has been specifically designed for optimum compatibility with stereoscopic viewing.

I won’t beat around the bush here: Mafia II features one of the best 3D Vision experiences I have experienced. Ever. Being a longtime fan of NVIDIA’s strides towards bringing depth perception to gamers, I have been using this setup for the vast majority of my gaming time. However, titles that don’t have some small issues with stereo 3D are few and far between. On the flip side of this coin, Mafia II is simply flawless in its implementation of 3D Vision but the price you pay is significant in terms of performance. If you want to see the future of this technology, Mafia II is a must-have.


Even though 3D Vision enabled a visually stunning gameplay experience, you will likely need more horsepower than a single GTX 460 1GB can provide in order to get playable framerates with AA enabled. One of the main limiting factors here is framebuffer size since the cards are being asked to render what amounts to two 1080P images at the same time. A pair of GTX 460 cards works perfectly in this case.
 

SKYMTL

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Taking Things to the Next Level with NVIDIA Surround

Taking Things to the Next Level with NVIDIA Surround


Note: i7 test system was used for these benchmarks

When AMD’s Eyefinity was released, many people began hoping for a significant leap forward in game immersion and this was accomplished through ease of use and excellent game support. Now with NVIDIA on board we are hoping to see multi monitor gaming take yet another step towards widespread acceptance even though buying a trio of monitors and the necessary amount of high performance hardware can become an expensive undertaking. You can read more about this technology in our dedicate article HERE.

Standard


Click on image to enlarge


Surround Enabled


Click on image to enlarge

Truth be told we were never all that high on multi monitor gaming simply due to the cost involved coupled with extremely limited gameplay benefits. However, Mafia II forced us into a complete 180° turn since much like the 3D Vision feature; its multi monitor support is damn near perfect. The field of view it gives you is nothing short of astonishing and other than a few pop-ins during cutscenes, there were absolutely no hitches. This additional viewing angle not only helps when you engage multiple opponents in some fisticuffs (which happens quite a few times throughout the course of the game) but also aides driving through the bustling streets for Empire Bay. If there is one game you buy this year for a multi monitor setup, this should be it.


Since NVIDIA Surround is only compatible with SLI setups, we only added the single card results here as a measuring point. Nonetheless, we can see that since the system doesn’t have to render the full number of pixels in the two peripheral displays, performance is much better than one would initially expect. Even with a trio of 23” widescreen displays, a pair of $230 GTX 460 cards are easily able to return playable framerates.


Click on image to enlarge
 

SKYMTL

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3D Vision Surround: The Ultimate Experience

3D Vision Surround: The Ultimate Experience


One of the cornerstones of NVIDIA’s GPU Plus initiative is the possibility of combining every one of the features together. In previous pages we saw the performance impact when anti aliasing, 3D Vision, PhysX and NVIDIA Surround are individually enabled but what happens when someone wants the ultimate gaming experience? Well, let’s just say that you’ll need some serious hardware and very deep pockets.


Adding 3D to the Surround setup causes framerate tanking due to the phenomenal amount of rendering power that’s needed. We were actually quite surprised that a pair of GTX 460 cards were nearly able to deliver playable (we believe 30 FPS is “playable” in Mafia II) framerates at 5960 x 1080 with 3D and AA enabled along with relatively smooth performance at lower resolutions.


Click on image to enlarge

Turning on GPU PhysX processing brought about a minor impact in overall performance at the lower resolution. However, due to the additional resources it needed at 3x 23”, the amount of memory a pair of GTX 460 1GB provided just wasn’t enough and we received the Out of Memory message from the 3D Vision software. This is completely understandable considering we can only expect so much from a pair of mid-range cards.

 
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