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The Games of Christmas '08: GPU Performance Part 1

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Many of us have a love / hate relationship with this time of year. It the time companies start making their holiday-season push to the heaving masses of holiday shoppers which means new products aplenty and some pretty kick-ass prices to boot. On the other hand, many of us grumble quietly whenever someone mentions Christmas since with candy canes and gifts comes snowstorms, aching backs from shoveling, Christmas shopping and temperatures low enough that your nose feels like it will fall off. Yes, we Canadians have it tough sometimes but crappy weather outside gives us the perfect opportunity to play with our shiny new toys without feeling the guilt associated with missing out on a balmy summer day.

To satisfy the needs of us PC gamers, the pre-holiday releases started with a bang and continues going strong with games like Far Cry 2, Fallout 3, Dead Space, Need For Speed Undercover and numerous others. While many of these new games are sequels or prequels, there are a quite a few new faces in this season’s lineup which bring new gameplay mechanics and the faces of characters we will all soon come to know and love.

These days it seems like console gaming is taking center stage with many PC games being simple and sometimes ineffective clones of their console brethren. Many will argue that the popularity of console games is mostly due to their simple hardware requirements; all you need is the console to play the game and you don’t need to upgrade for an optimal gameplay experience. For example, when you buy Fallout 3 for the Playstation 3, you know it will perform reasonably well while if you buy it for the PC, you have to pay close attention to the recommended hardware requirements. If you don’t meet the requirements, it is time for an upgrade and even then you may not be able to play the game at the highest settings. Yes, it sounds like we are making a pitch against PC gaming but that isn’t the case at all since everyone knows that the PC interface brings games to a level the consoles will never be able to achieve. This is why there are plenty of us out there who are more than willing to sink whatever money necessary into our gaming rigs.

I am sure you have heard the old adage saying that if it plays well on a console, it will probably do so on a mid-range PC. However, that may not always be the case since we have seen developers constantly add graphical tweaks to the PC version of a game which may not be present in the console version. Add to that some sloppy coding and you have the recipe for disaster. This sometimes means pretty steep hardware requirements while other times even lower-end PCs have been known to play a well-optimized game.

Requirements and achievable performance may sound confusing but this is where we here at Hardware Canucks step in to help guide you in the right direction with this article. Here we will be focusing on GPU performance in a number of popular (and at least one not-so-popular) newly-released games. These are games which will probably be high on the shopping list of your favorite uncle who always buys you the cool stuff your parents don’t want you to have. Just remember; this is the first part of a pair of articles. The first one will focus on the higher-end GPUs along with an overclocked quad-core system. Meanwhile, Part II will bring out the more price-conscious graphics cards which will be paired up with a bit more pedestrian system which you can put together for far under $1000.

All in all, these articles should be just what the doctor ordered for your holiday hardware upgrades so let’s get this show on the road.
 

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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
The Competition: Nvidia Cards

The Competition: Nvidia Cards


Many will erroneously state that Nvidia has spent most of this year playing catch-up to a surging ATI but we have to remember that before the release of the HD 4800-series of cards, Nvidia was leading at every price point. Cards like the GTX 260 and GTX 280 were the first to be able to properly play such demanding games as Crysis at reasonable framerates even though their initial price points were astronomical. That being said, this holiday season brings with it less expensive Nvidia cards and bucket loads of performance so let’s take a look at the Nvidia cards we will be using in this article.


EVGA GTX 280 1GB



When the GTX 280 was released it was met with guarded enthusiasm since while it was able to perform at amazing speeds, its price of nearly $700 here in Canada brought many people up short. Since that time, pricing has come down significantly to the point where you can purchase Nvidia’s flagship card for about the same price the GTX 260 was retailing for a few months ago. It is still considered the top dog in Nvidia’s lineup even though its status as the fastest card on the planet has been taken over by the HD 4870 X2. In this review we will be using a stock-clocked card from EVGA.


EVGA GTX 260 Core 216 Superclocked



The GTX 260 with 216 Shader Processors is the new kid on the block in Nvidia’s lineup since it was released in order to answer ATI’s HD 4870. In our review of this card, we found that it was able to compete with and in many situations beat the HD 4870 512MB. All in all, I would call that a successful launch especially since it would eventually replace the older GTX 260.

Start the hate mail folks because I have decided to use a card in this article which sports slightly overclocked specifications. While the overclocks may be considered insignificant, they do provide a very slight performance boost which you should take into the account when reading any further in this review. Why did I choose to use this card? Well it is the only 216 shader GTX 260 I have and I am unwilling to underclock to achieve the desired clock speeds. Underclocking is a dangerous game which can sometimes result in lower performance than a stock card so what you see here is what you get.


BFG GTX 260



It was a while after release when we got our first look at a stock-clocked GTX 260 but nonetheless, the card proved to be a godsend for Nvidia since it competed quite well against ATI’s HD 4870. Granted, it lost out more often than not which is why the “unlocked” version with 216SPs was eventually released but through careful retail price cuts, it stayed competitive for months in the face of adversity. Even though this card is becoming harder and harder to find, I find it is still relevant to this review since there are plenty of people out there who still have one or who can get a great deal on it considering its discontinuation. In this review we will be benching with the stock clocked BFG version.


EVGA 9800 GTX+



We can all remember when the original 9800 GTX was released and we were stunned to find that it wasn’t too much of an improvement over the 8800 GTS 512MB. However, with ATI’s release of the HD 4850, Nvidia suddenly found itself battling over ground it thought was safely locked up. After the 9800 GTX was soundly beaten in the price / performance battle by ATI’s new wunderkind, Nvidia knew they needed something else. Enter the “+” version of that same 9800 GTX which is now sporting a brand new 55nm core as well as increased clock speeds. When we first looked at this card its benefits were clear as day and not a thing has changed since then. However, it will be interesting to see how it performs in all of these new applications we will be putting it through today.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
12,841
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The Competition: ATI Cards

The Competition: ATI Cards


ATI has been on a roll this year with a number of extremely popular graphics cards including the HD 4870 and HD 4850. In this review we will be drawing the line at a the $200 price bracket but you should be aware that their lower-end cards like the HD 4830 and HD 4670 have been making just as much of a splash in their respective markets. Let’s take a look at the ATI cards we will be using in this article.


Palit HD 4870 X2 2GB



When the ATI HD 4870 X2 was released onto the market, it beat the best Nvidia had and retailed for a pretty penny. Since then, Nvidia still has yet to offer any competition to this dual GPU wonder so it should still be king of the castle. For this article we are using Palit’s card which is widely available at etailers nation wide so if you are looking for it, you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it.


Sapphire HD 4870 1GB



The 1GB version of the HD 4870 is the newest addition to ATI’s higher-end lineup and was introduced to combat the newer GTX 260 with 216 shaders. It wasn’t released in huge quantities right after its release but that was then and currently this card is widely available at major retailers everywhere. 1GB of GDDR5 is supposed to add enough performance for the HD 4870 to bring it in-line with the new GTX 260 216 but we will see…

Sapphire is a well-known company to people everywhere and in this case they supplied their custom-built HD 4870 1GB that is stock-clocked but sports a different cooler and PCB layout than the reference design. This is supposed to lower power consumption as well as temperatures. Don’t worry, we will test all of this when the review of this Sapphire card is released.


Palit HD 4870 512MB



Back when we reviewed the HD 4870 512MB, its performance stunned us like it did everyone else; including Nvidia. This is the card that sparked ATI’s resurgence into the enthusiast mindset and it is here to stay for the time being. Its performance is right up there with the GTX 260 even though Nvidia has decided to cancel that card in favor of the faster 216SP version. This is another stock-clocked Palit card based off of the reference design.


Sapphire HD 4850 512MB



Both the HD 4870 and HD 4850 were released at about the same time and they proved to be a great one-two punch for the boys in red. Sapphire’s card has been in our GPU stable since its release and has proven to be competitive against everything Nvidia had to throw up against it. The 9800 GTX proved to be easy prey for the HD 4850 and even the latecomer 9800 GTX+ couldn’t quite beat it in every benchmark. While these cards are available in both 512MB and rarer 1GB versions, we will be looking at the reference 512MB card in this article.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
12,841
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Montreal
Test System, Methodologies & Pricing Information

Test System & Setup

System Used

Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad Extreme QX9770 @ 3.852Ghz
Memory: G.Skill 2x 2GB DDR2-1000 @ 1052Mhz DDR
Motherboard: ASUS P5E Deluxe X48
Disk Drive: Pioneer DVD Writer
Hard Drive: Hitachi Deskstar 320GB SATAII
Fans: 2X Yate Loon 120mm @ 1200RPM
Power Supply: Corsair HX1000W
Monitor: Samsung 305T 30” widescreen LCD
OS: Windows Vista Ultimate x64 SP1


Graphics Cards:

Palit HD 4870 X2
Sapphire HD 4870 1GB
Palit HD 4870 512MB
Sapphire HD 4850 512MB
EVGA GTX 280
EVGA GTX 260 Core 216 Superclocked
BFG GTX 260
EVGA 9800 GTX+


Drivers:

Nvidia 180.48 WHQL
ATI 8.12 WHQL


Applications Used:

Call of Duty: World at War
Crysis: Warhead
X3: Terran Conflict
Dead Space
Left 4 Dead
Far Cry 2
S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky
Fallout 3
Need for Speed Underclover


*Notes:

- All games tested have been patched to their latest version

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

- All scores you see are the averages after 4 benchmark runs

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


The Cost per FPS Numbers Explained


You will notice that for this article we have included a $ / FPS number which is representational of the amount you pay for each frame per second in a particular game at a certain resolution. The price for each card is divided by the average frames per second to give the final result.

The prices of each individual price is calculated in Canadian dollars and is the average price derived from the five lowest prices for each card found in our Price Comparison engine on December 7th, 2008. The prices of each card were as follows:

HD4870X2: $636
HD4870 1GB: $367
HD 4870 512MB: $285
HD4850:$201
GTX 280: $510
GTX 260 216: $379
GTX 260: $340
9800GTX+ $222

Results shown with an "n/a" means that the card was not able to achieve playable framerates so should not even be considered as a viable option at that resolution / IQ setting.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Messages
12,841
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Call of Duty: World at War

Call of Duty: World at War


Ever since the release of the first of the series, the Call of Duty games have been known as some of the best first person shooters around. The first few were put up against the heavy competition of Medal of Honor but have since found their own fan base. As time progressed, the series dipped its toe into the modern terrorism aspect of things with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. They have now gone back to their World War II roots with the World at War title.

GAME-PERF-5.JPG

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Instead of the usual Western Front shtick, World at War focuses mainly on the Pacific and Eastern European theatres of operation where you take the role of either a US Marine or Red Army soldier. All in all, this makes for a pretty interesting storyline, especially when you have Kiefer Sutherland (Corporal Roebuck) and Gary Oldman (Sergeant Reznov) backing things up with their stellar voice acting.

GAME-PERF-6.JPG

Click on image to enlarge

Gameplay-wise this is just another first person shooter but it is a pretty good looking one at that. World at War uses the same engine which was used in CoD4 but it has been updated with improved physics, lighting characteristics and other bangs and whistles. So, it will be interesting to see exactly what kind of framerates we can push with today’s GPUs.

GAME-PERF-7.JPG

Click on image to enlarge

Many people associate the Call of Duty franchise with developers Infinity Ward who began the franchise and went on to produce three highly successful titles since the first game’s depute back in 2003. Without a doubt, Call of Duty 4 was a popular title so it came as a bit of a surprise to many when Activision (the publisher of the CoD series) decided to go with Treyarch to develop the fifth iteration in this series. Whether or not this will turn out to be a good thing has yet to be seen.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Call of Duty: World at War GPU Performance

Call of Duty: World at War GPU Performance


To benchmark this game, we played through 10 minutes of the second mission (Little Resistance) starting from right after the player calls in the rocket strike on the enemy positions on the beach. This was benchmarked using FRAPS.

1680 X 1050

GAME-PERF-60.JPG


GAME-PERF-19.JPG


2560 X 1600

GAME-PERF-20.JPG


GAME-PERF-21.JPG

We may all remember that in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, the ATI cards reined supreme but this iteration of the CoD series sees the flip side of the coin. Nvidia cards dominate in every price / performance category even though the HD 4870 X2 is able to be the lone ace up the sleeve of ATI. Granted, at anything other than the highest resolution, even the ATI cards are able to deliver acceptable framerates but for this game, Nvidia seems to have the right stuff more often than not.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Dead Space

Dead Space


Dead Space is one of the few games in this article that is an original title and not the usual sequel or prequel. Developed by Electronic Arts’ Redwood Shores studio, this is billed as a survival horror action game where you take the role of Isaac Clarke. Isaac is sent in as a part of a team to investigate what they think is a simple mechanical failure aboard a massive mining ship called the Ishimura. Since this is a survival horror game, you probably all know what comes next: human-mutating alien DNA and plenty of gore.

GAME-PERF-10.JPG

Click on image to enlarge

One of the main selling points of this game is the fact that it has a very well-written storyline which is used to drive the main character forward in his quest to repair parts of the Ishimura while slaughtering masses of alien ass. Dead Space also features an interesting concept regarding how you go about killing said alien-mutated humans; dismemberment (chopping off their limbs with a plasma cutter or the like) is the way to go since the enemies’ torsos are usually quite tough.

GAME-PERF-9.JPG

Click on image to enlarge

The point of view taken in Dead Space is quite different from others in the survival horror genre since it forgoes the usual first person shooter approach and turns it into an over-the-shoulder affair. There is also the lack of a full HUD from most shooters since the usual health bar and special ability counter are strategically integrated into the back of your character. The suit’s “backbone” dubs as a health bar while there is a special ability meter on the left shoulder; it is bloody brilliant.

GAME-PERF-8.JPG

Click on image to enlarge

The developers have another little surprise in store for you which may have some of you with sensitive stomachs heaving up your lunch in no time: zero gravity. This brings a whole new full 360° aspect to combat, movement and even sound. Everything in zero-g moves a bit slower than normal, the music becomes muffled and you constantly have to watch your air gauge. The zero-g environments (along with the rest of the graphics) are simply stunning but there is one thing you will have to remember: some of the enemies seem to be suited for the environment and will attack you with blinding speed from literally any angle.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Dead Space: GPU Performance

Dead Space: GPU Performance


To benchmark Dead Space, we used a timed 10 minute gameplay session around in Chapter 2: Intensive Care on Hard Difficulty in which we battle a few necromorphs and enter a zero-G environment. Seriously, what good is a benchmark without action sequences? “Walkthroughs” are unacceptable around here… Once again FRAPS was used.

1680 X 1050

GAME-PERF-22.JPG


GAME-PERF-23.JPG


2560 X 1600

GAME-PERF-24.JPG


GAME-PERF-25.JPG

Just like in CoD: WaW, the performance of nearly every single ATI card leaves much to be desired. I am not sure if this is a driver limitation or what but when a 9800 GTX+ beats out a HD 4870 1GB again and again, you know something isn’t quite right in the ATI driver department. Good on them for making good use of the HD 4870 X2 though.

Something else that should be mentioned is the fact that this is one of the few games we will see here today in which is the GTX 280 is able to put itself head and shoulders above the EVGA GTX 260 Core 216 Superclocked card. However, we are able to see that the standard GTX 260 is still a pretty good bang for your buck.
 
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SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Left 4 Dead

Left 4 Dead


Zombies and guns; what more is there to say about Left 4 Dead? The basic premise is to kill as many zombies as you can while keeping your teammates alive for as long as possible.

GAME-PERF-1.JPG

Click on image to enlarge

While there are single player missions, the real meat behind Left 4 Dead lies in its multiplayer features which will have you and your friends caught up in no time. In these missions you and your teammates get to play as either the Survivors (the few humans left alive) or as the Infected (zombies) which puts a pretty unique twist on the usual zombie-based action game. Since the Infected players don’t have guns, pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails, they need to make do with various ambush techniques in order to ferret out the Survivors. One the other hand, the Survivors need to stick together or risk being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of zombies coming at them.

GAME-PERF-18.JPG

Click on image to enlarge

Many of you will be used to the usual repetitive pace and layout many shooters take by now so you will be in for a fresh surprise with Left 4 Dead’s game mechanics. Valve has used what they call The Director so that every time you make your way through a specific level, everything from the number of enemies to the locations of weapon drops will be different.

GAME-PERF-17.JPG

Click on image to enlarge

Since it is designed from the ground up on Valve’s vaunted Source game engine (the same which powered Half Life 2), it will be familiar to many of you who have played Valve’s previous games. This also means the graphics are quite good if a bit dated but the number of enemies on the screen at any one time can reach amazing proportions when a huge horde of zombies is trying to gang-bang you.
 

SKYMTL

HardwareCanuck Review Editor
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Joined
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Messages
12,841
Location
Montreal
Left 4 Dead: GPU Performance

Left 4 Dead: GPU Performance


For benching Left 4 Dead, we used a pre-recorded 5 minute timedemo taken on the Death Toll campaign during The Church mission. Framerates were captured with FRAPS.

1680 X 1050

GAME-PERF-36.JPG


GAME-PERF-37.JPG


2560 X 1600

GAME-PERF-38.JPG


GAME-PERF-39.JPG

Here we have some interesting results with the ATI cards being a bit more competitive at lower resolutions but even the HD 4870 1GB starts to slip a bit at 2560 X 1600. Speaking of the HD 4870 1GB, its performance is never far from the 512MB version in this game so we really have to question its use if you are a Left 4 Dead player. It is also very interesting to see the GTX 260 Core 216 card we are using having almost the exact same $ / FPS value as the outgoing GTX 260. Before we go any further, we need to say that every card benched here delivered more than acceptable performance in Left 4 Dead no matter what resolution was used.
 
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