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The Games of Christmas '08: GPU Performance Part 1

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SKYMTL

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Need For Speed Undercover

Need For Speed Undercover


The Need for Speed franchise has been through more sequels than we can count but it has always focused on one thing: balls-out driving. Undercover has been released just in time for the holiday shopping season and it sees you taking the role of an undercover police officer who has to ingrain himself with a particularly seedy crowd of individuals who just happen to be street racers. You get to compete in races, missions and other events in order to earn the trust of the criminals (errr...street racers) so you can be accepted into their organization


Undercover is billed as having some of the most detailed and open environments of any other Need For Speed game and indeed, it covers vast swaths of the fictional “Tri-City”. Everything from highways to dirt-covered back roads is accessible and EA touts the fact that there is supposedly more than 80 miles of roads open to the player.

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Another much-touted feature of this game is the fact that there is a broad list of the latest cars available. From the new Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X to the Bugatti Veyron, there is no lack of high performance rides for you to choose from. The only down side to this is you get to see them absolutely demolished when you are on the run from the fuzz.

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Click on image to enlarge

With a number of different mission structures and a large environment for you to play in, EA is hoping that this game will appeal to novice and veteran gamers alike.
 

SKYMTL

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Need for Speed Undercover: GPU Performance

Need for Speed Undercover: GPU Performance


Benchmarking NFS: Undercover proved to be an interesting process but we finally decided on the Ocean and Wilson Circuit race for a worst case scenario benchmark run. The benchmark run involves running 4 laps of the circuit at the hardest difficulty setting with 7 other racers and a high traffic volume. The total amount of time usually ranged between 3:30 and 3:40 of gameplay time recorded in FRAPS.

1680 X 1050

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2560 X 1600

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It seems like all of the ATI fans out there finally have something to cheer about since there are no two ways about it: if you are want to play this game on a regular basis, you are best off with an ATI card. The GTX 280 is able to nudge in a bit at higher resolutions due to its 1GB of memory but other than that, the HD4870 1GB is the king of the hill. Wait a second….the HD 4870 1GB? What happened to the HD 4870 X2? Well, it fell victim to its Achilles heel: a lack of Crossfire profiles. This meant completely lackluster performance from one end to another.
 
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SKYMTL

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Far Cry 2

Far Cry 2


When it was released, the original Far Cry stunned gamers and proved to be extremely popular. Indeed, it gave Crytek their claim to fame but since they have moved on to bigger and (not really) better things with the Crysis series, someone else would need to continue the series with another potential cash cow. Enter Ubisoft and their Montreal studios that have taken what Crytek started and have added a few new wrinkles to the fabric.

While the original Far Cry featured the main character Jack Carver running around a tropical paradise, Far Cry 2 is set in the depths of Africa where the player takes the reigns of an unnamed character. Civil war is the name of the game here and it makes for a very interesting setting as you search for The Jackal who an arms dealer is selling weapons to both sides. Naturally, your mission is to hunt down and kill The Jackal through whatever means necessary.

This is your typical first person shooter and much like the original, it is supposed to set a new standard in graphics quality.

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Using their proprietary Dunia Engine, Ubisoft Montreal has crafted a game world unlike any other seen to date. There are several features of this engine such as destructible environments and life-like fire which really show you how far game design has come. Both DX9 and DX10 / 10.1 APIs are featured and as you will see, they offer some interesting performance differences.

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While fire behaves almost like one would expect it to in the real world, the AI is also extremely intelligent. They will hunt you down like a dog when you are on the run and duck for cover when you are on the offensive.

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Click on image to enlarge

Since Far Cry 2 plays much like any other FPS, there shouldn’t be any problem diving right into the hunt for the Jackal but there is one thing to remember: the gameplay is completely open ended. That means what you do in one portion of the game’s 50 square kilometers of playable territory could have an impact on another area.

Mention should also be made of the fact that all of this action takes place on a single map instead of the usual “levels” we have all become used to in first person shooters. Therefore, you will seamlessly transition into different environments from African savannah to some lush jungle.
 

SKYMTL

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Far Cry 2: DX9 GPU Performance

Far Cry 2: DX9 GPU Performance


Even though Far Cry 2 has its own built-in benchmarking tool with some flythroughs and “action scenes”, we decided to record our own timedemo consisting of about 7 minutes of game time. It involves everything from run-and-gun fights to fire effects.


1680 X 1050

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2560 X 1600

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It seems that in its DX9 iteration, Far Cry 2 really benefits when the card you are using has over 512MB of memory. Is 512MB the new 256MB? It is too early to tell but as games increase the number and complexity of textures, it is a distinct possibility. That being said, in this particular instance the HD 4870 1GB really comes into its own since it beats a GTX 260 216 with minor overclocks in three out of four tests. Personally, I find the most telling result here to be the final high resolution benchmark which shows just how much of a different there is between the 1GB and 512MB versions of the same ATI card.

In the lower-end of the spectrum, the 9800 GTX+ provides some stiff competition against the HD 4850 and manages to provide playable framerates more often than not. However, when AA is turned on at 1680 X 1050m we are able to see where the strengths of the HD 4850 lies.
 
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SKYMTL

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Far Cry 2: DX10 GPU Performance

Far Cry 2: DX10 GPU Performance


1680 X 1050

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2560 X 1600

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Not only does Far Cry 2 provide ample reason to get a card with more memory but it is one of the first games we have seen to provide better performance in DX10 mode than it does in DX9 mode. Granted, the performance differences aren’t anything earth shattering, but there is no doubting DX10 provides better framerates.

Performance-wise both Nvidia and ATI have a mixed bag. The HD 4870 1GB is once again able to strut its stuff but it begins falling behind the Nvidia competition at ultra high resolution with AA turned on. The HD 4870 X2 performs miracles once again by providing simply stunning performance which even the GTX 280 isn’t able to match. In the sub-$250 price bracket we see the HD 4850 slipping a bit behind the 9800 GTX+ but its lower price means it offers slightly better value for your money.
 
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SKYMTL

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Fallout 3

Fallout 3


Fallout 3 is one of the big games this holiday season even though it was released a little over a month ago. Some of us have fond memories of playing the original Fallout and Fallout 2 until the wee hours of the morning so when Bethesda Softworks announced their third installment, we were understandably excited.

To be brief, Fallout 3 is an action role-playing game that is set 200 years after nuclear war engulfed the world (let me tell you, those newspaper clippings reading “US annexes Canada” are particularly chilling) where you take the role of one of the few survivors. These survivors have been living in Vaults which have protected them from the nuclear fallout for the better part of two centuries. You begin the game as an infant in Vault 101 and quickly grow up while learning the ins and outs of control and combat. Once the brief intro sequence is finished, you are plunged into a web of mystery as your father disappears and forces the main character to leave Vault 101 and venture into the Washington D.C area. You must find whatever clues you can regarding daddy’s sudden MIA status while combating the various inhabitants of the game world.

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Fallout 3 uses a modified version of the Gamebryo Engine that was also used in the popular Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion series of role-playing games. As such, some of the visuals in this game are absolutely stunning but it comes with some pretty hefty hardware requirements.

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The VATS (Vault-Tec Assisted Targeting System) system has been pimped by the developers of Fallout 3 ever since it was announced due to the fact that it adds a true “hybrid” nature to the combat system. Naturally, you can play the game as a first person shooter but the VATS system allows gameplay to be paused while certain actions and commands can be given to your character. This brings a whole new dimension to this game.

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Click on image to enlarge

Another aspect of Fallout 3 is the Karma system. This is exactly what it sounds like: the way by which you play the game will directly affect events in the world around you. If you choose to destroy a city (yes, it can be done) you will receive a massive amount of negative karma which will affect the way other game dwellers interact with you. Instead of giving you gifts, they may shun you.

All in all, this is not the type of instant gratification game many people are looking for since by its very nature, it takes a while to really get into. But if you do spend the time to work through some of its more boring parts, Fallout 3 promises to keep you hooked for a good long time.
 

SKYMTL

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Fallout 3: GPU Performance

Fallout 3: GPU Performance


For these Fallout 3 benchmarks we decided to use one of the more graphically intensive portions of the game: a gameplay session which starts at the exit from Vault 101, through Springvale, over a small hill towards Washington and then back towards Megaton. Within this session two ants were fought near Springvale. All in all, the gameplay time is about 6 minutes.

1680 X 1050

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2560 X 1600
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Like we saw with Far Cry 2, Fallout 3’s graphics engine really benefits the extra memory on the HD 4870 1GB, especially at higher resolutions. It is able to stay ahead of the GTX 260 216 and even takes on the GTX 280 in some instances. Unfortunately, the HD 4850 doesn’t fare quite too well against the 9800 GTX+ and the HD 4870 X2 seems capped at a max of around 80 FPS for some reason.

On the Nvidia side of things, things don’t look nearly as rosy. One instance of this is the fact that the GTX 260 looses out in nearly every test to the HD 4870 512MB with its lone saving grace being at 2560 X 1600 with 4xAA where its larger framebuffer size comes into play.
 
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SKYMTL

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S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky

S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky


Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl was one of the hit games of 2007 so it was only a matter of time until a sequel (or prequel in this case) was released. Clear Sky takes place before the events of Shadow of Chernobyl and this time you take the role of Scar who is a Stalker mercenary. Since you are the only survivor of a failed mission through the area surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear plant - the “Zone” as it is called in the game – you catch they eye of Lebedev, the leader of the Clear Sky zone faction. This leads to Scar being tasked with finding more information about some odd happenings in the Zone. And thus the story begins…

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Image Courtesy of GSC Gameworld

Clear Sky is a first person shooter with healthy doses of survival horror thrown in for good measure since you will find yourself battling everything from mutants to your regular, run of the mill, gun-totting humans. There is also a small dose of RPG gameplay due to the fact you are able to customize and hone your character’s weapons, take on quests, join and combat other factions and also increase some of your stats throughout the game.

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Image Courtesy of GSC Gameworld

The original Stalker game used the X-Ray game engine which has been significantly updated to X-Ray 1.5 for Clear Sky. This means the addition of features like volumetric lighting (this is a massive resource hog), DirectX 10 and 10.1 support, dynamic fluid behavior and many other things.

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Image Courtesy of GSC Gameworld

While it may look stunning, turning up the detail settings will have a massive impact on playability and as you will see in the charts on the next page, it isn’t pretty. That being said, Stalker: Clear Sky has been a hit since its release and the developers are still supporting it with regular updates.
 
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SKYMTL

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S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky GPU Performance

S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky GPU Performance


S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky has the ability to record what we would call “flythroughs” which we believe are a complete misrepresentation of actually gameplay when used as a benchmark. Thus, we decided to use a 10 minute gameplay session during the Garbage level. Once again, framerates were recorded with FRAPS.

Please note that these are not the absolute highest available settings as when set to "Maximum" there are still some options under the "advanced" tab that may still be set higher


1680 X 1050

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2560 X 1600

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This game is incredibly demanding on your system so this conclusion will be kept simple. Only the HD 4870 1GB, GTX 280 and HD 4870 X2 are able to play S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Clear Sky at the highest settings and even then only at lower resolutions. In the future, we intend to revise this test somewhat since there seems to be an issue with the volumetric lighting causing disproportionate performance losses in the mission we used.

Basically, Clear Sky seems to be a title where ATI is able to flex its muscles.
 
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SKYMTL

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X3: Terran Conflict

X3: Terran Conflict


From Homeworld to Freelancer to Freespace 2, I am a fan of anything to do with space combat so when the newest iteration of the X-games was announced, I was on board. It should also be noted that this is one of the few games in this article that is PC-only without the usual console-developed feel to it. X3: Terran Conflict is a stand-alone expansion to X3: Reunion (released in 2007) and focuses on four distinct gameplay elements: Trade, Fight, Build, Think. This can get a bit complicated so bear with me while I try to explain things.

The game focuses around open-ended gameplay where the player is free to choose from a number of different missions at any time. These missions can be completed in any order you see fit and are accessible throughout the 160 different sectors which are connected via jumpgates. It is up to you to choose missions which will be beneficial both monetary-wise and status-wise. Status will allow you to increase your stats while the monetary system in X3 is based around credits.

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Image courtesy of Egosoft

With the credits you get from running missions, you will be able to what the game calls “wares”. Since the X3 engine focuses on a market-driven economy, you purchase wares in the hope of selling them for a higher price in a different sector for a profit. There are laws of supply and demand here as well so if a ware is sought-after, you will make a healthy profit from it but if there is an abundance of it, you may actually loose money. As you build up your fortune, you will be able to build factories to take advantage of niche markets and eventually become a pivotal figure in the game universe.

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Image courtesy of Egosoft

Combat is another huge aspect of Terran Conflict since you will have to defend your interests quite often and the more exciting missions involve you duking it out with several other ships. While many have complained that using a mouse to control the three dimensional movement of a fighter, using a joystick is a possibility and it actually adds quite a bit to the immersion.

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Image courtesy of Egosoft

The visuals in X3:TC are simply stunning. All of the ships are rendered in amazing detail through the use of Egosoft’s proprietary game engine along with the hard work and dedication of a group from the X-Tended Mod team. Yes, that’s right; some of the minds behind one of the most popular mods for X3: Reunion have been put to work developing this game and their TLC really shows.

All in all, if you love space-based games you should really check this one out but if you are expecting the instant gratification that comes with guns blazing from start to finish, you may need to look somewhere else. This is a thinker’s game as much as it is a combat simulation.
 
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