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Ageia PhysX: First Look

Date: May 5, 2006
Author(s): Greg King

Ageia’s PhysX started out as a killer concept but now that concept is reality. Today we take a look at that reality and touch on what it offers and what it will offer in the future.



Introduction

The physics craze has been upon us for quite some time.  There have been some big name players in this industry debate and pick apart the approach that Ageia has decided to take.  We all know the story by now… Ageia develops the worlds first add in physics card, names it PhysX and sends it out to the public.  There have been other debates as to how game developers should program their games to further the gaming experience by creating a lifelike environment through advanced, in game physics.  We also know the approach that Ageia has taken to providing said experiences.  This is all well and good but all we have seen so far is the demos from the GDC where Cell Factor was being played on beefed up systems with the Ageia PhysX card.  I have been fortunate enough to have the chance to play around with the new PhysX PPU provided to us by Ageia and BFG.

The BFG version of the PhysX card comes equipped with 128MB of onboard GDDR3 memory with an effective data rate of 733 MHz and operates through a standard 32-bit PCI 3.0 bus.  The PPU itself has 125 million transistors and is built using .13 micron technology.  The memory bandwidth is rated at 12Gbytes/sec. with a peak instruction bandwidth of 20 billion instructions per second.

Those are all nice numbers but I am more interested in what they translate into when playing games.  So far, there are no games that have been released in their final versions to test the uses of a dedicated PPU.  There is the demo for Ghost Recon: Advanced War Fighter and from what I have read, over and over, this game will take full advantage of the PPU.  Since this isn’t a full fledged review, but rather a look at what more than likely will be possible when games are released, I am not going to get into all the details that I would normally get into.  This is designed to let you all know what I am going through when I test out the PhysX PPU from Ageia.

What you are seeing is the actual card that was sent to me from Ageia.  It would appear that little has changed since we took a look at it at the GDC.  The layout of the card is exactly the same.  This isn’t a problem at all, but rather an observation.

Like I said earlier, there is little to offer in the realm of games that fully support a PPU.  At the time that this article is published, there are 0 games out and 2 playable demos that one can use to test out the PPU.  There is GRAW and Cell Factor and aside from those two game demos, you are S.O.L if you want to play something else that uses the PhysX card.  Not a big deal at the moment because the card itself is not available for retail purchase.  You can however; purchase the PhysX card pre-bundled in PC systems from Dell, Alienware and Falcon.  In the coming days, the full release of GRAW for the PC will happen as well as Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends.  These two games are the backbone of the software support that Ageia desperately needs in order to give the PhysX card the momentum it needs to truly soar.


Games and Demos

Cell Factor

This demo was first showed to the public at large at the GDC.  This is a futuristic FPS with the greatest draw being the vast amount of objects that you can interact with on the screen at once.  You are able to “push” around dozens of objects at a time and when there is an explosion, everything in the damage radius is affected just as one would expect.  The PPU can process the right direction and trajectory of each object affected by an explosion, push or shot.  It truly is something to behold.  This is a demo that was developed with the PhysX card in mind and it’s not to hard to believe that it cannot be played at all without the PhysX card installed.

There will be more on Cell Factor in the coming, in-depth review of the Ageia PhysX PPU.

Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter

GRAW has been around for a while on the XBOX 360 platform.  The game looks stunning on the 360 but is highly anticipated for the PC as it fully takes advantage of the PhysX PPU with both software and hardware.  The game was designed with the PPU in mind so with the PPU enabled; you should see a lot more detail when explosions take place.  This game can be played with or without the PhysX PPU but obviously, the extra details will not be there when played without the PPU.

This also will be covered more in depth once we have the software in-house to play with as well as test with the PPU enabled and disabled to compare between the two.

Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends

RoN is one of those games where you ask yourself “how did I ever get by without this game?”  This is my reaction every time I play a game or two of “Conquer the World.”  This is my reaction at least but I would wager that most people feel the same way.  Shortly after Big Huge released the expansion pack for RoN, we started hearing rumors of another new game with a completely different storyline.  This turned out to be Rise of Legends and is about technology versus magic.  I for one am stoked with this storyline and cannot wait to get my hands on this game.  RoN: RoL launches on the 10th of this month, which is only 5 days away.  Rest assured that we will have this game and will be pushing it through its paces with the PhysX PPU.  Stay tuned for our results.

This is another title that we are waiting to be released.  On next Wednesday this title will drop so check back with us soon and we will let you all know just how well it takes advantage of what the PhysX PPU has to offer.


Conclusion

While I have the PhysX PPU currently installed in my PC, I am a bit disappointed with the lack of software that I can use this with.  With the release of games, this frustration should be erased… I hope.  This is a product with so much potential that you almost expect it to fail because our collective thoughts of it are so damned high.  I for one am impressed with what this card offers and truly believe that with time, the PhysX PPU will make good games great and great games epic.  I know many people have said that this card needs a good title to go with it and for the most part I agree.  It’s the timeline that I think my views and expectations differ from others.  I don’t think that a blockbuster game has to come along ASAP to make this card a success.  A great game out of the gate will certainly help push cards but with a card full of this much potential, I cannot see how it can fail.  It will take time and it will take dedication on all parties involved.  Game developers will have to trust in the future of gaming that Ageia is trying to make.  Gamers will have to trust that the PPU will provide a level of immersion that nothing else can, or will, provide and finally, it will take trust on the part of Ageia to stick by their guns and push the PPU as much as they can.

We will see, as time goes on this year, more and more software companies taking full advantage of the PhysX PPU.  I would also love to see, in time, companies release patches that would allow our current games to utilize the PPU.  Games such as HL2 and Far Cry could really turn the public onto the PhysX PPU and allow us to play games that we all ready own, while taking advantage of the extra horsepower that the PhysX chip has.

We will go further into detail in the coming days.  More software will be out soon and we will have a chance to play these titles with the PPU on and off to give a full feel of what gaming is like with the PPU enables.  Stay close kiddies, this could get really good…

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