February 15th, 2011

Ageia PhysX

Introduction

Ageia and their PhysX technology have taken some serious flack since they first introduced the idea of a dedicated PPU (Physics Processing Unit). Despite this however, they have struggled on, getting their hardware supported in many a popular game. Recently, Cell Factor also came into play, a game that practically runs like a PhysX benchmark. Just over a year on from our original PhysX review how have things changed and is there any difference between the two currently offered choices for a physics junkie; the BFG and the Asus? We hope to answer these questions in this review.

To read our original review of Asus’ rendition of the PhysX processing card click here.

Specifications and Features

  • Explosions that cause dust and collateral debris
  • Characters with complex, jointed geometries for more life-like motion and interaction
  • Spectacular new weapons with unpredictable effects
  • Cloth that drapes and tears the way you expect it to
  • Lush foliage that sways naturally when brushed against
  • Dense smoke & fog that billow around objects in motion
  • Processor: AGEIA PhysX
  • Memory Interface: 128-bit GDDR3
  • Memory Capacity: 128MB
  • Peak Instruction Bandwidth: 20 Billion/sec
  • Sphere-Sphere Collisions: 530 Million/sec max Convex-Convex (Complex Collisions): 533,000/sec max
  • Software Included: BFG PhysX Drivers, BFG PhysX Demo DVD

    A little about Ageia

    “In 2002, five innovative technologists and entrepreneurs shared a vision of a uniquely diverse company teaming together to add new levels of realism to computer simulated physics processes. They brought their skills and knowledge from around the world–from America , Germany , Egypt , India and America — and named their company based on their countries of origin: AGEIA Technologies, Inc.

    Today, AGEIA is dedicated to delivering dynamic interactive realism to the ever demanding complexity of next generation games. Its flagship solution, AGEIA PhysX, is the world’s first dedicated physics engine and physics processor to bridge the gap between static virtual worlds and responsive unscripted physical reality. AGEIA PhysX allows developers to use active physics-based environments for a truly realistic entertainment experience.

    AGEIA’s major investors include Apex Venture Partners, BA Venture Partners, HIG Ventures, Granite Global Ventures, CID Equity Partners, and VentureTech Alliance.”

    Ageia PhysX Support

    Current Supporting Games

    Game Publisher
    Auto Assault Net Devil
    Bet on Soldier: Blackout Saigon Kylotonn Entertainment
    Ber on Solider: Blood of Sahara Kylotonn Entertainment
    Bet on Soldier: Blood Sport Kylotonn Entertainment
    CellFactor: Revolution Artificial Studios, Immersion
    City of Villains Cryptic Studios
    Dark Physics The Game Creators
    Gears of War Epic Games
    Infernal Metropolis Software
    Mobile Suit Gundam: Crossfire BEC
    Red Steel Ubisoft Paris
    RoboBlitz Naked Sky
    Stoke Rider: Alaska Alien Bongfish
    Tom Clancy: GRAW Grin
    Tom Clancy: Graw 2 Ubisoft
    Tom Clany: Rainbow 6 Ubisoft
    Tom Clancy: Splinter Cell Double Agent Ubisoft

    Coming soon Supporting Games

    Desert Diner Tarsier Studios
    Fallen Earth Icarus Studios
    Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends Big Huge Games
    Switchball Atomic Elbow
    Unreal Tournament 3 Epic Games
    Warmonger Operation: Downtown Destruction Net Devil

    Competition

    The main competitor of PhysX technology – and a much more established one at that – is the Havok SDK. This physics engine is used in many successful games including Gears of War and Half Life 2. It works by offloading physics effects to the GPU as Shader Model 3.0 instructions while sending gamplay physics instructions to the CPU. This obviously has it’s advantages in the fact that it is completely self contained and doesn’t need a seperate card to calculate physics, but it does mean extra CPU load and that the ammount of physics calculations that can be processed is limited to CPU power.

    ATI and Nvidia have pledged to develope their own physics options. ATi have stated that they aim to a stream processor product which combines a CPU and GPU on one chip while Nvidia’s 8 series cards support a physics system called “Quantum Effects Technology” which is designed to directly compete with the PhysX PPU.

    Ageia believes that by using a dedicated PPU game developers will have the option to use much more comlicated in-game physics and much more interaction between objects. They have recently showcased this in the much anticipated CellFactor Revolution where hundreds of objects can be seen displaying realistic physical traits through the way they interact with each other’s movements and the actions of the character.

    The PPU Comparison – Asus Vs. BFG

    Before looking at PhysX technology in games and comparing the two PhysX card options, we decided to take our usual critical look at the BFG card that we had yet to test. The BFG PhysX card is identical to the Asus version except for the change in cooler. Where Asus use a fan to draw air across a heatsink shrouded in plastic to direct the air, BFG use a simpler flower petal style cooler blowing the air in all directions across raised sinks surrounding the fan.

    BFG PhysX Card
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    BFG PhysX Cooler
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    For those that wonder what a Physics Processor looks like, here’s your chance.

    Naked PhysX Core
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    The Asus and BFG cards are pretty much identical apart from a slight change in the positions of the top three capacitors, and of course the cooler.

    PhysX Comparison
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    Both PhysX cards need a 4pin molex connector to power and the fan itself is powered by a small 2pin connector situated on the card itself.

    Stock
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    Testing

    Testing in this review is going to be a bit different from the usual format. Instead of simply being a list of benchmarks, used hardware and test results it will be a showcasing – through screenshots and scores – of what effects PhysX technology has on a games aesthetics, game play and whether is is worth the cost of a dedicated physics card.

    For testing Ageia were kind enough to provide us with some PhysX supporting games: Auto Assault, Stoked Rider and Cell Factor (pre-release beta). Since then the full game of Cell Factor has been released so that version was used for experimenting with the BFG PPU. We will also use RealityMark for a bit of synthetic PhysX testing.

    Test Rig

    Intel Core 2 Duo E6600
    Asus P5W DH Deluxe
    Sapphire x1900XT
    OCZ 2gb PC6400 Special Ops.
    Silverstone Olympia 650w

    First Game – Auto Assault

    Auto Assault

    Auto Assault (AA) is a post-apocalyptic, vehicular MMORPG. The main focus of the game is using your souped up car/van/buggy to traverse the land in search of weaponry, armor, fortune and fame all the while blowing up everything in site. One of the main draws of AA is that most of the “Towns” held by hostile units can be destroyed, and by most of I mean every building, defensive turret and wall. Obviously this lends itself to PhysX technology very well, it will be interesting to see what effect a dedicated PPU has on gaming.

    Ageia claims in their “Review Guide” that the PhysX card has several effects on the environment when compared to software physics. The first one I tested was the liquid physics in the game. So I drove around for a while trying to find some sort of acid spewing monster or a waterfall; anything with moving liquids. Fortunately I came upon a monster of sorts that didn’t like me once I moved within his agro range; this was the result:

    Software physics
    Acid Spit Without PhysX
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    Hardware physics
    Acid Spit With PhysX
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    As you can see, in the PhysX powered screenshot there is a bit more fluid flying my way. Not the most groundbreaking of changes, but it does look better; a bit more real.

    The next thing I decided to take a look at was building destruction. Now, with or without the PhysX card most buildings in the game can be destroyed by you and your marauding machine. However, with the PPU enabled you should get some more detailed destruction.

    Software pysics
    Building Destruction Without PhysX
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    Hardware physics
    Building Destruction With PhysX
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    I must admit, that I didn’t notice any real difference there. Can you spot any difference in the images? The buildings collapsed with equal finesse and detail in software and hardware physics mode leaving me a bit confused as to what the PPU actually effected here.

    The final main change that hardware physics is supposed to effect in AA was the wire fencing that can be found in most of the industrial sectors of the game. Without PhysX technology the fences are designed to simply break into several pieces whereas with it, they are supposed to fold down onto the ground in an undulating, “wire fencey” sort of way.

    Software pysics
    Wire Fence Destruction Without PhysX
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    Hardware physics
    Wire Fence Destruction with PhysX
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    Now there is a big difference. With PhysX technology perhaps we could say goodbye to the age old blocks of wall and ceiling breaking away under fire? This change isn’t purely cosmetic as well as when
    the fences cause a small bit of drag as they bend around the car as you smash through them, instead of simply breaking into the typical three pieces. Here are some more screenshots of the folding fences in action:

    Wire Fence Destruction with PhysX
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    Wire Fence Destruction with PhysX
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    Wire Fence Destruction with PhysX
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    Second Game - Stoked Rider: Alaska Alien

    Stoked Rider

    Stoked Rider is a snowboarding game designed with a rather cartoon like graphical edge. Featuring human characters as well as aliens who begin their downhill run strapped to jetpacks and with their ski-lift substituted for a flying saucer; this is one crazy game. However, not only being rather intuitive with their game design, BongFish have also incorporated PhysX technology to help add some extra effects to this strange title. Byusing PhysX technology, gamers can not only have huge ammounts of snow particles moving out of their way as make their way down the mountain, but there is also the danger of large avalanches of snowy particles that can engulf and topple the rider. These features can be enabled without a PPU present, and I will be seeing how our test rig handles these huge ammounts of ingame particles.

    The effects of the PhysX processor are much more apparent in Stoked Rider than in Auto Assualt. Switching from no extra effects, to software physics effects, to hardware physics effects, the differences are huge.

    No physics effects
    No Physics
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    Software physics effects
    Software Physics
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    Hardware physics effects
    Hardware Physics
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    Although the ammount of particles between the software and hardware physics is relatively similar, the frame rate drops considerably when offloading the physics calculations onto the CPU. However, it was still playable-ish for most of the early levels, but as more snow got involved higher up the mountain, without hardware enabled PhysX, smooth gameplay was impossible.

    The addition of all the extra snow particles with physics effects allowed BongFish to create avalanches that can cause real problems for the player. These cause huge frame rate lags when in software physics mode, but with the PPU enabled, everything runs very smoothly. As you can see, avalanches are not possible without physics supports.

    No physics effects
    No-Avalanche
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    Software physics effects
    Software Avalanche
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    (The avalanche is in the background)

    Hardware physics effects
    Hardware Avalanche
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    Third Game – Cell Factor Revolution

    Cell Factor

    Cell Factor is set in a futurisitic, industrial, war torn atmosphere and is purely designed to show off the effects of having a dedicated PPU. There are huge ammounts of boxes, barrels and neglected machinery that players can either blow up with conventional weaponry, or manipular using their psychic powers. The game also attemptes to showcase the capabilities of PhysX technology through the use of innovative cloth and liquid effects.

    A demo of Cell Factor has been out for quite some time, and we received a pre-release beta copy of the game before its official release (You can view my gameplay videos showcasing the Guardian and Bishop characters here.) but upon the release of the full game, I downloaded it to showcase the some screenshots of the game.

    The hardware for testing this game was changed slightly to allow full detail settings. The rig used was as follows:

    Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 @ 3.15ghz
    Asus P5W DH Deluxe
    EVGA 8800GTX Ultra
    OCZ 2gb PC6400 Special Ops. @ 875mhz
    Silverstone Olympia 650w

    Cell factor does allow for in game play without PhysX support, but it simply removes liquid and cloth effects from the levels, while also reducing the ammount of objects. It also only allows game play on two levels as apposed to the full 6.

    Flyby
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    Box Explosion
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    Box Explosion
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    Lava
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    All of the above screenshots are at maximum detail at 1280*1024 with the BFG PhysX card installed. If these are any indication of how dedicated physics processing could take modern games, I am very excited.

    Synthetic Testing – Reality Mark

    As well as using some of these PhysX supporting games to test the card(s) we also used the Ageia produced benchmark, RealityMark. This is a PhysX performance benchmarking tool that allows users to see the difference between Software Physics mode (and therefore CPU powered) and Hardware Physics mode (therefore PhysX card powered). We will also use this benchmark to see if there is any different between the two PhysX cards and, just for fun, see if anything happens when you plug both in.

    RealityMark Graph

    Cooling

    The coolers on the PhysX cards are very noisy indeed; about as loud as the stock coolers on x1900 cards. This does provide quite an annoyance and it would be nice to see some quieter aftermarket coolers if/when these cards become a bit more popular; perhaps you can even overclock them!

    Cost

    At £100 these cards are still not cheap and people will debate whether these cards are worth it till the end of time. However, even though those with little money may see this as quite an expensive add-on card, for those wtih nothing left to upgrade it may be a good choice.

    Conclusion

    PhysX technology will continue to be the focus of many a debate until one of two things happen: A) Ageia folds and the PhysX PPU fades from view and remains a novel idea that once was, or B) A popular game supports the card causing a large influx of PhysX purchases and therefore securing the future of the dedicated PPU. Games like Unreal Tournament 3 just might do this as the huge popularity of the Unreal franchies could mean that a lot of its players decide they want more interaction in their games than software physics can provide.

    However, even if PhysX technology does get incorporated in more games, the true mainstream uptake of a seperate PhysX card depends on how game developers build the effects into their products. There needs to be more options for the end user, allowing those with a PhysX card to crank those effects up to the max, but to also permit those with varying speeds of processors (and no PPU) to change the level of physics just as those with different graphics cards can vary the levels of visual detail and eye candy in games.

    But what about now? Are the PhysX effects worth £100 of your hard earned cash? It really comes down to what games you play and what you look for in them. If none of the games you play can support PhysX technology, then there is no reason for you to have this noisy little card in your rig. However, if you find yourself whileing away the hours playing Cell Factor, Auto Assault or any of the games listed at the beginning of this review and you find you want more flying boxes, more acid spit and more particles in general, then the PhysX card is starting to become worthwhile.

    Pros Cons
    Novel idea Expensive considering limited game support
    Unbelievable visuals Noisey cooler
    Excellent in-game interaction PCI as apposed to PCI-E

    I’d like to thank our sponsors Ageia for providing us with the cards and games.

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