It has been just over four years since we first laid eyes on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. at Comdex in Las Vegas. Back then S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was NVIDIA’s showcase title for the GeForce FX 5800 Ultra launch, it was a tech demo unlike any we’d experienced before: we literally had to pick our jaws up off the floor the game was so groundbreakingly beautiful. Just think, in an era where first-person shooters like Quake 3, No One Lives Forever 2, Unreal Tournament 2003, and Serious Sam 2 were the norm, a game that was the visual equivalent to Far Cry graced the PC screens at the NVIDIA booth, it was easily the most talked about subject among gamers at the show, and it was completely playable.
But as beautiful as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. the tech demo looked, no one really knew how the game would play; the storyline was vague and the demo was so open-ended you could tell that the game was very early in development. Who would have thought it would take developer GSC Game World another 4+ years to finish the game? Certainly not us. In any case, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is here now and so far the early reviews from the press and end users alike are quite positive.
The game is set in a post apocalyptic alternative reality where a reactor in the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explodes, spewing radiation throughout the area. You play the role of a “stalker”, a person who scavenges the area within the Chernobyl exclusion zone searching for valuable artifacts, fighting mutants, and dealing with other hostile stalkers. At the start of the game you’ve suffered from amnesia and can’t remember anything. Your ultimate goal is to figure out who you are, and what’s going on inside the exclusion zone.
The game is a first-person shooter, but GSC Game World also mixes in role-playing elements. The game has a storyline, but this isn’t a linear game like Half-Life with a set path you must follow to reach the game’s conclusion. Along the way you’ll be assigned the obligatory story missions that are required to complete the storyline, as well completing secondary quests that aren’t tied to the game’s story. Like an RPG, your character starts off inexperienced, but as you complete missions and quests you can equip yourself with more powerful weapons. Already S.T.A.L.K.E.R. has been compared to games like Deus Ex and System Shock – fine company indeed.
Graphically S.T.A.L.K.E.R.’s X-Ray game engine is quite impressive. According to the developer, up to a million polygons can be on-screen at any one time, and the game sports the latest eye candy effects, including HDR lighting, parallax and normal maps, 3.0 pixel/vertex shaders, per-pixel lighting and soft dynamic shadows. In fact, the game is so demanding that many card owners with DX9 cards like the GeForce 6800 and Radeon X800 have been forced to play the game in DirectX 8 mode. This is because the game’s dynamic lighting model performs so many calculations it can bring many DX9 cards to their knees: get to aggressive with the graphics settings, and you can bring a modern GPU like the GeForce 7900 or Radeon X1900 to a sluggish crawl.
With this in mind, in today’s article we’ll be evaluating the performance of ATI and NVIDIA’s latest and greatest mainstream cards, as well as a few older cards from generations past. We’ll also be covering topics like graphics memory (i.e. does 512MB of graphics RAM impact performance or is 256MB enough?
), SLI/CrossFire, and the game’s various lighting modes. We’re going to start off first though by comparing ATI and NVIDIA’s image quality with the game.