Contemporary Graphics Cards in F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin

Our today’s article is devoted to the performance of contemporary graphics cards in the next part of the science fiction F.E.A.R. sequel that will replace one of the outdated games in our benchmarking set from now on. Read our review for details!

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
03/17/2009 | 11:35 AM

The F.E.A.R. series of 3D shooters with survival horror elements is not old. The original game was published in October 2005. Its intricate plot had lots of features common for the whole genre: there is a military corporation is doing research on creating an army of ideal cloned soldiers controlled through telepathy, a mysterious girl called Alma who is the first person with supernatural abilities and the progenitor of telepathic commanders, one such commander called Paxton Fettel who goes mad and takes over the control of the clones, and a special forces team sent to liquidate him. The nameless protagonist of the game is a member of that team.

 

You began by knowing fairly little, the plot unfolding as you progressed in the game. It was not the scary supernatural things and even not the sudden twists in the plot that made the point of the game, though. F.E.A.R. offered surprisingly clever opponents. There was no cannon-fodder: the enemies acted together in small groups and covered from your fire anywhere they could. They could even outflank you and attack suddenly from where you didn’t expect. Thus, the game would quickly teach a lesson to an old-school FPS player who had got used to wiping out legions of brainless monsters with a huge gun with endless ammo. In F.E.A.R. you had to be careful and never leave your back open. The game featured slow-motion mode similar to the one in Max Payne that showed the unique speed of the protagonist’s reflexes.

F.E.A.R. was not without drawbacks, though. Particularly, the game was criticized for incomprehensible and unvarying design of its levels. On the other hand, it had good gameplay and high-quality visuals (the developers from Monolith Productions were among the first to implement true 3D water, which looked most impressive in 2005). The game received wide recognition for all its appealing features.

The series was continued by another studio, TimeGate, and the first expansion pack F.E.A.R. Extraction Point was released in October 2006. The nameless Point Man was still the protagonist who had to run from the city destroyed in a nuclear explosion after the chopper with the surviving members of the F.E.A.R. team had crashed. Again he has to face the mad Fettel who can set replica soldiers on him even after death. But this time the hero is aided by Alma who helps him out in many situations. The sequel did not repeat the success of the original game because of a muddled plot and even more uniform-looking levels than in the original.

Despite that, the license-holder Vivendi released one more sequel to the series, developed by TimeGate again, in November 2007. F.E.A.R. Perseus Mandate was less mystical and mostly described events that were happening in parallel to the events of F.E.A.R. and F.E.A.R. Extraction Point. That was a true add-on since it did not add much interest to the series but revealed a few facts concerning the plot of the earlier games.

Monolith Productions kept the license to the game universe, though. Even before they collaborated with Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment to buy the right to the old name from Vivendi Games that merged with Activision, they had begun to develop a new project in the F.E.A.R. world. Its name was selected on a competitive basis. The name of Project Origin won in the voting held on September 6, 2007. When Monolith got back the right to the title F.E.A.R., the new game acquired its final name of F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin. Its demo version was issued on January 22, 2009, and it was officially released on February 10.

Plot and Gameplay

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin starts out about half an hour before the end of the first game events. Before the beginning of the first mission the protagonist sees a hallucination about Alma walking in the destroyed city.

 

 

 

He is invulnerable at this stage of the game and just has to walk up to the gap in the pavement filled with orange glow. Then he wakes up and finds himself in an armoured carrier surrounded by military people. It turns out that the protagonist Michael Becket is a member of a Delta Force squad that must ensure the safety of Genevieve Aristide, President of Armaham Technology, who is assaulted by the ATC Black Ops team.

 

 

 

Becket’s team comes first and Genevieve explains the hero that he and his team are the only ones who can stop Alma, but at the same moment the protagonist of the original F.E.A.R. gets to the reactor powering the sarcophagus… Being at the window at that moment, Becket is hit by the blast wave and loses his consciousness.

 

 

He finds it hard to gain his consciousness back. The vision of doctors working upon his body under the guidance of Genevieve is interspersed with hallucinations of him being tortured by a group of zombies.

 

When the hero comes to for real he finds himself in the hospital of an underground complex together with his squad. Quite expectedly, the complex is attacked by Armaham Technology forces and Becket has to fight his way out following radio instructions from a mysterious person called Snake Fist.

 

The hero will have to fight not only with humans but also with replica soldiers and with Alma who, by the words of the mysterious advisor, is trying to absorb Becket, being attracted to the telepathic signal he has started to radiate after the operation.

 

 

 

When on the surface, Becket sees that most of his people have been killed by Alma. With a group of three he sets out to find Snake Fist and Aristide.

 

 

The game makes no mention of the events described in the expansion packs to the original F.E.A.R. released by Vivendi due to the licensing war between the latter and Monolith Production. These add-ons are now considered as not belonging with the game universe.

In terms of gameplay Project Origin is a regular 3D shooter with first-person view but without the option of saving wherever you want. The game saves the player’s progress at certain points, so he can continue to play from the last such point. That’s an unhandy feature, really. Otherwise, we’ve got typical gameplay of a first-person shooter. The hero cannot look from behind a corner, but can take cover by opening a car door or knocking down a table. You can read information about the level of armor, health and mission data through special eyeglasses. They also highlight objects you can interact with. Restoring your health is done by means of medical kits, some of which can be carried on the hero. Hand-to-hand combat is supported: you can hit your enemy with your fist or equipped gun. Close attack is necessary at some moments, for example when the player is assaulted by Alma.

Design and Technologies

The game offers a standard selection of weapons you can find in a common sci-fi shooter. Besides ordinary rifles, guns, shotguns, etc and a portable rocket launcher, it includes hi-tech weapons like the laser rifle or the Type-12, an energy weapon prototype. You will find a total of 11 weapons throughout the game but you can have only up to four weapons with you at any given moment. This looks like a reasonable compromise between the typical walking superman who carries hundreds of kilograms of weapons with ammo and the gun + rifle scheme that is not liked by many gamers. Note also that the lighter the weapon your character holds in his hands, the faster he can run. Besides the 11 carry weapons, you can use four kinds of mines and grenades, one of which is designed specifically for destroying battle machinery. As an additional bonus, on one game level you will be able to control a battle exoskeleton equipped with machine guns and rocket launcher.

The original F.E.A.R. was deservedly criticized for its linear level design and lack of open environments. Alas, F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin has inherited all these drawbacks of its predecessor notwithstanding the developer’s promises. The game’s open environments are small linear stretches of streets whereas the interior design of buildings is often as illogical as to raise our suspicious about whether the designers ever stepped into a real building. On the other hand, the scenes are very detailed with lots of well-designed small objects. And although the game is a multiplatform project, it uses rather high-quality textures.

As opposed to the original F.E.A.R., the enemies don’t look too dangerous. We guess their AI is worse and they now often make mistakes, forgetting to attack at appropriate moments or hide or outflank the hero. We don’t know if it is a developer’s flaw or a deliberate simplification in order to optimize the game for the consoles.

 

 

 

F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin runs on the Lithtech Jupiter Extended engine that was used for the original game and has been revised for the current title. The game doesn’t require DirectX 10 support, but as we already know, the new API has not yet ensured a breakthrough in visual quality. Most of advanced special effects can be implemented with DirectX 9.0c. Interestingly, the game is originally meant for widescreen modes with the TV aspect ratio of 16:9. In fact, the real vertical resolution is only 900 pixels in the 1600x1200 mode, and you can see black margins, 60 pixels wide each, top and bottom of the screen even at a resolution of 1920x1200 pixels.

The game’s visuals and level of detail provoke ambiguous emotions. On one hand, some effects we know from the original game have degenerated. Particularly, you won’t see 3D water surface in Project Origin. On the other hand, the level of detail and the complexity of special effects have obviously increased, and the game has got better by using post-processing effects such as depth of field and film grain.

Now let’s see how this game runs on modern graphics cards from different price categories.

Testbed and Methods

To investigate the performance of contemporary graphics accelerators in F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin we put together the following testbed:

The graphics card drivers were set up to provide the highest possible quality of texture filtering and to minimize the effect of software optimizations used by default. We enabled transparent texture antialiasing, and we used multisampling mode for Nvidia solutions, because ATI solutions do not support supersampling for this function. As a result, our ATI and Nvidia driver settings looked as follows:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia GeForce:

15 different graphics cards and multi-GPU systems participated in our today’s performance test session. They can be split in three categories according to their price:

Premium/High-End category:

Performance-Mainstream category:

Mainstream category:

Unfortunately, w can’t yet test an Nvidia Triple SLI configuration, because Asus P6T Deluxe mainboard that we use doesn’t allow to physically install three graphics accelerators with dual-slot cooling systems. Nvidia Quad SLI system was also left out, because we currently do not have a second GeForce GTX 295 at our disposal. As soon as we get the necessary hardware in, we are going to test the performance of the today’s most powerful multi-GPU gaming systems.

We ran the tests in all resolutions including 2560x1600 only for the Premium category. Performance-Mainstream was limited by 1920x1200. Mainstream solutions were tested in 1680x1050 maximum resolution.

F.E.A.R. 2 has extensive list of fine tuning options. This time we decided to work with four profiles, and the settings within them were grouped as follows:

The last profile is the most resource-hungry, but it provides the best image quality possible. So we used this exact profile for our graphics card performance tests. The test sequence included a 60-second run in the beginning of the game. Since the game has no built-in benchmarking tools, we used Fraps utility version 2.9.8 in the manual mode to record the average and minimal fps rate. To minimize the measuring error, we took the average result of three combined runs for further analysis.

Performance

Premium/High-End Category

With the release of Catalyst 9.2 ATI’s CrossFireX solutions can deliver excellent performance in F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin but we must note that the bottom speed of the Radeon HD 4870 X2 is considerably lower than that of the GeForce GTX 295 at high resolutions although their average frame rates are comparable. The latter also has lower power consumption and produces less noise under load, which makes it the preferable, even though more expensive, choice among the most advanced single-PCB graphics cards.

If you prefer the ATI brand, you can add a single-processor Radeon HD 4870 1GB to the Radeon HD 4870 X2. This asymmetric subsystem is faster even than the GeForce GTX 295 but harder to deal with and noisier. It is a solution for people who need maximum performance whatever the side effects. By the way, talking about the required amount of graphics memory, the GeForce GTX 280 SLI is but slightly faster than the GeForce GTX 295. The difference is about 10% at 2560x1600, so Project Origin is quite satisfied with 896 megabytes of local graphics memory.

The GeForce GTX 285 looks good in this game. Being comparable to the Radeon HD 4850 X2 in terms of average frame rate, it ensures a much higher bottom speed for comfortable play at every resolution including 2560x1600. And it doesn’t depend on the software support for multi-GPU technology and produces little noise. The combination of these properties makes the GeForce GTX 285 the most appealing buy in the Premium/High-End category. This card won’t disappoint you even if you’ve got a 30-inch monitor.

It is also clear that multi-processor graphics solutions are redundant for F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin. They do not provide any practical benefits over the GeForce GTX 285 – the gamer just won’t feel the difference in frame rate but will feel it in price. Moreover, the dual-processor and dual-PCB solutions produce more noise and have higher heat dissipation and power consumption.

Performance-Mainstream Category

The results of the performance-mainstream cards are indicative of the modest system requirements of the game. The Radeon HD 4850 is the only solution that cannot cope with it at 1920x1200 whereas every other card offers high performance in that mode.

We can also see that ATI’s solutions have a lower bottom speed than Nvidia’s ones, so the latter look preferable. We guess the best choice in this category is the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 that combines high performance with low noise and power consumption.

The old GeForce GTX 9800+ is good enough, too. It is not much slower than the younger GeForce at 1920x1200 and competes with the Radeon HD 4870 1GB at high resolutions. The Radeon HD 4850 is hamstringed by its low GPU frequency but delivers a comfortable speed at resolutions up to 1680x1050.

Anyway, we have to admit that Nvidia’s solutions are preferable to ATI’s ones in the performance-mainstream category in the total of their consumer properties if not in sheer performance. In the order of descending appeal for the customer, the cards can be ranked as follows: GeForce GTX 260 Core 216, GeForce 9800 GTX+, Radeon HD 4870 1GB, and Radeon HD 4850.

The GeForce GTX 280 does not take part in the competition because Nvidia has replaced this model with the GeForce GTX 285. But if you find this card at an appealing price, you shouldn’t refuse it because the GeForce GTX 280 is somewhat faster than the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 in modern games, including F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin.

Mainstream Category

ATI’s solutions cannot win in the mainstream category, either. Although the Radeon HD 4830 is almost as fast as the GeForce 9800 GT in average frame rate, its bottom speed is lower, especially at 1680x1050. The difference of 5fps is not too big, though.

The Radeon HD 4670 looks good at 1280x1024 but loses its ground at 1680x1050. Having a bottom speed of only 12fps – twice lower than the speed of the GeForce 9600 GT – this card cannot ensure smooth gameplay. Its 128-bit memory bus makes it uncompetitive against the GeForce 9600 GT which has a 256-bit memory interface. On the other hand, it is not positioned as such a competitor, coming at a much lower price. The Radeon HD 4670’s market opponent, GeForce 9500 GT, has only 32 shader processors and is very poor in 3D games.

The GeForce 9800 GT is the best choice in this price category but the Radeon HD 4830 is almost a worthy substitute for it. The GeForce 9600 GT wins in the bottom price segment but you can also choose the Radeon HD 4670 if you are not going to play at high resolutions.

Instantaneous Performance and Image Quality

Besides measuring the average and bottom speed at the highest settings, we also performed a small test of instantaneous performance of typical solutions from ATI and Nvidia at different settings to look for any irregularities in the behavior of the competing architectures. The two camps will be represented by the ATI Radeon HD 4870 1GB and Nvidia GeForce GTX 260 Core 216.

Besides our standard testbed described above these cards were benchmarked together with a less advanced processor. It was an Intel Core i7-920 with a clock rate of 2.66GHz and a cut-down QPI interface.

We selected a display resolution of 1680x1050 as the most popular one among gamers today. Then we used Fraps 2.9.8 to record the instantaneous speed of the cards at four combinations of graphics quality settings for 1 minute. Besides, we captured a few screenshots to visually evaluate the difference in image quality between those combinations. Here are the results:

 

Both cards behave in a similar manner irrespective of the CPU model. In every test mode the average frame rate varies from 91 to 95fps whereas the bottom speed is within 50-54fps. The only notable difference is that the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 has a higher peak speed, 143fps. The Radeon HD 4870 1GB does not accelerate higher than 125fps. Of course, the image quality is highest here since we use the maximum level of detail together with full-screen antialiasing.

 

Turning 4x MSAA off leads to a considerable performance growth, but only in numbers. Even fastidious gamers are unlikely to spot this growth with a naked eye. In other words, there is no point in running this game on the Radeon HD 4870 1GB and GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 without full-screen antialiasing although it may be beneficial for a less advanced graphics card. Of course, the rendering quality of objects with slanting edges and of micro-geometry (trees, cables fences, various lattices, etc) gets worse. The image doesn’t degenerate in other aspects.

 

When we switch to the Medium level of detail, we almost get nothing in terms of speed. The image quality doesn’t degenerate much, either, but textures become less detailed, of course. This is largely masked by the shader-based graininess effect that makes the game look more cinematic. In fact, there is no point in using such settings on an advanced enough gaming platform.

 

The Low settings lead in a tremendous performance growth but also to a tremendous degeneration of image quality. The lighting model is simplified, most of the effects contributing to the scary atmosphere are disabled, shadows and many smaller objects get lost. You can play the game at such settings but not as the developer intended you to experience it. This may only concern people who have entry-level graphics cards because F.E.A.R. 2:Project Origin does not support integrated graphics solutions at all.

Summing it up, we don’t see any reason for you to disable FSAA on your graphics card of the Radeon HD 4870/GeForce GTX 260 class but this may be a useful measure for less advanced graphics solutions. The Medium mode is but slightly different from High in image quality but does not provide serious performance benefits, either. So, there is no point in depriving yourself of maximum-detail textures and top-quality special effects. The game looks awful in the Low mode, its textures resembling the legendary Quake 2. We don’t think anyone would want to enjoy the game with such visuals excepting some hardcore network players who want as much speed as they can get regardless of image quality.

Conclusion

Far from being a masterpiece, F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin is quite a well-made project and carries on the atmosphere of the two previous titles. Their downside is also here, though. The game has sloppy level design with almost a total lack of open vistas, Enemies’ AI, one of the strongest aspects of the original game, is not as smart as it used to be, unfortunately. In other words, F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin is a good regular first-person shooter with horror elements and a mystical plot. We have no doubt it will be appreciated by people who liked the previous F.E.A.R. titles or who like this genre at large, particularly due to its compelling visuals. The only thing you may find irritating is that the game doesn’t allow you to save at any place you want, which is not typical for a first-person shooter.

The game has modest system requirements. Even inexpensive graphics cards like Radeon HD 4670 and GeForce 9600 GT ensure comfortable speed at maximum settings and 4x MSAA unless you switch into some very high resolution. Our tests show that being comparable to ATI’s solutions in average performance, Nvidia’s products show less fluctuation of performance and thus offer a better reserve of speed for the most complex scenes. It is also clear that modern multi-GPU solutions are redundant for F.E.A.R. 2 because a single GeForce GTX 285 is quite enough for playing the game comfortably at the highest resolution (2560x1600) and with full-screen antialiasing.

Nvidia’s solutions are also superior in the performance-mainstream sector. Although the ATI Radeon HD 4870 1GB is comparable to them in average speed, its bottom speed is close to the permissible minimum of 25fps at 1920x1200. Besides, the reference version of this card is quite noisy, making you look for versions with alternative cooling solutions.

ATI does better in the affordable category where the Radeon HD 4830 is almost as fast as the Nvidia GeForce 9800 GT. You can prefer either of them depending on what games other than F.E.A.R. 2 you are going to play. The modest ATI Radeon HD 4670 will be a good choice for undemanding or economical gamers. It copes with the game all right at 1280x1024.

Like in the previous game reviews, we don’t see any real benefit from installing the terribly expensive Intel Core i7-965 Extreme Edition processor into the system. In every case you can achieve comparable performance with the cheaper and accessible Core i7-920. The CPU’s influence can be indeed noticeable and high in other games, but not in F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin.

Again, Project Origin is not a masterpiece of video games. It is just an attempt to take another look at the events described in the original game. It features improved visuals but is not free from drawbacks. If you like the horror FPS genre, you may like Project Origin even despite the lack of free saving, but people who prefer sci-fi stories perhaps won’t take it seriously.