Freeman Goes On: Half-Life 2 Episode Two Graphics Performance Review

Half-Life 2 series remains one of the most popular games among 3D shooter fans as it combined excellent graphics and thrilling story. Today we are going to talk about the continuation of the series – Half-Life 2: Episode Two - and find out what performance contemporary graphics accelerators can deliver in this game.

by Alexey Stepin , Yaroslav Lyssenko
10/31/2007 | 02:48 PM

Nine years ago, on the 19th of November 1998, the world of first-person 3D shooters changed forever as the release of a new project from Valve Software provoked a sensation. Featuring an exciting sci-fi plot, Half-Life won over 50 industry awards and achieved the status of the best-selling game on the PC platform. A faulty teleportation experiment that opened a portal between the Earth and Xen gave birth to a whole gaming universe that has become familiar to every gamer while Gordon Freeman, the physicist who carried out the experiment, became a celebrity.

 

The gaming community was looking forward to playing Half-Life 2 but the game was released only 6 years since the original due to multiple problems that occurred during the development process. The expectations were fulfilled, though: Half-Life 2 featured an engaging continuation of the plot as well as a new graphics engine Source that set new standards for the 3D game industry. The engine offered support for high-resolution textures, complex DirectX 9 shader effects, a realistic physical model and an excellent animation quality, especially that of facial animation. As we noted in our earlier review, it all created an inimitable atmosphere you couldn’t help plunging into. Half-Life 2 was as successful as its predecessor.

To avoid such long delays the developer decided to release the sequel to Half-Life 2 in separate, rather short, episodes, the first of which was offered to the public on June 1, 2006. Half-Life: Episode One continued the story of the struggle of Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance against the powerful Combine. The player’s main goal in Episode One was to delay the explosion of the Citadel’s reactor that could raze City 17 to the ground in order to gain time for the evacuation of refugees that inhabited it. Freeman accomplished his goal, but couldn’t prevent the explosion. The blast wave overtakes the departing train. The hero loses his consciousness and the last thing he hears is the screech of the metal and the whisper of Alyx who’s repeating his name. That was the end of Episode One .

Episode One brought technical innovations that were missing in the original Half-Life 2 . Particularly, the game got HDR support, an improved face animation system and a cleverer AI. It looked better than the original version as a result. It was not a real breakthrough, however, and Valve saved more interesting innovations for Episode Two released on the 10th of October 2007 as part of the Orange Box.

Innovations in Half-Life 2: Episode Two

Half-Life 2: Episode Two begins with Alyx helping Freeman to get out of the wreckage of the train carriage that had fallen from the destroyed bridge.

Now the heroes can take a look at the consequences of the explosion of the Citadel that wiped City 17 out from the face of the Earth. Although the suppression field has been removed and the Combine Advisors are being hastily evacuated and Dr. Breen has run away, it soon transpires that this is not the end of the Combine’s rule on the Earth and the agonizing Citadel has been sacrificed to create a powerful impulse capable of carrying an information packet. With this information the Combine is planning to open a new portal and send reinforcements.

The player learns that Alyx has managed to copy the transmission which, besides everything else, contains information about the location of the Combine’s home world as well as data necessary to create a new portal controlled from there. The module with this information must be safely delivered to the resistance base to prevent a second invasion of the Combine that would lead to an ultimate defeat of the human race.

 

 

Although the hero and his allies have delivered a sensitive blow to the Combine, the enemy is still strong enough to renew the hunt after Gordon and Alyx. Soon after the hero is left alone, Alyx gets wounded by a Combine Guard. The wounds are serious and the friendly vortigaunts with all their superhuman abilities can hardly keep Alyx’ mutilated body alive.

 

At the underground base Freeman forces back an attack of antlions and then goes into their lair to find the healing essence for Alyx. After that the two heroes have to move to the resistance base where a rocket is being prepared for launch. According to the plan, the rocket will be able to close the portal and avert the new invasion.

Episode Two offers more different levels than Episode One : abandoned mines and underground antlion tunnels are interleaved with vast open spaces.

The notorious Hunter can be noted among new enemies. It is a dangerous robot that, unlike the larger machines of the Combine, can pursue the player in any place.

You’ll meet two new species of antlions one of which, called a “worker”, is more dangerous than ordinary “soldiers” as it can spit caustic acid over a big distance. The second species looks like an overgrown firefly – it is immovable and harmless but illuminates dark places and serves as a weak medicine.

There are no new weapons in the game save for sticky mines for destroying the most powerful war machines of the Combine, the Striders. These are delivered to the aim with Freeman’s gravitational gun. The player will also be able to take a drive on a Resistance version of the Dodge Charger, which resembles the original game in which driving a sand buggy was an important part of the gameplay. Maybe Freeman’s arsenal will be enriched with a portal generator in Episode Three. The Portal game included into Orange Box gives us sort of a hint on that, as the action in it takes place in the same Half-Life 2 universe.

As usual, you’ll have to solve some puzzles based on the physical model of the Source engine. There are more of them here than in Episode One and they are more variegated. The player will be employing the gravitation manipulator for battle purposes, for example to catch bombs thrown from an enemy helicopter and throw them back.

Overall, Half-Life 2: Episode Two looks more appealing than the previous Episode with its varied and exciting gameplay as well as with the plot. The game engine has been improved by the developers as well.

Technologies in Half-Life 2: Episode Two

The Source engine was considerably updated before the release of Episode Two . The most important innovation is the new lighting and shadowing model that allows using fully dynamic soft shadows. Any object in the game will be able to cast a shadow on itself and other objects if this is specified in the light source’s properties. Objects that are illuminated with Freeman’s flashlight have acquired shadows, too.

 

The rendering of vegetation using transparency antialiasing has been improved, too.

The physical model has undergone some modifications as well. It now allows creating complex destructible objects such as houses, etc. A good example is the scene with the destruction of a bridge at the beginning of the game or the scene with the attempt to destroy an Advisor. Performance doesn’t plummet down at that and there is no need to use hardware acceleration of physical effects. The new model also supports deformable objects and a keyframe animation system. To speed up the physical calculations the game takes advantage of the dual- and quad-core processors ability to load additional cores. Among other visual effects I would like to point out motion blur that belongs to so-called cinematic effects. Valve may please us with some new effects of the kind in Episode Three, especially since other games included in Orange Box – Portal and Team Fortress 2 - also use depth of field besides motion blur.

 

The described innovations do not lift the graphics quality of the Half-Life 2 series up to a new level, yet the new technologies have enabled the developer to make Episode Two more appealing and attractive than the predecessor. Coupled with high-resolution textures and an excellent facial gesture system, Half-Life 2: Episode Two features first-class visuals. For us, the game is just as good as, for example, BioShock and even surpasses it at times as concerns the realism of the scene.

Testbed and Methods

To test the performance of graphics cards in Half-Life 2: Episode Two we assembled the following standard test platform:

We used standard driver settings for AMD Catalyst and Nvidia ForceWare drivers:

ATI Catalyst:

Nvidia ForceWare:

The game was set to maximum possible graphics quality:

Since Half-Life 2 features built-in testing tools, we used them in our test session and recorded a 60-second demo movie in real gaming situation any player would come across in Half-Life 2: Episode Two. BY playing the demo using “timedemo demo_name” console command we obtained the data about the average graphics accelerator performance.

We tested the following graphics cards split in three groups depending on the provided performance level:

High-End:

Mainstream:

Entry Level:

Since we know that Half-Life 2 doesn’t require much, we tested all graphics cards in standard resolutions of 1280x1024, 1600x1200 and 1920x1200 with 16x anisotropic filtering only as well as with 16x anisotropic filtering and MSAA 4x. The only exceptions were the low-end resolutions in FSAA 4x + Aniso 16x mode: we only tested in 1280x1024 here.

Performance

High-End Graphics Cards

Being considerably more expensive than any other card, the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTX takes the lead from the start. It maintains a frame rate over 60fps even at 1920x1200. If you’ve got such a card, you will be able to play Half-Life 2: Episode Two comfortably.

The other cards, excepting the ATI Radeon HD 2900 Pro, have nearly identical results in all of the resolutions. They provide full playing comfort at 1600x1200 and a very good speed at 1920x1200, yet do not reach the desired 60fps mark in the latter case. The Radeon HD 2900 Pro looks good too, considering that it’s not a top-end product.

It’s different when we use 4x MSAA: ATI’s solutions are inferior to Nvidia’s cards in this mode for some reason despite having a more advanced architecture and better memory characteristics. They cannot maintain an average frame rate of 60fps even at a resolution of 1280x1024. Is it the result of architectural flaws in the R600 chip or a lack of optimizations in the Catalyst driver? Considering the good performance of the ATI Radeon HD 2900 Pro series in other games, we are inclined to believe in the latter version. It can also be seen that the game does not use over 320MB of graphics memory. A memory amount over 512MB is perfectly useless for the game – it doesn’t affect the performance at all.

Without a doubt, the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTX is the best choice in the high-end category if you cannot afford it. Purchasing an Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB may seem unwise since it is no better than the cheaper Geforce 8800 320MB, but you should consider other games you are going to play besides Half-Life 2: Episode Two . Some of them may run faster with 640 megabytes of graphics memory.

The ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT in its two versions is not exactly good or bad in this test. It delivers high performance, but only when you don’t use full-screen antialiasing. If you’ve already got such a card, you’ll be able to play with comfort. But if you are choosing a card to buy, we recommend you to wait and see if the performance of AMD/ATI solutions changes for the better with driver updates.

Mainstream Graphics Cards

This price niche is currently split into two sectors. The top sector is occupied by products that represent cut-down configurations of more expensive graphics cards while the bottom one offers products with specially developed mainstream GPUs.

Products from the top-mainstream sector have good results in this test. For example, the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB allows playing comfortably even at 1920x1200, and the ATI Radeon HD 2900 Pro at 1600x1200. The gap is 19-21%, depending on resolution, in favor of the Nvidia card, but if the performance of the Radeon HD 2000 in Episode Two is limited by the driver, there is a chance the gap will shrink with the next update of the Catalyst driver.

The cards from the low-mainstream sector cannot boast high speeds notwithstanding the lack of FSAA. You can play at 1280x1024, but there’s not much playing comfort as you don’t have any reserve of speed. At the higher resolutions the average frame rate is below 30fps, which makes the game unplayable.

As we have already found out, the ATI Radeon HD 2900 loses more speed than the Nvidia GeForce 8800 after you turn FSAA on. Here, the ATI Radeon HD 2900 Pro allows playing at 1280x1024 without a safety margin, but you may want to disable FSAA until the performance of the Radeon HD 2000 series improves if it ever does.

The results of the ATI Radeon HD 2600 and G84-based cards imply that FSAA is not for such hardware as the best you can get is a frame rate below 30fps. Note that the Radeon HD 2600 XT GDDR4 is far slower than the GeForce 8600 GTS.

The leader in the mainstream category is quite clear. It is the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB that has the best result and allows playing at resolutions up to 1920x1200 inclusive. The ATI Radeon HD 2900 Pro is noteworthy, too, especially if you find it selling at an appropriate price. As for the graphics cards based on mainstream GPUs, they do not suit well for modern games if you play at highest graphics quality settings and at standard resolutions.

Entry Level Graphics Cards

Alas, owners of entry-level graphics cards don’t have much speed in this game. The best products of this category cannot ensure an average frame rate of 30fps even at 1280x1024. The cheapest cards are as slow as 12-15fps. They can only be used for playing HD video, but not for running modern 3D games.

The test with 4x MSAA proves our point about the capabilities of entry-level graphics cards. Despite its rather good specs, the Nvidia GeForce 8600 GT cannot reach the 24-25fps minimum at which the eye perceives movement as smooth.

We won’t give you any recommendations in this class because every entry-level graphics card is as unsuitable for playing Half-Life 2: Episode Two as any other. If you’ve got such a card and want to have a comfortable play, you should think about upgrading. This is the only way since playing at resolutions below 1280x1024 with reduced graphics quality settings means you are missing something in the game that the developer has tried to put into it.

Conclusion

Not provoking a sensation, Half-Life 2: Episode Two is still a worthy sequel to the series. Half-Life fans are sure to find in it everything that made the series so popular – quality visuals, unique level design, a realistic physical model with puzzles based on it, and, most importantly, a plot that continues the engaging story that was begun in 1998. There is only one flaw, actually. Completing Episode Two takes hardly more than 5-6 hours of continuous play. On the other hand, Episode Two in not a standalone game, but part of the Half-Life 3 project. Valve decided to issue the sequel to Half-Life 2 in separate installments to avoid the situation with the previous project that had taken 6 years of development. And even with this development method there was a 16-month pause between Episode One and Episode Two .

Episode Two doesn’t have modest system requirements, yet it is not a very resource-consuming application, either, just as the original Half-Life 2 was not. Graphics cards priced at $249 and higher provide a comfortable frame rate at least at 1280x1024 and, quite often, at 1600x1200.

The less expensive solutions based on special mainstream GPUs have proved hopeless again when it comes to modern games. Considering that products based on the new ATI RV670 and Nvidia G92 GPUs are about to enter the market, there is no sense in purchasing such cards for games. The ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT/Pro and the Nvidia GeForce 8600 GTS/GT, let alone the ATI Radeon HD 2400 and Nvidia GeForce 8500, present no interest for a serious gamer although suit well enough for decoding HD video.

The best buy for the fans of the Half-Life 2 series is the Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB. Moderately priced, this graphics card delivers comfortable performance for every resolution if you play without antialiasing, and good performance with 4x MSAA, which improves the image quality considerably. The ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT/Pro currently have low performance when you use FSAA – this problem may be corrected with the next Catalyst update. When using anisotropic filtering only, the solutions from the former ATI Technologies are about as good as Nvidia’s ones, excepting the Radeon HD 2900 Pro. The latter has a low GPU frequency, but allows playing the game normally at 1280x1024 and 1600x1200.

The game is a success overall. We guess there are no other developers who have surpassed the Half-Life series in the depth and detailedness of the game world. Such good attempts as S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl and BioShock still lack something that makes Half-Life so appealing to millions of players worldwide. All the people who like sci-fi shooters are looking forward to play Half-Life 3: Episode Three now. Hopefully, the next episode will take less time to come out.