In religious circles, some worshipers kiss poisonous snakes to demonstrate their faith in God: “The Lord will protect me.” In retail circles, some consumers buy largely unproven products that establish a wholly new market category to demonstrate their faith in technology: “This good idea will benefit me.”
And when it comes to Ageia’s PhysX physics-processing unit, there hasn’t been a product launch that has required such a leap of faith since 3dfx unveiled its Voodoo Graphics chipset back in 1996. Does Ageia’s good idea justify that degree of trust? We spent some quality time with Asus’ implementation of the PhysX board to find out.
Anyone who’s played Half-Life 2—and that’s anyone who’s the least bit interested in computer games—knows how much fun a good physics engine can add to a game. But limited processor power constrained the degree to which you could interact with that game’s environment. Some objects could be shoved around, a few could be blown up, but the vast majority of the environment remained static and unresponsive to your actions in the game.
Ageia has been telling us for months that its PhysX physics-processing unit (PPU), the silicon that forms the heart of this new Asus card, has the power to render just about everything in a game environment interactive. And with a die size of 182 square millimeters, a transistor count of 125 million, and 128MB of DDR memory on board, the hardware is definitely there.
What’s not there—at least not now—is a comprehensive collection of games to tap the hardware’s power. Yes, it’s that old chicken-or-the-egg conundrum: There’s little reason to buy new hardware if there’s no software to take advantage of it, but developers are loathe to create software for hardware that doesn’t have an installed base. Consumers aren’t the only ones asked to make leaps of faith.
We’ll return to the software question in a moment, but allow us to address another issue first: In some machines, installing a PhysX card will mean giving up your soundcard. The card plugs into a PCI slot, just like a Sound Blaster X-Fi card, but in our test bed (an Asus A8N-32 SLI Deluxe motherboard with two dual-slot GeForce 7900 GTX videocards), there’s only one exposed PCI slot. Goodbye, X-Fi.
Now, let’s get back to the software. We’ve been impressed by Ageia’s demos. The Cell Factor demo demonstrates the PhysX chip’s potential, but the game is so far from real that no one’s signed up to publish it. Ignoring that minor detail, nearly everything in the game’s environment is destructible; you can even manipulate pieces of objects you’ve already blown apart. And you need to be careful, lest a chunk of flying debris land on your head and kill you. This kept us entertained for about 10 minutes. Next?
We temporarily uninstalled the card and eagerly downloaded the demo version of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter (the full game is bundled with the card), one of the first titles to support the PhysX chip out of the gate. We shot all our teammates and they realistically crumpled to the ground. When we shot their bodies to see what would happen, nothing did. We looked forward to installing the PhysX card and seeing the corpses blown into gibs of red goo; you know, like they did in Ageia’s demos.
We shot up a car and watched sparks fly. We looked forward to installing the PhysX card and seeing bullet holes appear in the sheet metal; you know, like they did in Ageia’s demos. We then lobbed a grenade at a car. Its windows disappeared, one of its doors flew open, and the tires fell off. We looked forward to installing the PhysX card and watching the car lift into the air from the force of the detonation, its windows and doors blasted into different sized bits, littering the ground and remaining persistent in the scene. Maybe the roof would blow off; you know, like objects did in Ageia’s demos.
And then we reluctantly removed our X-Fi card, inserted the Asus PhysX card, relaunched Advanced Warfighter, and proceeded to execute our hapless teammates. They realistically crumpled to the ground, just like before, but there was no reaction whatsoever when we shot their bodies. The presence of the PhysX card had no impact at all. So we proceeded to vandalize the car again. This time, we watched two colors of sparks fly. OK, at least that was different. Surely chucking the grenade into the car would deliver the money shot. The car rose up about an inch, its windows shattered, one door blew open, the tires fell off, and a few chunks of debris littered the ground and rapidly disappeared. The force of the blast also bent over a light post. $300 for that?
Is this Ageia’s fault, for over-hyping its product? Or is it the game developers’ fault, for not utilizing the PhysX chip’s true power? The answer is, it doesn’t matter. Based on what we’ve seen so far, we can’t recommend that anyone—no matter how much an enthusiast they might be—spend $300 and possibly give up their soundcard to buy this product. Ageia and its game-developer partners first need to bridge a yawning chasm between hype and reality. We’re willing to evangelize the concept of physics acceleration, but it’s too early to anoint any prophets.
Month Reviewed: July 2006
+ MONEY SHOT: Includes full version of Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter.
- CHEAP SHOT: Too few games support the PhysX chip today; those that do don't take good advantage of it.