For gamers looking for the next quantum leap jump in image fidelity, 2006 could be poised to be your year.
While the first wave of shader model 3.0 hardware hit shelves some time ago, for many of these games shader model 3.0 was an afterthought. 3.0 shaders were only used for a handful of effects, generally the shaders were used solely to improve performance; image complexity was untouched. That’s finally going to change thanks to several prominent titles that are set to ship this year.
Most notable of them is Unreal Tournament 2007. Utilizing Epic’s next-gen Unreal Engine 3 technology, UT 2007 is slated to ship this Fall. Epic has numerous licensees for Unreal Engine 3, including America’s Army, BioWare, Vivendi Universal Games, and Atari. Epic’s UE3 engine isn’t restricted to just the PC either, as games for Sony’s upcoming PS3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console have been announced.
In fact, while die-hard PC gamers may not like to hear this, it’s in large part because of the next-gen consoles that games with more advanced shaders are making their way to the PC in greater volume. Game developers often target the lowest common denominator in order to appeal to the widest audience possible. Now that consoles are beginning to catch up to the PC, the bar has been raised higher for developers: the RSX GPU powering the graphics inside the PS3 is largely based on NVIDIA’s G70 GPU so in effect, shader model 3.0 is now the minimum.
Five Radeon X1900 XTX cards rounded up
The Radeon X1900 XTX compared to NVIDIA GeForce 7900 GT
High-end shootout: the X1900 XTX vs GeForce 7900 GTX 512MB
Another graphics trend that games will increasingly begin to take advantage of is high dynamic range lighting (HDR). HDR was first introduced via patch in CryTek’s Far Cry nearly two years ago, but last year we saw the first titles that took advantage of HDR out-of-the-box such as Age of Empires 3, Serious Sam 2, and Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow. In 2006 we’ll see dozens of titles ship built with HDR in mind.
Finally, more extensive shadowing will be used to produce a gloomier atmosphere. Games will turn to different dynamic shadow techniques to create effects such as self-shadowing and soft shadows, while environmental effects like volumetric fog will be used to make outdoor environments look more lifelike.
Up to now, games such as Far Cry have shipped with a few of these features, but no one game has combined them all into one package. In Far Cry’s case, Crytek used a limited number of 3.0 shaders to improve performance, while HDR was integrated to produce jaw-dropping lighting effects, but Far Cry’s shadowing system wasn’t as advanced as say Doom 3 or F.E.A.R.
F.E.A.R. on the other hand features a per-pixel lighting model and uses shaders extensively, but its many levels lack HDR lighting.
If Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 tech demo is any indication, this year we should see all these eye candy features combined into games such as Unreal Tournament 2007 and Gears of War.
With this in mind, ATI has prepped the Radeon X1900 family. ATI’s X1900 boasts a very forward-looking GPU, R580, which sports 48 pixel shader processors. With 48 pixel shaders onboard, ATI envisions a future where shader-heavy titles are the norm, rather than the exception: many of the latest games on the market today are more dependant on more traditional performance metrics such as texturing and raw fill-rate. ATI argues that thanks to the popularity of Xbox 360 (and its 48-shader Xenos GPU), this “future” may become a reality sooner than you think.
In order to size up the Radeon X1900 XTX market, we’ve rounded up five of the hottest Radeon X1900 XTX boards on the market. Each of these manufacturers enjoys Tier One board partner status with ATI, and can be found online or at the retail level for sale.