Counter-Strike: Source Benchmark Results

We benchmarked nine different video cards on Valve's latest addition to the Counter-Strike franchise. Come check out how your card performed!

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Counter-Strike: Source
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By James Yu and Sarju Shah
Design by Collin Oguro

Out of all the PC game genres, the first-person shooter, the multiplayer FPS in particular, places the most emphasis on frame rate performance. Twenty-five frames per second might be considered playable for a real-time strategy game or even a single-player FPS game, but that same frame rate will be a huge liability in a multiplayer FPS game like Counter-Strike. Frame rates always seem to matter more when you introduce multiplayer into the equation. When's the last time you spent $300 just to beat the computer?

It's arguable that Counter-Strike: Source may be more relevant to PC upgraders than Doom 3. There's no question that Doom 3 is a technological triumph, but it's also, primarily, a single-player game. The multiplayer mods will come in time, but id Software chose to concentrate on the single-player experience. Counter-Strike, on the other hand, is a franchise first built for the multiplayer experience. In fact, Counter-Strike: Source, the upgraded version of Counter-Strike built on the Half-Life 2 engine, will be the only multiplayer game type included with Half-Life 2.

Valve released the Counter-Strike: Source beta to cybercafes and to Counter-Strike: Condition Zero owners this past week, and we've put together a set of benchmark numbers that will give potential upgraders an idea of how the game will perform on the latest Radeon X800 and GeForce 6800 graphics cards as well as popular cards from previous video card generations, including the Radeon 9800 Pro and the GeForce4 MX440.

In crowbar we trust.
In crowbar we trust.

Valve introduced a new built-in Video Stress Test benchmark in the latest beta release. The benchmark runs a flyby through a water-filled cavern map filled with novel elements designed to tax the video card. Notable features include a rotating stained-glass likeness of Gordon Freeman, complete with crowbar, as well as a translucent character model made out of water surrounded by fire effects. You can see the Stress Test run in our Gameplay Footage 10 movie on our Counter-Strike: Source media page.

We included results from the Video Stress Test in our report, but we also used an additional timedemo benchmark test using a demo we recorded during a real Counter-Strike: Source gameplay session, since we wanted to see what "real life" performance numbers look like. However, we must note that since Dust is currently the only map available, our demo doesn't include any water effects that are present on other maps, such as Aztec.

We divided our benchmark pages by card type--first the older graphics cards, followed by the current-generation cards. We must also note that the game will adjust its graphics level depending on the capabilities of the video card. For example, when running on the GeForce4 Ti4600 and MX440, the game falls back to an older DirectX path, disabling advanced effects only available through the DX9 path. The fallback results in faster frame rates but fewer special effects.

Three panels on the GeForce4 Ti4600.
Three panels on the GeForce4 Ti4600.
The GeForce4 MX440 can't handle the same panel effects.
The GeForce4 MX440 can't handle the same panel effects.

Test System:
AMD Athlon 64 3000+ CPU, MSI K8T Neo Motherboard, 1GB (512MB x 2) Samsung PC3200 Memory, 250GB Maxtor Maxline III SATA Hard Disk Drive, Windows XP Professional.

Graphics Cards (previous generations): GeForce4 MX440 64MB, GeForce4 Ti4600 128MB, Radeon 9600XT 128MB, Radeon 9800 Pro 128MB.

Graphics Cards (current generation): GeForce 6800 128MB, Radeon X800 Pro 256MB, GeForce 6800 GT 256MB, Radeon X800 XT PE 256MB, GeForce 6800 Ultra 256MB.

Graphics Drivers: Nvidia ForceWare 61.77, ATI Catalyst 4.8.

Game Settings:
Model Detail: High.
Texture Detail: High.
Water Detail: Reflect World.
Shadow Detail: High.
Vsync: Disabled.

Again, note that this is not an apples-to-apples comparison because CS: Source reverts to an older DirectX path for the GeForce4 Ti4600 and MX440. The GeForce4 MX440 wasn't able to render the water reflections and we had to set the shadow detail level to "low" for all of its tests.

Water-man on the GeForce4 Ti4600.
Water-man on the GeForce4 Ti4600.
The same model on the GeForce4 MX440.
The same model on the GeForce4 MX440.

Our timedemo results indicate that the game is bottlenecked by the CPU rather than the video card. However, the Video Stress Test results show us that it's a better video card benchmark than the in-game timedemos, since we actually see performance differences between the video cards without having to increase resolution and antialiasing settings up to ridiculous levels.

Owners of these older cards should be comforted by the fact that their cards remain CPU-bound up through the 1024x768 resolution in our in-game results. Dust will play fine, but you might run into trouble if the server ever changes to the Video Stress Test map.

Also, don't let the 40fps average scores frighten you. While using the "net_graph 3" console command to display the fps counter, we saw frame rates in the 60-to-100-plus range most of the time. Explosions, weapon fire, and having lots of models on the screen caused the frame rate dips. We recorded a longer demo with less on-screen action that gave us frame rates in the 70fps range.

We see the Radeon X800 Pro and X800 XT PE finally take the lead over their GeForce 6800 GT and Ultra counterparts at our most challenging Stress Test setting, but the bottleneck never shifts over from the CPU to the video card in our in-game timedemo tests, even at 1600x1200 with 4x antialiasing and 8x anisotropic filtering enabled.

If you're paranoid about staying competitive with other Counter-Strike: Source players, there's a good chance the card you have right now will be sufficient. The Radeon 9800 Pro and 9600 XT performed very well in our CPU-limited Dust benchmark, and the even older GeForce4 MX440 and Ti4600 cards also put up decent numbers by falling back to a previous DirectX version. If image quality is a concern, then you'll likely need to upgrade to a DX9-capable card to gain access to the higher-quality effects, but note that GeForce FX-series cards currently use the DX8 path for Counter-Strike: Source.

From a pure benchmarking standpoint, the Radeon X800 series did pull away from the GeForce 6800 series as we increased resolution and filtering settings in the Video Stress Test, but both graphics card families offered similar performance levels in our in-game Dust testing. Valve did such a great job at making Counter-Strike: Source accessible to all video cards that the only way to open up a timedemo performance gap between the latest ATI and Nvidia cards would be to increase resolution and filtering settings up to unrealistic levels.

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