Two weeks after the console launch, PC gamers finally got their version of Eidos Interactive's Batman: Arkham Asylum last week. Originally slated to launch with the console versions, Batman was delayed three weeks for the PC, presumably to give both developer Rocksteady Studios and partner Nvidia time to polish the integration of Nvidia's PhysX game physics acceleration technology.
After spending a weekend with the game, we can report that we were pleasantly surprised at how much the PhysX effects enhanced the atmosphere of the game's gloomy setting. Our last outing with a PhysX-enabled AAA PC game, Mirror's Edge back in January, was much clunkier.
In Batman, sheets of paper scattered on the floor move convincingly as characters walk over them. Bricks, glass, and tiles shatter and break apart realistically. Fog, smoke, and spider webs waft and curl around characters realistically (the slideshow at the bottom of this post shows off some Nvidia-provided screenshots). With PhysX off you get none of those effects, and a less interesting environment as a result. Compared to the tacked on PhysX-effects in Mirror's Edge, the effects in Batman noticeably improve the atmosphere.
Not every effect in Batman is a winner. The banners draped over various rafters and arches throughout the game, presumably to show off realistic cloth behavior, seem more appropriate for an athletic facility than an asylum for criminals. The PhysX effects also provide no benefit to the in-game mechanics, but given that only a subset of PC gamers have PhysX-enabled PCs, we can't blame the Batman development team for not using PhysX to full advantage.
We also found that even that subset of PhysX-capable PCs might have to trade some image quality or frame-rate smoothness in exchange for the enhanced effects. You'll need an Nvidia GeForce 8000, 9000, or GT200 series graphics card to take advantage of the PhysX effects. If you have an ATI card, you still get better image resolution than on a console, but the PhysX options aren't enabled.
We used a higher-end test system (64-bit Vista Ultimate, 3.16GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 on an Intel X48 motherboard, 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM, and a 1792MB GeForce GTX 295), a 22-inch LCD at 1,680 x 1,050, and all of the PhysX and video quality settings dialed up to the maximum. With the in-game benchmark, we found an average frame rate of 45 frames per second. With PhysX off, the average frames per second jumped to 99, or more than double. During actual gameplay we noticed occasional, brief slowdowns with PhysX turned on, but on balance we'd call the experience comfortably playable.
We're clearly still in the early days of hardware physics acceleration. It will likely be another generation or two (Windows 9/DirectX 13, we'd speculate) before the physics-capable player base is large enough to support games with physics built-in from top to bottom. Nvidia's PhysX is also not the only hardware-accelerated solution out there, as ATI has partnered with physics software maker Havok to support its HavokFX hardware physics code. The DirectCompute portion of Microsoft's DirectX 11, coming along with Windows 7, is also poised to open up a hardware agnostic path to all of that parallel processing capability on your 3D card that physics acceleration requires.
While the standards-setter for PC physics processing is still up for grabs (we'd bet on Microsoft), in the meantime we credit Nvidia and Batman: Arkham Asylum developer Rocksteady for using PhysX effectively here. We've been skeptical of the added value of cosmetic physics effects, but we can say for this title, and provided you have the hardware to handle it, PhysX improves the gaming experience considerably.