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PhysX hands-on

PhysX hands-on

We were lucky enough to get our hands on a physics accelerator card before the show, thanks to Ageia, the inventor of the PhysX chip. The chip goes on sale for roughly $300 on Monday, May 9, in cards from partners Asus and BFG. Ageia sent us the Asus card, along with a demo of a game called CellFactor. This game was developed specifically to show off the PhysX chip's capabilities, and it's the first title we've laid hands on that was designed from the start to support physics acceleration.

CellFactor requires a PhysX accelerator card to play it at all, and it quickly becomes apparent why when you play. It's a futuristic shooter whose one demo map is chock-full of boxes, pipes, and other objects that all behave like their real-life counterparts. Boxes scatter and explode when they're hit by a grenade, heavy rolling pipes will kill you, and so on. The designers even went as far as to let you hurl yourself and the plentiful objects around the map, thanks to your character's telekinetic powers. But perhaps more impressive than the objects' realistic behavior is their sheer number. It's obvious that with the PhysX card and the appropriate programming, game designers have a lot more room for interactivity.

Keep in mind that we don't expect to see an immediate revolution right away. CellFactor aside, only a handful of currently available games offer any kind of support for the PhysX cards, and these first-gen effects are less than earth-shattering. Tom Clancy's latest, Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, is a good example. In-game explosions look more realistic, with bricks falling off buildings, than when you turn the physics acceleration off, but the designers didn't use the PhysX cards in a way that fundamentally changes the gameplay. If you turn the physics acceleration off, the explosions look a little tamer; that's really the only change.

We expect that the ramp up to physics acceleration, either via PhysX cards or Nvidia's new integrated Havok physics support, will be gradual. When Windows Vista hits, it brings with it DirectX 10, and with that a new multimedia programming spec called DirectPhysics. This gives us hope that the industry at large is serious about expanding games' immersiveness. Until we start to see more games built from the ground up to use the PhysX to good effect, we have a hard time recommending a $300 PhysX card--unless you really want to see the few examples of accelerated physics first hand. There's simply not enough game-changing content to make it worthwhile, at least, not yet.