The question that has been on everybody's mind since NVIDIA introduced its GeForce 6800 graphics processor is whether or not it would have an advantage over ATi's cards when using DirectX 9.0c and Shader Model 3.0. Now, we have the first answer to that question. At least in FarCry, the GeForce 6800 cards show more or less pronounced performance gains in those levels that use special SM 3.0 shaders. In other levels, on the other hand, we couldn't spot much of a difference, aside from an general performance advantage when the flashlight is turned on.
While the good news is that the image quality issues that plagued the GeForce 6800 cards are now history with the new FarCry patch, the even better news is that this quality improvement comes at no cost to the gamer, as performance remains the same or even improves, in some levels. Although we could make out minor rendering differences between SM 2.0 and SM 3.0, speaking of reduced quality would be inappropriate. The intensity of the lighting may be slightly dimmer, but this is only noticeable in a direct side-by-side comparison of screenshots.
As was to be expected, SM 3.0 does not improve rendering quality, even though NVIDIA has repeatedly suggested just that in several of its presentations. Whether the results we saw here in FarCry will translate into a general advantage in SM 3.0 games for NVIDIA remains to be seen, as the performance improvements could be caused by other factors as well. For example, it is entirely possible that the new SM3.0 code path also contains shader code specifically optimized for the NV4x architecture.
Despite this improvement in NVIDIA's newest platform, we remain critical of the performance and image quality that the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra offers. Although the image quality showed an overall improvement, it is still not on par with that of the newer GeForce models or ATi's Radeons. On top of that, some of the results we saw in this comparison are downright disappointing compared to a Radeon 9800 XT. Perhaps this was caused by the v61.45 driver, which is not specifically optimized for the GeForce FX 5950 Ultra. On the other hand, maybe this is just the price you have to pay for improved image quality. It's hard to say.
NVIDIA and Crytek have shown that SM 3.0 can indeed lead to performance improvements over an SM 2.0 implementation. This conclusion flies in the face of what ATi has been preaching for the last few months. In many of our FarCry tests, the NVIDIA cards can now pull ahead of their rivals from ATi. The GeForce 6800 GT makes an especially convincing appearance here, especially considering that, at $399, it costs just as much as its direct competitor the X800 Pro.