Mass Effect

Install Size: 6.8GB

Ever since the concept of installing Xbox 360 games to hard disk was first mooted, the big "what if" has always been just how much better Mass Effect would be were it running from a medium faster than optical disc. The game's infamous for its protracted elevator rides (aka background disc loading), texture pop-in and gameplay glitches seemingly concurrent with DVD reading. Unfortunately of all the games tested in this feature, Mass Effect is the only one I've not really played before at all. Therefore, in the schedule allotted, the best I could do was to play the beginning of the game from both DVD and HDD.

Like Fable II, Mass Effect has tangible advantages running from hard disk, but unfortunately the NXE installation feature isn't the all-powerful Elder Wand required to magically erase Mass Effect's many technical issues. To begin with it's basically the same game with identical performance - texture pop-in doesn't seem so much removed, as relocated. I was unable to quantify this aspect of the game between the two video captures I recorded; when and where the pop-in occurred remained entirely arbitrary between both versions. I'm told that the texture pop-in becomes far more of an issue the further you play the game, so my observations here are far from conclusive - but I can't see running from HDD actually having a detrimental affect, and the advantages are well worth the installation.

First of all, in several occasions during my playtest, it became obvious that the DVD couldn't keep up with the player's progress. This would manifest in on-screen pauses and glitches accompanied by a mechanical form of protest from the DVD drive, at worst resulting in the game momentarily freezing with a 'loading' prompt helpfully explaining what was going on. In the same places, the HDD-installed version proved to be flawless. Unfortunately, there are no differences in the duration of the teeth-grindingly annoying elevator rides - clearly these were hard-coded in as opposed to being measured based on the data rate of the streaming.

So the jury's still out on Mass Effect, and it'll be interesting to see what kinds of improvement you guys who've got the saved games I wish I had see with this release. In the meantime, these meagre loading time observations will have to do...

Section Tested DVD Load Time HDD Load Time
Initial Loading 25.5 seconds 20.5 seconds
Starting New Career 14 seconds 10 seconds
Normandy Quarters 12.5 seconds 10 seconds
Citadel Upper Wards 16 seconds 14 seconds

BioShock/Project Gotham Racing 4/Call of Duty 4

We conclude the gamesy bits with a roundup of measurements on three titles that - for me - typify the average performance gains you're likely to see with the majority of games once they're hosted on your hard disk.

Rapture hard disk around this one.

In common with many games based on Unreal Engine 3 technology, BioShock combines the traditional level-loading with on-the-fly streaming from the DVD drive, and installing the whole game to hard disk produces predictable results.

We see a variable level in improvement in loading times - anything up to 30 per cent - but the actual behind-the-scenes streaming sees no real difference whatsoever. In truth, BioShock never really suffered from the same level of texture pop-in as certain UE3 titles, so these results are hardly surprising.

With Project Gotham Racing 4 and Call of Duty 4, we see similar loading time improvements, although both games don't appear to be streaming much data in on-the-fly, preferring to load all data before gameplay begins.


Install Size: 6.1GB

Section Tested DVD Load Time HDD Load Time
Welcome to Rapture 19 seconds 17 seconds
Medical Pavilion 32 seconds 27 seconds
Farmer's Market 27.5 seconds 19 seconds
Fort Frolic 36 seconds 28 seconds
Olympus Heights 31 seconds 24 seconds
Point Prometheus 35 seconds 24.5 seconds
Proving Grounds 21.5 seconds 17.5 seconds
Fontaine 15 seconds 11.5 seconds

Project Gotham Racing 4

Install Size: 6.0GB

Section Tested DVD Load Time HDD Load Time
Arcade Chapter 1, Event 1 25 seconds 17.5 seconds
Arcade Chapter 2, Event 1 20 seconds 13.5 seconds
Arcade Chapter 3, Event 1 22.5 seconds 14.5 seconds
Arcade Chapter 4, Event 1 26 seconds 16.5 seconds
Arcade Chapter 5, Event 1 20.5 seconds 14 seconds
Arcade Chapter 6, Event 1 25.5 seconds 16 seconds
Arcade Chapter 7, Event 1 22 seconds 14.5 seconds
Arcade Chapter 8, Event 1 23.5 seconds 15.5 seconds
Arcade Chapter 9, Event 1 22.5 seconds 15.5 seconds
Arcade Chapter 10, Event 1 20.5 seconds 14.5 seconds

Call of Duty 4

Install Size: 6.7GB

Section Tested DVD Load Time HDD Load Time
Prologue, FNG 15.5 seconds 10.5 seconds
Prologue, Crew Expendable 15.5 seconds 10 seconds
Prologue, The Coup 15 seconds 10.5 seconds
Act 1, Blackout 13.5 seconds 10.5 seconds
Act 1, Hunted 10 seconds 7.5 seconds
Act 1, Shock and Awe 15 seconds 10.5 seconds
Act 1, Aftermath 11.5 seconds 7.5 seconds
Act 2, Safehouse 13.5 seconds 10.5 seconds

120GB vs. 20GB HDD

And finally, these tests pit our battle-weary launch vintage 360 20GB drive up against the default Elite 120GB unit. In theory, a newer, unused drive with faster technology, combined with higher data density, spinning at the same speed as the 20GB unit should give tangible advantages, making the upgrade even more attractive. However, as you can see from the tests, at best you gain a couple of seconds advantage over the default drive - in short, the upgrade's worth it if you want to have more than one game available on HDD, but don't expect any really worthwhile speed boost.

The Orange Box

Section Tested 20GB HDD Load Time 120GB HDD Load Time
Loading Half Life 2 25.5 seconds 24 seconds
Loading Episode 1 22 seconds 20 seconds
Loading Episode 2 25 seconds 24 seconds

Gears of War 2

Section Tested 20GB HDD Load Time 120GB HDD Load Time
Initial Load 24 seconds 24 seconds
Training Grounds: The Basics 9.5 seconds 9 seconds
Horde Stage: Avalanche 16 seconds 14.5 seconds

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About the author

Richard Leadbetter

Richard Leadbetter

Technology Editor, Digital Foundry

Rich has been a games journalist since the days of 16-bit and specialises in technical analysis. He's commonly known around Eurogamer as the Blacksmith of the Future.

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