Can you really play games on a PC?

22 10 2009

Now that might seem like a silly, even ridiculous and redundant title, but bare with me. It was all in the interest of keeping titles snappy and short, but what I’d really liked it to have said was:

‘Can you really play games on a PC, in the sense that it is comparable with the full gamut of consoles and handhelds in terms of variety, performance and ultimately entertainment?’

Or rather more succinctly, and what I was actually shooting for in the title I used, but unable to completely convey due to the lack of formatting available to me:

‘Can you really play games on a PC?’

Admittedly, it still seems like a somewhat silly question, but I’m nothing if not persistent. I know that Dell XPS, Mesh, Voodoo and Alienware will tell you differently, and that your ‘enthusiast’ gaming PC builder (with a couple of Intel Core i7s, 64GB of RAM, two dual-GPU graphics cards and more water-cooling tubing than a Wet and Wild splash park) will be adamant that you can, but I’m going to have to rock the boat on this one. You simply can’t get the gaming experience on a PC that you can on other formats, and you haven’t been able to for, well, forever.

As much power as eight XBOX 360s riding a nuclear missile, but is it all futile?

As much power as eight XBOX 360s riding a nuclear missile, but is it all futile?

The problem is two-fold: PC gaming isn’t inclusive, and, er, PC gaming isn’t inclusive. Now you’re all thinking I’m deranged and bad at maths. What I mean, is that PC gaming isn’t inclusive for two very important reasons: in order to play something spectacular (or in all honesty, anything recent) you need at the very least an £800 behemoth that is similar in size, weight, and thermal output to that of your average kitchen stove, and you can only play the games on PC that developers and publishers are so kind as to grace the PC format with.

I think we can all appreciate the first point – in an effort to make games as spectacular and desirable as possible, developers cram as much content into them as they possibly can, and why wouldn’t they? The difference being, that if you do this on a console, you’ll eventually hit a ceiling and in order to make your new title better, faster, stronger, you need to be cleverer in how you put it together. You economise on polygons, you hide areas with nothing in them behind immovable objects so the hardware doesn’t have to load quite so much stuff, you come up with clever scripting of your game to optimise the creation and destruction of objects so that everything is happening at different times, rather than clashing (think arranging a beautiful orchestral piece of music rather than hitting as many drums as you can simultaneously to make the biggest bang). The end result is that you get value for money from your games developers because they need to push themselves. If you hit a ceiling while developing for PC, you wait thirty seconds and NVidia bring out a newer GPU or Corsair deliver some faster RAM, and you can pick up the slack with your ‘improvements’ (or ‘flamboyances’) once more, and it’s the consumers who have to stump up in order to enjoy your masterpiece.

Let’s face it, look at the way PCs and GPUs are tested: you ramp Crysis (the most hardware-demanding title around at present) up to it’s most ridiculous (or incredible, depending on your point of view) settings that invariably won’t work, then drop them all a little at a time until you get something useable. We decide by thrashing, which isn’t wrong, but isn’t very fair either. The only alternative is to make do with a cheaper and ultimately lower specification gaming PC, and get used to enjoying your games at a lower frame rate, lower resolution, in less detail, with fog that’s more like a curtain than particles and objects that pop up 4 feet from your nose due to dreadful draw distance. But get used to it you do, because it’s the game itself that matters, and we’ll all enjoy it even if it looks a bit uglier than when your friend with deep pockets and an accommodating wife/mother/credit card plays it on his ‘rig’.

Mmmmm, pretty! But Crysis won't look like that when you play it...

Mmmmm, pretty! But Crysis won't look like that when you play it...

The biggest issue is not in fact the overclocking ‘arms race’, though – it is in fact the choice of games. What if you want to play a J-RPG, for example? That’s a great big no straight away. You will create a character, you will join 8 million others in PvP, and you will bloody well like it, because you’ll get precious little else as a J-RPG fan (discounting the massively mundane online Final Fantasy XI, a title from the biggest selling RPG franchise hasn’t been ported to PC since Final Fantasy VII – that’s very telling in itself). If you want to play a sports game, you’d better like your statistics – sure, you can play FIFA or something similar, but the controls will be truly awful unless you buy a decent control pad peripheral, and as a result if you want to play multiplayer, you need to buy more. I’ve not seen a really good PC gamepad that you couldn’t afford to buy three Wiimotes for the same retail value. Instead what we get is Championship Manager (I’m living in the past, I know it’s Football Manager now, but that still doesn’t sound right) which is a truly great game in its own right, nevermind the best sports game there will probably ever be for PC, but it’s so stats intensive now that you need a degree in Mathematics and the patience of a saint to play any incarnations of it since about 2003.

So what can you play on PC that just works? Strategy and first person shooters! Not that we’re living in 1995 or anything. I love a good strategy, I always have, and FPS games are possibly the most popular thing out there at the moment (after training your foot, or donkey, or trousers, or whatever it is we’re training now) but is that all? Is that all we really get? I thought the gaming industry evolved out of the PC gamer stereotype that has us all sitting in our tweed jackets with leather elbow patches, complaining on the internet about continuity errors in TV shows and trying to figure out what the Command and Conquer equivalent of the ‘Petrov’s Defence’ opening is in chess. Now we’re supposedly all just as cool as our console brethren, waggling phallic white plastic peripherals around their living rooms (and we love it), but it’s not really true, is it?

While we’re on the subject of all things not being equal (but some being more equal than others – I’m going to make myself very unpopular again in a few seconds) the two PC ‘specialties’ don’t really work on console, either. A control pad is in no way an acceptable peripheral for either strategy and (here comes the contentious bit) or the first person shooter. It’s blindingly obvious to anyone that has tried, that strategy games are truly dreadful on consoles. Moving around, being precise and selecting the single unit you want is bad enough when under heavy fire, but try to do a multi-select with a drag-to-size box and you’re in danger of having a stroke in frustration at it all. Sure, it’s not quite so bad in turn based strategy games (like Final Fantasy Tactics) but hardly anything is turn-based anymore – it’s all real-time, and even a gentle, friendly game like Viva Pinata becomes near-impossible when the marauding sour pinatas enter your garden, you try and batter them with your shovel, hit the stupid plant woman instead and get your shovel confiscated (I completely advocate hitting the irritating druid with any blunt implement, but if she confiscates your shovel while you’re under attack, you’re practically defenseless).

Not fit for purpose? Certainly not for every purpose.

Not fit for purpose? Certainly not for every purpose.

What I really don’t get, though, is the right-stick-to-look approach to first person shooters. Sure, it’s better than the old alternatives – hold a ‘trigger’ switch, your character stops in his tracks, you look, shoot, look back in the centre, then release the ‘trigger’ and can move again (it’s basically standing side by side and shooting each other with neither being able to run away, a kind of mano-a-mano version of 16th Century naval warfare) but right-stick looking is still bloody dreadful for one stupid, ridiculous, moronic reason – you have to shoot with your right thumb. Invariably, shoot, fire, throw, whatever, is always mapped to the ‘X’ button or it’s equivalent. This is logical. This makes sense, but only in terms of hand position when playing a game normally. However when you create a function to look around (that you’ll want to do, I don’t know, say, all the time) that requires your right thumb to be on the second analogue stick, then your right thumb is no longer available for shooting. “I’m watching you, I can see you, you’re in my sights… now stand still while I get ready to shoot…” is a very common and frustrating complaint, especially in the fast paced world of online multiplayer, and something that could be remedied so easily. No, not by mutilating your right hand so you can operate both the right stick and ‘X’ button at the same time, that’s just a bit weird and frankly a little obsessive.In actual fact what developers need to do, is simply map the shoot command to one of the shoulder triggers. The clue, you fools, is in the name, apart from anything else. Right hand makes twitchy pulling type motion on ‘R1’, gun goes off, and we can look and shoot (or walk and chew gum) at the same time. What’s so difficult about that? It’s like it was put there just for that purpose – has nobody else noticed this?

So there we have it. As things stand, all things considered, at the present time, you can’t really play games on a PC. But then, you can’t really play them on a console, either.

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