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General update Feb 2013

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A lot has been going on in the world of gaming lately. Which is just as well as this Winter has been a bit short on interesting stories and awesome game releases. In fact, prior to the announcement of PS4 (and excluding the one-in-a-million Borderlands 2), my passion for gaming had reached a complete nadir.

Lately though, things are picking up. I was extremely tempted just a few days back to purchase Crysis 3 following critical acclaim and eye watering preview videos. The sheer fact I was comtemplating a full RRP purchase tells a lot about my anticipation for this game. It is rare I fork out the full retail price for any game but this title just had me transfixed. I have written previously in my blog about the delights of Crysis 2 and the latest in Crytek's famous series looks an improvement in every way. Most people have pointed out that Crytek have quite blatantly tried to blend the sandbox and open-ended environment of the original Crysis with the more linear and hemmed-in Crysis 2. If they have managed to do this successfully (and by many accounts they have) then Crysis 3 could well be troubling my 'top 5 favourite games of all time' list. Let me explain why.

Crysis 1 was without doubt way ahead of its time. Not just graphically either. The sense of freedom was impressive and allowed liberal exploitation of the game's physics to literally play the game as you wanted. I can remember many stand-out moments within the first few hours of gameplay including mad runs in the jeep, sneaking through luscious jungle and chasing fish amongst the beautiful coral in the shallows. Impressively the game's AI usually kept up with whichever style you went (minus a couple of glaring infinite-spawn moments).

However, the game was not without its problems. Sometimes I would wonder off on long treks into the island only to meet absolutely nothing as I hadn't 'triggered' a certain point in the game's story. I can also remember a part that caused immense frustration as I was relentlessly pursued by a rocket-firing helicopter that I could not evade. Plus the latter parts of the game often betrayed the open-ended style of the first few hours by becoming tightly scripted and not that exciting. The final boss also caused my poor GTX 580 to almost explode with overheating owing to some badly optimised code.

Crysis 2 was so far apart from its forebear that it could almost be mistaken for a completely different series. I won't go into too much detail as I have described this game in ample detail in previous blog posts. Needless to say, its more linear level design and scripted narrative caused many an upset for the Crysis 1 purists. In contrast, I found it more absorbing as a result with some brilliant level design and some extremely atmospheric moments.

If Crytek can just pick the best from both worlds, it could end up with one of the best shooters ever released. So I am very eager to try it out.

I am also well prepared for the inevitable drop from glorious 60fps to 30fps. This is something I wouldn't normally say on my blog. I love 60fps and I love 1080p and a good chunk of AA. However, on this occasion reality bites. There is simply no way I will be seeing north of 30fps with my current GTX 580. Hell, even the Titan can't manage the 60fps nirvana and that is over twice the speed of my card. Two Titans though and you are getting close - oh and that will be $2000 please... As such, no-one will be maxing out this game for at least a coupel of years. Its Crysis 1 all over again except this time the classic meme-like phrase of 'but can it run crysis' will need a 3 on the end.

In other news I decided to do a random play last night of any game my mouse pointer landed on. On this occasion it was Mirrors Edge. Still one of the most beautiful, stylistic game ever release. Words cannot describe how good this game looks running at 1080p with AA cranked up to 16x. This game is actually a very good argument for artistic style over technical substance. Whereas Crysis 3 ticks every box on the graphics whore wishlist, Mirrors Edge instead uses the artist's paintbrush and a great imagination to invoke a world that is every bit as immersive and atmospheric. In fact, I was so enamored with the artwork from this game a year ago I decided to decorate the office in my new house just like it. As it turned out, the house fell through and I never got my dream office but the vision remains.

Theres just one thing that lets Mirror's Edge down and is in actual fact becoming more prevalent in many modern games:

PHYSX

Or should I put it another way:

SHODDY PHYSX IMPLEMENTATION

I have now lost count of the titles I have had to turn Nvidia Physx off or down because it just ruins the frame rate. Lets name 3 just for starters: Mirrors Edge (as said), Batman Arkham City and Borderlands 2. Each game is totally gimped on current graphics technology when Phyx kicks in. Last night everything was running smoothly and beautifully in Mirrors Edge until a shootout with the local police when glass went flying everywhere. Cue huuuuuuuge frame rate drop from 60 to about 20 for an extended period of time whilst the individual glass shards exploded everwhere. Very pretty - yes. Completely game destroying - also yes.

Physx has the potential to be something great but current hardware just cannot keep up. Either that or the implementation needs some serious revision and optimising. When it works though, it is stunning. The cloth physics on Borderlands 2 and Mirrors Edge are stunning and the particle effects in Borderlands 2 are astonishing. But what is the point when the game engine can't keep up?

Maybe when Maxwell comes along these thing will be sorted. I hope so as I have a lot of games that have the potential to look really really good.

Well, that will do for now. There is plenty more to talk about - in particular my thoughts on my new single player adventure in Gears of War 3. But that can wait for another post.

god-like

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It probably hasn't escaped attention that I have been trumpeting lots about consoles lately. On a blog that is meant to be about PCs. Time to atone.

Amidst all the noise about the new Playstation, a certain new high end graphics card has also launched from Nvidia and, in many ways, this is more news worthy than the new Sony product. The Nvidia Titan is due for release any time now and has literally come right out of the blue. Most of us were not anticipating a new graphics generation until at least summer this year (and probably later) but it seems Nvidia has other ideas.

In a way, Nvidia has massively cheated on this latest release. The Nvidia Titan is not the result of extensive product refinement and exploring the limits of current graphics technology. It is simply a borrowed product from the Nvidia Tesla super computer division - shoehorned into the commercial product line.

I'm still unsure what I think about the Titan. It is massively exopensive - over-priced even. Nvidia knows it cannot be closely matched by any single AMD graphics card and (by virtue of this monopoly) has set the RRP ludicrously high - $999 as of writing. Only wealthy enthusiasts need apply then but oh boy, if you can afford this card then you really are set for at least 2 or 3 years high end PC gaming.

Then again, the same was said about my precious GTX 580 when it was released. Cries of 'future proof' and 'max settings assured for at least 5 years!' were commonly heard upon launch of Nvidia's former flagship card. One and a half years later the card is struggling to 'max out' most modern games and don't even mention Crysis 3...

The crazy thing is, the Titan will probably out-perform the flagship 7 series card when it is released sometime towards the back end of this year. This will make for a bit of a quandry. Do you opt for the latest product of lesser power or an older model that is the most powerful overall? Or do you simply wait for the greatly anticipated Maxwell lineup the following year that by many accounts will blow everything currently available out of the water. And where does the PS4/Durango fit into all this? Just how powerful will they be and what kind of PC setup will you need to comfortably handle the latest next-gen ports?

So many questions, so much anticipation. Lets see how this all plays out...

Playstation 4

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A simple title with big meaning.

Sony officially showed its hand yesterday and unveiled their latest games machine - the Playstation 4. Well, I call it 'unveiling' but in truth it was simply a congregation of press hearing exactly what the rumour mill had been churning out the past few weeks. These days rumours are getting more and more accurate - its uncanny. Back in the days of PS1 and even PS2, rumours were simply fan boys and journalists getting very excited and talking about their next generation wishlist. Most of it was complete guesswork although it did make for entertaining reading. These days, rumours often come from reputable links inside the games industry and more often than not are bang on target.

So yep, we already knew the PS4 had an 8 clore AMD Jaguar processor, blu ray hard drive and we roughly knew what the graphics would be like. The big surprise at the official Sony event was the confirmation of 8Gb *fast* RAM. Most people thought 4Gb would be closer to the final figure but Sony came out and surprised everyone with double that. That in itself is quite unprecedented - most consoles ship with far less RAM than developers lobby for and for the next 5 years all we hear are endless complaints from games companies of memory struggles. Take the PS3 for instance. Sony completely hamstrung their new machine before it was even released by shipping with a paltry 512Mb. To add insult to injury, it wasn't even unified with the graphics memory so developers had exactly 256Mb of main RAM and 256Mb graphics RAM. The problem with this setup? A game doesn't always take up the same graphics and main RAM space. One game may be more main RAM intensive and another might need more graphics RAM. On the Xbox 360 this was easily accomodated by its unified architecture. Taking the OS memory requirements out of the picture for a moment for simplicity, lets say a game required 300Mb main RAM and 212Mb graphics RAM to fully function. No problem on the Xbox 360! Big problem on the PS3! If said game was then ported over to the PS3 it would require either a complete re-design or a partial cull of features to fit into the restricted 256Mb. This is quite likely the reason for a number of slap-dash ports like Splinter Cell Double Agent and Bayonetta.

Gladly, this shouldn't be a problem in the next generation. Even now, 8Gb is overkill for almost all games. Even on a bloated Windows 7 PC (with far greater overhead than the streamlined operating systems on consoles) you can get away with 4Gb main RAM and 1Gb graphics RAM should be fine for resolutions up to 1080p.

Sony has therefore learned a great lesson and it should be applauded for this. It may add on an extra £20 to the stock price of the console but this is scant extra to pay for something so incredibly vital to cross-platform porting and general console longevity.

Something made me laugh today though (in the most geeky way possible). I read an article by PC Gamer trying to build an equivalent PC to the recently-announced PS4 specifications to prove that PC gaming was still the superior way to play games. They came up with a perfectly adequate system that is probably roughly on par with the power of the next PS3. It cost about £450 and was meant to show how flexible PC architecture can be around almost any budget to provide a well-rounded gaming platform. The problem is, they completely missed the point.

Actually they missed three points:

1) Closed architecture

2) Familiarity

3) Optimisation

All three of the above points are attributable to console gaming and are not attributable in any way to PC gaming.

The console (by definition) is a closed and unchanging system that will be the same in 5 years time as it is today. This helps developers become familar with its quirks and nuances and this will therefore lead to excellent code optimisation.

PCs come in all shapes and sizes and technology moves like a proverbial steam train in this industry. No game can ever be optimised for all systems and this often shows with console 'ports' requiring comparitively much higher specifications than the console to run the game. Lets take Crysis 3 for example. Minimum requirements:

DirectX 11 graphics card with 1Gb Video RAM

  • Dual core CPU
  • 2GB Memory (3GB on Vista)
  • Nvidia/Intel example setup: Nvidia GTS 450, Intel Core2 Duo 2.4 Ghz (E6600)
  • AMD example setup: AMD Radeon HD5770, AMD Athlon64 X2 2.7 Ghz (5200+)

These are the MINIMUM requirements for the game to run (let alone look any good).

Notice the video RAM graphics requirement. Remember, the PS3 has a mere Geforce 7800 (far inferior to even a GTS 450) and 256Mb graphics and main RAM. Yet it will run Crysis 3 on the PC equivalent of low settings.

Going by PC Gamer's methodology, you would think the PS3 must have the equivalent specifications as above. Yet of course it has components that are probely 3 to 4 times weaker than this. The developers make up the difference through optimisation and familiarity with the machine.

This is great news for us gamers as it means that the specifications confirmed by Sony are probably (in real terms) closer to a GTX 680 or higher once they have a real handle on the architecture. Moreover, this can only be good news for PC gamers that continuosly have their gaming hamstrung by ports limited to the hardware they were principally developed for.

Its a win-win for both console and pc gamers alike. I do feel we are entering a golden generation of gaming and I will most certainly be at the front of the queue when the PS4 is released in the UK. Can't wait.

Hope and despair

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This week I saw both ends of the gaming spectrum.

I've said a lot lately about my loathing for corrdor-based paint-by-numbers money spinners like the latest Tomb Raider appears to be aspiring too. However, until now I had never played a game that unticked absolutely every box on the good list.

The offending title is Dead Space 3. I downloaded the demo off PSN in the hope of witnessing something special and a reason to reinvigerate my love for gaming. Instead, I merely found another game to add to my burgeoning list of recycle bin demos.

Dead Space 1 and 2 were works of art. Well, perhaps the first more than the second but both were solid titles full of quality gaming. It is an irony that the only reason I am yet to complete them is the one reason that makes me praise them so highly - they are just too good at what they do. Simply put, they are very scary! They invoke a true feeling of isolation and helplessness (again, the first more than the second but that is a subject for another blog post) and really draw the player into the envioronment and the story. These two games are an example of the best EA can deliver.

So it fills me with dispair and anger that Dead Space 3 makes a gigantic 180 on these brilliant gaming traits whilst simultaneously handing a proverbial slap in ther face to their loyal investors (i.e. us gamers) by talk of their latest DLC plans. Hot off the press is news of an expensive tree of thankless DLC available on release day that appears to transcend 'nice to have' by actually being rather essential.

In summary, the DLC revolves around the Scavenger Bot - something to help the player pick up weapon parts and thus make the process of becoming awesome quicker and more efficient. The many news stories I have read about this suggest that to fully enjoy the game and to become as good as possible, this bot is nigh on essential. Its pretty expensive too - around £15 for all the bot enhancements.

It seems these days that to get good you need to spend dollar. And more dollar than ever before.

As alluded to above, aside from the scandalous DLC plans the game is also a bit rubbish. Actually, a lot rubbish. Tight corridors, invisible borders, predictable scares and it is just plain boring. Stuck in a snowy environent (which tries to generate even more tension by over-use of snow drifts and an immense amount of fog) the game developers have tried to think outside the box and become creative by setting the game outside of space but have fallen flat on their face with over-use of tired genre cliches.

Needless to say, this one is staying out of my Steam Library for good.

However, as per the title of this blog post there are still plenty of reasons to remain optimistic for the future of gaming. One word: Borderlands!

Whatever DS3 has got wrong, Borderlands seems to just get right. I recently downloaded the season pass for Borderlands 2 having read glowing reviews and still being enamoured for the main game. I don't normally buy DLC as I tend to tire once I complete a game so this represents a new direction for me.

Actually. as of writing I have invested 54 hours in this masterpiece and I can easily see myself passing the magic 100 mark. Not since Fallout 3 have I devoted so much of my spare time to one title. It really is just so much fun.

The developers have really nailed the 'sense of progression' that games of this ilk really need. To get to the holy grail of level 50 you need to put in a helluva lot of hours. To encourage players to play that much, you need to maintain interest in the game and make the player feel they are really progressing instead of just climbing an aritrary number board.

The DLC packs really help with maintaining interest. Even for a Borderlands veteran like myself, I have found enough new content to encourage me to level 50. This is an example of DLC done right. The price point is also pitched quite perfectly. I paid far less than RRP owing to a pre Christmas flash sale on one of the UK's popular download gaming sites. However, even at the standard retail price of £20, this pack is extremely good value.

New environments, more fantastic humour, new guns (lots of new guns!), interesting quests and consistently excelllent graphics elevate this latest DLC and the game in general to 'top 10' status. Maybe even top 5. This and Fallout 3 are examples of the best of gaming and I hope that the developers continue to release such great titles in the future.

Quality ingredients make a good recipe

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What exactly makes a good game? What is the secret formula? Is there a secret formula? And why do so many developers get it wrong?

My latest browse of the steam store made me ponder exactly this. Here on sale (at a very reasonable £1.74 each) were the old Tomb Raider games (1-5). This immediately brought back a rush of gaming memories from when I was about 14 ish. Too young to even buy these games legally infact! Yes the pixelated blobs of red that came out the odd bat or two was deemed just too unsavory for the unspoiled minds of youth at that time and on more than one occasion I had to get someone else to buy the game for me. The kids of today playing their call of duty don't know how lucky they have it...

Anyway, back on topic. The subject of a good game. Tomb Raider 3 in particular epitomised this exact term. First and foremost, the game was good value for money. I spent a good 20 hours completing Lara's third adventure. Granted, I was a slow and cautious explorer and searched every nook and cranny of every level (sometimes being rewarded with a glorious surprise, often being rewarded with an insta-death) but I felt like a true explorer and I felt immersed.

Bearing in mind the graphical capabilities of the playstation 1 back in those days, developing a game with such immersion was no mean feat. The environments were often blocky, devoid of texture and blatantly artificial. The earlier tomb raiders were even worse. Water features were basically blocks of blue with sprite-like animation to suggest a flow of water. Even back then that was sorely unimpressive...

So what generated this immersion and how does this create a good game? In my mind it is pretty simple. Do not constrain the player to a set path. Give the player freedom. Punish the player for mistakes and make the traversal of the environment fun and alluring. Make the player want to spend 10 or 15 minutes working out how to get to the top of that wall - just in case there is something up there. Generate a sense of trepidation with each footstep and do not be afraid to let the player experiment.

Therein lies the problem with many of today's games. The graphics have moved on immeasurably and talented developers can create an atmosphere thicker than your morning ready brek if they are given the time and resource. But so many are afraid to let the player actually play. Uncharted is the first gaming series that leaps to mind but titles like Call of Duty, Resdient Evil 6, Fear 3, Alan Wake and the latest Tomb Raiders all leap to mind. They all seriously narrow the path in which the player can truly interact and only develop atmosphere through scripted events and tight, fixed gaming mechanics. Quite often these days you see something in a gaming environment you want to interact with or climb upon; only to find it a mere cardboard cutout designed to create the illusion of a environment more grand than it is. Invisible borders litter games, QTEs infect many titles like a plague and 'multiple paths' are often just slightly different takes on the same narrow corridor.

There are exceptions to this of course. The Halo games make a good fist of letting the player actually explore and make their own path. Borderlands 2 and the GTA games of course have free roam built into their DNA and fallout 3 similarly. However, games like the original Tomb Raiders are long since dead. With the recent announcement of the new Tomb Raider and rumours of tighter scripting than ever I can only fear more for the future of gaming.

I wish developers would take a risk and go back to the 'old school' way of doing things. Imagine Uncharted 3 letting you pick your way across a level instead of holding your hand like a mother would do to her pre school child when crossing the road. I have of course touched upon this game in prior blog posts and don't wish to linger too long on slating Drake's latest adventure. However, it is a symbol of everything wrong in gaming today and I hope future generations of gamers can escape this shell of laziness and buy games that take a risk and let them actually play.

Less interactive movies please. More interactive GAMES.

Regression and compromise

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Regression has been on my mind a lot lately because, quite simply, I am seeing a lot of it. It sounds like a funny topic to discuss and a bit cryptic so let me explain.

It feels like a lot of games are taking a few steps backwards in terms of graphics and presentation. The most recent example being the latest DmC game. I downloaded and quickly booted up the demo on my Playstation 3 yesterday expecting to see a glorious improvement on DmC 4 that came out a number of years back. Instead I was presented with something resembling a half baked launch title.

The graphics were an abomination. Not only has the game slipped back to 30fps (with the developer promise of extra graphical bells and whistles to compensate) but the game actually looked a fair bit worse than its predecessor - thus actually debunking the developer spin. At first I was convinced the negative impression was brought on by playing so many games on my fancy GTX 580 and therefore expecting too much from a game running on quite ancient hardware. So I slipped Ninja Gaiden Sigma into my PS3 just to check as I do remember thinking when I last played it that it looked fantastic. And you know what? It still looked fantastic! For a game that came out just after console launch and based on the orginal (that came out near a decade ago) it wiped the flloor with the latest DmC game. Plus I distinctly remember favourably comparing DmC4 against Sigma when I first played that so I know there has definitely been a regression here. The latest game just looks worse.

So what exactly makes it look worse?

Well first and foremost, the framerate drop is UGLY. Not only does the game feel far less fluid but the drop also exposes aliasing issues far more than a 60fps title. Add messy textures and fairly simplistic (and small) environments and I wonder exactly why the frame rate drop was needed in the first place!

However, the latest DmC game is not alone in this form of regression. Another great example is F1 2012 on the PS3. Once again I downloaded the demo and was really shocked with the graphics. F1 2010 was mostly on par with the Xbox 360 version that I played so much upon release. That game looked (and still looks) very impressive. F1 2012 on the other hand takes about 10 steps back from that by adding in an inconsistent framerate, fuzzy textures and some aliasing issues. So a game engine that should have been expertly optimised and well honed by this point has actually regressed.

One more example. Resident Evil 6. Once again I downloaded the demo (which is apparently very representative of the final product) and expected some great things after playing the truly beautiful Resident Evil 5. Instead I got the opposite. Not only had the gameplay seemingly worsened since the last game but the graphics were just a shell of its former incarnation with hurrendous screen tearing and a general unpolished feel to it.

So why is this happening?

I can only theorise here as I am no programming whizz but it seems like the push to have games become more involving, expansive and accurate has probably eaten in to the processor cycles - thus leaving less headroom for graphics. F1 2012 for example - I know the developers spent a lot of time developing a great sound engine and enhanced the suspension physics of the cars. This improvement cannot come without a price. I guess any graphical effects that were siphoned off to the processor previously have been cut back to allow for this improvement.

Effectively the developer is taking from one hand and putting into another. What this also shows is that the current generation of consoles have now reached their apogee of output and developers simply cannot squeeze anything more out of them.

Thank goodness then that the next generation of consoles are on their way. Orbis and Durango are mooted for late 2013 release (or at worst an early 2014 release) and we should see them unveiled as this year's E3. Excitingly, Eurogamer has just dropped confirmed specifications for Orbis and it is looking good. Not jaw dropping, but good enough for a proper generational leap. These unofficially confirmed specs are:

- 8 core AMD 'Jaguar' processor with each core running at 1.6Ghz

- A midly down-clocked AMD 7970M graphics card

- 4Gb ultra fast DDR5 RAM

There has been no confirmation on the hard drive or disc drive but it is almost certain to feature blu ray functionality with a faster drive than PS3 and a hard drive in excess of 320Gb.

At first glance, these specs look good; if a little strange. Why run 8 cores at 1.6Ghz? Why not help developers out with less code parallelism by running 4 cores at double the speed? I guess the answer lies in generating as little heat as possible - thus decreasing hardware failure rates. The mobile graphics chip also heavily hints at a system focusing primarily on power efficiency and reliability over out-and-out power.

This is ashame for the hardcore masses like me as I was hoping for a little more than this. More worrying is that Durango is said to be even less powerful. However, the Microsoft product is heavily tipped to come with double the RAM Orbis has (albiet less speedy with DDR3 said to be preferred).

Whatever happens in the next generation, it can only be good for the general graphical quality of games. Although we probably won't reach the nirvana of 1080p/60, we will probably get somewhere near it with some titles getting there and others (once again) sacrificing frame rate for bells and whistles. Its ashame that compromise is likely to once again feature in the next generation but I look forward to seeing developers make the most of what they are given and creating some amazing titles.

Six months later...

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My first blog post in half a year. Wahay!

Blame fatherhood and starting a new job...anyway plenty to catch up on. I finally completed Dirt 3 so I can take that off my tick list of things to do. It was a great game but everso monotomous and on my original play-through last year I tired towards the end and basically quit playing about 15-20 stages before the end of the game. There was simply no challenge and fun left in completing the same old tracks for the fifteenth time just to clear another event. Note to developers - artificially extending a game's lifespan by simply repeating the same stuff over and over makes a good game not.

However, a year's break (literally, a year) can do wonders for a game like Dirt 3 and I managed to complete it within a matter of hours and with near-maximum cheevos.

So...what did I go and do next after finally finishing probably the most drawn out game in history? Well, I bought it again of course! On PC this time, hoping that the DX11 shine would inject more life into a game that, at its core, was really good. Actually, buying it on PC showed what a good job Codemasters did on the Xbox and PS3 as the differences are not as stark as I imagined. The resolution bump up to 1080p and a few extra bells and whistles do help make it look extra delicious but it already looked quite splendid on the ageing current generation hardware. If only more companies would do what Codemasters do and actually produce a technically competent game!

On the subject of the current generation consoles, internet attention is turning more and more to next year and the potential arrival of the new machines. I'm still extremely worried about the wii-effect on the next machines. Nintendo has (unfortunately) shown that you can make a shed load of money releasing hardware with ageing components and gearing it to the mass market rather than just the hardcore niche. As I am firmly a member of the hardcore niche, this approach annoys me. It annoys me a lot. I have a really nasty feeling that both machines will be released with modestly upgraded components - probably enough to run all current generation titles at 1080p/30fps. I do think that 1080p will still be a minimum requirement for future games but I don't think there will be enough grunt on hand to power these at 60fps and certainly not in 3D/60fps. The unfortunate fact is that Sony and Microsoft don't need to release industrial-strength hardware to please the new modern crowd. They can run all their gizmos and online streaming services quite comfortably for probably the next 10 years on a simple evolutionary upgrade of the components in the current gen consoles.

So this brings me back to the PC. Thanks Goodness for the PC! I have now lost count of the number of times I have been able to power past technical limitations on console games by running the PC port on my GTX 580. Sometimes it really seems like Nvidia can solve all of life's miseries - especially when playing games like Saints Row The Third, most of the Assassins Creed games and Mass Effect (just to name a few). Particular mention should also go to Dark Souls. Although I haven't played this on console or PC, I have seen countless videos and reviews that shows how a decent PC can literally transform parts of the game from a sloppy mess to a 1080p dream.

So, my GTX 580 is still going strong. I'm now running it to the absolute bleeding edge - I recently further increased the clocks without fiddling with the voltage to eek out as much as I could and I found the limit pretty quickly. Pushing the core clock above 870Mhz often results in crashes but 870Mhz on the dot is generally quite stable. I still can't avoid the odd instance of slowdown in Battlefield 3 though and Crysis 2 is still all over the place on demanding scenes. But I am happy. I do look forward to the release of the GTX 780 though as that will undoubtedly mark upgrade time. I have set myself a rule that I will probably upgrade every 2 generations of card unless it is simply not needed. Some may argue an upgrade to the GTX 580 shouldn't be needed for a good few years yet but for someone like me who takes great pleasure in playing graphically demanding games, the upgrades are worthwhile.

So what am I playing at the moment? I still haven't got any further with Uncharted 3. Which is fast becoming my next Dirt 3 i.e. drop it with just a couple of hours to go until the end and then pick it up in a year's time. I will finish it but I have plenty of better things to do before that. I have been filling my time lately with Saints Row the Third and I have recently got back ionto BF3 multiplayer full time. I went off BF3 for a while as I was getting a little bored of being relentlessly destroyed by the opposition. It was becoming 'Spawn, Die, Spawn, Die' and that really wasn't enjoyable. Aside from one map. I still had great success in Op Metro - especially in the larger conquest games and I was using that to recover my K/D from the other maps and game modes. Well, I started BF3 up again the other day and although there was much familiarity (a lot of dying, namely) I also had a lot of success. However, I am still not upgrading to Premium. I may buy one map pack in time but not the whole lot. Its a lot of money for potentially not much use (depending on how bored I get). One day I will get good and I can recover all the enjoyment I used to have in BFBC Vietnam on the Xbox (oh those were the days of epic 20-0 K/D ratios - I literally had that game mastered) but one thing I have noticed, PC players are definitely a step up from console players and therefore I need to step up too.

Ok, time to get back to the baby. I might get an hour of BF in today if I'm lucky. No holding breath though :)

The future of gaming = uncertain

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Thank God for the Easter Weekend. Quite literally.

I actually have some time to blog. Unlike my normal 9-5 life (plus baby and wife), this extended weekend does afford me the opportunity to do some things I otherwise wouldn't have time for. Such as update my blog.

I have been thinking a lot about games recently. Probably more so than usual. There have been quite a few interesting headlines of late doing the rounds in the media. First (and most serious of all) is the recent plunge of the GAME group into financial administration. For those who don't know, GAME is the biggest dedicated games retailer in the UK and also has a major presence overseas in countries like Spain, France and even as far afield as Australia. So this was big news.

Although this all sounds rather grim, it actually had a reasonably happy ending. After a frought few days of negotiations, the UK division of GAME was bought for the princely sum of one UK pound by a company that specialises in buying other companies in financial difficulties and steering them back to profitability. This didn't come without some concessions though as hundreds of stores have faced closure and hundreds of jobs have been lost.

One might argue though this was an inevitability after some bizarre (and quite frankly idiotic) high level business decisions that have been made in the last decade or so by the pencil pushers at the helm of the company. One such example is the decision to set up more than one store in the same town. This wouldn't be an issue for a large town or city but I have lost count of the number of small towns I have visited with 2 or even 3 GAME or Gamestation (the sister brand) stores in close proximity to one another. In my old town of Bath I distinctly remember there being 3 of these stores within 3 minutes walk of eachother. Yes, 3 minutes. It doesn't take a post graduate in economics to work out this kind of setup is not sustainable as you essentially end up competing against yourself and confusing your customers.

Thankfully, this business practise has now been changed with the recent buy-out. Most of the store closures were in towns with other GAME or Gamestation stores close by. No one likes to see a boarded up store on the high street but otheriwse this is a very positive step to getting the business back on track. It will be interesting to see what Opcapita will do with this business. No doubt every armchair analyst will have their own idea how to rescue this business (and indeed I do have a few ideas of my own) but the first step should be returning triple A games onto the shelves and doing something about the vastly overpriced second-hand stock. In any case, I wish them good luck and look forward to spending more hard-earned dollar in their stores in the future.

The near-demise of the GAME retail group did get me thinking about the state of games retail in general and the future of gaming on the high street.

The recent 'leaks' from 'reliable sources' on the internet regarding the next generation of consoles does have me worried. Very worried. If these leaks are correct (and in the gaming industry, leaks often turn out to be accurate) then there will be no used game business done at all on the Nextbox and PS4. As of writing, more than one source has come out and described the draconian DRM meaures anticipated for these future machines. Worrisome phrases such as 'always on internet connection' and 'anti-used system' and 'unlock pass' are heavily trending when searching for information about Microsoft and Sony's next offerings. If this is true, it will be a massive blow for gaming retail and consumer confidence.

Many people have said it before and I will reiterate it again here. If these rumours are true, gaming will surely be the only mainstream industry where you cannot pass or sell on your unwanted assets second-hand. Can you imagine Ford or Mercedes installing systems in their cars where only the initial purchaser of the car can drive it? You can sell your car to someone else but they will have to pay 20% of the RRP ontop of the amount they paid for the car itself just to drive it. Oh and the car would need a permanent wireless connection to the internet otherwise the engine won't start.

Although I don't regularly purchase second-hand games, I know many people who do and many who rely on the lower asking price to be able to afford gaming at all. Taking this away from the consumer (and the many businesses that sell used games) will strike a major blow on consumer confidence and lead to a lot of negative publicity for both console manufacturers. Microsoft and Sony will both argue that developers should be compensated for their hard work when someone purchases one of their games and while that is true, the severe DRM measures mooted on the internet so far are not the answer. The good news is that there is still plenty of time for both companies to reverse their decision on this as we likely won't be seeing either machine until sometime in 2013. Lets hope they do the right thing and not jeopodise an already fragile retail industry.

Well, I think I have given more than 2 cents with my thoughts about the current gaming retail situation. But I am sure this won't be the last time it gets discussed on my blog.

Until next time there is still a lot of precious DRM-free (and unfortunately a few DRM-infested) games to admire and complete. Talking of which, I must give a small update on my uncharted 3 adventures that I discussed on an earlier blog post. And by a small update, I mean 'tiny'.

I simply haven't played Uncharted in about 3 months or so. This has more to do with the magnificent valve games I have been treating myself to lately than anything wrong with the uncharted game itself. However, if the latest Nathan Drake adventure had been as great as the many reviews made it out to be, I probably wouldn't have started the valve games in the first place. I will complete it - of that there is no doubt. But I can't hide my disappointment at the blatant linearity the developers have forced into it. Lets hope it opens out a bit more before I give my final verdict in a future blog post.

Until then, more Portal 2!

I heart valve

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Every time I go to play a source engine game I feel so privaliged. It is an incredible engine. I don't know of any other that scales so beautifully across console and PCs of all specifications. It is testament to the developers that someone playing Half Life 2 on a celeron M 1.5Ghz with crude integrated graphics can, for most intents and purposes, have the same gaming experience as someone playing on a core i7 with a dedicated GTX 580 powerhouse. How can I say this with such certainty? Because I have actually played the game on both of these machines.

Since completing Half Life 2 (and gushing over my play experience a couple of blog posts ago) I have gone on to complete both episodes. And what a ride!

The highlight was probably the end of Episode 2. Although Episode 1 had its stand out moments, nothing came close to the white-knuckle ride that is the climax of the second episode. I won't go into too much detail as I'm pretty sure most readers of this blog will have played it for themselves, but you have to admire the creative and programming nouse when a developer can sustain such a high degree of tension and excitement across a fairly long climax. More to the point, you have to admire how I was never once bored at any part of either episode. Considering by the end of Episode 2 I had racked up nigh-on 20-25 hours of gameplay on essentially the same game, this is some feat.

So, well done valve and well done me (for completing a series that quite honestly I should have completed years ago).

I am now plying my gaming trade on the equally superd Portal 2. I completed the first Portal a long time ago on the Xbox and the game took me completely by surprise. Before playing, I had prepared myself for a half-baked side show of an experience. Instead what I got was a candidate for game of the year and something that elevated the Orange Box to package of the decade (if not ever).

The Portal series really is a love letter by the developers to the gaming community and shows that to be a 'good' game developer, you need more than just good programming technique. You need creativity, vision, a flair for thinking outside the box and the confidence to go with something new every once in a while.

The idea of shooting portals is by itself a great idea. However the way this is implemented and crafted into a game is what elevates Portal to such a high level. Lets take for example the 'light floor' in Portal 2. Ok, so you can walk on light. In most games this would be a feature in itself and the developers wouldn't take it further. Portal not only gives you this floor, but also the ability to traverse huge arenas using the portals and the player's intelligent thinking. On numerous occasions I was sat at my PC station thinking 'how on earth do I get over there with just a portal gun and light walkway?' But with a bit of experimentation, I managed to get there. Often by cleverley placing myself and portals in just the right place to get the walkway to go to where I need it to.

The Portal series does require thought and therefore brain energy. But it does strike the right balance between thinking time and playing time. I don't think any arena so far has taken me more than 10 minutes to get through (bar one in Portal 1 that almost had me reaching for the internet FAQ - although just averted in the end with a last-minute brain wave). The mere fact it does require my brain though does mean I tend to play it in short bursts only. After a long day at work and taking care of my baby, I normally don't have the energy for some of the more complicated arenas. So its slow progress. But I will get there. Oh and without any internet FAQs!

So, what else is going on in my PC? Well, after debating for a short while whether to get into a large scale MMO, I decided against and instead plumped for the recently released X3 Albion Prelude. I wanted some sort of space-faring large-scale sandbox game that was deep and interesting. MMO-wise, that would be EVE online of course. Single player wise, it has to be the X3 series. I had dabbled a bit in X3 reunion and I knew there was great potential for a good gaming experience. However, it was fairly unoptimised and I just couldn't get it working quite right on my PC (well to my high standards). Albion Prelude sees the developer making a pretty big effort to get the engine up to modern standards and the game runs smoothly and looks fantastic. So that box is ticked.

I look forward to getting into Albion Prelude but equally I know that game is going to be a big time sink. We'll see when I finally get the chance to play it properly but I do feel its a game that really needs and deserves a lot of time, effort and concentration. In othe words, its quite likely once I start it that I won't be playing anything else for a while. As I still have some big names to complete, I therefore see myself starting Prelude not before Summer or Autumn this year.

Ok, thats my lot for now. Happy gaming everyone and happy Easter!

Game or Interactive Movie?

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As promised, I began my Uncharted 3 career a couple of days ago and have played through enough levels to now give some impressions.

This brings me to my the subject of my blog title. I still can't work out whether the game is playing me or I am playing the game. For all the graphical bling and whizz bangs, it has to be one of the most narrow corridor shooters I have ever played. So narrow I actually feel like I have to hold my breath and edge sideways whilst playing it.

Whilst I don't mind a bit of hand holding in games, I do feel this is taking it a little too far. It appears that, in the quest for graphical godliness, developer Naughty Dog has has had to sacrifice a lot of interactivity - you know, just to get a few more shadows into an already densley packed scene. Many reviews have touched upon this point and some have even adjusted their scores in light of it. As beautiful as Uncharted 3 is (and it REALLY is), its just a movie with 'go forward' and 'shoot' buttons.

Case in point (beware, minor spoilers ahead), the first level sees young Drake trying to escape Sully and his henchmen across rooftops and alleyways. The chase is exciting but very tightly scripted. Drake can go one way and one way only. See the ledge over there in easy reach? Nope you cant grab it as the game wants you to jump on the lamp post instead. Prefer to jump on the car below and make your escape onfoot? No, silly! You have to jump to the other ledge then drop down onto the wheelie bin! In essence, the game wasn't holding my hand, it was grabbing hold of it and pulling me with little choice but to follow.

This stifling of interactivity also caused another problem. If you jumped the wrong way or chose the 'wrong' route then you would simply fall to your death or one of the bad guys would come around the corner and grab you. Cue many, many retries until I finally made it to the end of the scene. Yep, 'scene.' This wasn't a level, it was a scene.

Before I come across all Nancy negative (if I haven't reached that point already), I do want to point out that as an interactive movie, Uncharted 3 has probably done it better than any other. Heck, it even bests most action movies I have seen lately.

Also, in fairness, it does get more interactive a couple of chapters later even though there is (again) only one route and enemies will only come at certain trigger points.

I will play uncharted through to the end as the story really is fantastic and the graphics are something to behold. It does capture the imagination and no other game gives me the sense of adventure and awe like a Nathan Drake epic does. However, I doubt I will be playing it again after the credits have rolled. Aside maybe from a bit of fancy demo-ing to Xbox fanboys and to remind myself where this generation of consoles should have been graphically had it not been for vastly stripped down components and a suffocating amount of RAM.

So where does that leave me with my PC then? This blog is meant to be about my PC after all.

Good question. Aside from fiddling about with graphics mods on Crysis, I haven't been up to much on it lately. The awe and wonder of Battlefield 3 has long since sizzled out (and just when I started to actually win things - maybe I should get back on the old horse and have another go). Having downloaded F1 2011 on the PC I do play that most days and it still gives me kicks just like it did on day 1. But my own policy of 'one game at a time' does mean I won't be playing any serious single player games on my PC for a while. I guess Uncharted 3 will be finished within a week or two. Then will come MW3 on the Xbox 360 and then Gears of War 3. I need to get these games finished as a priority as it is just criminal to have such quality sitting on the shelf collecting dust.

After that things will get interesting for the PC again. In the mean time, whoever is reading this, I hope you like your consoles as much as your PC as you will be getting quite a bit of it in the next few weeks!

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