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PC Report Card 2016

Significant games stumbled, but acclaimed franchises returned and new hardware empowered users

PC gamers had plenty to be happy about in 2016. New high-performance hardware gave players even more power for their dollar. Those who could afford it finally had the chance to dive into virtual reality in a gaming capacity.

Some of the most beloved franchises that took us to the depths of hell, through alternate histories with cultural icons, and around the world to fend off aliens, made exceptional returns in 2016. The nuanced strategy games and frantic first-person shooters of the year are home to the PC, where the keyboard and mouse give players full control of their games.

2016 didn’t come without faults, though. Performance issues hampered the enjoyment of major releases. Developers have mostly been on top of solving these problems, but gamers who purchase at launch were frequently put in the precarious position of waiting for an optimized product.

Regardless, PC gaming had an incredible year that moved the platform forward.

PC Games at Their Finest

While Overwatch succeeded on consoles, it’s safe to say its true home is on the PC, becoming the premiere competitive team-based shooter alongside the still-strong Counter-Strike Global Offensive. Overwatch brought out an intricate class-based system that was interwoven with each character’s design. Blizzard continues to keep the game fresh after release with constant updates and new features such as two new characters, a new map, and seasonal content.

World of Warcraft (WoW), perhaps the most influential MMORPG of all time, received an expansion pack that many long-time fans considered to be a welcome addition to the game’s legacy. It sold over three million copies on its first day resulting in WoW’s highest concurrent player count since 2010. Star Wars: The Old Republic had an expansion--Knight of the Eternal Throne. The Elder Scrolls Online made significant changes to the game with the One Tamriel update. And Square Enix announced another expansion for Final Fantasy XIV, subtitled Stormblood.

Civilization VI iterated on the tried-and-true formula Sid Meier and Firaxis established years ago. It refined gameplay elements such as diplomacy and research trees, and the tweaked mechanics gave players new strategic opportunities.

Speaking of Firaxis, XCOM’s lead designer Jake Solomon and company built on the franchise’s recent resurgence, with XCOM 2 challenging players, making them face adversity to facilitate growth in strategic gameplay. Although it eventually released on consoles, managing units in battle and navigating the dense interface makes XCOM 2 a PC game at its core.

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After a development roller coaster and suspect multiplayer beta, it was hard to predict Doom as a Game of the Year contender. But id Software brought PC gamers back to what made Doom iconic; savage, fast-paced first-person shooting and fantastically grim set pieces.

Beautifully crafted independent games made strong statements. Owlboy showed how retro visuals can go beyond novelty. Quadrilateral Cowboy made players feel like a true hacker by teaching you how to code to manipulate your environment. Stardew Valley brought back the farm simulation role-playing experience from Harvest Moon. The Witness tested our puzzle solving skills like no other game.

The real-time strategy genre had outstanding games this year, too. Offworld Trading Company made players rethink strategy by making fast-paced economic decisions the crux of the game, while Total War: Warhammer merged two established franchises to create a cohesive and deep strategy game.

Let’s Play ‘Good Port, Bad Port’

Due to recent poorly optimized releases, PC gamers are becoming increasingly cautious about the performance and stability of multiplatform games. Thankfully, we didn’t have a colossal mess on the scale of the PC version of 2015’s Batman: Arkham Knight, but there were instances of lackluster performance in high-profile games at launch.

Deus Ex Mankind Divided and Dishonored 2 were both welcome entries in the lineage of the classic Looking Glass first-person action games, but both suffered from performance issues out of the gate. Dishonored 2 had several inexplicable frame drops, which is being addressed by a series of patches. Mafia 3 released with a locked framerate of 30 frames-per-second, which was quickly resolved. Regardless of what you think of No Man’s Sky, its stability at launch was far below expectations.

However, there’s been a recent trend of developers executing post-release support well, evident with games like Rainbow Six Siege, and The Division. It’s a reason to be optimistic about long-term support in modern games.

Meaningful Strides in PC Hardware

The level of performance PC gamers get out of hardware is better than ever. It’s the most cost-effective time to be a PC gamer. Nvidia launched its GTX 10 series of video cards which gave users the best performance to date. The GTX 1070 is hailed as the best mid-high range card, capable of putting out decent framerates in 4K resolution on several modern games. It floated around the $400 price range, but outperformed the previous generation’s strongest card, the Titan X which retailed around $1000 when it released in 2015.

The GTX 1060 and 1050 Ti are impressive mid-range cards that’ll provide high visual quality and solid framerates at 1080p on the latest releases. AMD stayed relevant in the mid-range market with the Radeon RX 480 and RX 470, giving Nvidia a run for its money and performing better in certain games.

Load times still hamper gaming experiences unless you’re reading and writing data from a solid-state drive. The prices of SSDs continued to trend downward in 2016, which made these fast storage drives more accessible. M.2 NVMe SSDs made a splash this year with Samsung’s 960 Evo and Pro. These drives are capable of read and write speeds three to five times faster than traditional SSDs.

Sony released the PS4 Pro and Microsoft announced the Xbox Scorpio, both touted as 4K gaming machines. Although it’s early in its lifecycle, the PS4 Pro is struggling to offer significant visual upgrades. PC hardware released this year proved capable of stable 4K performance in modern games. Of course, the price difference between a high-performance PC and a PS4 Pro is drastic, but if gamers want a 4K experience, it can be had with the right specifications. PC hardware will be able to keep up as 4K displays inch closer to becoming the standard, consumers just have to be willing to pay the higher price, though.

Virtual Reality Lives on PC

The HTC Vive and Oculus Rift were released to the public this year. It’s the first time consumers were granted access to VR as a gaming platform in an era where we have the computing power back it up. While PlayStation VR lowers the barrier of entry for VR, the Vive and Rift offered a more refined experience.

The HTC Vive gave you hands in virtual space with its two controllers. Its lighthouse tracking system is able to recognize motion on a precise level and have the potential for room-scale experiences. The Oculus Rift lagged behind by only offering gamepad controls up until December with Oculus Touch. The Touch controls helped propel the Rift to become a more complete VR platform.

The games library is still in its early stages, but there are examples of VR’s potential. There’s an intuitive nature to picking up objects, looking around your environment, and firing weapons in shooters. There are lively social interactions as seen in games like Rec Room, Dead & Buried, and Toy Box. Tools like Kingspray, Oculus Medium, and Tilt Brush show precision and creativity in a way that’s only possible with VR. Thumper exemplifies immersion and transcends its traditional experience.

However, the hefty price tag is the most significant factor to consider with VR. The Vive launched at $800, the Rift at $600 (add another $200 for Touch controllers). That doesn’t account for the powerful PC needed to run VR games. An Intel i5 3-series CPU and a GTX 970 or RX 480 video card will suffice, but when compounded with VR’s price tag, it gets expensive.

Whether or not you’re a believer in VR’s future, there’s no denying that 2016 was a significant step for the concept to fully realize its potential.

PC's progress to the living room is at an impasse

PC gamers themselves didn’t really lose anything with Steam Machines falling flat. Instead, what we learned was that SteamOS is still a work-in-progress and the living-room-PC market remains limited.

Microsoft will continue to dominate PC operating systems for the foreseeable future and a unification between its console and PC platform is a streamlined vision for gaming. With the implementation of cross-buy between Xbox and Windows 10 games and the announcement of Project Scorpio, it seems that Microsoft is aiming to take over the role Steam Machines were attempting to fill.

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The Windows 10 store is not the most intuitive system, and it lacks a formidable library for now. It doesn’t have a chance of competing with Steam, but it's good to know that major Microsoft release will be coming to PC. It’s also not farfetched to think that Microsoft is relegating the Xbox to be a closed-system version of a gaming PC.

Sony’s PlayStation Now service made a surprising appearance on the PC this year. It’s a subscription-based service that allows users to stream PS3 games to their device. While it’s exciting to see this progress made, PS Now only offers a limited library of games from a past generation, some of which already have superior PC versions. Still, it sets a precedent and PC gamers have the option to play games like the Uncharted series and The Last of Us.

Other Brief Highlights:

  • Mods have been and always will be a significant part of PC gaming. XCOM 2 received some wacky mods, and 2015’s Fallout 4 continued to increase its library of mods. Fallout: The Frontier, a full conversion mod of New Vegas, released a new trailer this year and showed promise of a unique Fallout experience. And with Skyrim: Special Edition’s release, the modding craze behind Skyrim has been reinvigorated.

  • Established hardware manufacturer EVGA had a bit of a meltdown. Its GTX 1080, 1070, and 1060 video cards were susceptible to overheating, causing fire within users’ systems. It's been remedied by an update to the VBIOS, preventing the hardware from operating at extremely high temperatures.

  • Vulkan released in 2016, a low-profile graphics API in the spirit of OpenGL. It touts low CPU usage to increase performance. A few games already have Vulkan support, such as Doom, DOTA 2, and The Talos Principle.

  • The GNU/Linux operating system is gaining more support than ever from high-profile games: Street Fighter V, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Total War: Warhammer, and XCOM 2 to name a few.

Verdict

The highs outweighed the lows in 2016. Franchises with strong PC heritage made exceptional appearances, independent developers continued to make meaningful games, the strategy genre was rejuvenated, and VR is showing promise. If we’re evaluating the PC as a gaming platform, it’s easy to praise it this year.

We should also expect more in terms of stability and performance in our games. These issues carry over year to year, and unless developers push for better optimization, the problems will persist.

All things considered, it was a great year for PC gaming and the future is bright for the platform.

The GoodThe Bad
+ PC hardware is becoming more cost-effective- Cost of entry for VR is still very high
+ Several beloved PC franchises came out strong- Performance problems in high-profile games
+ VR applications are showcasing its potential- Attempts to bring PCs to more living rooms fell flat