Review by Stejpan

"The ultimate gaming experience... at a premium price"

Way back when video games were alive and popular at the arcades and in the living room on the Nintendo Entertainment System, the humble Personal Computer was nothing more than a word processor that was barely able to churn through anything beyond a text based adventure or a board game, and given the price, many steered away from them for gaming purposes. As computer hardware and software advanced, it became more apparent that Personal computers could be capable of playing games at the same level, and even better than home consoles. This was most due to increasing processor speed, memory, video card technology and 3D rendering API's like DirectX and OpenGL.

Thanks to the simplification of computer use through the Windows and Linux Operating Systems, PC gaming has become more widespread than it was back in the 20th century. Although it's not as simple as plug in a cartridge and play the game as on the consoles, the time taken to set up a computer game is rewarding through advanced tweaking options. The personal computer has also become more 'personalized' since IBM no longer controls the standard - allowing any tech savvy gamer to build their gaming PC any way they like.

While I was a Nintendo kid growing up in the late 1980's, I became acquainted with computers back in the days of DOS. Back then, computers were rather unattractive in comparison to the cool Sega Megadrive deck - beige rectangular towers with a manner of disk drives, buttons and LED's. They were usually accompanied with a boring 15' monitor, as was the style at the time.

Fast forward to the early 2000's and the PC is a much more attractive gaming system - All sorts of cases can be found in a variety of colors and styles - big server cubes, standard midi towers, small factor forms and home theater boxes. A popular case modification is the use of a see through case side panel - for showing off your handiwork illuminated by various cathode ray lights (purely decorative). If you don't like any of the cases on the market, you can even got far to build your own out of anything that could hold it - the flexibility of pc hardware comes down the the ATX (and Micro-ATX) factor form motherboards).

The bottom line is that your computer can look as good as almost anything you can imagine, due to the flexible architecture.

When it comes to consoles, everything is virtually set in concrete, but the PC can be expanded and upgraded with ease.

Build your own - Rather than buying a shake 'n bake computer made by a big company, gamers have the freedom to build their own system. It's possible to save yourself some money by picking out your own parts and is well worth the hard work. You can either choose to build from scratch and buy everything to put together, or buy a barebones kit with the basic construction already completed for you.

Upgradability - if you feel that your gaming performance is starting to wane, it can easily be rectified by replacing a new video card, memory module or processor. This is provided that the format is still supported by new hardware, as in some cases you may need a complete overhaul and new motherboard to use the upgrade (AGP video cards are on the way out at the time of writing, and the only way to upgrade to a newer PCI-Express card is to get a PCI express compatible motherboard). Consoles are stuck as they are, and games will always retain the same performance, but with upgrading a PC you can achieve a smoother framerate, and play in a higher resolution.

Backwards compatibility - While it is a feature that has only been recently popular in games consoles, PC's have for the most part, been capable of playing software as early as from 1979. This is due to Microsoft's dominance of the Operating System market - initially starting with MS-DOS and continuing today with Microsoft Windows. While it is known that the latest OS 'Windows Vista' kills legacy support for 16-bit DOS programs and has a rewrite of the Direct3D API, there are ways to get your older games to play.

Plug and Play - With the advent of the USB standard, it has become a great deal easier to use the many accessories available for the PC - printers, mice, cameras, disk drives, and game controllers. Sure beats the old days where manual detection was the only (frustrating) option.

Easy updates and user modification - when games are found to have bugs and glitches, they can be easily solved by downloading a patch off the internet to update the game. Even easier is that some games will even update automatically for you, as seen in Valve's Steam client. Many games allow fans to make their own modifications to the gameplay, and even create total game conversions - as seen in the immensely popular online shooter Counter-Strike, which began life as a Half-Life modification.

Indeed, while the latest crop of consoles claim to have all the functionality of the PC, they are still a few steps behind the PC's capabilities.

Graphic quality has come a long way since the times of CGA video that could only hope to imitate the NES. The advent of dedicated graphics processing units accelerated the potential of PC's in the late 1990's and brought them up to scratch with console gaming technology.

These days the PC is now the forefront of gaming technology, as both major graphics manufacturers Nvidia and ATi continue to release more powerful graphics cards every six months. In contrast, consoles last years years and are stuck with the same graphics capabilities throughout their entire life cycle.

At the time of writing, PC games are reaching the realms of close to photo-realistic graphics, as demonstrated in games like Quake Wars, Crysis, and Half Life Episode One. Lighting and particle effects, real time shadows, high resolution textures, and silky smooth gameplay are only some of the features you can look forward to on the PC. The only downside is that in order to play the latest games at the best graphic quality, you'll need some high end hardware - and upgrading often can burn a hole in your pocket.

PC's have traditionally shipped with the keyboard and mouse, originally intended for work matters. Over time clever game designers have been able to use it as an effective setup for playing 3D action and adventure games. When playing a first person shooter, nothing comes close in terms of accuracy and speed. Analog controllers have become a popular alternative with console gamers, but their accuracy and speed is rigid in comparison.

Controllers do have their advantages when playing console style games, as the keyboard does not allows more than 3 keys to be pressed at the same time. You can use any USB controller including the wired controller for the Xbox 360 console.

Sound has evolved from the simple PC speaker, and primary FM synthesis cards. Today's Sound cards are of the high quality we expect from all other modern devices. Crystal clear surround sound can be achieved with a decent sound card and a positional speaker setup.

The most important aspect of a gaming system, the PC fares well. While in recent times there seems to be more of a focus on FPS and online RPG's, there are still many games released in other genres to keep gamers interested. Often popular console games are ported over, with the majority of them surpassing their originals with greater texture detail and faster framerates.

While most game will run smooth on the best system setup, there are always exceptions like bad console ports that are not optimized properly, and new games that just seem to push the latest hardware too (IE games designed to be played on future PC hardware that isn't even available yet)

For those who are bored with the current games, there are many great DOS classics from the shareware era. Even better is that it is possible to even play console games on your PC, provided you know how.

However, due to the complexity and wide variations of hardware, some games may need to be tweaked to play at their best, and sometimes this can be time consuming and troublesome.

While the PC may be the most expensive avenue for playing games, you can enjoy better play control and the best visuals available. The only downside to the PC gaming realm is the high price of the setup, and the periodical hardware updates needed to maintain high quality when buying the newest titles. A 9 out of ten for being the 'almost' perfect gaming medium.


Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 06/29/06

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