PC gaming: the next gen now?

Why wait for the PS4 or the Xbox 720 when you can play games with next-gen graphics on your PC? Mark explains why 2011 is a great year for PC gaming...

Point your retro-tinted gaming goggles towards 2004, folks. We’re going to take a history lesson. Seven years ago, the gaming world was an interesting place. The PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube had all been out for a number of years, and developers were really at the top of their game in terms of understanding what could be achieved on those platforms.

Videogames themselves were becoming more and more popular and becoming a part of the public consciousness like never before, mainly due to series such as Grand Theft Auto, Halo and Splinter Cell being talked about in the wider media as well as becoming more and more realistic, reducing the suspension of disbelief required to immerse yourself in their world.

As popular as the current generation of consoles were at this time, though, players thoughts started to turn to new things. Two new handhelds were in the process of being launched, which distracted some into new gaming habits, but the real buzz was in the build up in hype and anticipation for the next generation.

Although it seemed a long way off at the time, Sony announced that the PlayStation 3 would make its first appearance at E3 the following year, and it was well known that Microsoft were also hard at work on their new console, and not content to settle for second place. In this strange hinterland of technologies, however, which promised a bright future that was at the same time real and strangely nebulous, the PC slowly started to pull away from its console rivals.

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If the events in that last paragraph seemed strangely familiar, I’m sure you don’t need me to point out to you that we are in an eerily similar place now. Although I’m fairly certain the next consoles from Sony and Microsoft are further away from us now than the 360 and PS3 were to the gamers of June 2004, we still live in a gaming environment where people have been playing the same games with roughly the same graphical capabilities since 2005 or 2006.

As much as people can look at games like God Of War 3, L.A. Noire or Gears Of War 3 and seem content with the prettiness of the current gen, we all know something younger and prettier is just out of reach. And once again, it’s PC gaming that’s strutting its younger, saucier and perkier thing.

Casting our mind back once more to the wild days of 2004 BF (that’s Before Facebook, obviously), while console gamers were eagerly anticipating the return of Master Chief and getting their heads around being verbally abused by American teenagers over Xbox Live, PC owners around the world were busily upgrading their hardware in anticipation of the best year of gaming on the (increasingly not) Beige box since 1998.

2004 was, interestingly enough, the last time a console generation was starting to look towards the future. During that year, Far Cry, Doom 3, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn Of War, World Of Warcraft and, of course, Half-Life 2 were all released exclusively for the PC, and every single one of them provided an experience the consoles couldn’t replicate. Add in multi-format titles that were head and shoulders above console versions, such as Thief: Deadly Shadows and Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic 2, and you have good reason for mid-decade computer owners to be very happy indeed.

Of course, back in 2004, there was one very big difference between the formats that doesn’t apply today: high definition. Back then, the idea of an HD display in your living room was pure science-fiction, or at least something reserved for those investment bankers doing such a sterling job for the UK economy. Titles like Splinter Cell looked like completely different games when compared between the most powerful console and even a modest PC just because of that difference, something compounded by LCD monitors being in common use a long time before the same technology was prevalent in living room TVs.

Now that big difference has been eliminated, only a fool would argue that the same graphical quality gulf exists between today’s consoles and a £1000 PC. It is still there, however, and the gap is getting wider, something shown by several of the forthcoming AAA titles.

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This year into next could again see a stellar gaming year for the PC. We are seeing far fewer PC or even console exclusives, as piracy continues to be a thorn in the side of publishers, and development costs rise exponentially, meaning multi-format releases make much more financial sense. What we are increasingly seeing, though, in a nod back to the past, are superior PC versions of the biggest games.

This shouldn’t seem surprising to graphics whores. After all, the PC based technology of the Xbox 360 was over a year old when it was first released. Even the Wii U, although not a generational leap forward, is at least thought to be more powerful than consoles currently on the market, and takes its guts from a fairly mid-range PC of 18 months ago. In fact, strangely, my gaming PC is almost identical in terms of its innards.

There’s another point worth mentioning. The cost of upgrading or keeping a computer capable of running the most modern games with close to maximum graphical settings is becoming a lot more manageable. My computer, as mentioned above, is close to 18 months old, and built from cost-effective parts for around £500-£600. It plays most games released in the last year or so very well indeed, and would really only need a slight processor boost (costing around £100) to play forthcoming titles in a manner that would make my PlayStation 3 develop a bunny boiling jealousy.

Partly due to a general slowing in graphical enhancements, perhaps also influenced by comparatively steady screen resolutions offered by current monitors, even DirectX 11 is something most PC gamers can enjoy without having to blow £350 on a new graphics card like the days of old. DX11 and graphics cards five years more advanced than the ones in today’s consoles means more impressive lighting, shading and anti-aliasing, with much better frame rates and an all-round smoother experience.

So let’s talk about the games, then. I imagine that, taking away the console exclusives like the third Uncharted and Gears Of War games (and the fact that both are on their tertiary instalment also goes to show the industry is slightly stagnating), most gamers are looking forward to games like Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Batman: Arkham City and Rage. All three of these titles should offer a fantastic gaming experience and hours of immersion this Christmas period. But which version will you be buying?

If you own a desktop computer purchased in the last couple of years for anything over about £500, then the chances are you will get the best experience with the PC versions, or it may even be worth investing a small amount on a modest upgrade. Let’s face it, the PlayStation Vita isn’t dropping until next March in the UK, so it isn’t like you have anything else to blow your hard earned cash on, is it?

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Factor in more control options (the 360 controller works like a dream in most games nowadays, but mouse and keyboard control in FPS games has never been beaten), and the fact that many more people have surround sound setups for their computer than their main TV, and it becomes even more tempting to opt for the £10 cheaper PC version of this winter’s main games.

And with the next console generation still years away, this decision may soon become even easier.