While most consumers have shied away from desktop PCs in recent years, opting instead for the convenience of laptops, hardcore gamers have continued to build bigger, better, and faster gaming rigs.
The PC offers a very different experience to any of the consoles on the market. Console gaming can be a social experience in the true sense of the word – hooking up with your friends online using your PC could be considered social, but with a console you can chill out on your sofa with a few mates playing FIFA in actual real life. It’s unlikely that you’re going to huddle around your PC with your friends, so it’s no surprise that proper online multiplayer gaming was born on the PC. I can still remember playing Quake III Arena in 1999 using a 56k modem and having a great time.
I’m not going to dwell on the subject of online gaming though, since there are pros and cons for both PC and console platforms, and there are lots of other factors to consider here.
Many PC enthusiasts will cite upgradability as the killer feature for the gaming PC, and understandably so. Being able to upgrade the components in your PC to make it more powerful is a compelling feature – slap in the latest graphics card to push more polygons, install an SSD to reduce load times, and such like. PC gamers don’t need to worry about last generation or next generation, they can keep their hardware at the bleeding edge as long as they have deep enough pockets to fund their addiction. And therein lies one of the reasons why upgradability isn’t my killer feature of choice.
On the one hand it’s great being able to buy the latest, high-end graphics card to ensure your PC is as powerful as possible, but it’s worth remembering that a top-of-the-range graphics card will probably cost you more than an Xbox One or PS4 with a decent game bundle thrown in.
Another issue with upgradability is that developers often expect PC users to upgrade their hardware in order to get the best from a new game. By contrast, because a console is a fixed platform, those same developers will squeeze every ounce of power they can from them to deliver the best experience.
With each new generation of console, there’s a debate about backward compatibility, but with the PC there’s simply no discussion to be had. Because the x86 platform has stayed pretty much the same for decades, your gaming PC will be able to play the very latest AAA titles, as well as your favorite games from years ago. Bored of playing Battlefield 4? Why not fire up Counter-Strike for some nostalgic anti-terrorist team play?
This integral backward compatibility means that the PC has a near limitless library of games, so you won’t be left scurrying around looking for decent launch titles to justify your purchase, as is often the case with a new generation of consoles. Even when you do buy new-release games for your PC, they’ll invariably be cheaper than their console equivalents. With no licence fees to pay to the platform manufacturer, game publishers are able to charge less for PC titles without threatening their profit margins too much.
And then there’s the distribution model for PC games. While there was uproar from Xbox fans when Microsoft suggested that games would be associated with a specific console, thereby negating the need for disc swapping, PC gamers have been embracing digital distribution for years.
Anyone who was present at the birth of Steam will remember that it was something of a problem child to start with. However, it grew into a very fine adult indeed, and not only does it offer seamless digital distribution for PC gamers, it acts as a great repository for content and also a gold mine of bargains when those sale weekends arrive.
Some would even argue that the gaming PC’s killer feature is that it can also be used as a workhorse machine for all your less exciting computing duties, but I’d disagree. My gaming rig is for gaming – it’s got one SSD for booting the OS and another for storing the games I’m currently playing, and that’s it. All my non-gaming computing duties are handled by Macs, which conversely have no gaming content on them at all.
A gaming PC can also open the door to 4K gaming – something that none of the new batch of consoles can do. In fact, both the Xbox One and PS4 have found themselves struggling to run smoothly at 1080p with some of the latest game engines, with their large textures and high polygon counts. Battlefield 4 is limited to 720p on the Xbox One and 900p on the PS4, so there’s no hope of playing games on your shiny new 4K TV at native resolution via a games console.
For the next few years, at least, the only way you’ll be enjoying 4K gaming will be on a PC, and as the price of 4K monitors and TVs drops, that will make the PC look like a very attractive platform to more serious gamers.
As compelling as many of the features listed above are, none of them are my, personal killer feature for the gaming PC. For me it’s the fact that you can play any type of game on a PC, without compromise, that grabs the killer feature honour.
Think about it. Motion-controlled casual gaming aside, there’s really no genre of gaming that can’t be played as well, if not better on a PC. Microsoft was smart enough to make the wired Xbox 360 controller compatible with Windows, so you can essentially use a familiar console controller for PC games if you so choose. You can even get wireless receivers to use your wireless Xbox 360 controllers with your PC.
So if you like using a gamepad instead of a keyboard and mouse, you’ve got that option, but there are still many types of games where a keyboard and mouse combo is far and away the best control solution.
Ever since GoldenEye 007 proved that FPS games could work using a gamepad on a console, they’ve just got better and better. For the first time ever, I chose to play a Battlefield game on a console when I picked up a PS4 on launch day last year. And I don’t even want to think about the amount of hours I’ve put into Destiny since September.
But none of that changes the fact that W.A.S.D. and a good mouse is still a far, far superior control setup for FPS games – it allows for much faster target acquisition, easier weapon select, infinite levels of fine tuning and limitless customisation thanks to the myriad hardware options out there.
I haven’t played a proper, competitive FPS for a very long time, but if I did, I’d only want to do so on a PC.
Then you’ve got simulation games, whether they be flight simulators or racing sims – nothing that the consoles have to offer can compete with the realism offered by the PC in terms of both graphics and physics. Forza 5 and Driveclub are both fine driving games, but most serious sim-racers would probably still opt for something like rFactor 2 on the PC.
The supporting hardware for simulator games is far more prevalent on the PC too, whether you’re talking about racing wheels and pedal sets, or flight yolks and rudder pedals. Even cross platform peripherals will usually offer more functionality and flexibility on the PC than on consoles they’re compatible with.
And then there are games that simply don’t work on a console environment, but excel on the PC. If you’ve only ever played console games, you’ve probably never experienced the joys of real time strategy, and that’s a genuine shame. If you’ve never lost entire weekends to classics like StarCraft, Civilization, Total War, and Company of Heroes, you’ve got a major hole in your gaming repertoire.
Attempts have been made to create console friendly RTS games, but there’s no substitute for the fast and accurate control that a mouse gives you, along with innumerable keyboard shortcuts that get those orders sent out to your units with minimum delay.
Yes, it’s true that certain titles will never appear on the PC as console manufacturers try to protect their IP, but there are complete genres of PC games that will never appear on consoles.
I won’t deny that getting into PC gaming requires a more significant capital investment than going down the console route, but over time that price differential will level itself out. The games are cheaper when new, and there’s an infinite back catalogue of older titles to dip into. But even if you focus purely on the unique gaming experience that a PC can offer, it’s hard to imagine why anyone wouldn’t want one.