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9 December 2013

What next for the all-powerful PC?

2013 has been a mixed year for the PC, but it is still on the creative cutting edge of gaming.

By Phil Hartup

In some regards 2013 could hardly have been a better year for PC gaming. PC gaming was already a vast thing, games like World of Warcraft established years ago that single games could become global phenomena and even though WoW has waned somewhat PC gaming hasn’t, and this year it has been growing fast. For example DotA 2 was released, and while it hasn’t unseated LoL as the biggest thing ever it’s pretty damn big. League of Legends still boasts a player base of many millions, even if you take their figures with a pinch of salt, which you should. It is worth noting too that these are games that a lot of PC owners wouldn’t touch with a bargepole, they are just one facet of a colossal industry.

Steam, which is fast becoming a ubiquitous bit of software for gaming PCs, recently topped seven million concurrent users with a global active user base of sixty five million. The indie sector is thriving, with indie games getting levels of exposure and publicity that would never have been dreamed of just a few years ago. New business models and financing schemes are allowing a greater range of games to appear, get development capital, go on sale and make money. PC gaming has become a gigantic, diverse thing. Despite hiccups like being apparently snubbed by Rockstar for GTA V, at least for the time being, the PC seems to be doing very well indeed.

But there have been flies in the ointment for PC gaming this year, and they might suggest worrying times ahead for fans of the PC in its role as ultra-powerful gaming behemoth. Hardware sales are down and as the current generation of consoles rolls off the production line boasting hardware more comparable with a budget PC than setting any new standards, the actual reasons to own a powerful PC are fewer.

One reason that seems to be vanishing is the games themselves. Not only can few games actually push a heavy duty gaming PC these days, very few are willing to even try. This is not necessarily a bad thing and developers want to have as broad an install base for their games as possible. The indie sector for example includes many games that work across many platforms, if you want your game to run on a smartphone or a tablet you can’t make it very demanding.

Seeing new games appear is always a good thing and the creativity of the indie sector has been one of the standout positives of the last few years.

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The problems though this year however have been with the games where the PC is really supposed to show off. Such games this year have been characterised by all sorts of bugs, weak designchoices and other issues. When these problems occur in the annual releases of big studios or the hit and miss efforts of indie developers they can be largely forgiven and forgotten, but a lot of high end PC games have carved themselves a niche and spend years in development. When such a title goes wrong you know it will be a long time before they have a chance to put those mistakes right, if that is even the direction development takes.

Rome 2: Total War for example stank at launch, not a faint whiff either, proper hippo enclosure in a heat wave stink. Even now, benefitting from many updates and a good few modifications it is decent, but not really a great game. It is not yet known what the next Total War game will be, but it’s likely a lot of fans will be waiting for it to appear on sale before picking it up, if they do at all. At the risk of channelling Boromir, one does not simply make a Total War game. If Creative Assembly goes under, deservedly or not, that type of game will vanish. Here lies the problem, if it is barely worth playing now, does it matter if it vanishes? Well, maybe not. Maybe nostalgia for a once great series is misplaced. But casting aside that nostalgia means one less reason to need that shiny graphics card and supercomputer CPU.

Also Arma 3, which looked incredibly promising in its alpha stages, has big problems. The game was released with an almost insultingly small amount of actual content. Content isn’t a nice word, content implies product, implies stuff for the sake of stuff, the sort of mindless fetch quests that make up the middle 80% of your average first person shooter. Arma doesn’t need content in the usual sense, I’ve played hundreds of hours of the Arma series without really having to touch any of the missions or campaigns the developers make, a lot of players do thanks to its mission editor. But in this case content means the building blocks. With Arma 3 the sandbox is there and free of cat urine, but there’s no bucket and spade.

It is fair to argue that the Arma series is characterised by having a slow burn, between modifications and DLC packs the Arma you play a few years down the line should be much improved on the game that launches. But Arma 3 is really pushing its luck, lacking finished vehicles, basic weapons, female character models (regardless of any opinions on the issue of women in the game in a combat role, their lack of inclusion as civilians is unprecedented for the series and gives the game a weird sausage-fest vibe) and proper fixed wing aircraft.

Plans are afoot to release the vehicles and equipment from earlier games into the new one, and some mods exist to do that already, but it’s hard not to think that had the developers gone this route in the first place instead of embracing a half-arsed science fiction setting, much pain could have been avoided. Taking an earnest military simulator and its equally nerdy fan base and trying to shoehorn them both into something that looks frighteningly like Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is a very strange move.

Lastly another game that promised much yet delivered little was the critically panned X-Rebirth, which looked to be an enticing prospect, allowing the player to fly around a galaxy in a space ship, wheeling, dealing, and indulging in the odd spot of shooting pirates with lasers. Unfortunately the final game feels almost painful to play, particularly in contrast to the vastly superior games that had come before it from the same developer. It feels almost as though they are consciously playing to their weaknesses, for instance why would a company who have never yet managed to make a convincing human-looking character plonk one down in the seat next to the player for the entire game? Why would you follow a game with many flyable ships of all different types with a game where you fly one ship? We may never know. Given Egosoft’s pedigree as a developer of high quality spaceship games X-Rebirth was a surprise on a par with seeing a racehorse give birth to a squid with the face of a pug. And nobody wants to play with that. It’s slimy and it has sad eyes.

Although 2013 has been a little disappointing in this regard, with so many of the prettiest PC games turning out to be duffers, there will still be a few reasons to keep a fast PC to handdown the line. The Oculus Rift, should it take off, might well bring back a demand for the wow factor of high-end graphics, even if it doesn’t have specifically high demands in and of itself. Also we don’t know yet what the new consoles will be capable of when the hardware is properly utilised, maybe it will be harder than many of us expect to keep pace with the new consoles especially if developers finally work out how to make proper use of multiple CPU cores.

At least while we wait there’s always Euro Truck Simulator 2*.

*Not sarcasm. It’s actually fun.