Gaming is a far better pastime than watching movies, and can be just as cinematic and riveting. But you’ve got to start somewhere, right? Here you go...
oes the word gaming remind you of happy hours spent in front of a Nintendo Game Boy, or does it have you fondly reminiscing with memories of late night Quake 3 frag sessions? Does a pleasant game of Spider Solitaire relax you? Maybe you like to remember yourself poised with a twitchy finger curled around the trigger of your carbine with an enemy’s skull in your sights? Gaming brings different levels of satisfaction in different ways to different people and though we Indians are well and truly on the gaming bandwagon, our journey into the realm of interactive entertainment has just begun.
For me, gaming began with classics like Art of Fighting, Contra, Mario, and Spartan. The move to PC gaming came around with classics like Doom, Quake and Diablo on an old Pentium 2 machine, and it’s been a move from whence there’s no return.
But that was in the late nineties—today’s gaming market has evolved tenfold. For one, there are more options available. Two—upgrading your PC isn’t the headache it used to be. Three—a lot of consoles vie for your attention—the Xbox, Xbox 360 (X360), PlayStation 2 (PS2), PlayStation 3 (PS3) and Wii, and even handheld consoles like the PlayStation Portable (PSP). In fact, getting into gaming can be daunting for the sheer variety of choice. Not all of us can afford a super- PC, an X360 and a PS3 with a 50-inch plasma screen—resources are limited, and a decision has to be made. If anything, the fact that your cash is going to be spent on leisure rather than work, education or productivity will ensure that your budget is even skimpier. And for good reason too—while spending on a gaming setup, it’s all too easy to lose your sense of financial decorum.
Unlike music—where one piece of equipment plays all kinds of music equally well—there’s another variable. The platform you choose—PC or console—is going to affect your gaming experience with different genres of games. What plays well on a PC may not play well on a console, and vice versa. Again, remember that you will probably migrate to different genres as you get more and more involved with gaming. You may, for example, start with racing games and get hooked on FPSes after playing a couple of them, or RPGs may start to interest you. In my opinion, both PC and console make equally good gaming boxes, and which one suits you largely depends on the genre of game.
Speaking of which...
The Genres Explained
This is the most popular genre. Such games have, (in general), much easier learning curves, and offer instant gratification which is why many newbies dabbling in games for the first time start here. Shooters can be of a number of types depending on the type of action and tactics employed, or even the camera angle.
All RPGs will have some sort of points system, where you get to level up,
thereby increasing your character's skills-for example, a warrior may be
able to perform new moves, or a wizard may be able to cast new spells
FPS (First Person Shooter):
The most popular type. Characterised by combat from the perspective of the player—as if you are holding the weapon. The best graphics and the most action are generally found in this genre. Some shining examples are Crysis, Far Cry, Prey, Doom 3 and F.E.A.R.
TPS (Third Person Shooter):
These shooters usually take a “behind the shoulder” view to deliver a slightly more cinematic (if less realistic) view to the action. They usually have slightly deeper storylines and a little less violence than FPSes, but this is no hard rule. Grand Theft Auto 3 (GTA 3), GTA San Andreas, Manhunt and the Max Payne games are examples.
These are based on either FPS or TPS camera angles, but offer the additional element of stealth. A tactical shooter could also be a squad-based action game where you work with a team to, say, take down a group of terrorists. The best examples of stealth-based tactical shooters are the Splinter Cell series, and the Metal Gear Solid series. For squad based tactical shooters, G.R.A.W, the Delta Force series and the Rainbow Six series are the best examples.
Shoot ‘em Ups:
Games like the Serious Sam series simply have one objective—fun. Just shoot anything that moves.
RTS (Real Time Strategy)
Although the RTS genre is as diverse as Shooters, most RTS games have one thing in common—use resources to build up an economy and gradually build structures of different sorts which give you certain benefits like additional units or technology research options. Then build up an army, and attack. RTS games can be very slow or lighting fast. Some strategy games are turn-based as opposed to real-time, where you make a move and wait for the enemy to move (somewhat like chess). For example, Warhammer, the Civilization series and the Warlords series are legendary turn-based games. RTS games tend to be a little faster paced, since you actually build, expand and defend in real time. Examples are Warcraft 3, Company Of Heroes, Age of Empires and Warhammer 40,000.
RPG (Role Playing Games)
Traditionally, an RPG will have you playing the game as an adventurer of sorts. There are usually classes of characters like wizards, barbarians, bards, rogues and so on, but the classes and the skills that each class has depends on the story’s setting. Typically, an RPG tries to create a believable world out of fantasy settings, and you are an individual in that world, living, travelling, eating, sleeping, adventuring, fighting and so on. All RPGs will have some sort of points system, where you get to level up, thereby increasing your character’s skills—for example, a warrior may be able to perform new moves, or a wizard may be able to cast new spells. Neverwinter Nights, The Witcher, Knights of the Old Republic, Mass Effect, and Hellgate London are some of the better known RPGs around.
This is another wide genre, as it could involve a multitude of vehicles from cars, aeroplanes and motorbikes, to fighter aircraft, battle tanks, and even spaceships. Such games can be very serious, simply fun, or somewhere in between. The most common of the vehicle simulators are car racing games—cars are something everyone can relate to. Games like Microsoft’s Flight Simulator accurately depict flying an aeroplane, while the Colin McRae series have you racing in rallies with realism. Games like the NFS (Need For Speed) series are fun, with hardly any deep simulative nature.
These games usually have you as a combatant in a series of fights against a single opponent or a multitude of other combatants. You will have an array of special moves and powers to aid you, like being able to shoot fireballs from your hands. Games like Mortal Combat, Art of Fighting, and even classics like Contra and Spartan fall into this genre.
There are a whole lot of other genres like sports games (football, basketball, tennis, etc.), music based games (want to be a rock star? Play Guitar Hero), puzzle solving games, and other fun games like pinball which don’t really fit into any specific genre.
So now, let’s take a look at your two major options:
PC Gaming: A Window Seat To The Action
How can I not sound biased when I say that I’ve always been a fan of the computer? Its unmatched flexibility is the key—learn on it, send e-mails, work, listen to music, surf the Internet, watch movies—the PC has something for everyone. It’s shockingly adept at each of these tasks, and far from the jack of all trades that it may sometimes appear to be. While consoles cannot even dream of approaching the functionality that the PC offers, they do have one very noteworthy advantage where gaming is concerned—they were designed specifically from the ground up for that purpose. The X360 and PS3 also have limited Web surfing and movie-watching potential, which simply means that their manufacturers are trying to bring them closer to their competitor…
Games People Play
Computers reign supreme for games of the FPS, RTS and RPG genres. They also match consoles for TPSs and many adventure games, sometimes even overshadowing them. With one or two shining exceptions, the moment you say First Person Shooter, I’ll happily point you towards a PC. The best visual treatment, graphics, effects and realism are often found in this genre. Not to mention the most realistic, visceral action. PC gaming’s worst proponent will agree when that consoles suck at FPSes. They require accuracy and precision while wielding weapons that only a good mouse can provide.
RTSes and RPGs also play best on a PC—this is mainly due to the fact that both these genres have a lot of environment interaction, or even group control of characters or units. Most RTS and RPG games also have a lot of sticky key shortcuts (such as [Ctrl] [Alt] [E]) or some other combination, which you simply cannot execute on a console. Most of these games have been designed for the PC, and console versions remain poor ports. Some of the best RTS games like Company Of Heroes, Warcraft 3, Age Of Empires and Warhammer 40000 all have strong roots in the PC, on which they play the best.
Of course, the PCs forte has been customisability. A variety of keyboards and mice are available specifically for gaming—Logitech’s G15, Microsoft’s Reclusa and Razer’s Tarantula are gaming keyboards designed to make the overall gaming experience more fun. Such keyboards have a number of additional features like extra configurable buttons, macro keys (keys that can store multiple keystrokes and useful for executing combos in arcade fighting games) and backlit keys (for gaming sans illumination). Mice like Razer’s Lachesis, Copperhead and Logitech’s G5 and G9 will leaving opponents quaking (no pun!) in their boots.
Whether you’re playing your first FPS or starting up a Quake 3 frag-fest with your friends on a LAN, gaming mice are worth a cursory look (at least). My advice is to skip the keyboard unless you really plan to take your gaming seriously—a regular multimedia keyboard will suffice. Note that the mouse is more important for nearly all genres of games than the keyboard, so choose one carefully.
The graphics card is the primary component for gaming,
and upgrading it will yield the biggest performance gain
Visually speaking, the PC also delivers the best visual experience. Of course you need a modestly powerful rig, but with the right components, the graphics on a PC will blow consoles out of the water—though the X360 and PS3 have bridged the gap, there’s still a decent way to go before consoles get to where current-generation PC graphics are.
When talking PC, the ugly issue of the “hardware upgrade curve” usually surfaces. Computers aren’t exactly easy on your wallet once you try to get them game-ready, and the process of converting a PC into a gaming rig can be expensive! Once you start building a PC for gaming, there’s virtually no end to the expenses you can face, and you will also need to save up for at least one upgrade per year!
For the biggest gains keep this order in mind:
1. Graphics Card: This is the primary component for gaming, and upgrading it will yield the biggest performance hike
2. Processor: Your CPU feeds your GPU with data. The faster the CPU, the faster the GPU will work
3. Memory: if have less than 1 GB, then upgrading your memory to 2 GB can give you a boost of around 40 per cent!
If you are not very discerning about how good your game looks, then a mid-range, Rs 8,000 graphics card will get you through easily. Discerning gamers who want to play the latest games in all their visual splendour will need to keep a budget of around Rs 15,000 for a good card. I recommend NVIDIA’s 8800GT-based card (Rs 13,000) to the discerning gamer, and NVIDIA’s 8600GT core (Rs 7,500) to the more budget-minded. For the extreme gamer who wants to run games at very high resolutions with all the visual settings kept at maximum, a single graphics card may not suffice. But for the simple reason that PCs get outdated so fast, I don’t recommend investing in an SLI or Crossfire (multiple graphics cards) setup.
The second component you need to inspect is your CPU. The faster the clock speeds, the more frames per second you will get in any game. Intel’s latest 45 nm Penryn processors (codenamed Wolfdale) are just out. The Wolfdale E8400 which runs at a speedy 3.0 GHz, is priced at just under the Rs 10,000 mark, and is an excellent solution for gamers. In fact, this processor is a killer deal for any kind of fast PC, and I heartily recommend it. If you must have something cheaper, Intel’s older 65 nm Core 2 Duo based E6750 (2.66 GHz) is available for Rs 7,900. Quad-core processors are also available, but the two additional cores don’t do much for gaming, since most games are heavily single-threaded. The cheapest quad-core is Intel’s Core 2 Quad 6600, a 65 nm, 2.4 GHz chip (Rs 11,000). As for memory, opt for a minimum of 2 GB of DDR2 system memory—its dirt cheap these days at Rs 900 per GB—and you’re set to go as far as your PC’s performance goes. Look for good brands like Transcend, Kingston, and Corsair.
But wait…the devil is in the details, right? A good monitor is essential to get the best out of premium components, and these days the name of the game is widescreen LCD. A 22-inch widescreen LCD will sport a native resolution of 1680 x 1050 pixels, and should cost around Rs 15,000. 24-inch TN panels are in the realm of 19,000 bucks and I feel this is superb value for money. Brands to look out for are Dell, ViewSonic, AOC, Acer, BenQ, Samsung and LG.
Keep in mind that these recommendations are generic, and certain genres of games will run easily on even lower-end hardware. Games like racing games and adventure games (in general) are not as harsh on system requirements as other genres, although there is no hard and fast rule.
Consoles: Single Minded Purpose
Consoles are broadly of different types and the term console is used to signify that the gaming station is a device other than a PC. Even the Sony PSP—a tiny handheld device—is a console in the strict sense of the word. Over the past two years, we’ve seen a lot of developments in the world of consoles. One serious advantage over the PC remains that consoles are designed keeping games and game developers in mind, and it takes a console a couple of years to mature and to get proper development support. After all, what good is a shiny new, powerful console with no games to play?
The PS2, for example, was released in the year 2000, and still enjoys a much larger fan following than the PS3. In fact, it was a title that was released much later that actually sold the PS2—God of War. Even the X360 experienced a tremendous boost in sales with the release of Gears of War—a third person shooter that was launched a year after the console. Whereas you would have undoubtedly have had to upgrade your PC a number of times from 2001 to 2007 to play games, and spent more than a lakh on components, if you had a console like the PS2, chances are you’d still be enjoying the experience. In fact, the best titles for any console tend to release at least two or three years after the console is launched, that being the period of time it takes developers to churn out a good game.
Keep in mind that these recom-mendations are generic, and
certain genres of games will run easily on even lower-end
hardware. Racing games and adventure games are not as
harsh on system requirements
The X360 is in no way a mature platform. Sure, it has some great titles, like Gears Of War, The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion and Mass Effect, but the best is yet to come. In fact, I remember when the Xbox came out, Microsoft only had a single big title for it—Halo. Consoles also cannot be modified to improve performance and parts can’t be swapped out like a PC, so a developer has to think of the hardware of the console and its limitations when he writes code. With a PC, on the other hand, most developers know that they can design something a little heavier than what current generation hardware can run comfortably, and manufacturers like NVIDIA, ATI, Intel and AMD will just go back to their drawing boards and design something more powerful. So when you go with a console, you needn’t think about future-proofing.
The Hidden Costs
So then, a console seems to have all the answers. Why not buy an X360 for Rs 20,000, instead of a PC which costs Rs 50,000, and which you have to upgrade repeatedly? There’s a pitfall to consoles too. Most consoles have anti-piracy measures built in and so do the game titles, but unlike PCs where you can have cracks and registry editors, you must have the original game DVD in your drive before you can start playing on a console. If you’re like a bowling ball at an arcade with game titles you’re going to chalk up quite a bill, especially considering new titles for the latest consoles (X360, PS3) can cost as much as Rs 3,000. While this doesn’t mean that you should buy a PC just so that you can play pirated games, PC titles are generally more varied than console titles, and tend to cost less, and you also get special editions where you can buy an entire series in a single box for much less than the individual titles.
Most people who buy an X360 use their TVs to play games, and then complain “man, the graphics suck!” And why not? Consoles like the X360 and PS3 have been designed with a resolution of 720p (1280x720 pixels) in mind—a regular television cannot even hope to meet that specification, and you the image you see is blurry, lacks colour, resolution and even detail. An additional cost which you should incur is to buy yourself an LCD / Plasma screen to go along with the console—this is really where a console will earn its stripes and the experience will be enjoyable and immersive.
For a viewing distance of around 10-12 feet, a 32-inch LCD should do the trick. Brands to look out for are Sony, Samsung, and LG. If you have a larger living room then go for a bigger screen, since chances are you’ll be sitting further away, and remember that such a screen, in addition to your console, makes for a killer movie-theatre like experience.
In fact both Microsoft and Sony have gone through pains to ensure that their consoles are more than just gaming stations. The X360 is a full fledged HD-DVD player, while the PS3 comes with a Blu-Ray DVD drive. This kind of future proofing ensures that your console is ready for the next generation of content, although on a minus point such drives do increase prices.
What To Consider
Consoles use controllers to interface with them. Some of them are wireless, which give you the liberty to sit far away from your screen without having a clutter of cables. Both the X360 and the PS3 have such controllers, while other consoles like the Nintendo Wii (pronounced “we”) has a special remote control unit that makes use of built in accelerometers and gyroscopes as well as infrared tracking to make use of user gestures and actions to control actions in a game, as well as the traditional button system. But really, it’s titles that sell consoles; the only point of difference that matters to the user is applications—in this case, games.
So what games feel better on the controllers of a console? Well the most convenient candidates are arcade fighters and hack-em-up games that require a lot of frantic key presses (called button mashing) to execute combo moves, or use special powers. Accessories like racing wheels are also available for consoles as they are for PCs, and racing games on a console have the added advantage of being played on a larger screen as opposed to your PC’s monitor.
The most convenient titles for consoles are arcade fighters and
hack-em-up games that require a lot of frantic key presses
The next thing you need to look at is the present and upcoming crop of game titles for each console. This is very important, because unlike a PC which can be used for many things other than gaming, you don’t want to be stuck with a console that hasn’t got adequate title support. Garnering developer support is important—more game developers developing for your console equals better games. Development studios have been taken over (a so called forceful conversion) and we’re even seeing developers who are working on titles for both consoles. Franchisees change hands too—we’ve seen Devil May Cry 4 being announced for the X360 as well as the PS3, previously this franchisee was a Sony exclusive.
The PS3 doesn’t have many noteworthy titles to speak of—in fact, God Of War 2 (the sequel to the best-selling God of War) was announced for the PS2 and not the PS3, which clearly proves the point I was making about the longevity of a console as compared to a PC. That aside, the PS3 is a very strong contender for your attention, especially considering that most of its big titles are scheduled for 2008 launches. However, the PS3 makes a costly proposition and costs 60 per cent more than an Xbox 360.
Microsoft has another distinct advantage when it comes to the X360—they have very strong roots in PC gaming, where their Windows rules supreme as a gaming platform. It’s a simple matter, therefore, to approach developers to develop games for their console platform as well, or even release X360 versions of PC classics. We’re seeing games like Universe at War: Earth Assault, Rainbow Six: Vegas, and Fallout 3 all heading for the X360 as well. The reverse is also true, and many Xbox / X360 titles make their way into PC—Gears Of War, Halo, and Jade Empire are a few examples.
Regardless of how much you spend, the hardware you use, the platform you choose, or even the genres of your taste—the main aim of games is to have fun. They involve us, pull us into a world where anything is possible, and you’re at the centre of it. You get to control events around you...playing God can be fun! Games in moderation will benefit your thinking, and can even have effects like lowering stress levels, or even improving hand-eye coordination. You’re never too young or too busy to start, and it’s never too late to get into it. As for me, I’m gearing up for our next Quake 3 session which begins in another 15 minutes…