If you’re a long time PC gamer chances are that you’ve considered getting yourself a gaming laptop at one point or another. The main attraction from such a device is portability, especially back in the heydays of LANs where steel cases and giant CRTs were a right pain to lug around. However they always came at a cost, both financially and opportunity as once you bought yourself a gaming laptop you were locked into those specs until you bought yourself another one. Alienware, a longtime manufacturer of gaming laptops, has cottoned onto this issue and has developed what they’re calling the Graphics Amplifier in order to bring desktop level grunt and upgradeability to their line of laptops.
On the surface it looks like a giant external hard drive but inside it are all the components required to run any PCIe graphics card. It contains a small circuit board with a PCIe x16 slot, a 450W power supply and a host of other connections because why not. There’s no fans or anything else to speak of however so you’re going to want to get a card with a blower style fan system on it, something which you’ll only see on reference cards these days. This then connects back to an Alienware laptop through a proprietary connection (unfortunately) which then allows the graphics card to act as if it’s installed in the system. The enclosure retails for about $300 without the graphics card included in it which means you’re up for about $600+ if you’re going to buy one for it. That’s certainly not out of reach for those who are already investing $1800+ in the requisite laptop but it’s certainly enough to make you reconsider the laptop purchase in the first place.
You see whilst this external case does appear to work as advertised (judging by the various articles that have popped up with it) it essentially removes the most attractive thing about having a gaming capable laptop: the portability. Sure this is probably more portable than a mini tower and a monitor but at the same time this case is likely to weigh more than the laptop itself and won’t fit into your laptop carry bag. The argument could be made that you wouldn’t need to take this with you, this is only for home use or something, but even then I’d argue you’d likely be better off with a gaming desktop and some slim, far more portable laptop to take with you (both of which could be had for the combined cost of this and the laptop).
Honestly though the days have long since passed when it was necessary to upgrade your hardware on a near yearly basis in order to be able to play the latest games. My current rig is well over 3 years old now and is still quite capable of playing all current releases, even if I have to dial back a setting or two on occasion. With that in mind you’d be better off spending the extra cash that you’d sink into this device plus the graphics card into the actual laptop itself which would likely net you the same overall performance. Then, when the laptop finally starts to show its age, you’ll likely be in the market for a replacement anyway.
I’m sure there’ll be a few people out there who’ll find some value in a device like this but honestly I just can’t see it. Sure it’s a cool piece of technology, a complete product where there’s only been DIY solutions in the past, but it’s uses are extremely limited and not likely to appeal to those who it’ll be marketed too. Indeed it feels much like Razer’s modular PC project, a cool idea that just simply won’t have a market to sell its product to. It’ll be interesting to see if this catches on though but since Alienware are the first (and only) company to be doing this I don’t have a high hopes.
In my recent review of Ubisoft Montreal’s latest game, Watch_Dogs, I gave the developers the benefit of the doubt when it came to the graphics issues that many people had raised. Demos are often scripted and sculpted in such a way as to show a game in the best light possible and so the delivered product most often doesn’t line up with people’s expectations. So since Watch_Dogs wasn’t an unplayable monstrosity I chalked it up to the hype leading us all astray and Ubisoft pulling the typical demo shenanigans. As it turns out though there’s a way to make Watch_Dogs look as good as it did in the demos and all that’s required is adding 2 files to a directory.
This mod came to everyone’s attention yesterday with dozens of screenshots plastering all the major games news outlets. A modder called TheWorse on Guru3D became obsessed with diving into the Watch_Dog code and eventually managed to unpack many of the game’s core files. After that he managed to enable many of the effects that had been present in the original E3 demo of Watch_Dogs, along with tweaking a number of other settings to great effect. The result speaks for itself (as my before and after screenshots above can attest to) with the game looking quite a lot better than it did on my first play through. The thing with this mod is that unlike other graphical enhancements like ENB, which gives us all those pretty Skyrim screenshots, this mod isn’t adding anything to the rendering pipeline, it’s just enabling functionality that’s already there. Indeed this is most strongly indicated by the mod’s size, a paltry 45KB in size.
So first things first: I was wrong. Whilst the demo at E3 was likely running on a machine far better than many PC gamers have access to this mod shows that Watch_Dogs is capable of looking a lot better than it currently is. My current PC is approaching some 3 years old now, almost ancient in gaming PC years, and it was able to run the mod with ultra graphics settings, something I wasn’t able to do previously. It could probably use a little tweaking to get the framerate a bit higher but honestly that’s just my preference for higher frame rates more than anything. So with this in mind the question then turns to why Watch_Dogs shipped on PC in the state it did and who was ultimately responsible for removing the features that had so many in love with the E3 demo.
The conspiracy theorist in me wants to join the chorus of people saying that Watch_Dogs was intentionally crippled on PC in order to make it look more comparable to its console brethren. Whilst I can’t deny that it’s a possibility I simply have no evidence apart from the features being in the game files themselves. This is where Ubisoft’s response to the controversy would shed some light on the issue as whilst they’re not likely to say “Yep, we did it because Watch_Dogs looks horrendous on consoles when compared to PC” they might at least give us some insight into why these particular features were disabled. Unfortunately they’re still keeping their lips sealed on this one so unfortunately all we have to go on now is rampant speculation, something I’m not entirely comfortable with engaging in.
Regardless of the reasons though it does feel a bit disingenuous to be shown one product and then be sold another. Most of the traditional reasons for disabled features, like performance or stability issues, just don’t seem to be present with this mod, which lends credence to the idea that they were disabled on purpose after they were fully developed. Until Ubisoft starts talking about this though we don’t have much more to go on and since this can be enabled so easily I don’t think many gamers are going to care too much what they have to say anyway. Still I’d very much like to know the story behind it as looks a lot more like a political/financial issue rather than a purely technical one.
As long time readers will know I’m a big fan of Crytek’s flagship series Crysis as it’s one of the few no-holds-barred PC games when it comes to ratcheting up the graphics to insane levels. It harks back to the golden era of PC gaming where every new title attempted to do exactly that, pushing the boundaries of the hardware so hard that yearly upgrade cycles were not only desirable, they were almost required. The consolization of PC games took a heavy bat to this idea and strangely enough even Crysis 2 fell prey to it somewhat with my rather mediocre PC at the time being able to run it perfectly (and admittedly it was still quite good for its time). When Crytek announced that Crysis 3 would be a returning to its roots with insane levels of graphics I was incredibly excited and I’m glad to say that they didn’t disappoint.
Crysis 3 takes place 24 years after the incidents in Crysis 2. Prophet, in reality the amalgam of Alcatraz and the remaining memories of the original Prophet that the NanoSuit stored, has been in stasis for the past 2 decades since CELL captured captured him. You’re broken out of your prison by Psycho, one of your former suit buddies who’s been stripped of his NanoSuit. You find out that CELL has been using some Ceph technology to generate unlimited amounts of energy and has used that to enslave most of the world in crippling amounts of debt. Psycho, saved by people in the resistance, needs your help in order to take them down. As you start to dig into CELL’s activities however the real plan becomes apparent and it becomes clear that only you are able to stop them.
The technology under the hood of Crysis 3 is the same as Crysis 2 so you can imagine I was a little sceptical as to how much of an improvement they could make in the 2 years since their last release. Figuring that my still semi-new upgrade would be up to the task I cranked everything up to its highest, leaving only the anti-aliasing at a tame 2x. What resulted afterwards can only be described as slide show, a very pretty one but it ran so slow that many of the models glitched out and it was essentially unplayable. Dialling back the settings to their recommended levels turned that slideshow into a much more playable game and what a game it is.
Every screenshot you’ll see in this review was taken in game with most of the settings at 1~2 notches below the maximum possible. The level of detail is simply amazing with all models being of the level I’ve come to expect from most game’s cutscenes rather than their in game representations. Crysis 3 makes use of the entire DirectX 11 feature set and does regular things like motion blur, specular highlights and bump mapping better than any other game I’ve played recently. Whilst the framerate wasn’t the greatest in large outdoor areas it was absolutely butter in small to medium sized zones and it was so good that I almost feel like upgrading my PC again just to how Crysis 3 would fair if had room to stretch its legs.
Suffice to say that Crytek has really returned to form with Crysis 3’s graphics.
For those who’ve played Crysis 2 the game play will be very familiar to you with the NanoSuit design staying basically the same as it did in the previous game. You have 3 modes available to you: regular, armoured and cloaked which you can switch between at will. Armoured mode drains energy when you get hit by various things and cloaked mode slowly drains away energy whilst your standing still and even more when you move around. These two active modes are essentially the two ways of completing any obstacle that you might face in Crysis 3: either by stealth or by raw fire power.
Whilst there might be a choice available to you it does seem like Crysis 3 would prefer you to go with one over the other. Right at the beginning you’re given what amounts to the biggest change between Crysis 2 and 3’s combat: the compound bow. Essentially it functions like a backup weapon as it doesn’t count towards one of your 2 regular weapons but like them its customizable with different ammo types and scopes. The key difference between the bow and other weapons however is the fact that upon using it you will still stay cloaked, allowing you to take out enemies with ease and drastically increasing the amount of time you can remained cloaked. Couple this with the fact that the primary type of arrows you can use (impact) can be picked up after you use them you essentially a weapon that’s got unlimited ammunition, kills in one hit and allows you to stealth around everywhere without getting caught. Running and gunning seems rather moronic by comparison.
This is only amplified by the upgrade system which allows you to beef up aspects of the NanoSuit to fit your play style. Whilst its entirely possible to make yourself nigh on indestructible the upgrades for stealth users simply magnifying the already over powered combo of cloak plus bow. Indeed for quite a while I was running around with just the stealth upgrades and multitudes of points available to me. I ended up spending them just before a particular boss fight that required me to go toe to toe with it but I actually found that using stealth was a viable option once I had worked out the fight a little more. This may be due to the difficulty level I was playing on however and I’m sure at easier levels run and gunning would be more viable.
Crysis 3, whilst still technically being an on-rails shooter, does retain the non-linear variations for each section that help to keep it from being yet another corridor shooter. When you’re moving between sections there’s definitely only one path that you can progress through however in those sections there’s usually additional objectives that you can go for which will assist you in getting to the primary objective. For instance there’s one section where two giant walkers are blocking your path. Now on the ground nearby there’s a ton of RPGs scattered about so with a little bit of legwork you could probably take them down. However there’s also a nearby mortar team that’s in need of assistance and should you help them out they’ll let you tag targets which they can then take out for you.
The vehicle sections feel tacked on, almost as if they’re only there to serve as an introduction into what will be available in multi-player. Whilst I applaud their use of larger-than-life maps they only seem to be there to facilitate the inclusion of the speedy Half Life 2-esque dune buggy. I will admit that the optional tank section was pretty fun but it was cut brutally short, right before a time where it would have been a hell of a lot of fun to blast a whole bunch of Ceph out of the skies. This was followed shortly after by an on-rails vehicle section putting you as the gunner which was frankly suicidal as all the Ceph aircraft targeted you instantly and your mounted gun was highly ineffective against them. I’d prefer that these sections stayed in and were revamped rather than them being removed however but they really do feel out of place with the rest of Crysis 3.
There’s also few bugs and glitches to speak of although it pains me to say that at least one of the issues that plagued Crysis 2 are still present in 3. Some guns, for example, will simply not be able to be picked up which can be pretty devastating should you not be able to swap a weapon out for a particular section. The graphics glitches appear to only happen if you’re stressing your hardware too much and disappear the second you revert them to more sane settings. The vehicles are mostly fine except for one part when my tank slowly started turning itself over and then eventually capsized for no apparent reason. Getting out of the vehicle seemed to let it right itself however but the behaviour was still very odd.
I was all ready to pan the story as for the first couple hours there’s really no tension, character development or anything that made me feel for the characters. This all changes later on as the voice acting seems to improve a lot, especially towards the end when certain reveals ramp up the tension between the characters. It’s not an emotional roller coaster like other, more story focused games but it was unexpectedly good for an on rails shooter. They also thankfully avoided the extremely obvious “INCOMING SEQUEL” stuff which plagued Crysis 2, but the current story wraps up well with enough leeway that a sequel is possible without it being obnoxious.
Crysis 3 is simply stunning; a visual masterpiece coupled with highly refined game play that we’ve come to expect from the people at Crytek. There’s no doubt that the graphics are what makes this game so impressive as Crysis 3 is probably the only game that demonstrates the full capability of DirectX 11 on the PC platform today. It’d all be for naught however if the rest of the game didn’t stand on its own however and I’m glad that it does otherwise it’d just be another tech demo ala ID’s Rage. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Crysis 3 and I’d encourage anyone who’s still a dedicated PC gamer to spend some time with it, if only to see how capable your rig really is.
Crysis 3 is available on PC, Xbox360 and PlayStation 3 right now for $69.99, $98 and $98 respectively. Game was played entirely on the PC on the second hardest difficultly with a total of 7 hours played.
It’s that time of year again when the Electronics and Entertainment Expo (commonly known as E3) brings about all sorts of tech demos, teaser trailers and usually a swath of speculation of what the upcoming year holds for the gaming community. Whilst I usually shoot a curious glance its way whenever a company I’m following announces something I tend not to talk about it too much lest I work myself up into a White Knight Chronicles-esque fervor only to be disappointed once again. Still with the drip feed of information that I’ve allowed myself I’ve noticed something of a trend in many of the news articles that I’ve been reading.
It seems that the latest round of games look too good for current gen consoles and people are wondering if they’re all destined for the next generation. Taken at face value the games do look a whole lot more impressive than most current generation titles and here’s a few examples from E3 that have got everyone’s tongue wagging about whether they’re next gen or not.
Last of Us:
Beyond: Two Souls:
They are quite impressive looking titles, especially Watch Dogs which has managed to steal E3 away from all of its competitors. However I personally didn’t think they were outside the capabilities of the PlayStation 3, mostly because even though we’re a almost 6 years into its life developers are still wringing good performance increases out of it. The Xbox360 on the other hand is starting to run up to its limits but its still quite capable of producing some pretty good graphics (see my Mass Effect 3 review to see some screens taken in-game). The kicker of course is the answer to the question that everyone on the floor asked “What’s this demo running on?”.
For all the games in question it was a high end PC. Cue raucous cheering from the PC crowd who can feel the crown of best platform being placed back on their heads.
Of course many of the developers came out afterwards and stated that all the games would be running on current generation consoles. However the fact that they run on PCs doesn’t exclude them from running on at least 1 of the next gen consoles (Orbis, or the PS4) which will be sporting a good old fashioned x86-64 instruction set. Additionally any game that runs on a Windows PC and utilizes the Microsoft XNA framework has a very easy time being ported to the current Xbox and so it follows that the next gen would also have similar capabilities. So whilst these titles aren’t technically next gen they’re definitely indicative of what they’ll be capable of, at least at the beginning of their life cycle.
As for when those consoles will be making their debut I’d have to put my money on sometime next year for Microsoft’s Durango and the year after that for Sony’s Orbis. There’s not a lot of concrete evidence to back that up but with the Xbox360 approaching is 7th birthday soon I can’t see it hanging on for much longer after that. It then follows on that Sony wouldn’t want to be too far behind in its next gen console release although they’ve been very mum on whether or not they’re actually working on it yet. This is definitely a subject I’m going to have to revisit 6 months down the line.