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Demo roundup — Batman: Arkham Asylum, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, Dawn of War II, Darkest of Days

Demo roundup — Batman: Arkham Asylum, Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood, Dawn of War II, Darkest of Days

Today I downloaded the PC demo for the upcoming shooter Darkest of Days, which is a game that attempts to accurately re-create historical battles while taking minor liberties with the details, such as allowing you to carry an AR-55 assault rifle into the battle of Antietam. I couldn't figure out how seriously this game wanted me to take it, but upon completion of the demo, I can only say that I strongly support this slightly enhanced version of history being taught in our public schools.

Why isn't PC gaming pushing technological boundaries?

Call of Duty: World at War Screenshot

When I was active on the now-defunct Tweakguides.com forums, I debated the apparent decline in cutting-edge PC technology with PC gamers many times over. It is inarguable that in many respects, it has never been easier on the wallet to be a PC gamer. Many games do indeed perform exceptionally well across a large variety of cards; the high-end configurations seem more suited to those who want to run very high levels of anti-aliasing and/or ultra-high resolutions. My own video card configuration, a pair of nVidia GTX 260s—a reasonably high-end setup—allows me to run even the most demanding games with extremely high image quality on my 22" monitor. While ATI and nVidia are preparing to release their next-generation DirectX 11 cards this fall, I truly see no need for an upgrade, particularly since it will likely be at least a couple of years before DirectX 11 is widely used.

But I think the reasons for this lessened pressure to buy expensive upgrades are more complex than the proliferation of multiplatform development. And I think that, despite the historical performance-per-dollar ratio we see in the video card market, games are continuing to push technological boundaries.

ARMA II quick impressions: I'm really trying!

ARMA II Screenshot

I downloaded the demo for ARMA II earlier this week, and I've spent some time dabbling with it. I never played the first one, but the concept of a realistic, broad-scoped military simulator/shooter sounded pretty neat. And, judging from the demo, it is indeed pretty neat. All it requires is a little patience. Actually, it requires mountains of patience. Despite my best efforts to really soak up the experience, the game just keeps getting in the way, and I admit, I just don't have the ambition required to get really immersed in this type of game.

When is Sony going to wake up?

Activision's Transformers Revenge of the Fallen PS3 Screenshot

The Times today is reporting that Activision CEO Bobby Kotick has suggested that his company, the largest independent gaming company in the world, might cut support for Sony if the PS3 doesn't become more profitable.

The Witcher becomes one of the top selling PC games of all time

The Witcher: Rise of the White Wolf Screenshot

This week, Polish developer CDProjekt announced, boastfully, that their 2007 role-playing fantasy game The Witcher had cracked the top 100 of the all-time best-selling PC games, having sold around 1.2 million copies. A reworked version of the game, called The Witcher: Rise of the White Wolf, is on its way to consoles this Fall as well.

I had actually intended to do a review for The Witcher long ago when I first bought the game shortly after its release in October of '07. Unfortunately, after spending many, many hours with the game, I re-installed my operating system and accidentally deleted all my save games. I shelved the game for a long time, as it's tough to find the motivation to re-start such a deep and complex game, but CDProjekt's release of the "Enhanced Edition" content—which was a free download for all owners and is now the de facto version of the game—provided a nice incentive to do just that. But unfortunately, by that time I was quite backlogged with numerous other totally new games that I wanted to play. I've plowed through most of that now, and have been re-playing The Witcher with the new enhanced content. I may still do a comprehensive review one of these days, but for now this humble little blog will have to suffice.

Enough with the freakin' trilogies already

Mirror's Edge Screenshot 

Last year when Crysis came out, I think all of us who played it were a little disappointed in the abrupt, cliffhanger ending. It felt like the ending of Halo 2, where you think you're about to get the biggest, baddest level of the game, and then the credits roll. Crytek's reason for such a lame ending? "It's a trilogy". What? Why didn't anybody say anything before? Are they sure they didn't just run out of time to put in all the levels they wanted?

Today, EA announced that Mirror's Edge will be the first part of a trilogy. What? The first one isn't even out yet. We don't know if it will be any good or if it will sell worth a spit. Need I remind everyone what happened with Too Human?

The state of PC gaming.... again

Last year, hype over the impact of piracy and the supposedly shrinking PC games market reached a head when the NPD reported that Crysis, in its first two weeks of sales, moved only around 86,000 copies. Unreal Tournament 3 reportedly fared even worse, tallying just shy of 34,000 copies. Both of these games received enormous hype, and these seemed like pretty dismal numbers.

Then came the piracy talk. Developers including id, Epic, Crytek, Ubisoft, and Infinity Ward suggested that piracy was so rampant on the PC that it was fueling their decision to focus more centrally on console development. Was CryEngine2 the last great PC gaming engine? Would PC gamers become increasingly subject to "dumbed-down" multiplatform games and belated ports like Assassin's Creed and Mass Effect, while PC exclusives that didn't fall into strategy or MMORPG categories faded into obscurity?

I'm relatively new to the PC gaming landscape. I played some PC games here and there over the years and once lost a whole summer to Quake 3, but until a couple of years ago I had always been a console gamer. But I had always looked at the PC with envious eyes, and had always wanted a really nice, high-end gaming rig. Of course, I realized that an uber-rig was not necessary to enjoy PC gaming. But I figured that since I was going to get a new PC and I could afford to treat myself, why not get something really great? In early 2006 (back when AMD processors still ruled the performance charts) I built my first PC. My first game was F.E.A.R., which at the time was still a PC exclusive. I haven't looked back since. As both a gamer and a hardware enthusiast, I can honestly say that I enjoy PC gaming far more than I ever enjoyed console gaming. But to listen to some people, I got into the game at a pretty dismal time. However, I think that a closer look at the facts tells a different story.

Good Old Games: beta impressions

I was happy today to find in my inbox an access key for the new Good Old Games digital store, an opportunity to try the beta and get my paws on some classic video games. What, do you ask, is Good Old Games? GOG.com is a new store from The Witcher developer CDProjekt that offers digital copies of classic PC games, at low prices and without any pesky DRM. As someone who has tried and failed to find a number of the games that are already available for purchase at the site, I think this service has the potential to garner a significant following.

The store is slick-looking and easy to navigate. Games can be found by price ($5.99 or $9.99), category, publisher, developer, and user rating. There is already a lively user forum with subforums for virtually every game available on the site, and the support section is very well organized and informative. With only two publishers on board—Codemasters and Interplay—the selection is a little sparse, but there are already some notable entries—not the least of which are the two original Fallout games, which will undoubtedly be very popular with the imminent release of the third. I cracked a smile at the sight of one of my old favorites, one I played on the Dreamcast years ago—MDK2. The definition of "classic games" seems like it could be a little loose too, with Colin McRae Rally 2005 slated for release "soon", according to the site.

The site is significant for a couple of reasons. First, the PC platform is long overdue to have an easy, one-stop shop for older games. Most of these games are difficult to find in stores, and some of them may be hocked on eBay at inflated prices. If enough publishers jump on board, GOG.com will be a great way for gamers to get their hands on old favorites or try classic games they missed (I must confess that, because I was not a PC gamer at the time, I have not played the original Fallout games, so I'm excited about the prospect of comparing them to the sequel later this month).

But more significantly, GOG.com is an experiment in DRM-free PC games. Based on the success of some other companies from Bethesda to Stardock as well as the success of DRM-free music services, CDProjekt has every reason to be optimistic. If GOG.com is successful, it may pave the way for the erosion of the increasingly intrusive DRM that has created a great deal of antagonism between developers and the gamers who support them. I have no idea how many beta keys are left, but now is as good a time as any for nostalgic old goats and younger gamers alike to give it a try.

Piracy on the PC: Where do we go from here?

Just a sampling of the news this month in PC gaming:

  • Epic says that Gears of War 2 will not come to the PC, citing piracy as a primary reason.
  • EndWar creative director Michael de Plater asserts that the PC port of the game (which, incidentally, has not been officially confirmed to be in development) is delayed because of piracy.
  • Bionic Commando, the remake of the 80's hit, is coming to the PC a little later than the console version, again being delayed over piracy fears.
  • Fallout 3 has gone gold, and the XBox 360 version has already been leaked on to torrents. How long before the PC version, too, is leaked?
  • The Witcher developer CDProjekt is struggling to gain publusher support for its DRM-free classic-game service Good Old Games (gog.com).
  • A class-action lawsuit has been filed against EA for its use of SecuROM protection in Spore.

There's little disputing that piracy is a serious problem on the PC. It's also a problem for consoles, but it's certainly more prevalent on the PC. Unfortunately though, there's no real solid data to give us a clear picture just how big of a financial impact piracy really has. A study in 2004 found that music piracy, long blamed by the music industry for a decline in CD sales, was mostly unrelated to the decline. It's difficult to say whether this holds true for the PC as well; most piracy happens in Asia and Eastern Europe, so it's unclear whether game makers are really losing customers to piracy en masse.

But whether or not piracy is actually harming companies' bottom lines, it's clearly having a strong effect on their perception of the viability of the PC market. It's not unlike a bear market, where anxiety over stock viability creates a buying freeze. In other words, developers like Epic, Ubisoft, Capcom and id may be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by relegated the PC to a second-class market.

At the same time, whether data supports them or not, developers are quick to blame piracy for any perceived lost sales. Epic, for example, dropped the ball last year with the PC port of Gears of War. The game was released a year late at full price with sparse new content, was not available through any of the many popular digital distribution channels such as Steam and Direct2Drive, and received bad word of mouth due to numerous game-breaking bugs resulting from a sloppy implementation of Games for Windows Live which, to add insult to injury, required a paid subscription to access all the online features. And yet Epic seems all too willing to ignore these factors and just blame piracy. I'm not singling out Epic—similar comments have come from Crytek, Infinity Ward, and many others. While piracy may indeed be an issue, the perception of piracy is clearly just as serious a problem, one that may prevent developers and publishers from addressing more immediate problems in their business models.

The response from developers and publishers to this possibly real, but unquestionably perceived threat of piracy has been to lace their games with more and more stringent DRM restrictions. When I wrote a blog chiding gamers for blowing DRM out of proportion, I was heavily criticized for failing to recognize that DRM really does create problems for a lot of users and, so say many, it just makes piracy worse. In retrospect, I was wrong to understate the impact DRM has on users, as well as wrong to overstate its efficacy. Clearly no DRM scheme does much of anything to prevent piracy—even the most heavily protected games are leaked very quickly; and clearly many legitimate users are inconvenienced by increasingly draconian DRM schemes—I've been there myself recently.

And yet, it's not clear to what extent DRM is hurting PC game sales if at all, or whether it makes piracy worse as some suggest—though both are valid possibilities. Again looking at music sales, some data suggests that Apple's DRM-free iTunes Plus may spur greater sales, and Amazon.com has seen great success with their DRM-free music service.

I applaud CDProjekt for their ambitious DRM-free Good Old Games service, and I applaud Bethesda for sticking with a simple CD check for Fallout 3. Ultimately the success or failure of DRM-free software will determine whether frustrated developers will continue to get away with blaming piracy for their woes, and whether DRM use continues to be prevalent. Regardless, it's time developers and publishers take a more critical eye toward their perception of piracy's true impact on their business, and start treating their customers a little better. As long as developers treat PC gaming as a second-class market, that's exactly what it will be.

Crysis Warhead: The Layman's Guide to Essential Optimization

Crysis Warhead Screenshot

Crysis Warhead is finally upon us, and that can only mean one thing—more tweaking! Before reading this guide, it is imperative that you read my original Crysis optimization guide, as I'm not going to re-explain how to alter configuration files or access console commands. The engine is largely the same, and all of the information from the previous guide is still valid. Fortunately though it is far less necessary to use "tweaks" to get great performance from Crysis Warhead due to heavy optimization of the game engine.

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