Never has there been a better time to be a PC gamer. This year’s crop of games delivers all the pulse-pounding action we’ve come to crave beneath a candy shell of glorious graphics—the likes of which we’ve never seen before. Leading the graphics charge is a bevy of DirectX 10 titles that will stress a system to its limits, and the promises long made by proponents of the Games for Windows initiative are finally starting to show fruit.
What’s more, even DirectX 9–level titles are taking advantage of the prodigious power available in today’s high-end graphics cards to deliver experiences that look better than we ever thought DirectX 9 capable of.
So, to all console ever-lovin’ folk who are claiming for the nth time that PC gaming is dead, we say, “Shut your pie holes!” We can’t wait to kick back in our office chair, embrace our mouse and keyboard, and get our game on!
Brilliant game graphics aren’t only about technology, they’re also about artful design. Bioshock serves up a bucketful of both. This first-person role-playing game puts you in the middle of a disaster in an undersea utopia run by—who else?—an out-of-control megalomaniac.
In addition to traditional FPS-style weapons, you’ll also gain the use of special powers, which let you manipulate the elements to freeze or ignite objects (or people), alter the environment in other ways, and even set elaborate Rube Goldberg–style traps.
But the game would be just a fancy sandbox without its cohesive steampunk set design and profoundly disturbing story line. When you factor in support for DirectX 10, Bioshock becomes a must-have title.
World In Conflict
Let's take it nuclear!
Imagine that the Cold War never ended—instead it actually caught fire. That’s the scenario facing you in World in Conflict. Russian tanks are rolling across Europe, and it’s your job to stop them in their tracks.
Instead of utilizing the traditional two-phase combat system—build your base, then attack the bad guys—World in Conflict does away with the first part of the equation and has you jumping straight into blowing up Commies. Unlike most real-time strategy titles, World in Conflict includes some super-high-end graphical effects, including volumetric fog that swirls around your vehicles, destructible buildings and environments, and real-time lighting.
You won’t want to play World in Conflict from a satellite-high perspective, lest you miss any of the game’s glorious detail.
Flagship’s first game is the spiritual successor and follow-up to Blizzard’s seminal Diablo series. It’s not Diablo III, but it’s made by the same folks that made Diablo. Hellgate pits you against demons in near-future London, a setting that won’t just challenge your skills, but also dazzle your eyes.
The game plays very differently depending on the faction you choose. The Cabalist and Templar fill the standard RPG ranged and melee archetypes. But when you play as a Hunter, you’ll play the game from the first person perspective with traditional RPG elements—and utilize your twitch skills.
Naturally, Hellgate will turn on the eye candy too. We know that the game will support DirectX 10, but the graphical wizards at Flagship haven’t announced what they’ll be using it for, yet.
Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway
Now with bazookas!
Welcome to Operation Market Garden, gentlemen. Our favorite tactical World War II shooter returns with a trip to Monty’s folly powered by a spiffy new version of the Unreal Engine and a cargo plane full of new features.
Hell’s Highway implements a much more realistic cover system. You duck behind an object, pop out to shoot, then duck back down before Jerry draws a bead on you. The only problem with this approach is that the game has a real materials engine, and much of the cover will get chewed up under a constant barrage of fire. Destructible cover sounds like fun, but it’s a double-edged sword—you can tear up the Germans’ cover, but they can do the same to you!
Call of Duty 4: Modern Combat
We were tired of killing Nazis too
Let’s face it, by now most gamers have been fighting World War II longer than the war actually lasted. We’ve killed more virtual Nazis than ever existed. So Infinity Ward’s decision to move beyond WWII is a welcome respite.
Call of Duty 4 is set in a hypothetical conflict in the former Soviet bloc. You can expect a heaping helping of small-squad action across a wide variety of terrain types—we’ve seen missions in burnt-out towns, grassy savannahs, and even forested hillsides.
The amazing thing is that Call of Duty 4 is a DirectX 9 game, eschewing support for DirectX 10’s bells and whistles for higher frame rates and still-unbelievable graphics in the legacy API.
You take a contract, find your target, and kill him. It’s that simple. Except it’s not. Instead of another modern-day version of Hitman, Ubisoft: Montreal has created a medieval Agent 47 who makes his way through the sandbox that is Crusades-era Jerusalem.
The catch is that you’re a free-running assassin, and your biggest problem isn’t the mark firing arrows at you or the town constabulary, but rather the thronging crowd filled with beggars, merchants, and other townsfolk. How do you catch your target without drawing too much attention to yourself? Simple, you get off the streets and instead climb walls, swing from scaffolds, and dance across rooftops. Unlike Prince of Persia, in which your wall-walking is limited to specific areas, in Assassin’s Creed, if you can see it, you can climb it.
Valve calls its latest addition to the Half-Life series The Orange Box, but we call it freaking awesome. With the newly updated Source engine—now with better graphics, courtesy of increased system requirements at the shallow end of the pool—Gordon Freeman and Alyx have never looked better.
By ditching support for legacy DirectX 8 graphics cards, Valve opened the door for a much better looking Half-Life that is superior to both Episode 1 and Lost Coast.
Battling the pack AI of the new hunters is well and good, but we’re nearly as excited about the hot puzzle action that Portal promises, and certain editors are actively lusting over Team Fortress 2.
Austin Powers: The Game
Sony Online’s crazy concept MMO, The Agency, puts you in charge of a top-secret spy agency dedicated to protecting the world from standard-issue megalomaniacs. The Agency is impressive for more than its clever game design and highly stylized art direction.
You see, the game progresses even when you’re not logged in. If you set your science branch to design a new type of weapon, gadget, or car, the research will happen whether you’re logged on or not. When the gizmo’s ready for you to test, you’ll get an email or text message with the good news.
The in-game combat is particularly interesting, with many varied missions. The one we saw was reminiscent of an old-fashioned dungeon crawl. First, you fight your way through the goons, then you rescue the person who needs rescuing, and then you track down the big boss.
Gears of War
Something not so subtle happens to our pleasure centers when we lovingly apply chain saw to skull in order to finish off a deathmatch foe. Gears of War on the PC adds a whole new chapter to the single-player campaign and a handful of multiplayer maps to the Xbox 360 version.
In addition to new content, the team at Epic ratcheted up the texture resolution and removed some of the more annoying features (like depth-of-field blurring) for the PC version of Gears. But more than anything else, we’re looking forward to the mission editor, which will let players create custom game types and play them with their pals using Games for Windows Live. That’s something to get excited about.
Unreal Tournament III
Sometimes games look good, sometimes they look great, and sometimes they look like Unreal Tournament III—un-freakin’-believable. Mega-high-poly models and glorious displacement-mapped surfaces deliver a shiny fascia over the raw deathmatch action that we all know and love, in full Unreal Engine III glory.
UT3 showcases what Epic’s third-gen Unreal Engine is capable of. It features an all-new renderer and supports high-dynamic range, per-pixel lighting; physics acceleration; and a whole lot more.
We can’t wait to register our first M-M-MONSTER KILL!
There’s not much more that we can say about Crysis that hasn’t already been said. Crysis was the first DirectX 10 game we saw that truly rocked us, and while it won’t be the first DirectX 10 game to ship, it will definitely set the standard for both graphical goodness and environment interaction.
The thing about Crysis is that it’s not just another pretty face. The game’s nanosuit lets you play however you want—use stealth, brute force, amazing aim, or a combination of all three. The weapons are customizable: You can add scopes, stabilizers, and silencers to the arsenal that’s available.
We’ve played precious little of Crysis so far, but the time we’ve spent has convinced us that it’s a worthy successor to Far Cry.
Cevat Yerli Dishes About Crysis
We sat down with Cevat Yerli, executive producer and director of Crysis to talk tech—specifically about the most beautiful game we’ve ever seen. Here’s our exclusive chat with Yerli; we talk about DirectX 10, the problem with hardware physics, and shooting trees.
Maximum PC:Will there be obvious visual or performance differences for people running Crysis in DirectX 10 mode vs. DirectX 9 mode? Can you describe some of the differences people who’ve upgraded to Vista and DirectX 10 can expect to enjoy?
Yerli: The DirectX 9 version of Crysis will be the one for the bulk of current-generation PC gamers. It will feature the maximum fidelity you can achieve with DirectX 9 standards, alongside high dynamic range rendering, advanced skin and vegetation shaders, soft shadows, and more. In DirectX 10, however, you will experience a quality of Crysis that is deeper in lights and shadows and atmospherics and has a full-motion gameplay experience.
MPC: CryENGINE2 in general, and Crysis in particular, obviously utilizes physics-based gameplay. It’s equally obvious that physics requires lots of processing horsepower. Where will the engine and the game look to get those processor cycles? What will be the best solution for gamers: A multicore CPU, a multiple-GPU rig with graphics running on one GPU and physics running on the other, or a dedicated physics processor?
Yerli: We are not supporting GPU or dedicated physics processors for a variety of reasons. The main one is that we did not want to change the core gameplay physics for our min-spec configurations. We have been optimizing our dynamics code for many years now, so it can run robust and as optimally as it can on CPUs of previous generations while also taking advantage of newer multicore architectures. So you are best equipped with a quad core (if you have the budget), but Crysis will do great on dual-core configurations as well.
MPC: As the game nears its release date, has the development team found it necessary to scale back any features in order to obtain reasonable performance on midrange hardware, with midrange being defined as an Intel Core Duo E6600 CPU (or AMD equivalent), 2GB of memory, and either a Radeon HD 2900 XT with 512MB of memory or a GeForce 8800 GTS with 640MB of memory.
Yerli: If that’s midrange for you, then not at all! This spec is well within our plans. Most important to us is that we scale Crysis from a three-year-old configuration (by release date) to a current and next-gen configuration and take maximum performance from the available hardware. Our benchmark has been to compete for various generations of hardware alongside the generations of games shipped around them. For example, our min spec is competing with Far Cry, and that’s over three-and-a-half years old.
MPC: Will Crysis be made available on Steam or another digital distribution source? Or will it follow the more traditional model of boxed-copy sales only?
Yerli: We are going to be available for digital distribution through the EA Link Service. We see only benefits in this model; it’s our goal to serve the customer, and giving them choices is a great way to do that.
MPC: How many execution cores will the game support? What will you use the different cores for?
Yerli: Our multicore implementations encompass physics, AI, game logic, and particles and are balanced over two or four cores to take next-generational advantage. Of course, we also run on single-core highly optimized.
MPC: How will gameplay be affected by multicore? Will there be any noticeable differences for people with multicore systems, or just better performance?
Yerli: Nope, smoother and higher frame rates in simulation is the key here for us.
MPC: Will players be able to play Crysis in DirectX 10 mode on high-end hardware at high resolutions (1600x1200 or higher) using current-gen hardware (GeForce 8800 GTS and up, or Radeon 2900 series boards)?
Yerli: I believe in maximum settings you will run at 1280 resolutions, but to run even higher you need a better configuration. However, that is because we feature out-of-the-box future-proof technology and settings that will keep Crysis state-of-the-art looking even for the next next-generation hardware, allowing the PC gamer to take advantage of evolution!
MPC: Have you ever actually tried to shoot down a real tree? It’s much harder than you guys make it look in the game!
Yerli: Hee hee, did you ever run into a camp and fight alone for survival? It’s much harder in real life. :) Getting your point though! :)