Wasn’t it just four years ago that the pundits and game media gathered in wake, made a few pithy quips about graphics and soundcard drivers, and poured their 40‑ouncers over the grave of PC gaming? Well guess what, baby—PC gaming ain’t dead by a long shot. In fact, there’s a strong argument that PC gaming is not only alive and well, it’s thriving and poised to dominate consoles.
Don’t believe us? Battlefield 3, one of the most anticipated launches of the year, only offers 64-player goodness to those on the PC, and tweaks the frak out of PC-only graphics that make game consoles look like peddlers of VGA output in a 1080p world. Smash a window in Batman: Arkham City on a PC with PhysX support, and you’re rewarded with glass particles flying everywhere—just as if you threw a thug through a plate glass window in real life. Do that on a console, and you’re rewarded with a pathetic tinkle.
Let’s not even talk about The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, which has enhanced textures and graphics on the PC that its developer, Bethesda, says will “melt your face.” And hell, we haven’t even gotten to the PC-only titles of Star Wars: The Old Republic, Dota 2, and Diablo III, or the free-to-play phenomenon and MMOs.
So are we seeing a resurgence of PC gaming, or are we just fooling ourselves? To find out, read our report on whether “real” gaming has returned. Then read our reviews of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Batman: Arkham City, two of the latest games to celebrate what PCs uniquely offer; and finally, take a gander at our list of the 10 best free PC games online. If we are fooling ourselves about a PC gaming comeback, we’re having a kick-ass time of it.
If we were litigators arguing the case of PC gaming vs. console gaming in front of the Supreme Court of Gamers, we wouldn’t have to make much of an argument. Better graphics. More advanced physics. Higher resolutions. Superior controllers. Superior gameplay. We rest our case.
Yet none of those arguments were worth a damn just five years ago when it seemed that every game developer was bailing on the PC in favor of consoles. The PC was lucky to get even a crappy port. And special enhancements for that $400 videocard or super-cool soundcard? Are you kidding? Indeed, even the most die-hard PC gamer will have to admit that things looked pretty bleak back then. So why should anyone believe that the complicated and infamously cantankerous PC gaming platform is truly making a comeback?
Dan Stapleton, editor-in-chief at GameSpy.com, says PC gaming is indeed on the upswing, and he thinks there’s even proof in the numbers.
“If we’re talking about raw numbers, how about 30 million active Steam accounts, 15 million League of Legends accounts, more than 10 million World of Warcraft players, and 4 million Minecraft sales?” Stapleton says. “Those are huge numbers, and each is representative of the things that are really driving modern PC gaming: aggressive digital distribution, free-to-play gaming, MMOs, and unfettered indie developers.”
Stapleton says the performance gulf between the PC and console is so big right now that he suspects console players are envious.
“You can’t look at the visual difference between Skyrim, Batman: Arkham City, or Battlefield 3 running on a console next to the PC and not be at least a little jealous,” Stapleton says. “We’re also getting amazing deals from Steam sales, and entire genres like real-time strategy that just don’t work well on consoles. I don’t want to paint all console gamers with one brush, but PC gaming is pretty compelling right now.”
That sentiment is certainly echoed by the PC Gaming Alliance. Formed in 2008, when PC gaming’s light was at its dimmest, the PCGA obviously has a bias, as it is chartered with pushing all things PC gaming, but the Alliance has some persuasive points.
“Two gaming platforms have died in the last 10 years: Xbox 1 and Game Cube,” says Matt Ployhar, current president of the PCGA. “PC gaming is alive and well; unfortunately, that message just wasn’t getting reported.”
Ployhar also says much of the problem came from analysts looking only at retail sales of PC gaming and not digital sales. The stats also failed to count microtransactions and MMO subscriptions—two huge growth areas. Another weakness of the numbers game, Ployhar says, is that PC gaming is largely gauged by North America and ignores a huge swath of PC gaming overseas. China alone, he says, now has eight of the top 10 PC gaming companies that are raking in cash. That’s not even counting the massive growth of casual gamers on Farmville, Facebook, or Bejeweled.
Another unfair tactic by analysts and press is to lump all consoles as one.
“That’s like saying Ford, GM, and Chrysler ganged up on Toyota,” he said. “Those games don’t play on each other’s platforms.” But on the PC, a game that will run on an HP will run on a Dell or on your self-built box. Ployhar says his estimates put the install base of PC gamers at roughly 30 million enthusiasts, another 220 million performance and mainstream gamers, and another 350 million casual gamers.
That dwarfs the roughly 185 million console players, Ployhar says.
If anything, he says, it’s console gaming that’s threatened with extinction if the expected shift away from closed, proprietary platforms in favor of more open architectures and streaming games actually occurs.
Case closed? Not quite. Jesse Divnich, vice president of analyst services with Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, doesn’t think it’s quite so cut‑and‑dried that PC gaming is undergoing another golden age. Yes, social and casual gaming, or browser-based gaming, has seen an explosion, but traditional client-based PC gaming is only seeing modest growth.
Even statistics that show the PC is overwhelmingly the gaming platform of choice in developing nations such as China and India are likely to be fleeting, Divnich believes. In the same way that video games started on personal computers in the U.S. but moved to early consoles, Divnich expects that scenario to unfold in the developing world.
Divnich also thinks it’s overly optimistic to count browser-based PC gaming in the same bucket as traditional PC gaming. Someone who plays Farmville, he says, isn’t going to automatically step into Battlefield 3. And the old problem with the PC, that you must know your system requirements just to spool up a game, is still a turn-off for mainstream gamers.
Not that consoles are without glitches. A lag problem with the PS3 version of Skyrim is so bad that gamers were ready to magic missile Bethesda. Yet Divnich says the key difference is that console players know it’s the fault of developers. On a PC, “You instantly think, ‘This must be something on my end.’ Then you have to go to a FAQ and forums. On a console if something doesn’t work, it’s not my fault.”
The PC hasn’t been trouble-free with launches, either. Batman: Arkham City has DX11 issues due to the driver. And driver problems were so bad during the launch of id Software’s game Rage this fall that it threw John Carmack into a nerd rage, in which he declared in an interview with Kotaku.com, “The driver issues at launch have been a real cluster!@#$." He goes on to say that the company does "not see the PC as the leading platform for games. That statement will enrage some people, but it is hard to characterize it otherwise; both console versions will have larger audiences than the PC version.”
Michael Pachter, a high-profile analyst with Wedbush securities, agrees with Carmack that despite the PC’s better specs, it will never be the primary platform for game developers because the massive number of console players and how much they spend is just too big to ignore. Despite that, Pachter says he’s mostly bullish on PC gaming right now and thinks there is indeed somewhat of a resurgence in PC gaming.
“I think the console experience was great in 2005 and 2006. And it’s the same today,” he says. “The PC gaming experience has continued to get better and better. Very few games come out on the console and PC that don’t have better graphics on the PC. Battlefield 3 is a good example.”
Pachter also thinks there is an upside for PC gaming from browser gamers, or casual gamers. “We’re getting new gamers through Facebook, who may or may not be 45-year-old housewives,” he says, “But if they are, they have 10-year-old kids, and little Johnny can probably play games, too.”
Pachter said the latest growth in traditional PC gaming can also be explained by rock-bottom prices for very powerful hardware. “My first PC in the 1980s was $3,500, and I remember spending $2,000 in the last decade on a pretty cool gaming PC,” he says. “The idea that you can build yourself a rig [today] from scratch for $800 is pretty compelling.”
It’s not just on the low end that the cash registers are ringing, either. Kelt Reeves, owner of boutique PC maker Falcon Northwest, says he’s seen a spike in orders lately.
“We’ve had people specifically mention they’re buying new systems for games like Battlefield 3, Skyrim, and Knights of the Old Republic. And these games are really pushing the hardware and delivering new levels of gorgeous visuals if you have the power. And I don’t just mean DirectX 11 support, for which the flood of titles utilizing it has already arrived,” Reeves says. “I mean just good old-fashioned power-hungry games. Battlefield 3 will eat every bit of GPU power you can throw at it, and if you want to run it at Ultra settings on a 30-inch monitor, you not only need a high-end SLI setup for a good frame rate, you also need 3 gigs of texture memory per card or the game will overrun your frame buffer. Skyrim is demanding on the videocards, as well, but it’s the first game we’ve seen in a while that craves CPU power.”
Nvidia is also seeing big sales from its GPUs. The company’s latest earnings reports don’t attribute a nearly 5 percent revenue increase to smartphones and tablets—instead the revenue mostly comes from high-end discrete GPUs.
"This happens every major game console cycle toward the second half of its product life, because PC technology advances on a regular basis instead of once every seven to 10 years," Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang said during a briefing with analysts and investors.
No matter whom you believe, the good news is that the debate isn’t whether PC gaming’s trajectory is headed straight down—it’s a question of just how high up it will go.
Battlefield 3, EA's newest team-based shooter, is one of the best example yet of how the PC has pulled ahead of consoles as a gaming platform. Here are three examples of how the game plays better on PC.
Player count: Battlefield 3's chaotic 64-player battles had to be toned down for the consoles. Only 24 players at a time can fight it out on the Xbox 360 or PS3.
Map size: To go along with smaller team sizes, console players get smaller maps, and not the massive battlegrounds that are available to PC gamers.
Frame rate and resolution: If you want crisp, fluid graphics, you'll need to play on a powerful gaming PC. Console versions of the game only play at 720p resolution and 30 frames per second.
To say that Batman: Arkham City is the best licensed game of all time is like saying Oreos are the best chocolate-and-cream sandwich cookies; sure, it's praise, but it's meaningless praise given the competition. A more impressive feat is that outside of the comics and graphic novels, Batman: Arkham City is the single best representation of the Batman property ever created.
A veritable who's who of Batman history, Arkham City manages to weave in just about every major Batman character, from Alfred to Zsasz. The main storyline focuses on Batman's fight to take down Arkham City from the inside out, all while dealing with the ever-present Joker threat. The tightly constructed narrative moves seamlessly from story beat to story beat, villain to villain, as it builds to a satisfying and surprising finale. It helps that every member of the voice acting cast is pitch perfect, from the brilliant psychotic lunacy of Mark Hamill's Joker to the gravelly snarl of Kevin Conroy's Batman.
The real star of the show, however, is Arkham City, the walled-off penal colony that serves as the game's setting and expansive hubworld. Arkham City's faded art deco splendor and gritty industrial slums come together to uniquely capture the seedy, noir soul of Gotham. This carefully selected cross-section of toppled landmarks, burned‑out tenements, and rusty factories provides the perfect backdrop for Batman to do the usual Batman things.
And that's the true triumph of Batman: Arkham City—never before has Batman felt more like Batman. The caped crusader effortlessly grapples and glides his way around the city, flits from shadowy rooftops to darkened alleys, and makes full use of an impressive array of gadgets and utilities in his quest to clean up the rugged streets of Arkham City. Traversal is faster than ever as Batman literally flies across the city, and the open nature of Arkham City's world lets you smoothly transition from exploration, to stealth, to straightforward fisticuffs.
The free-flowing combat of Batman: Arkham Asylum makes a triumphant return in Arkham City, and with significant improvements. The core concept is still a two-button, timing-based system, focusing on strikes and counters and quickly moving from one target to the next. This go 'round, however, Batman has brought all his toys to the party. His utility belt is overflowing with handy gadgets which he can quick fire in the middle of combat without even breaking his combo.
Adding to the dynamic feel of both the fighting and the city at large is Nvidia's PhysX engine. Batman's cape clings and flutters realistically, dust and fog swirl around the legs of back alley thugs, leaves and trash float around the dilapidated streets, and shards of shattered glass and rock litter the broken pavement. The additions are subtle, but add significant atmosphere to an already detailed world.
And yes, even without PhysX, Batman: Arkham City is simply a phenomenal-looking game. The power of the PC is in full effect here; crisp hi-res textures and expansive draw distance ensure immersion even when viewing the entire city while gliding on high. Unfortunately, the game's performance takes a serious nosedive when DirectX 11 functions are enabled. While the game can run smoothly for stretches in DX11 mode, the frame rate will randomly, and fairly frequently, plummet to 5fps or lower, ultimately making the game unplayable. It's a shame too, as the DirectX 11 features look particularly nice, significantly enhancing the look of cloth and skin textures, and making characters appear decidedly less flat and plasticky than in DX9 mode.
There are a handful of other niggling technical issues, as well. The game's keyboard and mouse controls, thankfully, are not among them. The layout takes a bit of getting used to—this game uses a ton of buttons, thanks to 12 gadgets and several combat combo buttons—but feels better than a gamepad in the long run. The annoyance is simply that control settings cannot be changed when the game is running. In fact, no game settings can be changed once the game is launched—they can only be changed through the launcher application, before the game boots. Also, while we encountered no catastrophic errors, the game does take fairly long to boot, and we had several crashes with GFWL, forcing us to exit the program and restart.
Minor technical shortcomings aside, the PC version of Batman: Arkham City is clearly the definitive version of the definitive Batman experience. While it's a shame that the month delay between console and PC wasn't enough time to iron out all the kinks, the PC version still controls the best, runs the best, looks the best, and will provide you with the best Batman experience money can buy.
Engaging story with fantastic voice acting; big world with tons of quests and puzzles; smooth-flowing combat and traversal; a Batcave's worth of fun gadgets.
Serious DX11 performance issues; can't change settings in-game; three layers of DRM is overkill; no PhysX on AMD GPUs.
$50, www.batmanarkhamcity.com, ESRB: T
Skyrim is torn by civil war: A weakened Empire struggles to retain control of the province, while rebel Nords vie for self-determination. Dragons have returned after centuries, and nobody knows why. Undead infest the crypts, cairns, and barrows, and more dangerous things haunt deep Dwarven ruins. Elsewhere, ordinary people are living their lives. Guilds struggle to reclaim past glory, shopkeepers try to scrape by, lovers quarrel, and everyone could use your help. Time to make your mark on the world.
Skyrim is a first-person RPG with a wide array of skills and abilities, loosely clumped under three main archetypes: the mage, the warrior, and the thief. Unlike earlier Elder Scrolls games, though, there are no tagged skills or premade character classes. Play the game how you like, and your character gets better at what it does most. Our first character was a flame-casting, axe-wielding Nord, but there are eight other player races and innumerable play styles, and Shouts add a new kind of mana-less magic to the game. The game’s voice acting (for the most part), interface, and graphics are also leaps ahead of Oblivion’s. Combat is more satisfying, if a bit repetitive after a while. Even killing dragons becomes almost routine as you increase in power.
Skyrim’s main quest is an incredible tale that brings you from one end of the province to the other, from the highest mountain to the lowest depths, and encompasses stealth, diplomacy, adventuring, exploration, and a lot of combat. But it’s a greatest-hits collection for a prolific band. It’s a good starting point, and you’ll get some of the best content, but if it’s the only album you listen to, you’ll miss most of the material, including stuff that’s better than any of the hits. With superhuman focus you could beat the main quest in maybe 25 hours, but that’s not how you should play Skyrim. Even running from one objective to another, we inevitably got sidetracked for hours by something—a small town, a crypt, a ruin—we spotted in passing. We clocked 55 hours of play time before reluctantly focusing on the main quest and still felt we’d just scratched the surface. One editor has put 90 hours in and has barely touched the main quest at all.
It wouldn’t be a Bethesda open-world game without a heaping tablespoon of weirdness. Animals judder into the landscape or appear hundreds of feet in the air, then fall to their deaths. Every guard you meet complains about the arrow he took in the knee. Books and plates render slightly inside the shelves they’re on, then go flying across the room. A giant’s club rises into the air like a helium balloon. At times, the game would crash to desktop every hour or so. Good thing there’s a mod for that.
That’s one of the best things about playing Skyrim on a PC. In addition to the graphical superiority—consoles ain’t got nothing on Skyrim at 1920x1200 at Ultra settings—the modding community corrects for bugs and idiosyncrasies faster than the developers. Look past the inevitable nude mods, and you’ll see high-res texture packs, patches to fix Bethesda’s blocky faces, interface tweaks, and more. This isn’t to say Skyrim is a really buggy game. The few bugs that aren’t fixed by patches or mods aren’t enough to dampen our enthusiasm for the game world or the story.
If Skyrim was only as good as Morrowind or Oblivion, it’d be unskippable. But it’s much, much better. It’s certainly the best game Bethesda’s ever made, and one of the best we’ve ever played. It’s not without weird bugs and quirks, but the gameplay, story, and amount of content are all staggering, and we’ll be playing it for months to come.
Vast, content-filled world; hundreds of hours of stuff to do; good leveling system, fun combat, compelling story.
Occasionally buggy; not the most graphically intense game ever.
$60, www.elderscrolls.com, ESRB: M