The triumphant, magnificent, and unexpected return of PC gaming

It's back.

The Division

I stood by myself in a darkened hallway.

The walls looked like a cross between a jail cell and a slime pit. Everything was arranged in perfectly perpendicular angles, and there was one soldier frozen in the center of the room, never flinching. I walked around, stunned a bit by the silence and the lack of motion. It was 1993, and I was playing an early demo version of the first-person shooter Doom. The gameplay was not quite ready. There were no animations yet, and I was moving around as a lifeless void controlling a camera.

I’ll never forget the experience. I was hooked. And, I stayed hooked all through my young adult years as the PC slowly matured and developed. I was working as a graphics design manager back then, but over lunch, I became a bloodthirsty, gun-toting super-soldier hunting down aliens in a dark and danky gameworld.

The Doom series came to an abrupt end in 2004 (it's finally coming back this year), coinciding with what I’ve determined is a complete meltdown in the PC gaming industry. It was essentially ceded to the console makers. Oh, you can argue that World of Warcraft, which debuted that same year, kept the platform alive. Certainly there have been some amazing indie games over the years, and plenty of innovations. But the cold hard truth for fans of the PC platform is that many of the powerhouses like Activision, EA, and Ubisoft took a pass and stuck with the Xbox and PlayStation.

Well, they are back. Finally. It has been a long, long wait.

Just recently, the major franchises have started popping up on PC again, not just as a blip here and there but as a major return to form. The Division is now available on PC, so is Star Wars: Battlefront and Far Cry Primal. Doom for PC is on the horizon. It’s not just a few titles showing up on Windows 10 again, but a complete and utter resurgence of the platform, a coup for the keyboard and mouse crowd.

The question you might ask is: Why is there a sudden rebound? Has there been a shift in the gaming landscape or some sudden innovation that is drawing them back?

I wanted to find out, so I did what I’ve always done these past 15 years as a journalist. I started playing the games. And, I didn't just play them. I tested them on a high-end gaming rig from Digital Storm with a few choice peripherals on a 4K monitor with room-filling surround sound. I wanted to find out how a PC rig compares to the consoles down in my living room; I wanted to go all in with the best games.

I also wanted to determine what was causing the resurgence. Was it related to advancements in graphics tech, the coming VR revolution, a dissatisfaction with the consoles, a Windows 10 rebound, or somehow related to the proliferation of high-end computers finally replacing low-end systems?


My working theory so far is that it is all of the above. The PC is, once again, an attractive option for game publishers and will become even more attractive this year.

First, one clear sign is that the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are both showing their age a bit. While there are reports of the PS4 supporting 4K resolution, the PC supports it now and in most recent games. It’s phenomenal to play Star Wars: Battlefront on a platform you can also use for your taxes, like it always was.

In terms of graphics, there’s simply no comparison--you just see more details on the PC, hands down. In Star Wars: Battlefront, the Jakku level is stunningly different on PC. You can see wind-blown ripples in the sand, and explosions look more detailed. The entire gameworld just looks crisp and ultra-realistic. There’s a jagged quality to games on Xbox One and PS4 that’s, a dim grayness. Maybe it's intended to make sure there’s never any slowdowns but also because the graphics are just getting old.

On the Digital Storm Vanquish 5 I tested, there’s an Intel Core i7 6700K 4.0GHz processor, 16GB of DDR4 2666MHz RAM, and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 970 4GB graphics cards rated as VR Ready, and several other optimizations intended to make PC games run smooth as butter. There’s just no comparison to the current consoles in terms of raw gaming performance. They just can't keep up.

Yet, performance is not always the determining factor. PCs have outpaced the consoles for years, especially once you start adding multiple graphics cards, adding extra RAM, or overclocking the CPU to the point where you don’t see any glitches due to performance. In all of my testing with The Division, Far Cry Primal, Star Wars: Battlefront, and other games, performance was never a problem.

What makes the PC even more compelling right now is that the VR revolution has finally started. Just this week, the Oculus Rift debuted for PC with a host of new games that you can’t play on any of the consoles. (I will have a full report on that device soon.) That system requires at least an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and at least a NVIDIA GTX 970 or AMD 290 GPU. The consoles just don’t have enough horsepower to make VR look realistic or compelling, despite what you may have heard.

My theory is that PC gamers are smart enough to know this. They’ve seen the writing on the wall, and it says Virtual Reality. Windows 10 is partly a major hit with 200M units sold because there is a movement back to the platform for high-end graphics work, gaming, VR and AR, 4K movies, browsing, and business. We all talk about the mobile revolution, but we crave more and more PC power on our desks.

It’s also a matter of simple math. There are now 1.2B gamers who use the PC now, according to Intel estimates. If you’re Activision or EA, that’s going to make you notice. Also, delivery services like Steam, UPlay, and Origin all make it almost instantaneous (depending on your connection speed) to order, install, and start playing the latest games in minutes, not hours. The consoles obviously offer instant access to games, but we’re already sitting at a PC workstation. It’s far easier to switch to a PC game.

In the end, it was when I was playing The Division that I finally realized why there’s such a major resurgence. There are so many perks right now -- a fast connection, graphics realism, instant access to the games, the coming VR onslaught. But working with a few other players, I walked into a crowded district with neon lights shining down on the wet pavement. I jogged for a bit and stopped just to look up at the skyline, listen to the surround-sound in my office, and chat with another player who was also a bit mesmerized by the visual realism. It's all of the above. It's the whole kit.

The PC is able to transport you in a way the consoles--which seem a bit stuck in the past--are not able to do do right at the moment. You can go from Google Docs to The Division in almost a heartbeat. You can don a VR headset and explore an alien world. You have the surround sound, full control with keyboard and mouse, blistering audio, and a way to transport yourself instantly. The coup is here.


Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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