Home Theater PC Gaming

“Some games are more suited for the intimacy of the PC, and others are best played from the couch in front of a larger TV screen. We ultimately realised that the most compelling way to experience “Alan Wake” was on the Xbox 360 platform, so we focused on making it an Xbox 360 exclusive.”

–A Microsoft Spokesperson, December 2010

In this generation’s intensifying battles between PC and console gamers, some key points thrown around involve how PC gaming looks better, or how games are better played in front of a TV. A lot of PC gamers will tell you now that the platform is capable of he best of all worlds, and I just got to try out that claim this week.

For some reason I failed to notice the HDMI port that my new graphics card added to my desktop until more than a year after I bought it. I’ve been planning to go the Home Theater PC route for a while now for several reasons and decided to go ahead and test some things out. Honestly, the results are almost akin to booting up a new console on Christmas.

My main reason for going with an HTPC is actually for watching videos. The Xbox 360 is trying to lead the way in streaming to your television which is becoming a thing with the Apple TV, PS3, and various smart TVs. Most of these applications are adaptations of PC apps, so why not just hook a computer up to your TV and circumvent the need for them? Windows 8 seems like it’s going to be deliberately built for this. Right there you get YouTube on your television – of which I discovered the appeal years ago, free HULU on our TV, and videos in a bunch of formats your 360 and PS3 won’t touch.

On top of that though, you get to enjoy PC games with the same comfort in which you probably consume movies, TV, and console games. Increasing support for the Xbox 360 controller in PC gaming essentially means you play most of these titles as you would console games. At that point some might say “why play the PC version at all? It’s a console game at that point.” Graphics basically.

Possibly the biggest complaint I keep seeing from videophiles when it comes to PS3 and 360 games is that most of them only run in 720p at 30 frames per second, and often struggle to even meet that standard. One of the main reasons people campaigned for a PC version of Dark Souls was so that they could play it in 1080p at whatever framerate their computers could handle (Dark Souls runs notoriously sluggishly on both consoles). People who already own the console version are still planning on buying Prepare to Die Edition. I know I am.

Trying out a handful of my games on my 1080p Sony Bravia, the image quality blew me away – across a wide variety of games too. My computer monitor’s native resolution is only 1440 x 900, so this is the first time I’ve seen any of these games in native 1080p. Skrim to me has always felt like a PC RPG with a console RPG interface – the console experience “felt” better for it, but I bought it on PC for the advantages of graphics and mods, and having both feels great. RAGE in particular looks and runs amazingly, but the most impressive game I tried out was Crysis 2.

Seeing Crysis 2 running in my home theater system in 1080p at a great framerate, and playing it with a controller made me feel like I was finally looking at the promise J Allard made back in 2005 when he said the Xbox 360 was going to bring gaming into the “HD era”. I finally get to see AAA “console” games running in what they call “Full HD”. If my computer could handle Crysis 2 with all the DirectX 11 features turned on it’d probably be a glimpse into what we’ll be getting on next gen consoles. It’s not just the new stuff that looks great though.

I even tried out some older games and they look better than ever too. Phantasy Star Online – an 11-year-old Dreamcast game (of which I’m playing the PC version modded for homebrew servers), definitely looks impressive running in 1080p. Even Super NES games look great if you ask me – I’ve started collecting ROMs of impossible-to-find games, and while Earthbound looks extra-pixelated when blown up to 1080p, it still looks more colorful and vibrant than ever. I haven’t even gotten started on the Dolphin and PCSX2 emulators for Wii and PS2 games respectively.

After all this, just to make sure I wasn’t crazy I went back and booted up Dragon’s Dogma on my PS3 – a game I know probably runs in 720p at (barely) 30fps. The game still looks very good and it’s not like I can’t stand to look at it (I still play Wii, and even SNES games natively on my HDTVs), but it’s obviously not glistening like the PC version of RAGE. If I ever decide to buy Dragon’s Dogma, it’ll be the inevitable PC version.

One of the main things I hear people want in next gen consoles is some kind of 1080p and 60fps standard. Even I know that’s probably a pipe dream. Image quality on consoles has always been up to the developer, and every console generation has been a hodgepodge of framerates and rendering resolutions. Id’s John Carmack recently gave his opinion that there will still be a lot of 30fps games on next gen machines, simply because today developers are going for raw graphics over iq. The current consoles could be running games in 1080p60 now, though most of them would probably look like PS2 games.

Personally, I would still like there to be more 1080p console games in the future, and more 60fps shooters. Fighting and racing games established an unspoken 60fps standard because they’re built on fast input. I understand that most shooters are made by former PC developers who haven’t had to deal with strict hardware ceilings until relatively recently moving onto consoles, but they need to adapt some of the things the Japanese figured out years ago. I think this is one of the main reasons Call of Duty’s controls manage to stand out so much on consoles.

Anyway, my next computer (hopefully this year) will likely be an HTPC while I relegate my current one to a desktop for work and a handful of games (Diablo III still feels better at a desk). I’m investigating whether maybe my current desktop might hold out as a good HTPC – it can still run almost any PC game in 1080p due to the relatively new graphics card, but I’m afraid the Q6600 CPU might get long in the tooth pretty soon. Some suggestions would be nice. I’ve actually started holding off playing some of my PC games again until I can do this.

There are also some small quirks left to work out in getting a desktop to properly operate on a TV screen. One of the things I’m really waiting for is Steam’s upcoming Big Picture mode specifically for HTPCs. Another reason to connect a PC to a TV is because I honestly prefer Steam to Xbox Live, though Steam’s current interface is less than perfect when you’re sitting 10 feet away from it.

I think something like this venture fits especially well for me – I’ve been a console gamer most of my life and have only recently made the switch to the PC. Recently I started willingly playing more of my console backlog just to reclaim a lost feeling. If I can get this right, I can essentially live in both worlds with more or less the advantages of both.

BULLETS:

  • Hope to God Yakuza 5 makes it over here. I’m surprised they’ve managed to keep the franchise this fresh upon their fifth main entry (third on current generation consoles). Here’s a full translation of the Famitsu article: http://t.co/Vh9DRI24
  • Well at least we now know CDProjek’s 2012 conference will contain at least something Witcher-related: http://t.co/DW0aEu8j
  • British voice actors must be making bank from all these new medieval-themed RPGs.
  • Any suggestions for a good wireless keyboard and mouse?
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