With all eyes trained on consoles (and the predicted winners of the so-called console wars), PC games have taken a beating in recent years. Some industry watchers (and insiders) have even gone so far as to proclaim the PC game to be all-but dead.
Recent quarterly results indicate that the old boys’ way to play is still kicking, thanks in large part to massively multiplayer online role-playing games like “World of Warcraft” and the just-released “Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar.”
Like the decades long religious war between Mac zealots and Windows users who don’t get what all the fuss is about, console and PC gamers don’t generally see their worldviews through the same rainbow-colored glasses either. Twenty years of playing and writing about video games have brought me to the conclusion that the pluses and minuses of both ways of playing are determined by the games in play rather than the platforms themselves.
One game, three platforms
To illustrate, consider “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion,” from Bethesda Softworks, which made its simultaneous debut for PC and Xbox 360 early last year and recently arrived for the PlayStation 3.
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I first dove into the role playing game’s insanely huge world with my Xbox 360, loosely following the main quest and getting lost in myriad side quests and dungeon crawls I found along the way. The game is so open-ended that I was at once overwhelmed and bored.
So I put “Elder Scrolls” aside for a long stretch, only to return to it a few weeks ago, when the first full expansion pack, “Shivering Isles,” became available for purchase in stores and for download from Xbox Live. I was drawn to the fact that the expansion takes place on a single island that becomes discoverable after installation. With a more focused main quest I have vowed to stick with it until completion (an estimated 50+ plus hours), and then return to the main game’s main and side quests (an estimated 250+ hours of play).
Living room advantage
My initial experience with the 360 version was pleasant, thanks in large part to one of the biggest pluses consoles have over PCs: The ability to play crashed out on the sofa in the living room or den before a huge, widescreen HDTV. Sure, PCs can connect to HDTVs, but do I really want my PC in the living room?
My living situation has since changed, and now a Gateway 24” HDTV widescreen monitor pulls quad-duty connected to my Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, and Windows Vista PC in my bedroom. Though I miss the living room setup, I don’t mind the closer, cozier arrangement of sitting before the monitor in a comfortable, reclining leather office chair with sidearms for resting my elbows while working the wireless controller.
Curious about the other platforms, I turned to the PS3 version of “Oblivion” and created a new character and game. Though Shivering Isles and most of the other downloadable goodies are not yet available for the PlayStation 3 version of “Oblivion,” Bethesda says those add-ons will come later this year.
Sharper graphics, faster load times
Right away I noticed two things: Sharper graphics and much faster load times. The PS3’s great graphics owe much to the fact that the console is plugged into the Gateway monitor’s DVI port (via an HDMI to DVI cable), which provides considerably sharper graphics over the Xbox 360’s VGA connection. (My new Xbox 360 Elite offers the same kind of HDMI-out connection as the PS3, but "Oblivion’s" graphics look the same to me whether I used the Elite’s HDMI port or my original Xbox 360’s VGA connection.)
Otherwise, the PS3 version felt and played pretty much like the Xbox 360 version, save for one significant difference: Achievement points. Or more accurately, the lack thereof. Unlike the 360, the PS3 does not currently track each game’s progress and achievements. This may sound minor, but I, like many of my gaming friends, are addicted to that joyful moment when we’re rewarded with achievements points for unlocking certain challenges and completing levels in a360 game.
What’s more, the Xbox Live service lets me carry on a conversation with a friend while I’m crawling in a dungeon – and then accept his or her invite to quit “Oblivion” and jump into a fast-paced multiplayer game like “Gears of War” or “Quake 4,” all without a break in our chatter.
Keyboard, mouse among PC's virtues
The mention of “Quake 4” leads to PC gaming and one of its greatest virtues: The keyboard and mouse. Fans of first-person shooters played the original “Quake” in front of a PC with a keyboard and mouse to control the action long before the genre arrived on console machines. Handling a controller to play the mega-hit “Halo” for the original Xbox felt positively bizarre to me – and still does when I play FPS games on the next-gen Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
Personally, I prefer the quicker, tighter feeling the mouse offers to a console controller. At one point I hooked up a third-party device that allowed me to use a keyboard and mouse to play “Halo.” Guess what? Players who cut their FPS teeth on the console were still faster, better shots than me. So much for my theory that the keyboard and mouse combo would give me a competitive advantage over players stuck with the controller.
Those PC players that actually prefer playing by controller can add one, whereas they cannot readily do the opposite and add a keyboard and mouse to their boxes. I say not readily because mice and keyboards are not natively supported on most consoles. However, there are solutions.
To add mouse-and-keyboardability to the Xbox 360, try the $80 Team Xtender XCM XFPS 360 – although without hands-on time with the device I cannot attest to its usability. For the PS3, a more innovative hybrid, the Splitfish FragFX, combines left-controller movement with a right-hand mouse and built-in mousepad combo that’s designed to rest comfortably in the lap ($59.99 for wired, and $69.99 for Bluetooth wireless version). Again, I haven’t gotten my hands on one of these yet, but early reports give it high marks for bringing mouse control to the console.
The keyboard and mouse are critical when playing MMORPG PC games like “World of Warcraft” and “Everquest,” or strategy games like “Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle Earth II.” With a mouse, numerous commands are a click or keystroke away, and in “Lord of the Rings,” selecting groups of warriors is only a mouse-click-and-drag away. Pulling off the same action on the Xbox 360 version feels ham-handed and numb by comparison.
Graphics hardware adds to PC advantage
The other big PC gaming plus is graphics hardware. Unlike consoles, which are bound to the same graphics hardware for a 3 to 5 year lifecycle, PCs can be upgraded with more powerful video cards that offer superior graphics. Case in point: Running “Oblivion” on my aging Alienware PC served up the best-looking experience of all — once I got the ATI Radeon X 1950 Pro working. Which brings up a major PC minus: Getting the latest drivers to work involved numerous installs, crashes, and restarts to Safe mode to troubleshoot and tweak.
ATI released a newer driver, but the system still crashes often, making it impossible to get in any extended time with “Oblivion.” This is most likely due to the aging PC and not the card itself.
...but, PC gaming is pricier
Of course, a newer PC with Vista-certified-everything would likely work smoothly from the start – but whether it’s a better video card for your existing PC or a new, screaming-fast box tuned for gaming, PC gaming costs more than console gaming. The Radeon X1950 Pro I tested retails for about $250, which is more than half the price of an Xbox 360, and tricked out gamer PCs range can cost $1000 to $5000 – or more.
The PC version of “Oblivion” enjoys the same downloadable add-ons as the Xbox 360 version, and then some: Players can access plug-ins and mods, both official and unofficial, that change the experience in ways neither console version can hold a sword to. The ability to mod games has long been one of the PC’s greatest virtues as a gaming platform. And though it can’t really be called a game, one visit to the alternate reality known as Second Life is a living example of just how inventive (and bizarre) a world can be when it is flexible and open to creative interpretation.
Will Home change the playing field?
While Second Life doesn’t exist for consoles, it may turn out that the PlayStation 3 will bridge the console and-virtual-life worlds when Sony releases Home, its virtual community enhancement.
Preview details of Home describe customizable alter-ego avatars, theaters for watching virtual movie and game trailers and trophy halls for displaying gaming achievements. As for PC and console gamers duking it out in the same arena, Microsoft’s "Shadowrun," which ships at the end of the month, will pit the two sides against one another via Xbox Live.
Who will prove to be the better gamer — the PC player behind keyboard and mouse, or the 360 shooter kicked back on the sofa? That remains to be seen — quite literally, since Xbox Live’s gamer profile stats show how players stack up against one another from game to game.
Sure, each side of the debate can tout its superiority over the other, but in the end, a gamer’s "Shadowrun" achievement points will speak for themselves.
May the "best" platform win.