Buying Games: Console vs PC

In Video Games on August 11, 2011 at 5:05 pm

There’s a certain joy in the freedom from choice, and nowhere is this clearer than the console market. Owning, singularly, a PC, Xbox 360 or PS3 means you instantly know which platform to single out among multi-platform releases. Coverage for these games trend towards non-specificity in platform; in owning more than one, sifting through the internet to find the best platform is at best a chore, at worst impossible, and always a mindfuck.

All other factors notwithstanding, preference should be all that matters. Were reality so kind as to disregard such factors as exclusivity in post-release support, the vagaries of technical performance and the harsh judgments from cliques of platform-centric gamers. As it stands, making the wrong choice can leave you feeling marginalized with a barely functional copy of a game that works perfectly on another platform.

Regarding console vs. console, the differences matter less. There’s material matters, such as platform-exclusive pre-order bonuses, retail purchase incentives and post-release DLC, but six years into this generation of hardware means the differences between the two mean very little. Even minor financial differences, such as Xbox Live requiring a subscription, mean little as you wouldn’t have purchased it if you preferred PSN in the first place.

PCs vs. consoles is another matter entirely. From a hardware standpoint PCs operate on a completely different level with the graphical prowess of even a modest PC easily besting the best looking console game. We’ve advanced two generations of graphical APIs since 2005 and gone past two versions of Windows since then. Yet, due to consoles providing the standard and baseline for technical achievements in gaming. Incredibly advanced PC gaming machines are literally constrained by the technical limitations of six year old hardware, since a developer isn’t going to make a game twice just to use sharper models and textures for the PC gaming crowd. What we can hope for, however, is more and better shaders, shadows and other processing effects.

So PC gamers don’t want a watered-down PC port of an overly consolized game, while console-owners are probably remiss over missing out on free content, mods and better graphics. But it depends on the game and the studio producing it.

Is it a console or PC game?

By default, most multi-platform games are console games first. Simple math shows that a game is going to make most of its money through consoles, so the question becomes how focused were they in creating the PC experience.

Given the above, you can quickly check a tally in the PC column if a game supports something beyond DirectX 9 or a myriad of other advanced graphical features. On the flip side, if there aren’t any advanced graphical setting options, it’s a good warning that this was ported with little thought. PC gamers use a variety of hardware, so a variety of settings is absolutely necessary for them to get the most out of the game (and their machines), yet sometimes games ship with no option for anti-aliasing, V-Sync forced on, FPS capped and FOV locked. Brink, a game well-discussed by the developers as having its own PC development team, shipped with an FPS cap, making it hard for PC gamers to show patience enough to keep the game alive while waiting for that essential first slew of patches.

That last one is a biggie. The biggest, most easy to see difference between console and PC games is in the FOV. Where slick anti-aliasing or high-resolution textures make for a crisper game, FOV determines what’s actually on the screen. Console gamers sit on their couches and play games on large TVs from across the room. PC gamers, on the other hand, sit within a few feet of their widescreen monitor. The difference this produces is that console gamers are more comfortable with a lower FOV range because it’s like looking out across a room, while PC gamers demand a higher one because you’re looking at something in front of you. Bioshock got into a bit of a kerfuffle over FOV for everyone as widescreen support simply chopped the top and bottom off of their standard 4:3 image; this was made worse by the insane assertion that this was part of their artistic vision. Other games, like Borderlands, lacked an FOV option at all and had to enable advanced options as this through community-made configuration utilities.

Other features can play heavily into the decision as well. Where multiplayer is concerned, PC gamers (of course) want options. They want dedicated servers and full-featured server browsers. Lacking a complex interface tool, console gamers are offered limited or no dedicated server support and naught but a few options between “jump right in” and “jump right in with these settings.” So obviously, when you begin hearing about how the next big game has no server support or has no server browser, you’re in trouble.

Mods are kind of a grey area. Not every game is going to provide modding tools, especially if that game is primarily a multiplayer affair. Despite this, no one would call Battlefield a console game for its lack of mod support. That said, the day Bethesda releases an Elder Scrolls game with no toolset is the day you can close the book on that franchise being awesome on the PC.

Outside of that, free content can really make a strong push depending upon its quality. Left 4 Dead and its sequel offered all of its DLC for free on the PC; actually, it was offered via patch, so you got it automatically. Team Fortress 2 is now free-to-play, but in the past and going forward Valve releases all of its content for free. This includes maps, game modes, weapons and hats, all of which never saw release on the 360. Unreal Tournament 3 is a bit of half and half, as it offers quite a bit to PC gamers by way of modding tools and free content, but overall the interface and scope seems to have had consoles in mind. And, of course, Epic has since (largely) abandoned the PC as a platform, so that’s telling as well.

Lacking other considerations, controls can play a huge part in all of this and it’s no longer as simple as “FPS = keyboard and mouse.” Preference aside, some games are clearly meant to be played with a controller. This part is easy to spot, as the difference between how a game is played on a gamepad versus a keyboard and mouse is easily seen in promotional videos. This made many gamers scared of RAGE, as all of its gameplay videos are obviously with a gamepad and make use of gamepad-friendly radial menus; yet, this is id software, purveyors of Quakecon, PC developers through and through. This obviously isn’t helped in that you can use a gamepad on a PC — and this is what all of the Rage promos purport to doing — and obviously it’s not a competitive game where supreme accuracy is key.

Then we have games like Alpha Protocol, which should by all rights work fine on any computer but their input stutter / lag makes it unbearable on my computer in particular. Wish I’d gotten that one on the 360.

Lastly, you can get it from the horse’s mouth: sometimes the devs will simply state their intent, or maybe a high profile PC gaming magazine will give Human Revolution a 94% and state that it’s the new standard that embarrasses the rest of FPSdom.

So sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you have homework to do. Luckily, I’ve done the work for you for a few titles coming up:

Space Marine is a console game due to my preference for a gamepad for an over-the-shoulder shooter, and especially for its melee combat.
Dead Island is a PC game for its full Steamworks integration and graphical splendor.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution is a PC game for its DX11 and advanced graphical support and for its impressive score in PC Gamer.
Rage is actually going to be great on every platform; nominal differences in graphics include some sharper shadows and AA for the PC. Oh, and full modding tools (it’s an id game), so it’s a PC game.
Battlefield 3 is a PC game due to its unique Batttlelog only existing on that platform, and for its awesome graphics.
Skyrim could actually go either way, depending on how good its mod base becomes.

But again, for any of the above titles, it was largely a matter of preference.

  1. Sit across the room? pfft, I play like three feet from the TV.

    Don’t have much else to offer, i’m like that weird exception.

    Also the comparison screen up there really doesn’t look different. The walkway grid is a bit sharper in the top one…but the character model looks less believable too.

  2. The main difference between versions of DirectX is its shaders and other processing effects. Basically, you’re not going to get a better character model or higher resolution textures, but it should look “better” overall as it can apply these effects more efficiently (or at all, in cases of things like tesselation and whatnot that aren’t on consoles).

    To give an example, these things are like filters in Paint Shop Pro or Photoshop: it’s all just math. So when you’re dealing with things that are like that — particles, smoke, water, lighting etc. — this is when DX10/11 shines. So the biggest difference in that comparison screenshot is in the water, where the DX9 version looks like someone made a sand castle out of the lake, where the DX11 version is more subtle and realsitic. Tessellation — the effect you’re likely seeing on the model and railing — is kind of like an advanced normal mapping / bump mapping, better illustrated with this video.

  3. It seems what yer saying, and the video is showing, is that this uses shading and color to automatically create form?

    Pretty impressive tech, though it goes a bit more towards realism over style. Not a bad thing, just a preference thing. Can they use it to create realistic looking muscle tone?

    Also looks like it should not be unsupervised, the road bit in that video is bumpy to the point of not being a road. Still impressive looking though.

  4. My search-fu provides ever more detailed explanations of tessellation! I admit I only had a bare idea as to what it was, but…

    Tessellation in DX11 is a two-step process. First is to actually tessellate a model; this means it’s rounding out edges to create a more smooth and natural look by creating more and more polygons, procedurally, to affect curves and whatnot.

    The second is displacement mapping; this is when you can actually program height information into textures that will then be tessellated and mapped into physical structures.

    The easiest way to think about it would be a carving in a wall. In DX9 it would be a flat texture, but in DX11 it would be in relief with real depth. But it is actually controlled by the graphics artist. The road is probably out of control because they really wanted to make the point that it went from a flat texture to a ragged, jagged surface.

    Similar to normal mapping (for which the UT3 engine is famous) all of these techniques allow you to show much more detail at a fractional performance cost.

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