The perils of PC.

Before I start let me quickly point out that title has nothing to do with political correctness. This isn’t the Daily Express letters section.

I’ve been an on/off PC gamer since the late ’90s. Before I became platform agnostic it was the only thing I played games on at one point. I sold my Playstation for RAM and a new processor, and the spoils of my sixteenth birthday were spent on a new graphics card and a 3D accelerator (remember those?).

A lot has changed since then. We’ve seen another four incarnations of Windows, and Macs became cool again. We’ve even hit a point where it’s actually practical to have a laptop as your only computer, which is something I hadn’t envisioned back then. And according to Steve Jobs in ten years time we won’t have computers in the form I’m used to at all (I hope he’s wrong).

Anyway, at some point during my first foray into college I got back into consoles. I blame Final Fantasy VIII for making me feel bad about selling my Playstation and then buying another one a few years later. I gradually forgot about PC gaming, and even stopped bothering with my own computer after my sister bought one that was better.

Like I said, we were looking at the point where the workstation was getting redundant, and people just bought laptops. It was easier, but the only games I’d play on them were emulated SNES RPGs and the odd Lucasarts adventure. I had consoles for the tentpole stuff. I still do.

In 2009 I accidentally snapped the hinges off my Acer laptop. I wasn’t best pleased. It’s not really something you can fix with a bit of superglue after all. Looking at my options for buying a replacement, I couldn’t help but notice that specs-wise it’d be more cost-effective to buy a desktop. I was hardly going to take it anywhere, and my previous two laptops had both succumbed to physical wear and tear above all else.

I really didn’t think back then about the rabbit-hole I’d be sent down once I bought a graphics card that was on par with my Xbox 360. I just thought I might play Starcraft 2 when it came out, or those Monkey Island games I’d been missing. When I was buying it from the store and the sales assistant said “Oh, it’ll be great for games too,” I retorted with “Well, I’m hardly going to be playing Crysis on it”. And then I did.

I’ve spent the last week or so playing the original Deus Ex. I’m well aware that it’s twelve years old now, but it’s been haunting me for years and I couldn’t let it eat away at me any longer. As it turns out, that game is still rather good: as the credits rolled last night I generally had the same feeling from when I finally got around to playing the entirety of Ocarina of Time in 2010. Even so, there are things about it that from a design standpoint wouldn’t hold up today, and I was left wondering if the controversy about its poorly received sequel was short-sighted in the grand scheme of things.

Only one way to find out.

A quick foray onto Steam later, and in less than thirty minutes the sequel was on my hard drive and ready to go. Or so I thought. It’s always a good sign when you try to run a game and it boots up in a 640×480 (the resolution that time forgot) window. After some tweaks to the .ini file, I managed to get it to run fullscreen. But that was only half of it…

Every time the game hit what was supposed to be a loading screen, I’d just get a wall of black staring back at me and nothing would happen. Eventually I’d get bored, call up the task manager and try to force-quit it. Occasionally when I’d do that, and kill any processes associated with it, the game would inexplicably spring back into action. Not good enough.

So what are you supposed to do when faced with such a problem? Try getting tech support from Eidos on a game that came out in 2002!? Ha! You hit the forums.

Really, I should remember when this stuff wasn’t available to me and I had to try and figure it out myself. But yes, it’s all very anecdotal and very rarely helps. I spent the best part of three hours going back and forth through various fixes, none of them making the game run satisfactory. And some range from the feasible to the ridiculously stupid. Try to guess for yourself what I made of this one:

Finally came across someone on here (Can’t find the exact post) who recommended closing all web browsers. Sure enough it was chrome which was causing issues. Still a 2-3 second delay between loads, but that’s no big deal.

Maybe it’s the late ’90s creeping into me, but this advice seemed profoundly useless. And moot. I’m from a time where my modest P166 and 32MB of RAM didn’t have the juice to run things alongside whatever game I was playing, and even today I tend to close that stuff down first. I couldn’t help but feel that if I looked hard enough into the forums, I’d find someone who claimed it was because he was defragmenting his hard drive at the same time as running the game, and that he was simultaneously reinstalling Windows too. It strikes me as being akin to hotswapping your PSU or something.

After a little more searching, Occam’s Razor sort of indicates that it’s a multi-core issue, i.e. the game simply doesn’t work well with the processors of today. Of course, that gave me a few more things to try out, such as trying to manually set the affinity so it only ran on one core, and finally booting Windows 7 on a single core, the latter being what I imagine is the home computing equivalent of those moments in Star Trek where they’d divert power from the shields… needless to say Windows ran like shit and it didn’t solve my problem.

I can remember a time when I absolutely used to live for this stuff… I’d spend ages before even playing a game tweaking the settings, trying to get the right balance between resolution and frame-rate, knocking down draw distances and mid-mapping for coloured lighting, that kind of thing. Now I really just can’t be bothered.

I’m left with the idea that the best thing I can do at this point – other than accept total defeat and move onto something else – is dust off my original Xbox and play that version instead. Believe me, getting that thing out of storage isn’t an enticing proposition for someone who hasn’t bench pressed anything for six weeks.

Before I resign myself to that, I guess I’ll just have to accept how naïve I was to expect some things will just work. After all, I don’t blame Edios for thinking x86 processors weren’t going anywhere, or failing to predict that I’d be banging my head against a wall trying to get the murky depths of their back catalogue to work a decade later. After a while I ceased to be annoyed at Sony for taking backwards-compatibility out of the PS3 and remembered there’s a reason why I stopped selling my old consoles… and maybe it’s the same with computers really. So yeah, Microsoft’s first clumsy step into console gaming has been taking up space in my closet for six years now. Maybe it’s time to let the old girl out for a bit.

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