In mid-October, I managed to get all of the components for my new PC together. Building something like this – knowing that so many of the options involved were solely my decision and not dictated by a console maker or a PC manufacturer – was extremely satisfying.
You can read about my reasoning for the various components here. I have been very happy with performance of the components so far. Both the graphics card and the processor fan are much quieter than I was expecting, even when running a new game like Arkham Origins with the best graphics options. It isn’t completely silent, but it’s difficult to hear over ambient noise and impossible to hear over noise from a game or DVD. Compared to both the original Xbox 360 and the Xbox 360 Slim, it is much, much quieter.
Assembling the computer was relatively easy. The biggest problem I had was running out of desk space for everything I needed to have to hand. Access to a large kitchen or dining table would have been really helpful.
Other problems were extremely minor. Having no experience using modern Intel sockets, I was expecting the processor to fit into place sharply. When the bracket closed with a noise that is more of a creak than a snap, I was quite surprised and it took me a few minutes to make sure I had inserted everything correctly and wasn’t mashing the pins on the bottom of the processor into a pulp.
The final problem I encountered was a cable from the processor’s cooler catching on the fan. This prevented the fan from spinning, leading to a rather toasty processor. Thankfully, I spotted the higher than expected temperature in the BIOS screen when I was checking that everything was correctly set-up and was able to loosen the cable. Ten years ago, that could have led to a fried processor, but most modern chips shut themselves down before damage can be done.
Other than that, I can’t believe how simple the overall process is. I think I’ve had more grief when trying to assemble larger items of Ikea furniture. Of course, a sideboard doesn’t have a dozen fiddly cables which have to be coerced into some vague state of tidiness or very, very small connectors which have to be slipped on to tiny pins.
In terms of performance, it far exceeds what I was expecting. The GTX 760 is more than powerful enough to handle Arkham Origins and Skyrim at 1080P without having to increase it’s fan speed. Both games easily deliver 60 frames per second or higher. In the case of Skyrim, this is delivered without any of the stuttering or texture tearing visible on the Xbox 360 version of the game. The beautiful aurora and near endless landscapes in Skyrim very nearly justify the spend on a gaming PC on their own and I cannot wait to try out some of the higher resolution fan-made texture packs.
After nearly a year of research and deliberation, I have finally taken the big step and ordered the components for my new gaming PC. There have been a few changes in the last few months – particularly the case.
PCPartPicker part list: http://uk.pcpartpicker.com/p/1OfqF
CPU: Intel Core i5-4570 3.2GHz Quad-Core Processor
Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z87N-WIFI Mini ITX LGA1150 Motherboard
Memory: Crucial Ballistix 4GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 Memory
Storage: Samsung 840 Series 120GB 2.5″ Solid State Disk
Storage: Seagate Barracuda 1TB 3.5″ 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive
Video Card: MSI GeForce GTX 760 2GB Video Card
Case: Fractal Design Node 304 Mini ITX Tower Case
Power Supply: Corsair CX 500W 80 PLUS Bronze Certified ATX12V Power Supply
Operating System: Microsoft Windows 8 (OEM) (64-bit)
I chose the RAM and hard-drives on the basis of good quality products coming up on offer. I managed to save about £40 this way. The majority of the rest of the components aren’t subject to such big price fluctuations.
I backed off from my previous choice of case due to it’s size, instead opting for some discreet Scandinavian design in the form of the Fractal Node 304. It unfortunately doesn’t have space for a DVD drive, so I’ve picked up a cheap external drive to go with it. Sadly, the internet speed in my area of London isn’t good enough to let me rely solely on software downloads.
Some of the Haswell processors have dropped in price recently, which did make an upgrade to the slightly more powerful i5-4670K, which can be overclocked, but as I have no real interest in overclocking, I stuck with the more than adequate i5-4570.
I’m inclined towards nVidia graphics cards over AMD’s products anyway, so when they GTX 760 came out at the right price point I was half sold on it already. The MSI version of the card is reputed to run both coolly and quietly. I may yet regret going with nVidia over AMD if the use of AMD components in the XBox One and PS4 leads to major games performing better on AMD systems.
Finally, after a long debate with myself, I decided on Windows 8 as an operating system. I really like Windows 7, which I previously had on my Mac and which I use at work. It’s very slick, very simple and looks fantastic. I decided that I didn’t just want to stick with what I know in terms of Windows. I’m sure I can deal with the loss of the Start menu. Anyway, there is always SteamOS if I really don’t like it.
Interestingly, the finished computer will be very similar to some of Valve’s prototype Steam Machine PCs. The main differences are the amounts of storage and RAM.
For a long time, the desktop computer processor market has been dominated by two companies: Advanced Micro Devices (better known as AMD) and Intel. After the PC boom of the 80s when Texas Instruments, IBM and other semiconductor companies were competing on a equal footing only Intel and AMD emerged with high powered, innovative consumer products for the late 90s and 00s. Except for a brief period in the mid 00s, Intel has always been the more dominant of the two companies, despite struggling to gain traction in the lucrative tablet and smartphone markets in recent years.
Back in 2004, I would have been stupid to buy anything other than an AMD processor. While Intel struggled to get faster clockspeeds from the Pentium 4 chips due to heat dissipation problems, AMD had introduced a 64-bit extension to the x86 instruction set, produced a successful consumer 64-bit processor and begun what was to become a near domination of the server processor market. To all intents and purposes, it looked like AMD were about to go from being an underdog to replacing Intel as the dominant power in the processor world.
The situation is completely reversed today. Intel abandoned a large part of the Pentium 4 processor architecture in favour of the Core architecture and have found phenomenal success with it’s increasingly powerful derivatives. AMD are struggling financially and have seen their most recent processors struggle to compete against faster and cooler Intel chips (Ars Technica has a good article about how AMD arrived in this situation).
Given that Intel processors run at much cooler temperatures and use less power while giving greater performance, I am firmly in the Intel camp. Next month, Intel will be launching their next generation processor, based on the Haswell architecture. These are expected to reduce power consumption and heat generated further while retailing at the same price point to the current generation of processor. The Haswell chips also use a new motherboard socket, meaning that a compatible motherboard should last for at least four to six years before needing an upgrade.
As far as models go, I see my choice as being between the enthusiast orientated i5-4670K or a more budget orientated i3 chip. The i5 is a four core processor, due out in June and will likely provide my system with an excess of computing capacity. The i3s haven’t yet been announced, but are expected to go on sale sometime towards the end of the year. The current generation of i3 processors have only two cores but due to poor use of multiple cores by game developers, they are more then capable of running high end games.
There are some arguments for going for an AMD processor over an Intel chip. Xbox Infinity is expected to use an AMD processor and it has already been confirmed that the PS4 will use a customised version of AMD’s Jaguar laptop processor. Some argue that this will lead to games being better optimised to run on AMD hardware. I’m not familiar enough with the diferences between AMDs mobile and desktop processors to comment on this, but given Intel’s dominant position in the market, I find it hard to imagine that developers wouldn’t take the time to optimise games for both Intel and AMD systems. This may, of course, be rather naïve, but only time will tell.
It’s been a very long time since I last bought a pen and paper RPG book. It’s been well over two years since I last played in an RPG game at all. It’s been so long that I don’t even remember where my whisky tin full of dice is, although I know my collection of RPG books is safely buried in a mound of boxes somewhere in my mum’s house.
It’s a bit depressing - even after I’ve effectively abandoned the hobby – to read about how eReaders and tablets have taken over from giant hardback tomes.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad I bought a Kindle and I found my iPad invaluable when I was still gaming, but I found that neither device could replace my RPG books. My Kindle hasn’t even come close to replacing any type of book in my life thanks to a nasty habit of buying the same book in both hardback and digital forms.
RPG books are a particularly special case though. There is something about the scent of the paper, the glossy illustrations and the crack and snap of the pages that is an essential part of the role playing experience. It’s a particular joy when someone has a newly released book which is getting handed round a group or when you find an old, out of print game in a FLGS or on eBay.
There are also advantages to paper books over their digital equivalents. It’s not unusual for game masters to ban players from reading or referring to particular books to prevent cheating, reading ahead in stories or rules lawyering. If the source books are 300 pages of glossy A4, you can’t really hide them at the table. With a Kindle or an iPad, you could be reading anything at the table.
On the other hand PDF game books are a massive benefit to independent game designers and small publishing houses because they cut out the overheads and the middlemen, allowing direct sales to fans. Which is why they are here to stay.
When you start to look at PC components the range of parts available seems bewildering. Even the differences between pre-built models can seem impenetrable. Intel, AMD and Nvidia all use note entirely straight forward numbering systems where the performance difference between products is not always clear.
It is quite easy to decode the naming schemes, although it takes time to learn. Websites such as Logical Increments or groups like BuildAPC Reddit provide guides and advice on choosing parts and how to find the best bang for your buck. Of course, you still have to take a lot of time and care to select the components that will work best for you. I’ve been looking at the various components and getting up to speed with the modern PC market for several months now and with the exceptions of the processor and motherboard, which I’ll finalise after the release of Intel’s new Haswell processors, I’ve made my choices.
The first component I chose for my computer isn’t generally something you would pick first: the case. In many ways, the case is a non-critical component: all it needs is sufficient ventilation to cool the processor and the graphics card, something to keep dust out and mounts for the various components. It doesn’t even need to be new – the standardisation of the ATX motherboard means that cases that are nearly 20 years old should comfortably hold modern components (albeit with a bit of bodging).
I remember PC cases in the 90s being uniformly beige, generally boxy and normally uninspiring. Concepts like airflow didn’t play a big part in the design of these cases, which often came without dust filters and with a tangled mess of wiring. So it was surprising to find out that cases now look like this.
While Corsair’s Graphite series cases are pretty unique, they are representative of modern cases. The beige is gone. Now cases are built from high quality aluminium or steel, power supplies have been relegated to the bottom of the case to keep them cooler, there are trays underneath motherboards to allow for the neat routing of cables and there are modular internal components allowing you to customise a case to your needs. Importantly, the ‘designer’ cases no longer look like glowing, plastic monstrosities but take their design queues from companies like Apple and BMW. It’s a different world.
My first preference for my own system is Obsidian’s 600T in white because it looks like a Star Wars Stormtrooper’s PC, however building a full size ATX system just isn’t practical while living in a London houseshare. If nothing else, I will need to move it at some point and I’m not prepared to drag 30 to 40 kilos of PC across the city on public transport. So, I’m compromising by going for a Mini-ITX system.
The main advantage of a Mini-ITX system is it’s size. The motherboard is the fraction of the size of an ATX board. You do lose some features as a result of this, but enthusiast quality ITX boards are more then capable forming the basis of a good gaming and home media system. A lot of ITX cases are extremely cramped and designed for use with low power processors and integrated graphics processors, so an ITX gaming system does need something a bit roomier and with space to ventilate a graphics card and a decent processor.
Thankfully BitFenix, one of the more innovative case manufacturers, have brought out the Prodigy. It looks like a squat Mac Pro and can fit all but the largest graphics cards but it’s small enough that it can be easily carried in a sports bag or similar. It also supports water cooling, which I find amazing. Ten years ago, water cooling was the preserve of madmen and the elite overclockers, now it’s almost standard, even in cases this small.
Small but powerful and versatile – it’s all I really want in a PC.
The video-game market has changed vastly since 2005. In the eight years since the Xbox 360 heralded the start of the seventh generation of video-games, we have seen the launch of the PS3, Wii, Wii U, PS Vita, iPhone, iPad, Android and the 3DS. Steam has become one of the most powerful content distribution platforms in the world, allowing independent developers and small studios to rapidly reach a large audience and a plethora of kickstarted projects are challenging the dominance of not just the major publishing houses but of the console manufacturers themselves.
Now, with the AMD-based PlayStation 4 due to launch at the end of the year and the successor to the Xbox 360 due to be unveiled on the 21st of May, we stand at the start of the eighth generation of video games. It doesn’t inspire confidence.
Since the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 launched, both systems have changed considerably. Microsoft and Sony both pushed updates to their consoles taking advantage of built-in internet connections to turn them into digital media centres, where you could access the internet, watch TV, read about the US Presidential election or play games. It also allowed both companies, although particularly Microsoft, to put adverts, often paid for by other companies, front and centre on the household television screen.
In terms of the next generation, it sounds very much like both Sony and Microsoft want to ensure that their respective consoles are the centre of the home (in contrast to Nintendo who promote the fact that the Wii U can play some games without the use of a television allowing family members to engage in different activities together in the same room). Partnerships with major content providers and interoperability with handheld consoles and smartphones are being trumpeted.
There is also a hint of desperation in the air. Sony recently acquired Gaikai, a company which specialises in streaming games over the internet and is working with a number of big name independent developers to promote their new console as an easy development platform. Both Microsoft and Sony have been dogged by rumours about the consoles requiring constant internet connections while playing games as an anti-piracy measure, despite the fact that large swathes of Europe and America, core markets for games consoles, don’t have reliable internet connections.
The desperation isn’t surprising. A large swathe of the world is still seeing low or negative growth, outgoings are rising and incomes are falling. Yet videogame publishers and manufactures still have to persuade people to pay for £50 games and £300 consoles. If rumours are anything to go by, they could shortly be trying to sell us consoles using near off-the-shelf components for £400 or £500 instead. These systems are unlikely to have full back compatibility with their predecessors due to the difficulty emulating their complex PowerPC-based processors on mid-level x86-based hardware and both are expected to come with motion controllers as standard, potentially limiting their usefulness in smaller homes.
My response to this is disappointment. I love my Xbox with a passion. It’s been my primary gaming machine since 2007, when it became too expensive for me to upgrade my PC’s ageing socket 754 Athlon 64 processor, AGP Geforce 6800 GT graphics card and the motherboard at the same time, but impossible to upgrade the components one by one due to socket 754 and AGP being phased out. I want to be able to keep playing all of my games on a successor console, preferably one I can transfer all of my save files to easily, I want graphics which exceed the standard of current mid-to-high level PCs and I want it to be worth the money I’m paying for it. But it doesn’t seem like the next generation of consoles will meet these criteria, especially with the corporate attitudes which gave rise to the ad-flooded upgrade of the Xbox 360 dashboard.
Its’s a different story for PC gaming though. The way in which Valve have managed Steam, with aggressive sales, low priced bundles of games from large and small developers, pre-loading of unreleased software and competitive pricing has created a fertile market for mainstream and indie games. Indy developers now have a real income stream, with games such as FTL and Dear Esther seeing success to rival triple-A retail titles. There is real competition in the market, with new games such as Skyrim, Tomb Raider and Watch_Dogs selling for £10 to £15 less than their console versions. The Steam model is so strong that it’s inspired successful competitors such as GOG, who specialise in packaging older games so they work on modern computer systems and selling them for $5 to $10.
It seems that the initial outlay for a PC against the next generation of consoles is now worth it for access to the massive, cheap library of games, the competitive new releases, the competitive graphics and the potential to build a comprehensive gaming and media centre in one box. It’s not a complete escape from Microsoft – Windows is still the best OS for gaming, but at least it doesn’t have ads.
I think my mind is made up already. I have a £600 build picked out on PC Part Picker which I plan to write about soon. It’s not a final build, but something I plan to amend as the new Intel Haswell processors and motherboards come out and as nVidia and AMD release new graphics cards. I’m aiming to build it towards the end of this year and then maintain it at a good standard from there on out.
A while ago, the Guardian’s Games Blog did a piece on the best videogames to play when hungover. I rather disagree with some of the selections: the vivid colour pallet and slightly unwieldy controls in the Nintendo DS remake of Super Mario 64 make it a rather distressing experience when you are trying to hide from the infernal daystar. On the other hand, space-goth styled Eve Online needs too much number crunching and carries a high risk of losing your valuable in-game ship to player pirates if you don’t pay attention. Much to my distress, the brilliant Harvest Moon series of farming simulators has been concentrated on the GameCube, Wii and DS for the last seven or eight years, preventing me from using them as a hangover cure without investing in a new console.
I don’t begrudge these selection though. I’ve played all three games and enjoyed them and I understand why they often feature amongst people’s favourite games. My problem with the Guardian article is the omission of what is possibly the best game to play when you are hungover: Sid Meier’s Civilization IV.
Civ 4 is a good game at the best of times, with the addition of it’s expansions – Warlords and Beyond the Sword - it is an excellent game. It takes a number of features which were introduced in Civilization 3, but which didn’t work well as well as they should have – such as culture, borders and resources required to build units - and refined them. It also re-examined a number of the best features of Civilization 2, a game which regularly features highly on lists of the best video games of all time, and improved them, making managing individual cities far more interesting and some much needed personality to diplomacy. Civ 4 also a certain something over the more recent Civilization 5, although it’s hard to nail down exactly what “it” is.
What makes Civ 4 an excellent game for dealing with the morning after is its sheer simplicity. The game can be controlled using only the mouse and the screens feature clear menus and text, allowing you to slouch away from the screen to your heart’s content. Aspects that you don’t feel like dealing with, such as building roads, micro-managing cities or planning tech research can be semi-automated, allowing you to concentrate on your favourite aspects. If you are feeling particularly delicate, you can even turn off features such as the barbarian invasions to make the game easier (although it’s more fun to desperately rush the building of the Great Wall to prevent the barbarians getting near your cities).
With a random map, Marathon game speed (giving you 1,500 turns to complete the game) and playing against 11 other civilisations, a game can go on for most of a day. This should be more then enough time to either win a technology victory or to shake off the hangover, whichever comes first. The time flies past as you start to plan ahead and wait for your resources to accrue, only to have a neighbouring civilisation take over the iron resource node that you so desperately needed to build Swordsmen so you can take over their cities. You will feel accomplished when a carefully crafted military strategy works out and or when an opposing civilisation’s city swears allegiance to you on the basis of your advanced culture. You will find yourself muttering “One more turn…” as you forget about how bad your stomach feels, which is exactly why Civ 4 is the best game to play when hungover.
On Steam, £15 will buy you copies of Civ 4, the expansions and the remake of Colonization in the Civ 4 engine for both Mac and PC. An absolute bargin for hundreds of hours of gameplay.
The front page of the Guardian on the 27th of July is a page with an interesting contrast. It is dominated by a half-page picture of Jennifer Saunders and Jonna Lumley in the guise of Patsy and Eddie from Ab Fab with the Olympic torch and a gushing article by Jonathan Freedland, extolling joys of being British, discussing how the Olympics will bring Britain together as a nation and suggesting that hosting the cream of the world’s athletes will show us the place of Britain in the modern world.
Towards the bottom of the article is a rather chilling piece, overshadowed by the glitz and the glamour of the Olympics, but potentially far more important as the regards the future of Britain: the announcement by three Irish Republican paramilitary groups that they are forming a new IRA and plan to increase the now sporadic terrorist attacks in Ireland. An account, later in the paper, of how the message was delievered to the press – on a country road, in the dark, miles from Derry – makes chilling reading after so much positive work has been done thanks to the Good Friday Agreement.
It is not difficult to see why previously isolated groups in Ireland feel the need to come together, despite their seemingly disparate aims. The Real IRA, vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs and the handful of smaller post-Provisional IRA have sat and watched for several years as first the Brown and then the Cameron Government promoted an agenda which emphasised Britishness, culminating in the joint celebration of the Diamond Jubilee and London 2012.
Both the Jubilee and the Olympics have been positive events for the UK as a whole. While the Jubilee is partially responsible for the continued negative growth of the British economy, it has resulted in investment in a number of communities in the UK, the creation of new forests and given a lot of people an enjoyable day off work. Likewise, the Olympics has helped to sustain jobs in construction and engineering in London, should increase tourism to the city and will leave a legacy of new sports facilities, albeit a legacy concentrated in the south of England.
However, those living in the UK have repeatedly been told that these events are about Britain.
This ia a problem because a large number of those living in Britain do not identify as being British. This include Scots and Welsh who don’t believe in the independence of their home nations, a large number of those living in Northern Ireland, a significant and growing percentage of those living in England, some migrants and descendants of migrants and foreign nationals living in the UK, such as Edinburgh’s large North American population.
There is plenty of evidence which backs this assertion up, including this datablog article from the Guardian, which gives a simple visual oversight indicating that an overwhelming majority of those living in Scotland, Wales and Nothern Ireland regard themselves as being Scottish, Welsh or Irish rather then British. Even in England, it’s about 50-50 between those who identify as English and those who identify as British. Surveys carried out by IPSOS-Mori and YouGov regularly show that a majority of Scots consider themselves Scottish rather then British, with a growing trend in England for English to identify as English.
In Scotland, England and Wales, being called British if you don’t regard yourself as being British just leads to an insulted look and a quick correction from some, while others brush it off (although they probably won’t sing God Save The Queen). In these three nations, civic nationalism has prospered, creating inclusive nationalist movements like the SNP and Plaid Cymru. That said, overt “Brit-ification” of major events can still lead to a feeling of alienation.
In Northern Ireland, nationalism is a different beast. The conflict spans generations and combines religion with nationalism. It’s less then twenty years since parts of Ireland were still active warzones, peace walls are still in place throughout the country and marching seasons remain a flash-point for violence. Being called British or being told you are British is a deadly insult to many in Ireland. Yet, with royal visits to both Northern Ireland and the Republic and the visit of the Olympic torch to Derry (or Londonderry as the BBC repeatedly referred to it), with the blanket coverage of the Jubilee and the London Olympics, with the glorification of the British military following the conflicts in Afganistan and Iraq, that is what Irish Republicans are repeatedly being told.
This over promotion of British-ness, rather then acknowledging the strengths and uniquenesses of the component nations may well be a contributing factor in the decision of these Republican groups in Northern Ireland to coalesce. Northern Ireland does have other problems – high unemployment, the need for considerable investment in housing, scars from the Troubles – which will have contributed to this move. It could also be that the remains of the militant Republican movement have become so small individually that they need to band together for strength, especially if they feel the need to use intimidation tactics.
There is no point in continuing with behaviour which at best causes discomfort to a hefty slice of the UK population and at worst antagonises a significant minority. Instead, we should all acknowledge the strengths and uniquenesses of the components of the UK, acknowledge the fact that the UK is four nations united by two acts of union and act like a modern, inclusive country. Making reference to Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland will not lead to the dissolution of the UK, but it will lead to a better, more cohesive society.
I blame Call of Duty. I think a lot of other people do as well.
Don’t get me wrong, I own copies of a lot of first-person shooters, including Call of Duty 1, 3, 4:MW, World at War and Black Ops and I’ve played all of the entries in the CoD series other then 2. I’ve enjoyed playing all of them, although the plots in nearly all of them are utterly forgettable. Other then a few exceptional scenes, the series as a whole is reasonably inoffensive, with considerably broader appeal then games such as Manhunt .
Since Call of Duty 4 came out in 2007, they have also been multiplayer juggernauts, regularly featuring as the most played games on Xbox Live and Playstation Network. This, in turn, has led to a yearly schedule for new releases, allowing game publishers to continue to profit through the introduction of new features and new multiplayer modes, and more recently online passes which mean that a person buying a second-hand copy of the game must pay an additional fee before being able to play their game online.
Last year, not long before the launch of CoD: Modern Warfare 3, Activision finally announced the holy grail of long-tail charges: Call of Duty Elite. Serving partially as a subscription model for additional downloadable maps, Call of Duty Elite and the competing Battlefield 3 Premium service are based on an additional $50 payment, on top of the $60 RRP of their respective games. Both offer subscribers early access to new maps, new ways to monitor their in-game stats, limited perks (additional weapons, different uniforms, clan levelling etc) and variety of fluff, from videos about the game hosted by a former US marine to online copies of strategy guides.
The FPS genre has become a race to see how much money can generated from any one game. With Call of Duty Elite and Battlefield 3 Premium opening the door to these sales methods, I’m worried that similar things will be introduced into RPGs and fighting games, likely under the guise of an alternative to the ‘free-to-play’ model.
Gouging players through additional services sold in addition to the already expensive game is not a sustainable economic model. While it can increase player investment in a particular game, it creates a two-tier player base, freezing out casual players who don’t pony up for the extra guns and gizmos. It also risks harming future sales, when heavily invested players continue to play an older game instead of moving on to a newer – this can be seen with CoD: Modern Warfare 2 remaining one of the most played Xbox titles despite the release of not one but two successor games.
If the major publishing houses genuinely want to get more money out of people for their games, they should be looking at reducing the prices of their games and selling more of them. They should also ensure they are giving a feature-rich product, bug-free product that consumers are willing to pay for.