Sunday, May 22, 2016

Xonar DGX sound card update

I have had my Asus Xonar DGX for  few days now and I have had a chance to try it out in a few games.

First impressions are a little bit mixed. On the one hand the card sounds good and the Xonar control panel has a few nice features that work well with headphones (which I use a lot). On the other hand my attempts to use the Xonar to get EAX support in older games has met with mixed success. and has even led to a few crashes. I tried enabling EAX in the following games: Far Cry (seems to work but occasionally crashed), Painkiller (seems to work), Rome Total War (EAX 2 works EAX 3 doesn't), Prey (seems to work), Battle for Middle Earth 2 (says no supported EAX hardware found). I also tested the card in a few more modern games (Alien Rage and Fallout 4) and it works without any problems but neither of those games use EAX. Asus claims that the GX2.5 feature on their xonar cards supports EAX 5.0 so I am a bit surprised it seems to have problems with EAX 3.0. There are very few games that actually support EAX 5.0 so  it is really the earlier versions of EAX that I need.

A lot of people recommend a set of modified drivers that claim to fix bugs in Asus' own Xonar drivers: http://maxedtech.com/ so I installed these drivers and I haven't had any crashes since. Unfortunately the creator of these "Unixonar drivers" is very scathing about EAX support and recommends against using it.

So that leaves me with a new sound card that by all accounts gives much better sound quality than my on-board sound (larger presence with richer mid tones and a hint of citrus or something  like that) but which only intermittently supports EAX. Given than EAX was the main reason I bought the card I am a bit disappointed.   In hindsight I might have been better to buy a card from Creative to be sure of EAX support. At least the Xonar control panel allows EAX support to be toggled on and off so I am going to leave it off to avoid any possible problems except when I am playing EAX games.

On the bright side the Xonar is working well in modern games and it also has one very useful feature. It can map 5.1 or 7.1 channel surround sound into the two speakers of a pair of headphones. This seems bizarre but it actually works very well and gives you a very realistic surround sound effect.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Buying a New Soundcard. Is it 2001 again?

It is at least ten years since onboard sound became good enough to obsolete discrete sound cards yet I have just bought an ASUS Xonar DGX for my PC. I have no illusions that this €30 card will give any noticeable improvement in sound quality for modern games. I bought it because it comes with an emulator for Creative Labs EAX technology.  EAX was the dominant environmental sound method used in PC games until the advent of Windows Vista. EAX was proprietary to Creative labs but every sound card manufacturer had some form of EAX compatibility back in the day and a huge number of games used it . Vista and all later versions of Windows changed the way sound is handled and EAX no longer works. Modern games achieve rich audo environments through other means but older titles that relied on EAX are left high and dry.

I enjoy playing older PC games and it always irritated that I could no longer get the full experience due to the lack of EAX. Many of these games relied on EAX for positional audio as well as for envronmental effects so the game's soundscape is much reduced without it. There is a software emulator available called indirectsound that can be used to restore 3D postional sound  but it does not  implement environmental effects (eg the way things sound  differently depending on the environment around you).

Asus GX2.5 capability claims to emulate all the features up to EAX5.0 and because it is pure emulation as opposed to a hardware/software combination like Creative's own "Alchemy" it should work for every EAX game. I haven't had much opportunity to try it out yet but I will report back when I have had a chance to test it. Here for reference is a review comparing Asus GX2.0 (an older version) agains Creative's Alchemy: http://techgage.com/article/creative_eax_vs_asus_ds3d_gx_20/.

Monday, May 09, 2016

Revisiting my gaming past: Far Cry

I am currently about two thirds of the way through another replay of the 2004 classic fps Far Cry. It is one of a small number of games that I repeatedly return to. The PC has always had the best back catalog in gaming and it is one of the joys of being a PC gamer that it is possible to play the old classics on a modern PC.

The lush tropical setting is still beautiful and the monsters are as ugly and nasty as ever. The huge open levels are still magnificient. The gunplay is still  good as are are the stealth features. I am enjoying Far Cry but I also have a niggling concern. The experience has not been as satisfying as I expected this return to one of my all time favourite games to be.

The cause of my discomfort is straightforward enough. I find myself wondering if the effort required to get this classic game to run on a modern system is justified by the experiece. Time is doubly cruel to older video games. Every new generation of computer makes it harder to get old games running while every new generation of game exposes the flaws of the past more vividly.

I couldn't get my original DVD copy of Far Cry to run on Windows 10 at all. I trawled various resource sites looking for a solutions to no avail. I tried several patches both official and unofficial. In the end I was more or less convinced that the DVD itself may be faulty so in desperation bordering on panic I spent €8 to buy a new DRM free digital download version of the game from GOG. GOG's compatibility magic did its trick and the game ran first time but it looked pretty bad with with horrible graphical anomalies popping up in game. Happily the gog.com forums pointed me to an unnofficial patch which fixed my graphics problems and even added a few small enhancements, the most important being the addition of quick save. http://www.moddb.com/mods/farcry-addon-mod-fcam/downloads/unofficial-farcry-patch-1505. Finally I had to force Vsync in my Nvidia control panel to prevent adible coil whine from my graphics card but at last the game was playable.

On release Far cry was a sensation. The graphics were stunning if you could afford a beefy enough computer to play the game. The game had massive open levels with huge draw distance unlike anything seen before. The AI was strong resulting in tough unpredictable enemies that required intelligent use of the  stealth system as well as excellent shooting skills to overcome. Of course the 12 year old graphics would not impress anyone in 2016 and open world games (including Far Cry's own sequels) have gone far beyond what this 2004 classic achieved. The once vaunted AI is not so impressive any more and enemies' uncanny accuracy from half way across the map feels unfair in 2016. The game also had a horrible checkpoint save system but thankfully the  unoffical patch adds quick save.

I am still enjoying the game. It is still a classic PC game deserving a place in the libraries of gaming nostalgics and students of gaming history. Sadly however, considering the limitations of its age and the difficulties involved in getting it running I can no longer recommend it to new players.

Aside: One annoyance when playing older games is that almost all of them use EAX environmental audio which hasn't been supported since Windows Vista. I don't have a discrete sound card any more (who does?) but apparently it is possible to emulate EAX on a modern system if you have a sound card from Creative (Alchemy) or Asus (GX 2.5). I am actually thinking of buying one just to experience retro games as they werre intended.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Would you organise an overnight charity event on Friday 13th...

.. in a 200 year old creepy building with a bunch of teenage girls?

Well apparently the school my daughter goes to would. Have these people never seen a slasher movie?

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Games Recently Played

Divinity Original Sin: This is a wonderful content rich turn rpg that manges to combine old school turn based party combat with modern graphics and a lovely bright aesthetic.  I have over 130 hours played and still plenty more to do in game.

Civ V (again): Despite having 70+ hours in game I don't think I have every finished a full campaign of Civ V but it is a perennial classic that warrants revisiting over and over again.

Just Cause 3: I actually bought this to entertain some young nephews who were visiting. It did the trick and after they left I played through the campaign myself.  It is temperamental (on PC) and the story is rubbish but it retains  the whacky go anywhere do anything and blow everything up style of its predecessor.

Call of Duty: Black Ops III: Even though I have long since given up any hope of keeping up with teenagers in multi player shooters I still try to play each Call of Duty single player campaign. Black Ops III is actually one of the better ones of recent years. There are a couple of very hokey flying sequences but most of the game is solid single player action with enough sci fi themes to appeal to an old nerd like myself.

Mad Max: Is another Ubisoft style open world game. This one  focusses on driving around a post apocalyptic landscape. Like most games of this sort it is an enjoyable way to pass a few gaming hours but ultimately forgettable. In terms of quality I would place this above Just Cause 3 but below Far Cry 4. The car combat is rather excellent however.

Halo 2: I loved Halo Combat evolved and I eventually got around to playing the second episode  which was treated so badly on Microsoft Windows. I really would like to play more Halo. I just amn't prepared to fork out the cash for an Xbox One to be able to do so.

The Lord of the Rings:  The Battle for Middle Earth 2: I loved the original Battle for Middle Earth but until recently I never got around to playing the sequel. One of the great joys of PC gaming is that it is almost always possible to find a way to get older games to work so I finally got around to trying this. It has the same wonderful Middle Earth atmosphere (the Peter Jackson version) as its predecessor but the game play has evolved somewhat with an array of new races and abilities. It feels less story driven than its predecessor but instead presents a variety of game modes and scenarios to play through.

Fallout 4: I have only recently gotten this so I haven't had much time to play it. So far it feels very like Fallout 3 which may be a good thing or a bad thing. I hope it has enough newness in it to keep me occupied.

Singularity (Again): I was in the mood for a Sci Fi shooter so I dug this one out of my library. Enjoyable if somewhat patchy.

EDIT: Secret Confession - I actually downloaded World of Warcraft and played for five minutes. My excuse is that they gave me a free upgrade to Warlords of Draenor and seven days of game time. I couldn't find any of my old characters but I created a new Orc warrior and played for five minutes and then logged out. Been there. Done that. Don't need to do it again.

In which I am revealed to lack the courage of my own convictions.

How do you feel when something you like is judged to be worthless by the court of public opinion?

I recently starting watching the SyFy show Z-Nation on Netflix. I like the show a lot. Unfortunately I am not going to explain why because I cannot do so without sounding like I am trying to justify my opinion and make excuses for it. 

The problem is that Z-Nation was panned by critics. It was reviewed so poorly that if I had read reviews before watching the show I would never have risked it. Instead I stumbled across it by accident and didn't look at a review till I was six or seven episodes in. It was only then I became aware that the show I was enjoying was actually terrible according to most knowledgeable critics. 

How should one react in such circumstances? Shouldn't one dismiss the views of critics because in the end it is only our own opinion that really matters? That sounds like a sensible position but I think we need critics. Today's world offers every one of us a ridiculous over-abundance of  media content to consume and far too little time in which to consume it. Some form of selection process is essential. Even accepting that every critic has their own specific quirks I have come to rely on review aggregation scores. It isn't a precise science. A lot of worthy content ends up with a mid ranking critic score which can mean anything. However if a product is universally praised then it surely has some value and contrarily if a product is universally panned it is probably best avoided. 

So If I like something that the majority of knowledgeable critics have panned does this mean that my opinion is wrong? Can I even continue to enjoy the show knowing that it is actually a bad show? Even if I do continue to enjoy it will it be forever transformed from a worthy entertainment into a shameful guilty pleasure?