Saturday, November 29, 2014

Extending the life of my gaming PC

Update here:

Further update here:

Yet another update:

I realised it was time to upgrade my gaming PC when I read the minimum specifications for Far Cry 4:
  • Win7 64bit
  • Intel i5-750
  • 4Gb Ram
  • Radeon HD5850 1Gb 
I have a marginally faster i5-760 but otherwise this describes my PC perfectly. 

Very few games have such steep system requirements yet but I suspect that FarCry 4 and the even more demanding Assassin's Creed Unity may be the fore runners of a new wave of hardware hungry games. For the last few years system requirements have been held artificially low by the need to support last gen consoles and the 32 bit memory limit. Now Xbox one and PS 4 are firmly established and the 32 bit limit has been breached. So it is time to upgrade.

There is a problem however. Windows 10 is expected to be released in late 2015. Everything I hear about Win 10 suggests it will be a significant improvement over the current Win 8 particularly for gamers. I don't want to take the chance of building a new Windows 8 machine today and finding it obsolete when Win 10 comes out so I have decided to put off a full upgrade until then. 

In lieu of a full upgrade I have decided to see if I can extend the life of my current rig by spending a few euro on it. My budget is €400 which has a similar purchasing power to $400 in USA once sales taxes are taken into consideration.  

€400 is a non trivial amount of money so I would like some of it to be spent on things that will still be useful in a new PC later in the year. This brings me face to face with the first dilemma of the computer upgrader. Just as in other areas of commerce you tend to get what you pay for and high quality parts cost more but usually have a longer life than cheap ones. The rapid pace of progress in computer hardware however invariably means you will be able to get even better parts for less money in a few months time. Buying a cheap part to tide you over for a few months can be optimum strategy in such a deflationary environment.

Here are my thoughts about the various aspects of my gaming machine: 

CPU & Motherboard: These will have to stay as is. Any change to CPU would require a new mother board, new memory and probably a new Windows license. Luckily most modern games are far less CPU dependent that they are GPU dependent.  Tom's CPU hierarchy Puts my 760 in a fairly respectable third rung from the top suggesting that it isn't all that far behind. I am also pretty good at housekeeping and maintenance so I can often get better than average performance out of the kit I have. The i5-760 stays.

RAM: 4Gb ram doesn't really cut it any more. Assassins Creed Unity needs a minimum of 6Gb. However given my decision to stick with my existing motherboard that means that any new memory I buy today may well be incompatible or under specced  for a new rig built later this year. For this reason I have decided to go cheap on ram. I bought an extra 4Gb of PC3-10700 for just €25.

Disk Drives: I am still using old spinning drives and I long for the responsiveness of a modern SSD. I gave strong consideration to a 256GB SSD for around €100. Unfortunately I have almost 2 Tb of games stored on conventional hard disks so while such a small disk could be used for windows to make my machine feel a lot more responsive it was unlikely to do much for my gaming. The price of SSDs is falling and maybe I will be able to get a much bigger SSD drive later this year at a reasonable price. In the meantime I have opted for a €40 Sandisk Readycache. According to reviews this should give me much of the responsiveness of an SSD without having to reconfigure my existing drive structure. Better still it will cache all drives so it may even benefit may games stored on conventional disks. It is hard to say whether or not it will still be useful in a new machine built next year. I think that depends on how quickly the price of SSDs falls. If can can replace my conventional drives entirely then the cache becomes unnecessary but if I still need to use spinning drives for bulk storage then the cache will still be useful.

Graphics Card: I always intended that the bulk of my budget would go on a new graphics card because I know that will have the most impact on gaming performance. I have decided to go with an Nvidia GTX 970 based card which will set me back about €300. This is a modern high end GPU that should give excellent performance for some time to come. AMD Radeons like the R9 290 offer slightly better bang for buck performance but the Nvidia card has some important advantages. It is designed to be compatible with DirectX 12 which should help when Windows 10 comes out. Another major point is that the GTX970 is a smaller card with a lower (only 150W) power requirement which means I don't need to upgrade my PSU or case.

PSU and Case: I have a good Jeantech 500W PSU in an old but reliable Antech Sonata case. Unfortunately modern graphics card have become bigger and more power hungry so I was concerned that PSU and case would need to be upgraded. Happily the GTX 9xx family bucks that trend and will fit nicely in my existing rig,

Monitor: I have two monitors on my PC at present but the one I game on is a Samsung 226BW. This is a 22" screen with resolution of 1680x1050. It is tempting to consider an upgrade to a more modern  true HD display. However the DPI of my existing screen is almost identical to that of a 24" 1080P display so that upgrade wouldn't give a noticeable increase in quality and anything more is outside of my budget. The monitor stays.

Peripherals: I am an advocate of spending money on good peripherals to enhance one's gaming experience but I am very happy with my current setup: Logitech G19 keyboard, Logitech G300 mouse, 2x Xbox 360 controllers, Creative Gigaworks T20 speakers and supremely comfortable  Sennheiser HD 555 headphones. No need to replace any of those yet.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

A personal video card history

My trusty Radeon HD5850 has served me well since 2011 but the time has come for an upgrade. I have long been a fan of Tom's Hardware recommendations and the Nvidia GTX970 which offers great performance  with low power consumption is tempting me at the moment..The  video card performance hierarchy chart at the back of Tom's guide sparked a bit of nostalgia so I have used the chart to plot the cards I have used over the years to power my gaming hobby.

Here is my personal video card history (all credit to Toms Hardware guide for providing such a useful chart): The image is large so be prepared to zoom in and pan around a bit. 

EDIT: Graphic now fixed. It was harder than I thought it would be to convert a large table in Word into a picture file. 

The dates are the years that I recall acquiring each card which is not always the year that model came out. Some allowance has to be made for hazy recollection but I think they are broadly accurate.

1999 TNT2 32MB: My first real graphics card. What a step up from software rendered heavily pixelated games of he mid 1990's to hyper-realistic smoothness of  Half Life and Home World. 

2000 Geforce 2 MX 64Mb: A budget card but still a good step up. This had hardware transform and lighting and the large memory gave it some longevity. 

2002 Geforce 4200 64Mb. A highly regarded card bought for my first self built PC. Sadly an incompatibility with my chosen motherboard meant I couldn't get it to work properly. I returned it for a refund and held on to my 2MX for another few months. 

2002 Radeon 9500 128Mb soft-modded to 9700. This is the stuff of gaming legend. Some particular variants of the budget 9500 card could be tweaked in software to double the number of pipelines effectively turning the card into a much more expensive 9700. It didn't work for everyone but it did for me. The resulting soft modded card was good enough to power my gaming for three years. 

2005 Radeon X800 XL 256Mb This was a lovely card which outperformed anything else in its price range but my Asus branded version proved very unreliable. It failed after six months and I got warranty replacement. The replacement failed again just out of warranty. Asus's customer support was less than impressive. 

2006 Nvidia 7300GT DDR3 128 Mb This was a cheap stop gap replacement for my broken X800XL. The 7300GT was a budget card but I managed to get a turbo charged DDR3 version which gave excellent performance for the price. 

2006 Nvidia 7600GT 256Mb A big brother of the 7300GT proved a more lasting replacement for the stopgap card. 

2008 Nvidia 7900GTX 512Mb. This was a $500 monster, the fastest card on the planet when it was released in 2006. I bought a second hard version a couple of years later and it was still able to keep up with contemporary  mid range cards.

2009 Radeon HD4850 According to Tom's chart this is the biggest performance leap I ever made, a full seven rungs up the performance ladder from my previous card. It was a very nice card but I don't remember getting the same wow factor that I got from my very first TNT2 or my 9500 to 9700 Softmod.

2011 Radeon HD5850. This model had been out for some time when I bought it for a ridiculously good price (€150 if I recall) in 2011. Even a year after initial release it was still competitive with more recent cards and actually outperformed its nominal successor, the more expensive HD6850. I still have this card and it has not let me down but now in late 2014 it is time to upgrade from this five year old design.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Games I have been Playing

Hostile Waters: A bout of Nostalgia cause me to drag out this overlooked classic from yesteryear.

Medal of Honour Warfighter: I will generally play any shooter good or bad but I am struggling to finish this one. The execution is competent if unoriginal but to be honest the game feels over the top racist to me.

Brutal Legend:  I played a couple of hours of this was was reasonably impressed but other games have since distracted me.

Enslaved: Odyssey to the West - An unexpected pleasure a short third person action adventure with a good story and fun gameplay. As a bonus the PC version comes with an extra adventure "Pigsy's Perfect 10" which has a completely different play style based more on stealth and guile than strength and athleticism. The only downside is that your sidekick for the main campaign is an annoying beyond belief at times and does everything possible to put themselves in dangerous situations which you are left to sort out. The fact that this sidekick is a cute girl while you the protagonist are a muscle bound man smacks sadly of sexism.

Mass Effect 1, Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3: I have completed a full play though of Bioware's magnificent Opus (ME1 58 hours, ME2 51 hours, ME3 80 hours) . Yes I hated the ending of Mass Effect 3 but that doesn't take from the fact that this trilogy stands at the very pinnacle of gaming achievement. The depth and variety of storytelling in particular is astounding while the game-play is fun too. In fact I thought the gameplay improved substantially from one game to the next. Advice: If you are going to play this game spend the money for the single player DLC campaigns. Yes they are bizarrely expensive compared to the main games and Bioware seems stubbornly resistant to ever discounting them but this is a series which deserves to be experienced in all its glory and the DLC stories add substantially to the overall campaign.

Dawn of War 2 single player campaign. I loved this. Instead of resource gathering , base building and and army recruitment you just get a small squad of space marines with which to compete each mission. It reminds me of the original Ground Control. This is one of my favourite types of game and I wish more games did this.

Aside: In between playing games I have been taking the University of Alberta's online course "Understanding Video Games" though Coursera:  This was not quite as intense as Prof Clayton's Lotro based course on Online Gaming New Media and Literature that I took last year but it is still a great learning opportunity for me. My background is in hard science and technology so I sometimes struggle with the concepts and analyses of art and literature but I love language, I love new ideas and  these courses definitely gives me a new perspective on the games I enjoy so much.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The ending of Mass Effect 3: Loss of Agency.

I am trying to figure out why I hated the ending of Mass Effect 3 so much. (Spoilers abound).

I played the game several years after release and I had the benefit of the extended edition patch so I didn't feel the pressure to engage in forced multi-player or to buy unwanted dlc that so incensed early players. Merely by playing the game the way I wanted to I managed to amass a high enough score to unlock all endings. 

I can understand why the perception of forced dlc and forced multiplayer upset people when the game was initially released but these were not my concerns. My dislike is more fundamental and has to do with the ending itself. It made me think about the relationship between games and stories and about the conflict between narrative and agency.

Mass Effect is a monumental role playing game series that offers the player many choices about how they develop their character and how they interact with the game world. This gives the player a tremendous feeling of agency: the ability to control events within the game world.

Mass Effect is also a story: a galaxy spanning saga of epic conflict. That story must come to an end and the right of authorship allows the game designers to conclude the narrative in the way they see fit.

The first problem is that I really disliked all of the endings on offer to me. Each of them represented a deep betrayal of everything my character believed and had striven for. All of the agency, the power to make things happen, that I had built up during the game is rendered useless at the ultimate moment of the game when I was forced to choose between such deeply unpalatable alternatives.

This is not a new problem. Every narrative must come to an end and ending requires a loss of player agency. It would be a tedious world if every story had a shiny happy ending and games have explored ambiguous or unsettling outcomes before. Spec Ops: The Line is a notable example. BioShock is another. In Bioshock and Specs Ops your loss of agency and the unexpected outcomes are explained with  clever plot twists. In a strange sense the surprise of the plot twist lets the player down gently. Yes the game is finishing in a way you didn't expect and perhaps didn't want but at least you have gained a deeper understanding and now know why this outcome is necessary.  

There is no big reveal in Mass Effect. You don't actually learn anything new at the end. You do finally get to see your nemesis personified but apart from appearances it is the same nemesis you have been fighting since the beginning of the series. You cannot defeat or overcome this nemesis. Instead you are forced to accept one of a number of deeply unpalatable outcomes that the nemesis offers you. The nemesis tries to justify these choices according to its own logic but since you have been fighting against this nemesis and this very logic the entire game there is absolutely no reason why you should suddenly start believing in it now ... except that you have no real choice. In actual fact the nemesis has won the game and gets to decide on the possible outcomes. All you can do is decide which one is slightly less unpalatable.

Mass Effect 3 doesn't just rob players of their sense of agency at the end of the game it does it in a brutal and thorough way. The last half hour of the game sees your character, once a heroic saviour of the galaxy, reduced to a shambling cripple with very limited freedom of action. This is not an enjoyable part of the game to play through. You cannot skip or save the game at any point during this long shamble towards the conclusion. If you want to experience alternate endings you must play through this unpleasant section all over again. Finally you are presented with your unpalatable choices by the haughty avatar of your nemesis. You may not like them but they are all you get. All of your previous activities, all of the weeks you spent playing through the game making choices and building your character are rolled up into a single number which impacts on your choice and its consequences in a non intuitive and unsatisfactory way.

To add insult to injury when I was playing I couldn't find any signpost or hint as to which path to take for which ending. Red, white or blue: pick one. It makes no difference anyway you won't get an outcome you like. At that point I really felt that Bioware was rubbing my nose it it, making it brutally clear that the few weeks I spent playing their game was trumped by the man years they spent developing it. Authorship trumps agency. They get to decide the outcome.

In the end I was so frustrated that I just turned around and shot the little brat. If I had done more reading in advance I would have realised that this course of action gives the worst of all possible endings but that small act of rebellion was the only thing I could do that gave me some feeling of control.

EDIT: I have watched videos of the ending again and I now realise that if I paid more attention during the speech I would have noticed the colour code of the different decision paths, Better than nothing but still not very clear. 

RX 550 How a bad value gpu might just be my all time favourite

Quick recap about my cunning plan to overcome the GPU apocalypse last year: We bought a prebuilt Dell with an RTX 3060ti for my wife who is ...