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Last Updated: Friday, 16 November 2007, 09:00 GMT
Pushing the PC gaming boundaries
Games like Crysis can demand high-specification hardware

The PC remains a big player in the games market but in recent years its cutting edge has been blunted.

The vast majority of games are still played on PCs rather than consoles; typically casual games played on cheap desktop machines or online games, such as World of Warcraft.

The industry is currently experiencing a renaissance in innovation as the trinity of new hardware, developer ambition and tools come together to improve experiences.

The introduction of chip technology with four cores, effectively quadrupling processing power, graphics cards using DirectX 10 tools and developers keen to push powerful machines to the limit are resulting in games which set new graphical benchmarks.

In some cases these machines are desktop behemoths; near supercomputers in a box that are delivering game experiences beyond the wildest dreams of console owners.

The latest games, like Crysis and Unreal Tournament 3, are taking advantage of quad core processors, and twin graphics cards. These are the play things of hotrod PC gamers - the enthusiasts who see their machines as customisable dragsters delivering the pinnacle of performance.

Tricked out PC
High end games PCs are important to the professional players
Michael O'Dell

"PC gamers see themselves as the elite gamers," said Michael O'Dell, who runs the professional gaming group Team Dignitas and manages Birmingham Salvo, a team in the Championship Gaming Series.

"High end games PCs are important to the professional players and hard core because the extra processing power can make that millisecond of difference between success and failure, and whether you win prize money or not."

For the hardcore the extra grunt of the most powerful desktops improve the FPS (frames per second) in FPS (First Person Shooter) games.

"My gamers are always moaning about their FPS (frames per second). They always want more and some of the newest games are very demanding on the hardware."

For these gamers, whose reaction times put them in the superhuman category, more frames per second means a smoother experience.

So how much more powerful are these high-end PCs than the latest generation of consoles?

"It's absolute nonsense to think that consoles are at the cutting edge," said Roy Taylor, vice president of content relations at Nvidia, the world's biggest manufacturer of graphics cards.

"As good as consoles are, they are so far behind the PC gaming experience that there is no comparison.

Unreal Tournament 3
Unreal Tournament 3 will help hardware sales

"In terms of raw processing power, the high-end PCs are at least three times more powerful."

Nvidia provides the graphics grunt for the PlayStation 3, while rival ATI provides the imaging hardware for the Xbox 360.

Mr Taylor points out that the latest graphics cards can draw twice as many pixels, twice the screen resolution, as a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360.

The latest games are employing DirectX 10 tools developed by Microsoft, which are used by developers to get the best out of the high-end and middle-range graphics cards.

Mr Taylor said the new tools and the new hardware had given developers a library of effects to play with.

Nvidia's latest high-end graphics cards, the 8800 series, can easily produce graphical effects that tax the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, such as motion blur, depth of field and volumetric smoke.

Mr Taylor said: "Fog, smoke or mist in games until now have been flat and don't respond to objects. Volumetric effects mean they are dynamic - a helicopter can now displace cloud or smoke, or a character can step through the fog realistically."

But these sorts of effects come at a price.

A quadcore Intel machine with twin graphics cards and four gigabytes of ram - at the high end of the PC gaming experience - can cost more than 2,000, six times the price of an Xbox 360.

Nvidia's flagship graphics card, the 8800 Ultra, costs more than 400 although a cut-down version, the 8800 GT, costs from 120, about the same price as a Nintendo Wii.

Rival ATI also sends a high-end graphics card which supports DirectX 10, costing from about 120.

Modded PC
PC gamers love to "mod" their machines

Hardcore PC gamers also specialise in customising their "rigs", with unique cases and intricate cooling systems.

The gaming experience they deliver can be exceptional.

Playing Crysis with the screen resolution set at 1920x1200 with all effects switched up to very high and anti-aliasing turned on, the game is breathtaking to look at and puts consoles titles like Gears of War and Call of Duty 4 into the shade.

"We worked really closely with Intel and Nvidia and even had engineers from Nvidia on site for the last year," said Bernd Diemer, a producer on Crysis at developers Crytek.

"We wanted to be an early adopter. When we started Crysis the current hardware wasn't available or being planned. There was no DX10 or the latest graphic cards. They were not even on the drawing board."

They went to a special effects company in Hollywood to create a render movie of how Crysis could look - and that movie has been the benchmark for the firm.

"We got pretty close. In some areas we even surpassed it," said Mr Diemer.

He said PCs gave gamers the "best possible experience".

Crysis boasts realistic breakable environments - a goal of developers for many years.

"In some areas we have managed to set a new standard. We've managed to push it a bit further," he said.

Crysis is at the forefront of a wave that is delivering blockbuster titles to PCs and making console owners envious of their PC gaming friends.

"The PC is finally back up where it belongs," said Mr Diemer.

He added: "The innovation is happening on the PC; but that's always been the case."

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