Friday, September 25, 2009

Gaming Hardware Happenings

If you're considering the purchase of a gaming PC any time in the near future, you'll want to be aware of several important pieces of information. The hardware market is going to see some very interesting changes soon, and it will probably be to your benefit to wait just a little while longer until the waters settle.

Radeon HD 5800 Series

First of all, AMD just started releasing their HD 5800 video cards. These are the first DirectX 11 GPUs to hit the market, and their performance is significantly greater than anything else out there. The first card released this week is the 5870. We'll be seeing its little brother, the 5850, in a few days. Next month, we should have the 5870 X2 and the month after that we should see what might be the 5830. The 5850 is going to be the card that really shakes things up with its price/performance ratio. Therefore, now is probably not the best time to be purchasing video cards.

Nvidia should also be coming out with the GTX 300 series in a few months. These will be in direct competition with the HD 5800 cards, affecting prices even more. My advice: if you plan on spending more than $150 on a video card soon, don't. Wait until early 2010 for big GPU purchases.

Lucid Hyrda 200

Speaking of graphics cards, this nifty piece of technology should make GPU upgrades much more pleasant. Basically, this is a chip that can be included on motherboards that will allow you to use two very different video cards at the same time while benefitting from the performance of both. For example, you could theoretically have a Nvidia 8800 GT working in tandem with a new AMD HD 5850, getting a performance benefit otherwise not possible with either card. Due to the limitations of SLI and Crossfire, something like this is currently impossible.

Motherboards with this chip will be a bit more expensive than normal, but we'll see how the market reacts. Benchmarks should be available closer to the release in a month.


Intel's new dual-core processors are codenamed Clarkdale, and they are manufactured with the 32nm process. They'll be available before the end of the year. There are also six-core versions in the works, but no quads any time soon. Expect these processors to be great overclockers with awesome gaming potential. The desktop versions will use the LGA-1156 socket, which is the same as the new Lynnfield processors.

I can see these processors being even more important for the mobile community than the gaming community. With a low-power 32nm process and only two cores, the performance/battery power ratio should be amazing.

Windows 7 and Multithreading

Most benchmarking sites use Vista x64 right now, but I stumbled upon this Tech Report review that switched over to Windows 7. They seem to have discovered something that could be quite significant for gamers. It appears that modern games in Windows 7 make better use of multi-core processors than in Vista or XP. According to the authos, Scott Wasson:

"Another trend of note is the relatively poor showing of the high-frequency dual-core processors we've included the group, the Core 2 Duo E8600 and the Phenom II X2 550. This isn't a trend we've come to expect, the higher clocked dual-cores falling behind even the slower quad cores like the Core 2 Quad Q9550. We are using newer versions of both of these games, which could have better threading optimizations. I kind of doubt that's it, though. My stronger suspicions involve Windows 7 and the switch to Nvidia GPUs and graphics drivers. Somewhere along the line, something has changed that's tipped the balance in the favor of higher core counts."

I think he may be on to something here. I've read about how Windows 7 had some significant adjustments to the way it assigns threads to cores, so I'm inclined to assume Windows 7 is the culprit here. When more Windows 7 CPU benchmarks arrive, we'll know for sure.

Keep in mind that these benchmarks were run at very low resolutions with very low graphical settings. This is done in order to turn the CPU into the bottleneck. In the real world, your GPU will almost always be your bottleneck when gaming, so this will only be a serious concern when your computer gets very old. Even so, I think the find is quite interesting.

Also interesting to note is how well the $200 Core i5-750 performs in the gaming benchmarks. This little sucker combined with a HD 5850 should be a sweet spot for budget gaming performance.

Bargain Gaming Rig

Finally, what would a computer gaming hardware update be without a new Bargain Gaming Rig? I know it's the end of the month, but if you're in the market some of these deals are just too good to pass up!

This is a significant upgrade from my previous bargain gaming rig. Instead of an Athlon II we have a Phenom II, and it's an unlocked Black Edition too! On top of that, the HD 4870 will deliver a significant performance boost over the 4850, and can handle higher resolutions with ease due to the 1GB of GDDR5 RAM. The hard drive also doubled in size. For an increase of only $75 from the last build, it's a great way to go.

Processor: AMD Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition - $102
Motherboard: ECS BLACK SERIES GF8200A AMD ATX - $50 (after $20 rebate)
RAM: OCZ Platinum 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2 1066 - $52 (after $20 rebate)
Video Card: XFX HD-487A-ZWFC Radeon HD 4870 1GB - $125 (after $20 rebate)
Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar Blue WD5000AAKS 500GB - $57
Case: Rosewill TU-155 Black Steel ATX 400W - $70
Optical Drive: HP Black 24X SATA DVD Burner - $30

Discount: $36 (CPU/RAM and MB/HD combo deals)
Shipping: $0!
Total: $450

Add Windows 7 Home Premium for $100.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

This Week in History

On September 7th, 12 years ago, video game history was made.

Okay, so I know that's probably one of the nerdiest statements you'll ever read, but I had to say it. On Friday, something caused me to reflect on what is probably my favorite video game of all time. I actually thought to myself, "Some time, I should blog a small tribute to Final Fantasy VII. Maybe on the anniversary of its North American release." So I looked it up and discovered the anniversary was in three days. Unreal.

Anyway, when I look back across my years of enjoying various video games, two very different games stand out from the rest for very different reasons: Doom and Final Fantasy VII.

Final Fantasy VII was groundbreaking for a number of reasons. Primarily, this video game delivered an immersive cinematic experience like no other before it. When playing, it was as if you were sucked out of your chair and placed into your favorite adventure movie series. However, the word "adventure" doesn't do it justice. "Epic Tale" is more fitting. This special achievement is not something that was easily repeated. I've played several other role-playing video games over the years, including later Final Fantasy titles, and have yet to find a comparable experience.

In January 2005, it was selected by Electronic Gaming Monthly as sixth on their list of "the 10 most important games … that helped redefine the industry since … 1989". Citing its "beautiful cut-scenes and a deep, introspective narrative", they claimed that "Square’s game was … the first RPG to surpass, instead of copy, movie-like storytelling."

Other than that, Final Fantasy VII seems to have found itself a permanent place in video game history for two very clear reasons which I will discuss below. I'll try not to spoil too much just in case there's someone out there who may be convinced to experience this for himself.

The Best (Worst?) Villain in Video Game History

Who are some of the most memorable, fictional villains you can think of? Hannibal Lecter, Gollum, and the Joker all come to my mind. But for me, this list is incomplete without Sephiroth.

The hero of Final Fantasy VII is Cloud Strife. The game does a fantastic job of placing you in Cloud's shoes instead of just showing you how cool he is. Cloud's nemesis is Sephiroth. As the story unfolds, there is a point at which Cloud asks Sephiroth, "What about my pain?" When I first played the game, it was at this point that I had to put down the game controller, get up, and remind myself that I was only watching a story. On very rare occasions, a good book will give me a similar feeling. No movies so far.

The feeling is hard to describe, but this game made me want to actually hate a person that doesn't even exist. Maybe that's impossible, but Final Fantasy VII pushes many limits. ( a "this is amazingly unique" way, not a "Grand Theft Auto" way.)

The Most Memorable Moment in Video Game History

Final Fantasy VII did something that is basically unheard-of in video games, even today. I'll let others do the explaining:

[Something Happens] in a scene referred to as "the most shocking moment in video games".

Director and scenario writer Yoshinori Kitase concludes: "... It leaves, not a dramatic feeling but great emptiness. ... you feel this big empty space and think, 'If I had known this was coming I would have done things differently.' ... Feelings of reality and not Hollywood."

While reflecting on the game, Tetsuya Nomura [said] "... When I reflect on Final Fantasy VII, the fact that fans were so offended ... probably means that we were successful ... The world was expecting us to [undo this event], as this is the classic convention." A lengthy petition asking for [undoing] by Japanese players was sent to scenario writer Yoshinori Kitase. However, Kitase states that "there are many meanings in [this event] and that could never happen".

[The event] in Final Fantasy VII has received a great deal of attention. Players commented on message boards and blogs about the emotional impact the scene held. Fans submitted a petition to Yoshinori Kitase requesting [its undoing]. GameSpy numbers [the event] as the 10th greatest cinematic moment in video game history. Its readers voted it the second most cinematic moment in video games. GamePro considers [the event] sequence to be the greatest of all gaming moments. Tom's Games called the scene "one of the most powerful and memorable scenes of the Final Fantasy series - or any other game, for that matter." Edge called [the event] the "dramatic highpoint" of Final Fantasy VII... . In 2005, Electronic Gaming Monthly listed Final Fantasy VII number six in their list of "10 Most Important Games", stating without it, "[The event wouldn't have happened], and gamers wouldn’t have learned how to cry." GamesTM commented [the event] helped establish the popularity of Final Fantasy VII. ScrewAttack has added [the event] in their "Top 10 OMGWTF Moments" referring to it as one of the "touchiest moments in video game history."

There's not much I can add except this: if you only ever play one video game in your entire life, it should be Final Fantasy VII.

Note for this post: Words in italics or the image captions are not my own, but probably found on Wikipedia.