PC gaming: Can you go home again?

By Mitch Krpata
Sunday, July 31, 2011 at 11:00 am
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Is Battlefield 3 worth buying a new computer for?
My family's first PC was a 66 mHz 486 DX2 with 16 MB of RAM, a 40 MB hard drive, and an internal 14.4 modem. The thing was a beast. It crushed Doom, Duke 3D, and every shareware demo I could find. But I'm not telling you this to bolster my credibility as an old-school gamer, or as a jumping-off point to complain about kids today. No, I'm rattling off these arcane specs only to prove to you that, long ago, I knew what the hell I was talking about when it came to computers.

Those days are over.

I'm not sure when it happened, but at some point I fell behind the curve. I used to care deeply about PCs, and PC gaming. There was about a five-year span from the mid to late 90s when I bought video cards more frequently than I bought gaming consoles.

Back when they were still called "3D accelerators," I bought a Canopus Pure 3D, which was based on the 3DFX Voodoo chipset, but packed 6 megs of memory instead of the standard 4 - a massive 50% upgrade. No wonder I beat my friends at Quake nearly half the time! Shortly thereafter it was on to a Diamond Monster Voodoo 2, which really made the colored lighting pop in Quake 2. Then, when I graduated from high school, my dad bought me an Alienware rig with a Nvidia Riva TNT2 that seemed, at the time, like it might have been enough machine to power the space program.That computer lasted me through college, including plenty of late nights in Quake III: Arena.

A funny thing happened when it finally exceeded its natural lifespan and I went shopping for a new computer. I bought a Dell, and I bought it based on price, not specs. Sure, I made sure to play around with some dropdown menus to ensure that I could run Half-Life 2 on high settings, but six and a half years later I am still using the same computer, and I could not tell you one thing about what it has under the hood.

Today, my dinosaur Dell is running on fumes. It blue-screens half the time on startup. If I have my word processor open and three tabs running in Firefox, it hangs without warning for ten seconds or more. And the last PC game I even bothered to play was Half-Life 2: Episode 1. Clearly, it's time for a change.

So I've started researching a new purchase. I would say the experience has been educational, except that I haven't learned anything, except how uninterested I am in computers. My parents used to tell me that I would grow out of video games, and I've taken some pleasure in proving them wrong, but they were correct that I would grow out of the Sisyphean ordeal that is keeping up with PC gaming.

What I want now is a system that can reasonably run new games at medium settings (Battlefield 3 has caught my eye), but mostly I'll be using it to catch up on all the things I've been missing. There's more than enough on Steam to keep me occupied: Amnesia, Audiosurf, Aquaria... and those are just the As!

Problem is, I have no idea how to accomplish this. Other than comparing prices, I can't tell what build is superior to another. It's nearly impossible to compare between manufacturers. None of the numbers make any sense to me anymore. I've been told that I can save hundreds by building my own PC. There's a $50 difference between the processor that has a 6 MB L3 Cache and the one that has 4 x 256 256k L4 Cache, but is the difference really worth the cost? This is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night. Especially because I still don't know what any of those numbers mean.

I'm sure at some point I'll pull the trigger, and get another five years or so out of my new computer. Maybe I'll dedicate more time to gaming on this PC than I did on the last one, or maybe not. The whole thing makes me realize why I gravitated toward consoles in the first place. On a console, it doesn't really matter what you're running under the hood. All that matters is what games you can play on it.

But consoles become obsolete as fast as computers do. With a computer, at least you can upgrade its components to extend its lifespan. As I spend more and more time scrutinizing bus speeds and heat sinks, I'm finding that the same cannot be said for my gaming knowledge. Obsolescence finds us all, eventually.

Mitch Krpata is a freelance writer based in Boston. He will probably use his new computer mostly to stream porno. Read more of his scribblings at his blog, Insult Swordfighting.
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