I’m a console gamer, but deep down, I know that, for the adult gamer, there’s at least as much fun to be had on PC. The games look better, and there are fewer foul-mouthed kids saying mean things about my mom. There are a zillion great independent games made by student programmers or hobbyists. Strategy games, a favorite genre of mine, thrive on the PC, and console players of some of my favorite titles, such as “Fallout 3” and “Left 4 Dead,” miss out on a ton of great user-created content.
The biggest barriers to my getting into PC gaming are that I’m too technically inept to set up a decent gaming rig and lacking the time needed to upgrade the innards every so often. Well, there’s that plus the fact that I spend all day on a PC at work and like that separation of sitting on my couch, controller in hand, not logged onto a PC at all.
But at a recent media preview event for the PC build of 2K Games’ “Mafia II,” I got a glimpse of what I’ll be missing when I play the game on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 this summer.
“Mafia II,” which I first previewed back in March, casts players as Vito, a soldier-turned-mob-bit-player in the waning days of World War II and, later, in the 1950s. If the game continues to come together as nicely as it appears to be doing, it’ll serve as an open-world, “Grand Theft Auto”-style sandbox game in a one-of-a-kind amalgam of New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
The PC preview let the Nvidia show off APEX, a new technology that’s integrated with the company’s popular PhysX engine. (PhysX is used in games on all three current consoles, but APEX is PC-only.) Before getting my hands on the game, a short presentation explained how the game will contain two different APEX “modules,” one governing more realistic clothing movement and another governing destruction and particle effects.
Admittedly, “more realistic clothing movement and particle effect” aren’t as much of a selling point as, “over 40 hours of gameplay in a one-of-a-kindenvironment” or “one of the best stories you’ll ever play” might be, every little innovation helps.
You know how when you play a video game, even one with fully destructible environments, you’ll blast something to smithereens, but some invisible, phantom maid cleaned up the destruction almost as fast as you can create it? Not so in “Mafia II,” according to Nvidia’s Monier Maher. During the presentation, Maher explained that not only would APEX allow for a heck of a lot more detailed destruction, the game will remember which particles go where and preserve your handiwork.
The clothing module, while impressive to see in action, seemed a little less essential than the module governing destruction and particles. While Vito’s clothing did move realistically in the wind, it seemed a bit too sensitive to being blown around or moved by explosions, as if the programmers were trying to make the feature more noticeable so that PC gamers would feel like they were getting an extra feature. Didn’t they starch their shirts in the ’50s? That said, the game’s kinks are still being ironed out (pause for groaning at pun), and these billowy fabrics could easily be tamed before the game releases.
Originally planned only for Vito, “Mafia II’s” main character, the clothing module’s use has been greatly expanded and comes into play on many of the game’s dresses, Monier told us, which led me to think that every woman in the game might do an impression of Marilyn Monroe in “The Seven-Year Itch” by the time the game wraps up.
Once the presentation was over, I got a chance to play through a bit of “Mafia II” to see the new modules in action. The mission I played, an early 0ne in which Vito sells cigarettes off the back of the truck, shoots up and torches a gang hideout, then infiltrates another one, shooting lots of bad guys in the process, was the same portion I played on Xbox 360 earlier. (When the game does release, I’ll be able to speed run this part.) While it didn’t allow me to learn much more about the events of the game, it did help make for an easier comparison to the console version. (2K also had some cool-looking keyboards and mice from Logitech on hand at the event, but I decided it’d be better for both me and the 2K and Nvidia reps if I stuck with Ol’ Faithful, Microsoft’s wired controller that works for both PC and 360.)
My snap judgments about the new modules were confirmed during my play session. Emptying rounds into the rival gang’s deserted hideout, in particular, felt more satisfying with bits of splintering wood flying everywhere, and I was impressed with the way they stuck around on the ground afterward. And while I could see Vito’s clothing fluttering in the wind, or rippling slightly during explosions, the effect seemed a little exaggerated.
Once I finished my playthrough, I then got a chance to try out Nvidia’s 3D Vision, which was running on a separate monitor. While I enjoy the occasional 3D movie, I always come away feeling a bit disoriented, which has made me wonder how my eyes and brain would react gaming in 3D.
(Before I go further, it’s worth nothing that my lone previous exposure to 3D gaming consisted of facing a batter in “MLB 10: The Show” on the expo floor at the Game Developers Conference. The guy before me couldn’t get used to the 3D catchers view and walked the bases loaded. Then I came on and fell behind 3-0 to Chase Utley, was forced to groove a pitch to avoid walking in a run and gave up a grand slam. My mission complete, I turned the glasses and DualShock 3 over to the next dude in line.)
After spending a bit of time playing and watching others play “Mafia II” on Nvidia’s 3D equipment, I’m less of a skeptic. As I played that same level again, with the seasoned trigger finger of a pro, I got comfortable with the 3D right away and chatted a bit with the Nvidia rep about the tech.2K and Nvidia haven’t released what tech specs you’ll need to take advantage of “Mafia II’s” more advanced features — or even the minimum specs. But I did learn that you’ll need to have a monitor capable of a 120 Hz refresh rate, as you’ll get 60 frames a second for each eye. Your brain then puts the data together and tricks you into seeing 3D. The glasses, which come with a controller that lets you alter the apparent depth of the images you see, run about $200, based on what I can find on Amazon and other retailers.
Generally, the environments looked great in 3D, and it added a level of realism to the shootouts. The in-game movies I saw while I played looked a bit flat, but that was before the Nvidia rep adjusted the settings to create a “deeper” 3D view. The rep and I also talked a bit eye strain. Obviously, as someone who demos the technology extensively, this guy plays a lot of games in 3D. (Hilariously, the game that looks the best, he said, is “Avatar,” a mediocre title that otherwise wouldn’t get much attention.)
The Nvidia rep’s general advice, which really should hold true for all gaming, is that players take breaks every so often. As far as eye strain, he said lengthy 3D gaming sessions mess with his spatial perception in roughly the same way prolonged exposure to a 2D video game would. Play a first-person shooter for four hours straight and you’re bound to feel a little funny.
“Mafia II,” which hasn’t been rated but will no doubt end up an M thanks to copious gunplay and also boobage, is due out Aug. 24 for the PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.