A look at PC gaming – inspired by the Alienware Alpha

For the benefit of console gamers, I feel I should pre-empt my Alienware Alpha review with an introspective on PC gaming itself, and just why it’s not necessarily a better experience than console gaming, but a richer, fuller and more varied experience to complement console games and challenge the more involved and advanced gamer.

The Alienware Alpha embodies Alienware’s frustration with Steam, who are dragging their heels trying to realise the dream of a PC-based games console. Alienware have dropped the Steam Box moniker from their prototype machine, replaced Steam OS with Windows 8, running a basic launcher that gets you right into Steam Big Picture mode, and shipped it with a wireless Xbox 360 Controller.

The Alienware Alpha is awesome. I love it. I want one. I miss it.

If you want to cut to the chase and know what I think- the Alienware Alpha is awesome. I love it. I want one. I miss it. I took an Alienware Alpha with me to Cambridge over Christmas with 3 controllers, a tiny wireless keyboard, and a mission to discover as many local multiplayer PC games as I could find during the Steam sale. I came back in love with the compact but powerful gaming machine, and also found myself thoroughly and hopelessly addicted to Sonic & Sega All Stars Racing Transformed… it’s good, honest!

PC gaming is dead bro, get over it!

Anyone looking at the PC section in their local gaming shop might be forgiven for mistaking PC gaming as dead. Often relegated to a single shelf in a dark and lonely corner, it appears to the world as if the PC has been relegated to gaming history.

Quite the opposite, in fact. It’s stronger than ever. Thanks to online services like Steam, the market has progressed beyond the antiquated brick-and-mortar method of distribution. Thousands upon thousands of PC games are available only a download away.

The PC isn’t just about playing the same games you can get on console; but exploring a wealth of user-created content that consoles are only just beginning to touch.

PC gaming offers an exciting and alluring landscape that casts aside much of the restrictions console gamers seem to accept as normal. The PC isn’t just about playing the same games you can get on console; but exploring a wealth of user-created content that consoles are only just beginning to touch.

If a PC game is well ported, or made-for-PC you’re almost certain to find a colossal community of user-contributed add-ons, mods and even total-conversions. The amazing Natural Selection 2, for example, started out life as a mod for the PC game Half Life, and the hugely successful terrorists-vs-counter-terrorists FPS Counter-Strike claims the same origins.

Thanks to mods, Skyrim was a richer and more enduring experience on the PC with the games enthusiasts taking modding to extreme and sometimes absurd levels- replacing the dragon in the intro-sequence with Rainbow Dash? Check! It’s still a hugely popular game in the PC world, while the fickle attention of console gamers has marched ever onwards.

Unlike consoles, your average PC rarely has problems with backwards compatibility, and these problems can almost always be overcome. In fact, if you’re a fan of emulating classic systems, a modern PC can emulate everything up to the Nintendo Wii – ignoring for a moment the legalities of such an act! This brings the number of games playable on computers to a staggering number that I won’t even try to estimate. Meanwhile in the console world, the few classics that are compatible they want to sell to you, even if you already own them on another platform. There are a few worthwhile remastered greats like Shadow of the Colossus and Banjo Kazooie, but they aren’t common.

In fact, if you’re a fan of emulating classic systems, a modern PC can emulate everything up to the Nintendo Wii

It’s impossible to make any rational comparison between console and PC. The PC is a far more diverse and sophisticated experience that makes up for its lack of plug-and-play simplicity with a dizzying array of openness and variety. Hate the way you have to wait for Microsoft or Sony to bring XYZ streaming service to their console? Not a problem on a PC. Want to repurpose your games console for a bout of “Let’s Play” video editing? Not a problem on a PC. Want to play an in-depth space-simulator across three monitors, in a darkened room, fuelled by cola and snacks, go for it! Want to completely replace the Operating System with Linux and play nothing but Tux Racer? Err… okay… but that’s still not a problem on the PC.

Want to completely replace the Operating System with Linux and play nothing but Tux Racer? Err… okay… but that’s still not a problem on the PC.

What *is* a problem on a PC is TV-friendly software. Steam have made huge inroads with their “Big Picture” mode, which beautifully re-imagines the Steam UI as a chunky, clear games-console like experience that gives you access to all of the controller-compatible games. The trouble is that Big Picture is only compatible with Steam’s catalogue of games, and while you can launch even games without controller support you’re going to have to pick up a keyboard and mouse to actually play them.

Sometimes, though, that’s a benefit. FPS games, RTS games, RPGs and a myriad other gaming genres lend themselves far better to mouse and keyboard control than they do to the somewhat limited controller. It’s great to pick up a really good wireless keyboard and mouse combo and play something awesome like Starcraft 2, Planetside 2, or some classic Rollercoaster Tycoon- games those console-owners can only dream of. Not to mention Guildwars 2, World of Warcraft ( which still seems to be going strong somehow ) and countless other PC-only masterpieces.

“you can often snag a whole bunch of PC games for as little as $10”

As for buying PC games, Steam has regular sales on their catalogue, which reach a fever-pitch during holiday season, then there’s GOG.com who celebrate and preserve all the greatest classics, usually going as far as to make them easier to play on modern computers. Oh and Humble Bundle, where you can often snag a whole bunch of PC games for as little as $10- which you can choose to be donated to charity instead of the developers or publishers.

So, to summarise a PC gives you access to a stupendous array of games that 100 lifetimes wouldn’t see to completion. Their lifetime is often significantly extended with player-contributed modifications. Abandoned PC games are often supported and embraced by small communities of fans. There are loads of places to buy PC games online, from GOG.com, to Steam, to the somewhat controversial UPlay and Origin. There are also the most definitely controversial CD-Key websites where retail games are purchased in Eastern-Block countries, unpackaged and the CD keys sold online for great day-1 savings. Oh, yes, the PC by its very nature has no region locking. The PC lets you use any input device you want- from Wiimotes, to Xbox controllers, PS3 controllers, mouse, keyboard, Kinect ( yup, that too! ) weird pointy air-mouse things, racing wheels ( some of them totally ridiculous ) and joysticks, oh joysticks like you’d never imagine!