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Computer vs. console, Pt. 2

Hot on the Web

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on January 26, 2001
(Issue 1904, The Marvelous Macintosh)

Last week, we looked at Web sites for the various dedicated game consoles: Sony Playstation II, Sega DreamCast, Nintendo and Microsoft's Xbox, and talked a bit about the new multiplayer enhancements being planned for the console market.

The latest round of technological advances in the console market has the computer gaming magazines getting a bit defensive of late: Several major software companies have abandoned computers for the dedicated gaming platforms, while the console-oriented magazines are busy crowing about the death of the personal computer as a gaming platform.

Is that true? Is the personal computer – Mac, Windows and/or Linux – doomed to obsolescence as a gamer's platform?

Not likely, for while the next generation of consoles will have increased multiplayer and Internet capabilities, the personal computer still has several important advantages.

The first edge is in graphics. Until the high definition TV becomes the standard, consoles simply can't touch the realistic and high-resolution graphics of a PC monitor. And with a 3D graphics card, a Mac or Intel box simply blows away the consoles.

The second, and more important, advantage remains in the flexibility of a computer over a console. Even with hard drives being added to next-generation consoles, there is neither the capability nor the inclination among that user base to go out on the 'Net and find upgrades and add-ons to enhance the experience of a particular game.

Below is simply one example of what the add-on capability brings to gaming on the personal computer that isn't there for consoles.

Counter-Strike mod for Half-Life

Firearms mod for Half-Life

Front Line Force mod for Half-Life

Gunman Chronicles

Planet Half-Life

When Half-Life first came out a few years back, it blew everyone away with its 3D graphics and strong storyline. But it's what's happened since that not only is an amazing example of a great game well developed, but shows why pure consoles may never quite eclipse the personal computer as a gaming platform.

Beginning with Doom, publishers of the so-called "first-person shooters" have largely allowed users to add their own levels or even create new games around the graphics engine. This, of course, has the effect of stimulating sales of the original game, which you need to play any of these new add-ons.

The original Quake from iD was a wild success at this, with new mods (including Team Fortress) keeping that game on store shelves for a solid 18 months. Quake II did even better.

But Half-Life has to be the champ of longevity. Thirty months after it was first released in beta, it's still one of the most popular games both in retail and on the Web – where the Counter-Strike mod is the No. 1 multiplayer game in the world.

CounterStrike – which is so good that it's now being sold by Sierra on CD-ROM at retail outlets, in addition to the free download you can get off the above Web site – uses the Half-Life engine to create a terrorists vs. counter-terrorists scenario. It's multiplayer only, but the game is so well designed that it is incredibly addictive even without a one-player campaign. Besides, there's something much more challenging and exciting about playing against other humans rather than computer-controlled characters.

The Firearms mod – like CounterStrike written by a loosely organized team of hobbyists – has a similar design, only instead of police and terrorists you have two evenly matched military platoons going head to head in a variety of missions. While a decent mod, the gameplay is choppier than CounterStrike, the maps are darker, and it can be quite difficult to tell friend from foe. Still, this is the second-most popular mod for Half-Life in terms of servers listed on the Internet menu of Half-Life or its mods.

Also in a military vein, but easier to play than Firearms is Front Line Force. Unlike Firearms, where there are a series of checkpoints that either side can capture and hold, in FLF there is an attacking team and a defending team. Less realistic than Firerams, it's just as addictive as Counter-Strike.

Finally, there is another official add-on pack from Sierra – The Gunman Chronicles. It's the wild West set in space, and the demo is the same intense, crazed fun as the original Half-Life game and the Opposing Force add-on.

And, yes – there is a multiplayer mode.

Now, theoretically, Sony or Sega or Nintendo or Microsoft (or even Hasbro, if the rumors prove true and they re-introduce an updated version of the legendary Atari video consoles, for which they own the rights) could allow hobbyists to develop add-ons for their games. But you'd still need a computer to write and test those games – and why go all that trouble if you can simply write and play the game on that same computer?

In fact, as the game console manufacturers try to give their machines the features that make computers better gaming platforms, they come closer and closer to making their dedicated boxes into general-purpose computers. Modems, keyboards, hard drives – before you know it Playstation III has a word processor, an e-mail client and a check-writing utility.

Add that all up, and you have what most of us call a computer.