Gaming at 4K update: Star Trek Online Still On Top

Since I got my 4K TV/monitor, I’ve been experimenting with games that can run at 4K resolution (3840×2160@30 Hz in my case). As I noted in my last post, Star Trek Online works very well at 4K. I’ve continued to play STO at 4K and couldn’t be more impressed. It looks good at that resolution (though the textures are still crap, but that is the case with almost all games – I’m looking at you, Dragon Age series), and plays smoothly, despite the 30 Hz update rate. So STO is a clear win at 4K.

I played a bit of Saints Row IV at 4K last night and it mostly worked. It struggled a little bit, but was playable at 4K. The only bummer was the very visible tearing, because I didn’t turn vsync on. I didn’t bother with vsync, because I could see from the tearing that it was having trouble keeping up. So I turned the game back down to 1080p and it worked great. I suppose if my computer were a little faster, Saints Row IV might be a good experience at 4K resolution.

I’m continuing to run LOTRO at 1080p resolution, because of the distracting visible artifacts at 4K, and I find 1080p mostly OK despite all the pixels being doubled in both axes.

In short, we have a big winner at 4K in Star Trek Online, and we have a pretty good candidate if your machine is great in Saints Row IV. So cheers to 4K monitors!

Gaming at 4K: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Since Amazon had the Seiki 39″ 4K TV for a great price last week, I picked it up in the hopes of gaming at 4K. I have a reasonably decent PC with an NVidia 670 that can drive 4K monitors, so that part worked well, but there are some issues.

The monitor itself is a great piece of equipment. It is very vivid, with amazingly deep blacks (like almost no backlight bleedthrough). The color is pretty off, but with some calibration on my PC, it looks good. The downside of 4K is that it can only be driven at 30Hz over HDMI. There are some higher end 4K monitors with DisplayPort that may be able to do 60Hz, but they are much more expensive. Having a 3840×2160 desktop is so amazingly spectacular that I was, and still am, tempted to bring it into work so I can be more productive there. And with my first gaming experience with the monitor, that thought was reinforced. Since I spent the weekend mostly doing things around the house, I haven’t done an exhaustive survey of games on the 4K monitor, but I’ll share what I learned.

The first game I tried was Lord of the Rings Online, which can drive the monitor at native resolution and at 30Hz. The problem was that there was some odd and very distracting smearing during movement, particularly on grass and flowers and such. It was so distracting that I couldn’t stand it, so I switched back to 1920×1080 at 60Hz. Sadly, this is lower than the 2560×1440 resolution of my previous monitor, so I was losing out a bit. And since the lower resolution was at such a large size now (39″ vs. 27″), it looked muddy and unappealing. At that point, I was ready to declare failure and bring the thing into work.

Then I tried Sins of a Solar Empire, which won’t even try 4K resolution, so I gave that up, just reinforcing my plan to ditch the monitor at work.

I tried Skyrim on a lark, and it looked amazing! It played like crap, but it looked fantastic at 4K. For some reason, though, the game was super sluggish and annoying. Again, my though was that I was not going to continue using the monitor for gaming.

Finally, I tried Star Trek Online, and it was perfect at 4K. It looked great, and it played just like before. I tried both space and ground scenarios and it looked amazing. I presume the newer graphics engine in STO vs. LOTRO made the difference, but clearly MMORPGs can run perfectly well at 4K and 30Hz. That convinced me that maybe I need to rethink my plans for the monitor.

Last night, I played more LOTRO as I am trying to get my poor Rune Keeper through Lothlorien and on to higher levels. Again, it was only at 1920×1080 on this large monitor, but I quickly came to like it. Sure, it is lower resolution that I used to play at, but it now filled my vision, so was more immersive.

In short, gaming isn’t quite ready for 4K, but if you get a good enough deal on a 4K monitor, it is a nifty thing.

I will post pictures and screen shots when I get a chance.

PS4 Impressions After a Full Day

I’ve had my Playstation 4 since Friday afternoon and have had a good chance to work with it and can give my impressions.

When I first hooked it up on Friday, I had planned to manually perform the required Day 1 patch from the patch file that I had on a USB flash drive. It turned out that the PS4 was faster at downloading it over the network than I was at figuring out how to convince it to update from the flash drive. The update went smoothly, as have all the PSN interactions so far. The rumors on Friday of total collapse of PSN seem to have been exaggerated, because downloads have been smooth, the store has worked well, and my small number of friends show up just fine. So kudos to Sony for a good launch!

I don’t have the PS4 camera yet, because of a screw up with my Amazon order. While I’m partially to blame for that, it was somewhat Amazon’s fault. So my angry glare looking north towards Washington state is not at Microsoft, for once, but at Amazon. When I get the camera, I’m looking forward to checking out the Playroom tech demo that looks so cool in all the videos.

The PS4 is, as you know from all the pictures is quite an attractive machine. As you can see from the photo below, it is smaller than an original PS3 and 2nd generation Xbox 360, and feels solidly built. I first hooked it up via HDMI to the TV and optical audio to my surround sound system. On Saturday morning, I tore all the cables out of all the machines and hooked all three game systems to an HDMI switch that connected to the TV. The TV then has an optical out that sends the sound to the audio system. This new setup meant I could get rid of my old component video switch that I was only using to switch optical audio from the PS3 and the Xbox 360. This setup works well, which is good, because there seems to be a problem with the optical audio on the PS4. When I was at the menu screen, the pleasant-sounding background music sounded good, but when I started a game (Resogun or Contrast, for example), the audio broke up and became very rough and awful. This happened when the audio output was either Dolby 5.1 or DTS 5.1, but if I forced it to use PCM stereo, it was OK (though stereo, which is not ideal). Things seem to be working better with the HDMI audio, so I’ll stick with that.

Game Machines

The Playstation Store is much quicker and more responsive than it was on the PS3, but of course that may be because there isn’t much content there yet. It does seem to be a better design, though. It launches quickly and getting out of it is fast and easy. The thing missing is the list of prior purchases. I preordered Warframe in order to get the preorder bonus, but I don’t know if I got it or not when I downloaded Warframe from the store. In the PSN section of the Settings menu, there is a “Services List” item within “Account Information” that shows I apparently have it, but such things should be accessible from the store, not from hunting 3 levels down in the System menu.

The Dualshock 4 controller is quite good. It is comfortable and has a good feel to it, mostly. The “Options” button, which is used in place of the Select and Start buttons on the PS3’s controllers, is not in a convenient spot, yet games tend to use it a fair bit. DC Universe Online is the worst offender I’ve seen so far, using it to bring up a circular menu to get to everything, like your inventory and skills and journal, so you need to hold the unwieldy Options button, then navigate to the selection. Not a comfortable proposition, but that isn’t why I won’t spend much time playing DC Universe Online (more in a future post). The battery life of the DS4 is also quite lousy – certainly worse than the Dualshock 3.

The PS4 has a standby mode and an off mode. In the standby mode, it can download updates, finish downloading games you’ve purchased, and apparently be awakened by a PS Vita for remote play (I don’t have a Vita, so haven’t tried it). For the ability to do those things, it consumes 10 watts. Always. Sounds like lazy engineering to me, Sony. I could see that it would take 10 watts when downloads and installs are happening and the DS4 is charging, but then it should throttle back to a watt or two. Y’know, cut the Ethernet to 10Mbps, reduce power on the WiFi like tablets and smartphones do, etc. We as a world, and I, in particular, consume too much energy as it is, so having millions of brand new units that are designed to consume 10 watts when they are ostensibly off is unfathomable to me. I will do my best to turn the damn thing off, even though the power button puts it into standby mode. Oh, and that DS4 that needs charging so often – it needs standby mode to charge. I turned my PS4 off last night with the DS4 plugged in, because I had heard it charges when the PS4 is off. It isn’t charged, so apparently it doesn’t charge in the off mode. Darn.

Downloads and updates are much smoother on the PS4 than they were on the PS3. Multiple downloads can happen at once, and they continue while games are running unless the games need the network. Overall, a big improvement, and pretty nearly where my PC has been for many years. Game updates are an interesting conundrum, however. When you first put in a game disk, it immediately starts copying the game to the PS4’s hard drive, so we will all fill our drives reasonably quickly. And though the game is cached to the hard drive, we still need the disk in the optical drive for, you know, piracy and inconvenience reasons. Once part of the disk has been copied over, the game can be started, which is a nifty feature that we don’t have to wait for 50GB to be copied. But, once you start the game, if there is a patch for the game, it will start downloading, but your play will not be interrupted. Now I’m guessing they won’t patch a running game, so this means you’ll be playing an unpatched game until you quit and allow the patch to install. While this is perhaps more friendly than the PS3’s system of making us wait while a patch downloads, I don’t like the idea of playing that unpatched game when the patch may be downloaded and be sitting there on the disk. So if I see a patch download notification, I quit the game and let the patch happen before I’ll play it.

Finally (for this post), the PS4 comes with some nice coupon codes, including one for a free month of PS Plus (PS+). PS+ is $50 a year and was essential on the PS3, because it allowed a PS3 to update itself automatically, much like Windows has been able to do for years. It also gave members lots of free games, some of which are truly great, so it is well worth it. I have been a PS+ member for a while, so I had to check what happened when I applied that free month coupon. Digging around in the aforementioned “Services List” menu item, I saw that the free month was properly applied at the end of my PS+ subscription, but the auto-renew was turned on for an option much more expensive than the $50 per year plan. So if you use that coupon, disable the auto-renew or you’ll have a nasty surprise!

 

Zen Pinball recorded with Hauppauge HD PVR 2

Note: I’m truly horrified that I didn’t spell Hauppauge right in either the title or the article. And I knew better… Sorry Hauppauge!

I bought the Hauppauge HD PVR 2 Gaming Edition when it was on sale at Amazon a week or so ago, and finally got a chance to hook it up yesterday. As a test, I recorded the excellent Zen Pinball running on my PS3. This video shows one of the Avengers tables, which look and sound great. I am not a very practiced player, so the game is over mercifully quickly for those of you that watch the video.

The HD PVR 2 is a nice step up from the old HD PVR that I had before. With that one, I had to switch cables and do all sorts of annoying and tedious things to set it up for either XBox360 or PS3. The new one can have both attached at the same time, which is very nice. The biggest bummer is the lack of an easy way to switch between inputs without going into the software running on the PC. I also may return my unit, because it seems to have a cosmetic flaw: only half the unit lights up when it is in standby mode, so apparently some of the LEDs must not be working. Overall, the video quality seems good, so if you want to record your PS3 or XBox360, this seems to be the unit to get.

 

Skyrim and its hardware requirements

I bought The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim because it is on sale on Steam. I have wanted it since it came out and skipped a couple of previous Steam sales, but then regretted skipping them when it remained it its confiscatory retail price for months on end. I wasn’t too upset, as I had plenty of other things to do and games to play, but every day, I checked Amazon and Steam for a sale.
Now that I have Skyrim, it’s pretty great, even though I haven’t played it long. I have been experimenting with all the different damage types and am dressed in heavy armor, mostly using mace and shield, but becoming more attracted to magic all the time after frying a bunch of skeleton dudes way faster with magic than I could thump them with my mace. I remember that heavy armor inhibited magic in Oblivion, so I will see if the same effects apply. I really wanted to use a bow, but even with a nifty bow that is better than the starter bow, it doesn’t do damage that fast and is slow to shoot. So I’ll probably become more of a magic user than a melee fighter, though will keep some nice weapons handy just in case.
On my home machine, which is a high end machine, Skyrim runs beautifully at 2560×1440 with ultra-high settings (though I did turn down the anti-aliasing a little from the recommended level, because I don’t think AA adds that much at super high resolution). The game is smooth as silk and looks pretty good, though not quite as amazing as I had hoped. I killed a bunch of bandits in a snowy hideout and the snow-covered floors looked like plastic (and this was with the high-res texture pack) and the falling snow was cartoonish.
As a comparison, I installed Skyrim on my laptop, which is a pretty good laptop. It has a quad-core mobile i7 processor, though it is only 2 GHz, rather than the 3.4 GHz of my gaming PC. Both have 8 GB of RAM, and both have AMD graphics cards (because of the bad luck I have had with NVIDIA cards). The home machine has a 6970 GPU, which, at the time, was the fastest available, while the laptop has a 6770, both with 2 GB of graphics RAM. The laptop is 1920×1080 resolution, while the gaming PC is 2560×1440.
When Skyrim launched, it autodetected the settings for the laptop and chose Medium with some AA. I took its advice, launched the game, and after waiting nearly forever, the game started with a frame rate in the maybe 5 FPS region. It was a slideshow. So I quit, turned off the AA, disabled some of the reflections, etc., and tried again. It got better, maybe 10 FPS, but not playable. After switching the textures down to medium, it may have been 15 or 20 FPS, but still horribly disappointing.
I would imagine I could do some of the things in the various tweaking guides, and make it playable, but it is sad that I should have to. This laptop is much better than most people’s gaming rigs and is certainly miles faster than what I played Oblivion and X3 and most other games perfectly well on. So how is it that a game can look perfect on my gaming rig and look horrible on a machine that is at least 50% as capable, even at reduced settings? And does that mean that the majority of Skyrim players either had to buy a new machine for it or suffer with crap frame rates?
Since I have a good machine that I will play it on, I’m not particularly outraged by this, but it is concerning. I remember when Crysis came out and my machine at the time was as fast as could be (and certainly way faster than anything that had been using in the game’s development), I had to reduce some of the settings a bit to make it smooth. At least in Crysis’ case, that worked and I got a smooth and good looking game. With Skyrim, I would probably have to reduce the resolution to make it playable on the laptop. Game makers should try a little harder to make things playable with reasonable, but not great, hardware.

New TV – 3D games, here I come!

I needed a smallish TV for my bedroom, but when I saw a good deal on a Vizio 42″ 3D TV at Costco, I had to buy it. I didn’t think I really NEEDED a 3D TV, but it had all the other features I wanted, so I got it.

I hooked a PS3 and Xbox 360 into it and then fed the TV’s optical audio output into a Pioneer AV Receiver. That was my first mistake. The TV’s audio support is lousy and it doesn’t just pass through audio signals it can’t decode. Instead, it forces the source to 2 channel stereo PCM or Dolby Digital 5.1. This means all the fancy Blu-Ray sound outputs are useless. I couldn’t even convince the PS3 to use Dolby 5.1, but the XBox did so. Though my receiver is a couple years old, I hooked the PS3 HDMI port straight into it to get the best sound and it passed through the 3D HDMI signal to the TV, so a win all around. Shame on Vizio for messing with the audio, though.

I haven’t watched any 3D movies, but I tried Uncharted 3 and Killzone 3 in 3D and I’m not going back to 2D games if 3D is available. The Vizio TV is passive 3D, which means it uses polarized glasses and half the resolution is used for each eye, but the quality is still quite good and the 3D adds a lot, at least to those 2 games.

I had resisted 3D because of cost and because I figured it wouldn’t be very effective, but in this case, passive 3D is comfortable and works very well. I’m now sold on 3D for gaming. I’ll post after I watch a 3D movie on it to let you know my impressions. But if you are thinking of a new TV and have a PS3, get a 3D TV!

Switched from NVIDIA to AMD graphics

I have been a long time fan of NVIDIA graphics technology and have always bought NVIDIA cards whenever I bought or put together a PC. But after many failures of such cards, that has all changed…

My new HP laptop has an AMD 6770 GPU in it, which is fast enough to play most modern games at reasonable frame rates on the 1920×1080 screen.

And I replaced my NVIDIA GTX570 with an AMD 6970 in my main PC last night. The problem was that the card tended to fail during graphically intensive games. It wasn’t heat, as I monitored that and used utilities to crank the fan up. It wasn’t the power supply, as I had a good one with plenty of power on the 12V rail. I was having so many problems, I built a new machine, replacing everything but the video card. When the failures recurred, I knew that the video card was the problem.

The new AMD card is larger and a bit louder, though it cost less than the 570. It seems to dramatically outperform it, too, so assuming things remain stable (so far, so good), it will be a big win!

Sorry NVIDIA – quality control from your manufacturers has not been good lately and this latest card problem is the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’ve spent a lot of money on NVIDIA cards that have failed in the last 5 years and think it’s time for a change.

LOTRO Middle Earth Tour Part 2: Needlehole to Michel Delving

This video continues my Middle Earth tour in LOTRO. I start at the entrance to the Shire from Ered Luin (see the first video) and the ride to Waymeet and Michel Delving, ending at the Mathom House.

This video was captured using the Blackmagic Intensity Shuttle using an HDMI connection. While the sound was set to the HDMI connection, it apparently was not recorded, so this video is also without sound.

LOTRO Middle Earth Tour Part 1: Ered Luin

This is the start of my tour of Middle Earth as envisioned by The Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO). LOTRO is such a huge game that I thought it would be worthwhile to show people how amazing it is. I decided I would ride from end to end and post the video, but I will do it in segments, because it may become boring and I don’t have access to all areas yet (at least not without being killed quickly).

I’m also experimenting with capture approaches. My GTX280 video card failed, and in the process of diagnosing that, I built myself a new Sandy Bridge Core-i7 rig with 8GB of RAM and a GTX570, all in a nice red mini-ATX case. Unfortunately, the new GTX570 doesn’t have component video out, so I can’t use the Hauppauge HDPVR to capture anymore, at least not directly. The video below was captured using the HDPVR, but after the HDMI signal fr0m the computer was converted to component by a Blackmagic Intensity Shuttle. Why not use the Shuttle to capture directly? Well, the software is a little unforgiving (ok, horrible) and when I did this video, I didn’t have it figured out. I did use the Shuttle to capture the second part of the tour, but have so far been unable to get it to finish uploading to YouTube (it’s failing for the 3rd time as I write this).

Unfortunately, just as I was experimenting with video capture, I was experimenting with audio capture. While the audio capture approach I used here worked in tests, it failed in real life, so this video doesn’t have sound. This is a shame, because LOTRO music is great. The soundtrack is varied and generally excellent – one of the best game soundtracks out there.

This video shows me leaving Thorin’s Hall on my goat (you need a goat to ride in Moria, but you can ride it elsewhere and it is as fast as a normal horse) and riding past Gondamon, through Duillond, then into the Shire gate. Sadly, it’s at night, so the colors are muted, but LOTRO has a great night sky, which I show off a bit during the ride.

Dragon Age II is great (plus PC failure)

I got Dragon Age II on release day and it is great. It isn’t quite as compelling as the original, which I simply couldn’t stop playing, but it is still very fun.

DA II is clearly much more aimed at console users than PC users, so the top-down view is gone – instead, the camera is closer to a 3rd person perspective. In addition, inventory management and skills are way dumbed down. This is a shame for those of us that love digging into RPGs, but probably makes it more accessible to casual gamers, which is likely where the money is.

The graphics look quite good on my 2560×1440 monitor driven by a GTX280 graphics card. The bummer is that the automatic configuration decided I could use 4x antialiasing, which made the game stutter quite a bit. I turned AA off and the game runs quite well. The game looks better than DA:O, but there are still a few issues. As usual, the face textures look great, as we’ve seen in Mass Effect II, but the clothing and some other textures were apparently done in crayon and look pretty lousy. There is a high-resolution texture pack linked in this forum post, but I didn’t install it yet for the reasons I discuss below.

Loading new areas is slow in DA II, but perhaps a bit better than in DA:O (and remember the horrible memory leak in DA:O that made loads really slow after a while). The fighting is a little faster and more action-oriented, again dumbing it down a bit and making it less strategic, but shinier and perhaps more fun. The spells and effects look better and most spells are quicker to cast than before.

The game has different paths to choose in both conversations and actions, all of which affect how much people like you and may change future game events. So far, I’ve been playing a goody-goody mage and choosing all the nice answers. I may play again sometime as a rogue and choose the smart-ass answers. I don’t really like playing evil characters, so I probably won’t bother with that.

Overall, DA II is great fun so far and seems stable enough that I’d recommend people with even a passing interest in RPGs should try it!

I’ve been having very strange PC troubles lately that seem to be hardware related, particularly my graphics card, but it is unclear exactly what is happening. It seems that right upon login, my screen either goes black or fills with a color or pattern and the system stops responding. I think it is as Windows Aero is starting. It happens on my normal account and a virgin account I have for troubleshooting. The crazy thing is that powering off and back on sometimes fixes it. I’ve updated drivers and everything else, to no avail. It is getting worse, however, sometimes taking 5 or more power cycles to get working. And once it is working, it stays working until the next power-down (not reboot – that’s okay).

So to solve this puzzling problem, I’ve ordered parts to make a nice Sandy Bridge i7 system with a GTX570, so it should be a significant upgrade in both CPU and GPU performance. Then I will install the hi-res texture pack for Dragon Age II.