I was ahead of the gaming tech curve once, but now I don't get it. What can I play?
April 11, 2012 2:27 PM   Subscribe

I don't get PC game requirements; I seem to have a mental block on the issue, and I don't think I'm going to get it. I've never had one of those fancy "video card" things. HL2 and Portal work great on my laptop, Bio-shock is sluggish to the point where its playable but I won't bother. What games that were state-of-the-art at the time, but are now older, can I play?

I'm running a midpriced laptop with Windows 7 from '10, Without knowing anything else, is it possible to ID games that are great and will function well? What are they?

I'm told that even HL2-contemporary GTA games, for example, are beyond me? Or this Mass Effect thing that people seem to like a lot? What would I need to upgrade to for them to work? Would I need a desktop? A fancy expensive one, or a cheap low grade one?

If I'm not giving enough info, what specific steps would I have to take to provide the numbers that would let you answer these questions?
posted by longtime_lurker to Technology (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Right clicking on 'Computer' and clicking on 'properties' will give us basic specifications (I'm pretty sure this is also how it is in 7), if not then I believe going to your control panel, and using the search bar to search for 'system' will render similar results. This will give you processor speed and RAM.

It's hard to say for sure, but if HL2 runs then older classics like Deus Ex and Morrowind will also. Check out Good Old Games, most stuff on there in less advanced than HL2. I'd assume that Bio-Shock and Mass Effect are probably specced in a similar fashion. Have you tried turning down the settings of Bio-Shock? This is probably in the options menu and may allow for better performance on slower rigs.
posted by codacorolla at 2:37 PM on April 11, 2012

If you have a laptop, you can't really upgrade anything meaningful except for memory. But that's rarely the limiting factor here. Most laptops ship with anemic "integrated" video cards. They don't have their own dedicated memory, and their main focus is on making sure the basic 3D features of the OS itself look good. But they don't really support modern game-playing that well.

If you want to not worry about this anymore then yes, you need a desktop. I built a desktop 3 summers ago for ~$600ish (not including the monitor - I had one already) and it still plays new releases at totally acceptable quality. It hasn't been updated in a year, but the Ars System Guide is a great resource for building your own box for cheap. Getting the same performance buying a packaged machine from, e.g. Dell or Alienware is going to cost you a lot more but save you the hassle of getting parts that work together and doing assembly.

So if you want to be playing modern AAA games like Mass Effect, Battlefield 3, etc. you're going to have to put with running them with essentially all the settings tuned down or at terrible framerates. If you want better performance, you need a new laptop (look for laptops that have non-integrated video; they'll name specific cards like an "AMD Radeon HD 6770M with 1GB GDDR5" as opposed to some sort of "integrated Intel blah blah blah". Alternatively, a desktop is way more cost efficient.

Your other option is to look for different games. Tons of smaller market games aim for older hardware because they just don't have the resources to make things look amazing like a modern AAA title. You've got a copy of Steam, right? I'd look in their < $10 category for games that strike your fancy. Those tend to be made by smaller studios and support a wider range of hardware. I don't have my game library in front of me right now, but if you look at top sellers in that category you'll probably find some fun games that work on your hardware. Sometimes they have demos, too, which will help you make sure they run before you buy. I think Steam is pretty lenient in returns, too, if you buy something and it doesn't run. They might get tired if you do it constantly but if you run into something that you expected to run that totally doesn't, you can probably get a refund easily.
posted by heresiarch at 2:38 PM on April 11, 2012

The System Requirements Lab website might be helpful in determining the weak parts of your system.
posted by Diskeater at 2:44 PM on April 11, 2012

System requirements aren't going to help you for non-current games. They are always based on the current generation PC hardware.

There is no site that will show comparisons between current and 10 year old graphics hardware.
posted by wongcorgi at 2:52 PM on April 11, 2012

Half-Life 2's engine, called "Source", is famous for being very efficient... it runs really fast, and looks surprisingly good for using so few graphic card features. And it can scale itself down a long way, so that it'll run on almost anything. On current hardware that you'd buy today, you could probably get several HUNDRED frames per second out of it, if it ran that fast. (it caps itself before then, so we don't know for sure.) This is silly, because most LCDs only update 60 times a second anyway, but it should give you an idea of just how much faster a current graphic card is.

My guess is that you're probably running Intel integrated graphics, which are pretty terrible. There won't be that many 3D games that will run well on that card. Most will probably need to be older than Half-Life 2 for you to get reasonable performance ... HL2 was quite the achievement, when it shipped. Most Source games will probably run okay, although the newish Portal 2 may struggle.

If you want to buy new hardware, the cheapest way to get good gaming is definitely a desktop. Laptops that can game at all well are quite expensive; you can usually expect to spend at least $1500 on a good one, and you can easily spend a lot more. You can put together a very solid gaming PC, one that should blow any laptop out of the water, speedwise, for $750. This is primarily because a PC video card can freely burn a lot of power... high end video cards can run 225 watts all by themselves, where laptops typically have heat/power budgets of 70 watts for everything in the machine, including the CPU.

I think of the 'luxury' gaming desktop build as being about $1K, $1200 if you want an SSD too (the super-luxury version). But that's serious, pull-out-the-stops hardware, much more than you need for perfectly reasonable gaming.

To build a PC to game with, assuming you don't have the $1200 super-luxury budget, your first choice needs to be your monitor or television. Why? Because you want to size your video card to match the resolution. You don't want to buy either too much or too little video card. The CPU is surprisingly unimportant; even a dual-core i3 will do a good job, although Battlefield 3 can actually use three cores, one of the few games that can. (i3s come with only two cores.) Nearly always, your choke point is the video card. And to choose one that's well-balanced, you need to know the resolution you'll be running. High resolution takes lots of video bandwidth, and that means an expensive card.

So, if buying or building a PC is interesting to you, talk to us about your intended video device, and we can give you some ideas. Note that building a modern PC is very easy... if you can handle Lego, you can build a PC. It takes a fair bit of time, but it's easy.
posted by Malor at 2:56 PM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

There is no site that will show comparisons between current and 10 year old graphics hardware.

PassMark does. It's just one benchmark, but it's a reasonable point of reference.
posted by zsazsa at 3:16 PM on April 11, 2012

Oh, also note that if $750 is too much, you can do a skinny desktop build for $500ish that will still beat that laptop cold. That'll probably be a little weakish for the really high-end games, but they should run, albeit at lower resolution and/or with lowered quality settings.

I think of the $750 pricepoint as being the no-compromises level... every part will be really solid, no corners cut. That's an i5-2500K, decent motherboard, good case, either 8 or 16 gigs of RAM (probably 16, as RAM has gotten astonishingly cheap), a mid-to-high end video card, a terabyte drive, a DVD writer, and Windows 7. No monitor. That'd be a pretty kickass machine. If the CPU performance becomes an issue, you can very easily overclock those K chips, nearly always to 4.4Ghz, and sometimes much higher. You don't need to do this now, but it might be nice for extending the life of the machine in three to five years. An overclock and a new video card in 2015 to 2017 might just give that machine a whole new lease on life.

Going to $1K lets you go higher on video card, and going to $1200 lets you add an SSD. That last bit is actually not as big a performance boost as it was. Simply having 16 gigs of RAM will give you most of the SSD speed boost, for a lot less money. Windows 7 uses the extra RAM for caching, and has an outstanding algorithm. It's extremely good at hiding the fact that your drives are slow.

An aside: you do not want an AMD Bulldozer chip. They're just bad, full stop. A last-generation Core 2 Quad will be much better, and should be similarly priced.
posted by Malor at 3:21 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Without getting into processor and RAM specifics, your laptop sounds a lot like mine in that it'll run Source games and a few other things.

Here are some games that might, just might, work on your current laptop:
Fallout 3/New Vegas (These both ran fine in lower resolutions/settings)
Amnesia: The Dark Descent
STALKER: Shadow of Chernobyl
Dead Space
Deus Ex: Human Revolution (somehow this ran on my decrepit laptop)

And here are some games that probably won't run on your laptop:
Mass Effect
Batman: Arkham Asylum
posted by hnnrs at 3:40 PM on April 11, 2012

Something like one of these will actually do fine with almost every game you can buy right now.

Alternatively try Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines for an amazing source game, or Jagged Alliance 2/Master of Magic/Baldurs Gate (all on www.gog.com) for some more old fashioned stuff.
posted by Sebmojo at 5:58 PM on April 11, 2012

I'm told that even HL2-contemporary GTA games, for example, are beyond me?

Depends. If you're talking GTA IV, then no way. It's not a very good port; it needs a more powerful computer than it should to run satisfactorily. San Andreas should work okay, though you might need to crank down some of the settings.
posted by clorox at 11:54 AM on April 14, 2012

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