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13 recent games that run well on terrible laptops

A wealth of splendid 2016-17 games for the lousiest of hardware

‘Terrible’ only in the sense of their gaming capability. Honestly, I’m sure your laptop is lovely to look at and it was definitely a extremely sensible idea to spend all that money on it instead of buying a holiday or helping to save the pandas. Truth is, though, that playing recently-released games on the vast majority of laptops is about as effective as starting an online petition to uncancel your favourite television show.

A little discretion goes a long way, however. Sure, you may be denied the glossiest of exploding viscera, but it is entirely possible to keep up with the Joneses even on a Terrible Laptop that has no dedicated graphics card. Here are but twelve contemporary games – either recently released or still-evolving going concerns – that will indeed run on your glammed-up toaster. Additional suggestions below are entirely welcome.

The exact definition of a Terrible (for gaming) Laptop clearly differs, but for the sake of argument, my test system has a dual-core cpu that runs at between 1.9 and 2.9GHz depending on load and heat (and thermal throttling to prevent overheat means it’s usually the former figure) and Intel HD 4400 integrated graphics, which borrows memory from the laptop’s 8GB of RAM. Absolutely fine for general purpose computing then, but as useful as a mohawk on a lobster when it comes to games.

The Intel graphics on your Terrible Laptop may well have a lower or higher-sounding number than that, but in most cases don’t expect a great deal of variance. In some cases, though you might get excited about the mention of your laptop having AMD or NVIDIA graphics in it, the chip in question could still be so lowly as to offer you few extra options – and, as such, you are still the proud owner of a Terrible Laptop.

As for performance, my criteria is a game that looks and feels playable at lowest settings and a resolution of 1280×720. Depending on the exact nature of the game in question and of your own Terrible Laptop, you may be able to go a bit higher than that. Oh, and ‘playable’ here means a minimum of 30 frames per second. Some games, particularly turn-based ones, are absolutely fine at lower than that, but 30 is our benchmark for this piece.

Onto the games, anyway. Use the arrow keys above/below the images to navigate the list, or the left and right arrow keys on your keyboard.

Rocket League

Sure, this instantly timeless game of multiplayer car-football looks super-shiny in official screenshots, heavily suggesting a demanding game, but there is mad juju running through this one’s veins. Minimum settings and 720p coaxes 60 frames a second out of this thing on my Terrible Laptop, which actually gives me the headroom to push a few settings to medium. Yes, it all looks a bit PlayStation 2, but the beauty of Rocket League is that it takes mere moments before you’re entirely entranced by the act of chasing a giant exploding ball around with your jet-powered car. Rocket League is a truly wonderful game, and the fact that it runs so well on so very many computers is icing on its delightful cake.

Night In The Woods

This sparkily-written adventure game is as 2D as it gets, so no particular surprises that it doesn’t give a Terrible Laptop much trouble. Its witty, forlorn and anxious homecoming tale is an essential of recent months, however, and its low-pressure nature (and relative kindness to your device’s battery) makes it perfectly suited to play in those situations in which you might naturally be using a Terrible Laptop. Trains! Planes! Toilets! In bed! Instead of looking at Twitter! Night In The Woods is an impeccably-crafted title, and you should absolutely treat yourself to a few nights with it.

American Truck Simulator

I was surprised by this one. Sure, it was never the best-looking game from a technical point of view, but it’s rendering a whole lot of world and a whole lot of wheels. However, it turns out that 30 frames at lowest settings and 720p are assured, 60 not impossible, and a happy medium with a few settings turned up a notch is realistic. Remarkable, really.

I’ve written about American Truck Simulator many times before, but in short: it’s my go-to zen game. Though obviously it sounds like some hyper-detailed overload for sim obsessives, the truth is that it’s a blissed-out road trip through deeply evocative scenery. Gentle tensions like refuelling, not jumping the lights and finding a motel to sleep in during long-haul trips all help to build pure and simple driving into something so much more compelling than the average videogame power fantasy.

Dead Cells

Bench your early access complaints and instead take heart from the fact that this is comfortably one of our favourite games of the year here on Rock, Paper, Terrible Laptop, despite its unfinished nature. Obviously, screenshots make it perfectly obvious that Dead Cells doesn’t need even the faintest whiff of a three-dimensional graphics accelerator card to do its thing, but don’t let that fool you: this is a fusion and distillation of so much contemporary videogame design values. Its fusion of Dark Souls, Metroidvania and roguelike sensibilities, plus darkly atmospheric art, make it as fresh as it is brutal. That it runs on a calculator is icing on the oh-so-2017 cake.

Scanner Sombre

The latest from Prison Architect devs Introversion is a genuinely beautiful game, and a 2017 one to boot. Sure, in the main it’s not conventional 3D, but you probably wouldn’t think as much once you’ve been enveloped in its world of rainbow-coloured light-points. Scanner Sombre, you see, has you ostensibly mapping an underground cave system using a handheld laser scanner that ‘builds’ the world around you out of points of coloured light. The overall effect, as an abandoned place springs to life from the darkness, is magnificent, and, given the lonely spelunking concept, there’s a few decent passes at creepiness and menace too. It stumbles when coming to its true storyline, but its aesthetic and atmosphere are remarkable – doubly so, given that it runs so well on almost anything.

Dota 2

There are many reasons that the leading lights of the MOBA movement are gaming collosi, but the fact that they have always run smoothly on the lowest-end hardware is one of the big ones. Gaming for almost everyone who owns a PC, free from the unending graphical arms race that grips so much of this industry – and the fact that they have existed for years at this point also gives them both heritage and continued improvement. Valve’s Dota 2 is as contemporary as anything in this list, because it is always changing, always expanding. Admittedly, Dota 2’s move to the Source 2 engine a couple of years back stepped up the system requirements a little, but by and large you should be OK. And if not…

League Of Legends

…then there is always DOTA’s more brightly-lit arch-nemesis. Some people dig both games, appreciating their many differences as well as the similarities inherent to their mutual genre, some people don’t get along with MOBAs at all, and others are fiercely defensive about their weapon of choice. On the day of writing this piece, I had conversations with two seperate people about these two games, one of which claimed LOL was hyper-coloured kiddie nonsense, the other of which claimed Dota 2 was unspeakably dull in both appearance and play. Both were shaking ever so slightly as they spoke. OK guys, whatever you say. So: pick your poison, in other words. In either case, you’re getting one of the most popular, well-supported and constantly-evolving videogames around.

Prey (2017)

Prey’s been a smooth-runner on proper gaming PCs, a relief after the performance woes of its stablemate Dishonored 2, but such is its expert optimisation that this fantastic first-person space station explore/fight/survive game will indeed run on a weeny laptop Intel graphics chip. 30 fps does, I’m afraid, entail compromising my 720p rule and dropping the resolution down to 800×600, but the game looks remarkably pretty still at what is effectively standard definition. The fidelity of its sci-fi/deco environments shines through clearly even with the superficial gloss and flash of a modern AAA game stripped away.

I’m running it on an Intel HD4400 GPU, which is an older and even at the time lower-end part, so if you’re running something a little newer or ever so slightly faster – the HD4600, for example – you’ve got a good shot at stepping up to 720p. In any case, it’s genuinely astounding to see this recent, good-looking and almost entirely excellent game running smoothly on devices that weren’t even remotely designed for gaming.

Planescape: Torment – Enhanced Edition

OK, so I’m cheating a little here, but c’mon, this rejigger of the revered 1999 roleplaying game was released just a few short months ago. It’s the same game as it always was, but it now runs at high resolutions and enjoys many of the interface and quality of life staples that we’ve come to expect in the near-twenty years since its original release. While admittedly the character sprites haven’t aged too well, the environments look more luscious and sinister than ever when spread across a high resolution screen.

Most of all, though, this is a high watermark in videogame storytelling, with a word count to rival a novel and all manner of masterful character-work throughout. A deserved classic, newly in better shape than ever, and your Terrible Laptop will barely even know it’s running it.

RimWorld

The last year or so of big ‘indie’ hits on Steam is particularly fertile ground for Terrible Laptop-friendly games. Generally created on a tight budget, these are the kind of games that prioritise ideas and balance over appearance, so the brutal demands that 3D graphics place upon a weak machine are eschewed in favour of clever complexities. Procedurally-generated space colony management game Rimworld absolutely fits that bill, spinning dozens of plates simultaneously, both in terms of growing your little shipwrecked colony and in terms of the personal stories spun out of its inhabitants. Vast and intricate and unpredictable.

Stellaris

Paradox’s sci-fi 4X’s official system specs would seem to rule out Terrible Laptops, but allow me to be the voice of experience here – drop settings to minimum and resolution to 720p and you’ll get your thirty frames on Intel graphics easily. Though its warring galactic civilizations enjoy a certain amount of flash on a well-specced PC, underneath all those glittering suns and shimmering planets, this is very much a game of number-watching and thoughtful politicking. You don’t need any shading on your pixels for that. The recent Utopia expansion (plus a big new patch for the base game) has improved and freshened up Stellaris a great deal, so this is very much the right time to treat your wheezing machine to it.

Stardew Valley

Another safe bet for the crappest of laptops, and another indie success story from the class of 2016/7. Stardew Valley made its name as a PC homage to tranquil Nintendo farming sim Harvest Moon, but by this point potentially eclipses its great inspiration. Crops and cows and ponds and seeds and a life of superficial simplicity that will nevertheless always keep you busy. The low-key but characterful Gameboy Advance-style art approaches timelessness too, and all told Stardew Valley is a dream game for a PC you can take anywhere with you.

The Elder Scrolls Online: Morrowind

(N.b. the Morrowind expansion can currently only be accessed by folk who pre-order it, but it gets a wider release on June 6). MMOs have historically been decent at targeting low-end hardware, but even so it’s faintly remarkable how low Bethesda’s online spin-off of their Elder Scrolls RPGs can go. Thirty frames are guaranteed on Intel GPUs, and impressively 60 frames are possible with enough detail/resolution tinkering.

The mushroom forests and chitinous towns of the new Morrowind expansion, a focused blast of nostalgia for the singleplayer series’ best game, look extremely pretty on a high-end PC, but with everything dialled down to minimum, it all looks for all the world like the original Morrowind redux. The comforting familiarity of muddy textures, minute draw distances and spindly, poorly-lit characters, eh?

But it all runs and runs well – if this is the MMO teat you are most tethered to, rest assured that even the lowliest of hardware can keep your supply flowing while away from home.

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