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Travels Without A GeForce

I’m a nightmare on holidays and press trips. Beforehand I’m plunged into panic - what if I get bored? However shall I cope with an idle moment? I suspect it’s a side-effect of that curiously modern condition Jim comments on – I spend so much of my every day so connected to this constant flow of information and entertainment that the idea of going without it for even a few hours is distressing.

So, on any trip, my hand-luggage is stuffed with more entertainment than I could possibly require – thee or four books, a magazine, an iPod heavy with music and video, a DS, a PSP and a laptop. Just barely enough to survive the flight – but what if it doesn't get me through a week in a fascinating foreign city? For Chrissakes Meer, just go outside. What’s really ludicrous is that I don’t need this sack of technology. I just need the laptop.

Somehow though, I’ve never been able to entirely embrace the concept of gaming on a notebook. That I know most lack the grunt of my desktop PC, and that the ones with decent 3D cards inside are so monstrously expensive, has had me simply dismiss them ouright as a gaming platform. My idea of PC gaming seems unshakeably about the comfortable chair, the big monitor, the proper keyboard and pushing visual settings as high as they’ll go. So I’ve travelled with a hard drive empty of games. Oh, the wasted hours – time I could have spent with so very many neglected classics and curios.

My laptop's an early-2007 Macbook, dual-booting OSX and Windows XP, as my sideline in tech-writing requires I keep my hand in with both OSes. While internally unexceptional, it’s a lovely-looking notebook, and the Core 2 Duo chip inside is reasonably meaty. There are, however, two enormous problems with it. Firstly, the 1280x800 screen is an utter turd, the vertical pixel count stifling for anything beyond simple web-browsing and word processing, and its backlight so puny that it’s unusable in any sort of outdoors daylight. Secondly, it uses integrated graphics – the Intel 950 GMA specifically, with a whopping 64-224Mb of memory purloined from the main system RAM. In other words, it's a toothless old egg-sucking dog when it comes to gaming.

Except it’s clearly not. It’s a toothless old egg-sucking dog when it comes to pixel shader 3.0 Xbox 360 ports or whatever 3D card-munching new release I’m supposed to be reviewing for someone. It’s still a PC, though, more than capable of running tens of thousands of games. Since I realised and embraced that, it’s been a different machine to me – and a liberating one. Freed from the mindset of must play greatest/latest, I now become excited about what games I could load it up with and take with me on a trip away. Which also means I’ve spent far too much of today installing a load of favourites old and new to establish what does and doesn’t run. Here’s the fruits of my labours:

- Team Fortress 2. I actually expected this to work, as Source games historically scale down very well, but instead I get a menu without a background, and a game that crashes whenever I click on any option, even if it's just Settings menu. Boo. Edit - possible fix here. Thanks, Ian.

- Doom 3.
Just about runs, but I wouldn’t be able to sit through much of it at that framerate. Plus, it looks like this:

- Beyond Good & Evil.
Infuriatingly, I can’t play my copy of this on my main PC, as its copy protection sneers at Vista 64. It silently and immediately deletes itself the second it finishes installing. With XP on the laptop, it’s just about playable – but a poor framerate does rip much of the joy from BG&E’s pretty world.

- GTA: Vice City.
Runs like an absolute treat, and is a perfect example of the kind of thing an underpowered laptop can do without blinking. Also, Vice City still offers one of gamingdom’s finest opening moments – moped, Billy Jean blaring, go. GTA IV’s got nothing to touch that.

- Sacrifice –
yesterday’s visual tour de force is today’s light snack – I can whack up the detail settings to ‘insane’ and it positively gallops along. It still looks remarkable, too.

- Sins of A Solar Empire – The video settings have to be dropped to rock bottom - the net result being a universe almost without textures - but the frame-rate is glorious. This is a best-selling game released just a few months ago, running smoothly on integrated graphics. Stardock place some emphasis on all their games scaling down well to low-end hardware, and its sales figures suggest that's very much working out for 'em.

- Neverwinter Nights 2. An interesting one - it won't run out of the box, but if you get free app 3D-Analyze to emulate a certain facet of transform & lighting in software, NWN2 will load up cheerfully and be more or less playable (instructions here). Which rather suggests it's very straightforward for the game to officially scale down this low, but for some reason it didn't go that extra mile.

- Comparatively, Titan Quest flat-out refuses to load, not even attempting to run. I've read reports that others have gotten it running with 3D Analyze, but no such luck here. How much work would it have been to have an option to disable pixel shaders? I stress, I've no idea of the technicality involved, but I'm surprised that a game so transparently chasing the Diablo audience wouldn't scale well.

- Planescape Torment – ah yes. The widescreen mod sparkles it up delightfully for the Macbook’s 1280x800 panel – and the text is a lot less squinty than at 1680x1050 on my desktop.

- Civilization IV
– has to stop and have a think occasionally, but for the most part it runs just fine. The nature of the game means it also doesn’t look significantly worse at low-detail settings. Again, it’s the kind of game you wouldn’t expect to run on such a feeble system, but knowing it does makes long journeys almost something to look forward to (so long as there’s a power socket to hand).

- Dawn of War: Soulstorm
– again, no problems, bar the low vertical resolution making the interface devour most of the screen.

- Dungeon Keeper 2.
Er. This is getting boring, innit? Yeah, ‘sfine.

- And Peggle, obv.

And so on and so on. There's much it won't play nice with, but so much more which it will. All-in the surprising capability of such feeble integrated 3D chips is yet another spit in the eye of that silly 'the PC is do0med' brigade. My laptop may have cost £600 because it's got a fancy case and a picture of a fruit on the front, but it's largely the same hardware that £200 PC World horrors make do with. When even the most lowly graphics hardware can chew through theoretically thousands of spectacular games, old and new, how could the PC possibly have anything to fear?

While obviously there's still a lot of room for graphics-heavy AAA games, this is the kind of system that a dramatically larger mass of people own than do 360s and PS3s. I get the sense that once the industry turns towards it in earnest - as we're seeing with stuff like Sins and Battlefield Heroes - the PC will finally prove itself invincible.

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