I played two PC ports of two big, exciting new games this week. One of them worked. One of them didn't. The two big games in question were Square Enix and United Front's Hong Kong crime game Sleeping Dogs and THQ and Vigil's comic-booky fantasy game Darksiders II.
Both games came out on Tuesday, both were released on Xbox 360, PS3 and, in an increasingly uncommon but welcome move, simultaneously on PC (hooray!). But while Sleeping Dogs has a robust, customisable PC version, Darksiders II's PC port has more than its share of problems.
Let's start with the good. Sleeping Dogs is, as Tina raved in her review of the Xbox 360 version, a darned cool game. I've played four or five hours, and I'm enjoying myself quite a bit. I like the story, I like the characters, and I like busting heads and breaking legs in nightclubs.
While Sleeping Dogs isn't a graphical powerhouse like The Witcher 2 or Crysis 2, it's still a darned good-looking game. Its Hong Kong setting is colourful and sprawling, and it's the first time in a good long while that a game has given me that wonderful sense of disoriented tourism that the best open-world games can inspire.
I run a middle-of-the-road gaming PC these days, an i5 with 8GB of RAM centered around an AMD Radeon 6870 graphics card. I run Sleeping Dogs somewhere between its middle and high settings, and have got it dialled in to a near-perfect setting.
Sleeping Dogs hums along at a solid 60 frames per second, with its HD resolution and long draw-distance bringing Hong Kong to bright, colourful life on my PC. I haven't had time to put together a side-by-side comparison of how the PC version stacks up to consoles, but the friendly folks at Revision3 have made a video (off to the side here) that about sums it up. Everything on PC — the colours, the framerate, the textures (if you use the PC-exclusive HD texture pack), and the DirectX 11 features to enhance the shadows and anti-aliasing, make the game look and run well on PC. Best of all, it's got a built-in benchmark tool that lets you know how the game is handling your settings without your having to go in and see for yourself.
In fact, I used the word "port" in the headline here, but that word raises the ire of many PC gamers — a "port" is thought to be a shoddy rip of a console game straight to PC, with little thought to the extra horsepower and customisation options afforded by modern DirectX 11 PCs. Sleeping Dogs would be more accurately called a PC version of the game. It's not without its bugs and weirdnessness — one time, adjusting the graphics caused my characters to "fall into the world" and tumble unendingly until I restarted the game — but by and large, Sleeping Dogs runs smoothly and looks great.
Darksiders II, however, is resolutely a port. And unfortunately, it's not a very good one.
I'll start out by saying that I actually don't mind straight-up PC ports of console games. I play most of those kinds of games with a plugged in Xbox controller, and I frequently play them on my big TV. Really, I like when a PC game feels like a console game played in true 1080p. Arkham Asylum on PC, for example, ran so smoothly and cleanly that it almost felt like a different thing than its console sibling, even though it was basically a direct port of the game.
So, I was ready for Darksiders II to be a port, but when I booted it up, I was surprised at just how bare-bones the PC version was. (Really, things didn't get off to a good start when the game made me create an account and sign into THQ's proprietary gaming network, blerg, but that's a story for another day.) The in-game menus are essentially indistinguishable from an Xbox 360 game — I couldn't even get into the settings until I'd played through the opening cinematic, and when I did, I was surprised at what I found. No detail settings, not even a high-medium-low graphics dial. Just one setting for screen resolution and a checkbox for v-sync.
I'd seen a lot of screen-tearing in the intro cinematic, so I thought "Well, better turn on v-sync." So I did. I also bumped the resolution up to 1920x1080, since it had defaulted to something much lower. The settings menu stated that I'd need to quit the game and restart it for the changes to take effect (grumble), so I did that, and before long was back in the introductory segment. Despite the fact that I'd turned on v-sync, at 1080p screen tearing had become rampant.
I went into the settings again and checked the v-sync box. Yup, it was checked. Double-huh. It would appear that the v-sync option in Darksiders II does not work, at least for me.
I started playing the game, but the tearing was so intense that I couldn't get into it. Every time I'd pan the camera around my character's head, the screen would roll and clip onto itself, a spastic dance of graphical jitters that were distracting and disorienting.
Eventually, I found something of a solution — I bumped the resolution all the way down to 1280x720, where the tearing became much less noticeable. You might notice that's 720p, or, the same resolution at which most console games run. And even then, the tearing is minimised, but still present.
It's a shame that the only way to make the PC version of Darksiders II run OK on my machine is to effectively turn it into the Xbox 360 version. I don't ask for much in a PC port! But I do ask to be able to run the game in my monitor's native resolution without a fuss. Reader Andy Pavolillo wrote in with this involved but theoretically feasable workaround for the V-sync and stutter issues, but it requires an NVIDIA graphics card, so I haven't been able to try it. Regardless, that kind of involved solution shouldn't be necessary for something as basic as v-sync!
Some perusal of both the Steam forums and the official Darksiders II forums have turned up a lot of gamers having problems similar to mine — the nonfunctional v-sync option, in particular. Other PC owners, however, report that while the game may be lacking customisation options, it is at least running smoothly and without graphical issues. It sounds as though AMD cards have the v-sync problem while on some NVIDIA graphics cards, v-sync works as it should.
But the overarching vibe among PC gamers is one of discontent. Mouse and keyboard control customisation is lackluster, and perhaps even worse, the camera auto-centers on to Death (the protagonist)'s back. There's no "free-look" option when using a mouse, resulting in a vertiginous flying camera that players must fight in order to look around while moving.
A large part of the anger is that some PC gamers feel they were mislead — people working on the game had ensured PC owners that the .config file that would allow them to tinker and tweak the game to their liking would be available, but now that the game has launched, it's nowhere to be found. In a post to the game's official forums, community manager Matthew Everett (to his and Vigil/THQ's credit) apologized for giving gamers bad information:
During the Community Summit both Jay Fitzloff and I (Mathew Everett) were under the impression that full .config files and final keyboard/mouse and controller hookups were going to work as promised when the PC version of the game launched. That was the plan at the time from a specifications perspective.
Unfortunately, especially at the end of the development cycle, sometimes things change at the last minute, and this was one of them. This puts us in an uncomfortable spot as we were acting on the best information we had at the time, and it has turned out not to be in the final game (at this point).
Since it was always the intention to implement these features, as I type this, the development team is checking to see what items can get added into the game. While I can't promise what can be done, I can promise we are working with the proper teams and have expressed the importance of including them in a patch.
When I asked THQ about the problems with the PC version, a spokesperson told me that "Vigil is tracking these issues closely and is keeping their collective ear close to the forums." And to their credit, a first patch has already been released for the PC version, addressing a number of game-crashing bugs more serious than anything I've encountered.
This is all a real shame, since Darksiders II is a fun game. Most reviews, including Kate's review for Kotaku, report it to be a fun and generally successful mashup of Prince of Persia, Zelda and Diablo. Everything I've played so far backs that up. But even when reviewing the PlayStation 3 version, Kate advised that players not buy the game just yet, as a number of significant bugs detract enough that it'd be worth waiting until they get patched. I asked Kate about screen-tearing issues in the console version, and she said that the display was fine on her version — the bugs she ran into were mostly functional.
Of course, this tale of woe is nothing new for PC gamers — it's common for this sort of thing to happen. But the contrast between the two games feels like a great example of how to do a PC version right, and how to get it wrong. Furthermore, there's a chance that you'll get Darksiders II to run perfectly fine on your system. But it also might be a mess. It's great that Vigil is working to fix their game, but when it comes down to it, a game shouldn't be released in the state that Darksiders II on the PC was. We PC players may grump about having to wait an extra couple weeks for a PC version, but if that's what it takes to give us a game that works immediately after we install it, so be it.
The overarching narrative of this week has been "Sleeping Dogs or Darksiders II?" Console gamers can't really go wrong, but PC gamers have a clearer choice — pick up Sleeping Dogs now, and you'll get a robust PC gaming experience with HD textures and all manner of DirectX 11 bells and whistles. But you might want to hold off on Darksiders II for a little while, at least until Vigil makes good on their promises to get the game up to snuff.