PC gaming at E3 2014: Gaining steam, even without Steam Machines
New hardware and some key games keep PC gamers in the loop at this console-heavy event.
Going by the massive press presentations that dominated the 2014 E3 video-game trade show, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the games industry started and ended with games for the latest Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony living-room consoles, with maybe a little space left over for the handheld Nintendo 3DS.
But despite the console tilt of the show and its coverage, PC gamers were well represented, as long as you knew where to look. New hardware and accessories made impressive debuts, many top games had PC versions in the works as well, and graphics giant Nvidia set up shop in a parking lot across the street from the convention center (an E3 tradition carried on by several companies over the past 15 years) with a life-size Titan robot from Titanfall and a tent full of high-powered gaming PCs.
Not just console games
Perpetually popular online PC games such as League of Legends and World of Tanks had ample presence at E3 (and both have a massive, dedicated audience any console game maker would frag for), but long-time PC favorite Minecraft was primarily being pushed in newer console formats.
High-end games such as The Witcher III have clear PC roots, and will no doubt look and play best on high-powered, high-resolution PC hardware. EA's latest Battlefield game, Hardline, is also coming to PC, and previous series entries have always looked much better on PC than in console versions. The same can be said of Dragon Age: Inquisition, the latest installment in a tactical fantasy role-playing game that never quite gelled on consoles.
A high-res, low cost display
While the Xbox One and the PS4 struggle to even hit 1080p resolution on new games, the highest-end PCs can handle the same 4K resolution as the latest generation of big-screen televisions. But to appreciate that, you'll need a 4K monitor, and one of the standout PC hardware announcements of E3 was a new 28-inch 4K resolution monitor from low-cost accessory maker Monoprice. The screen is expected sometime in July and should cost under $600. Availability and pricing outside the US has yet to be revealed.
Not quite full steam ahead
The biggest PC story at E3 was something missing from the show -- Valve's upcoming Steam Machine platform, combining a new Steam OS interface, a unique twin-touchpad controller, and living-room-friendly hardware from major gaming PC makers.
The Steam Machine platform, despite a big debut at CES 2014, has been pushed back until at least next year, and with it, all of the promised Steam Machine hardware. Or so you'd think...
Actually, Alienware and parent company Dell didn't feel like sitting on the small-form-factor Alienware Steam Machine introduced back at CES, so it's now been rebranded as the Alienware Alpha, with Windows 8, a wireless Xbox 360 controller, and a promised user interface that can launch games and apps from the controller without the need for a mouse or keyboard. We saw and played with the $550-and-up system on the E3 show floor and liked it a lot. (Again, availability and pricing is not yet announced, but we'd expect the Alienware to be available in many countries outside the US.)
Are other PC makers planning a similar end-run around Valve for their Steam Machines? That's a nuanced question, because many of the now-delayed Steam Machine boxes are already available as Windows-only gaming PCs.
Kelt Reeves of Falcon Northwest tells CNET: "We're in a pretty unique position because the Tiki was a model we were already making, and (it) just happened to be a great form factor for a living-room PC as well. So for us, adding Steam OS and the Steam controller can pretty much happen anytime...So the bottom line is, the Tiki is ready when Valve is."
Kevin Wasielewski, CEO of Origin PC, says: "Essentially we are already doing that right now. Our Chronos PC can be configured horizontally, sold with a wireless Microsoft controller, and loaded with Steam big picture mode. We are already delivering a great 10-foot gaming experience today."
In any case, this latest generation of smaller gaming PCs may be the first to really have a crack at fitting into your living room setup next to traditional game consoles, and if Valve is ready in time, we may already have a lead on the biggest PC gaming story of E3 2015.