Hacking Bangkok Blog

Tech and Living in Thailand's City of Angels

The Hacking Bangkok blog covers I.T. and technology in general, and my experiences working and living in the Kingdom of Thailand. Bangkok has a very long Thai name, which starts with Krung thep - City of Angels.
Bangkok sunset from my bedroom balcony

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Succumbing To The Gaming Bug: Half-Life 2 and My Sort-of Gaming PC

Back in April, I was trawling the Gizmodo site to avoid doing actual work one weekend, and read about some "insane" deal on PC games from game-developer Valve (who I'd barely heard of). The deal was for a package of games, delivered via Valve's online-download service/gaming-community site/software, Steam. The package - called the Orange Box - was up for $10 (or 10€ if you're in Euroland!), and included Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2 Episodes 1 & 2, a mini-episode called "The Lost Coast", plus "Portal", and Team Fortress 2 (a month-pass to the multi-player version).

Full disclaimer - before reading the Giz article, I had only vaguely heard of Valve and Steam, had never heard of Half-Life (or the sequal, HL2), or Portal. The last PC game I played was Unreal Tournament, back in 2001 or so. I was just never a gamer - other than UT (which I didn't play that much anyway), I really hadn't been into games since the days of Joust, and the original arcade vector-graphic Star Wars (and Battle Zone for that matter). And if you're too young to remember those, well, I played Star Wars in the arcades in the mid-80s. Heck, the last game I really loved was Missile Command, from the early 1980s. Doh!


So anyway - it was a boring weekend, and for 10 bucks, I figured I would bite. I bought the pack, and download "Half-Life 2" first. And then promptly forgot about it for two weeks.

Eventually, I fired it up on my two-year-old Thinkpad T60 (Core2Duo 2.0 GHz, ATI Mobility Radeon x1400 discrete graphics with 128 MB VRAM, 3 GB DDR RAM), and started playing on a Thursday night about 9 pm. And from the opening scene, on the train into City 17, I was pretty hooked.

I had no idea what the game was about - didn't bother to read up on it first - so it came as a bit of a shock to me when I noticed my bedroom getting lighter, and realized the friggin sun was coming up! It was after 5 am. Doh!!!

Over the next week, I spent waaay too many hours finally "winning" (if you can call the wierd ending "winning"). Some of the puzzles took a long time to solve, and I decided early on not to look up anything on the web, so I died a lot of stupid deaths figuring things out. Half-Life 2 is, bar none, the best computer-game I've ever played. Even on a laptop that was decidedly not made for gaming (lucky for me, HL2 is from 2004, so my circa-2007 Thinkpad and graphics card did a decent job of keeping the frame-rate high).

But for playing the episodes, and portal (and for watching downloaded movies & shows on the HDTV in my bedroom), something a little beefier was needed. There is a ton of info on the web on every component of a "gaming system". I read the excellent "$800 Killer Gaming PC" article on ExtremeTech, although I didn't go with their system. I wanted something that didn't look like a gaming PC (or a PC at all, really) that would fit in my bedroom, and pull double-duty as a Windows Media Center. Plus, it didn't need to be super-high-end: it's hooked up to a 720p HDTV, which has a mas resolution of 1366x768. And, like most techies, I have a box of old components and stuff I could salvage, to cut costs. So here's what I made:













The parts I scavenged from my box-o-junk (meaning, I didn't have to buy!):
  • 2 x 160 GB 7200 RPM SATA-II drives out of an IBM x-series server.
  • LG DVD r/w drive, which spent some time in that same IBM server - and so had a black faceplate already slapped on it from last time I re-used it.
  • LinkSys WUSB11 WiFi adapter (which dates waaaay back!)
  • Very thin IR remote control + USB receiver (from some tuner-card I don't remember)
  • Cheap wireless keyboard with pointing stick, which has great range anyway (like, more than 10 feet)
  • Windows 7 Ultimate RC, which I had already downloaded. It's good until next April or something, and free until then!
Stuff I bought from Pantip Plaza, the nearby giant computer/gadgets mall:
  • Gigabyte EG45M motherboard
  • Intel Core2Duo 2.8 GHz dual-core CPU (45 nm lithography)
  • ATI Radeon HD4870 graphics card (512 MB version) from HIS
  • 4 GB of DDR2 RAM
  • OCZ Silencer 500W power supply
  • SilverStone SST-SG01-F case
Total cost: 20,500 Thai Baht (about $595 at the time I bought it).

I almost opted for the all-aluminum version of the SilverStone case - it's lighter and allegedly dissipates heat better - but it was about $40 more than the steel one I got, and I'm not going to be moving this thing around much anyway. Another compromise was the Core2Duo, rather than a Core i7; the i7 chips are a lot more expensive, and (more importantly) the motherboards that support it are a lot pricier too. Instead, I put money into the graphics card.

The Radeon HD4870 is a pretty high-end card, but I got it for about 5,500 baht (~ $160 USD), probably because the newer HD4890 card is out. The 4890 was close to double the price, but maybe 20% faster in the reviews I read. And like I said - I'm generally playing at 128x720, or maybe 1680x1050 if I plug it into my "work" monitor, so at $160, it was a no-brainer. Plus it supports DirectX 10, Microsoft's new 3D video tech.

Probably the most interesting thing (or at least, surprising because it was interesting!) was the lowly power-supply. It had this high-end "feeling" (coating?), all the cables ran through mesh-tubing to keep them from getting tangled, and it provides power to the USB ports even when the computer itself is off. This is great for charging an iPhone or, say, my Touch Diamond overnight. Plus, it really is silent - from more than a foot away, you literally can't hear it (or the case-fans either - kudos to SilverStone for great ventilation design and silent fans).

I didn't take screen-caps, and photographing a TV with a digital camera leaves something to be desired, but Half-Life 2 (especially Episode 2, and the Lost Coast) and Portal look just amazing, with all settings cranked to "high" and anti-aliasing on. Later, I bought "Crysis" (again, using Steam's online store), and that also runs smoothly at 1280x720 with settings at "high". The Gigabyte micro-ATX board supports up to a quad-core "Core2Extreme" CPU, so there's some room for upgrading. The saddest thing is that Portal (while fun) and Crysis (beautiful) aren't nearly as fun as HL2. Later, I read that HL2 was one of the highest-rated games of all time, so maybe my expectations are high now. I'll check out "Left4Dead" at some point too (L4D 2 is coming out this fall also...).

This is a photo of HL2 Episode 2, in the beginning, with in-game "girlfriend" or whatever Alyx is supposed to be:


You'll just have to trust me that it looks much better in real life, especially moving with perfectly fluid motion (that BenQ TV only refreshes at 60 Hz, and HL is rendering faster than that).

For all the gamers out there (at least, any gamers that find my blog, hahah), this is probably old, old, OLD info - even Crysis isn't really a new game - but for me, being immersed in Half-Life 2 was really eye-opening. It's like starring in your own movie, with special effects that Lucas and Spielberg could only dream of when I was a kid. Now, if Valve would just hurry up and finish Half-Life Episode 3, (or even HL3?) then I'd have a chance to really feed my addiction again!

1 comments:

Diane said...

Hey Kirk, Stop playing games and email me. Have small ecommerce project if you're not too busy. Need quote. Would like your current contact info. And, just want to say hi. Diane P