Saturday, November 14, 2015

BLOG: The Sad State of 3D on a PC

This month, I built myself a new gaming PC, and decided to spend just a little extra money for the nVidia 3D Vision 2 package with a pair of shutter glasses and a USB controlled IR timing transmitter.  What I'm talking about here is PC gaming in stereoscopic 3D.  This is gaming that not only depicts a 3D play environment, but also looks 3D to the player's eyes.

I remember that Descent came out in 1995, and it had support for a virtual reality headset called the Forte VFX-1.  That's 20 years ago.  There were a few 3D games before that, and several have come out since.  Immersive 3D worlds have become common-place in video games.  Recently, everyone has been talking about Oculus Rift, the new VR headset that's supposed to show up for retail next year.  With that in mind, I didn't research much, I assumed that 3D was already a thing on PC.

I am very much a fan of flight simulation and flying games in general.  I have a decent HOTAS (Hands-On Throttle and Stick) as well as a very nice set of rudder pedals.  As such, I'll talk about flight simulation first.  The most common and popular software for this is Microsoft's Flight Simulator series that has been around for a VERY long time.  It was the first of the programs to let us fly around the actual world that we know in real life.  I remember trying to land on the simplistic Brooklyn Bridge using Flight Simulator in the early 1990s.  I clearly remember there was some fanfare about Flight Simulator 2004 supporting stereoscopic 3D.  The latest (and last) version of Flight Simulator that was actually made by Microsoft was Flight Simulator X that came out in 2010.
So, I turn on Flight Simulator X with the nVidia 3D Vision enabled and everything seems to go quite well.  The spinning aircraft in the Free Flight setup window shows up in actual 3D.  So, I select a nice scenic area, and a fairly simple aircraft and launch the game.  After a quarter second of scary black screen, everything sync's up, and the world looks perfect.  Look around everything is where I expect it in space.  Until... I see any lighting of the airport itself.

I don't know how to describe this except to say that it seems like airport lighting is an afterthought.  Once they've rendered the 3D world using the Video Card hardware for what it does best, it seems that the lighting is added to the screen.  This means that the lighting is sitting at screen depth.  This also means that as your eyes line up the far away background, the screen-depth lighting appears to show up twice... or, if you focus on the lights, the background becomes double.  Sigh.  That means Flight Simulator looks great as long as you never go towards an Airport.  I really like to finish a session with a decent landing, and, well, this makes that pretty impossible.  Turn off the 3D, and I'm happy with my setup with this game.  The Microsoft folks never said they supported NVidia's 3D Vision with Flight SImulator X (which surprised me), but it was worth a try.

I look around at other options, and figure I'll start with the nVidia site.  They have a handy list of games that are certified as 3D Vision Ready.  I drop down the selector and see a Genre for Flight Sim.  Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X. 2 is the only game listed.  Okay, so, I go to the site for the game itself, and they don't even have a trailer.  It came out 5 years ago in 2010.  There are a couple of pictures, but it's not clear if it is a mock up of the world, or if it's something from a cut scene, or is it from game-play?  The smallest and crappiest image on the whole site seems to be from game-play, and I got to say, that's not encouraging.  Maybe I'll buy this, but not without at least finding a decent review.

So, what about non certified?  Pretty much anybody says that the best flight simulator software out there is X-Plane 10 (warning that link has an auto-play video).  X-Plane runs on all three popular Operating Systems.  I go check out the forums, and no.  It will not do stereoscopic 3D at all.  NVidia's 3D drivers only support games written in DirectX, not OpenGL.  That makes sense, I suppose, from a development stand-point (and their competition holds the same limitation), but there are a lot of games out there that use OpenGL.  I will be buying a copy of this anyway, since it's basically the only new non-combat Flight Sim out there at all.

I like racing games, too.  Same place, drop down the Genre box to Racing.  There are two titles, but neither are for sale anymore.  GT Legends and rFactor 2. Supposedly these were great games.  I note that most reviews I can find of 3D gaming, screenshots of GT Legends are usually prominent.  Fair, but both of these games came out 10 years ago.  I think I can still find a copy of one or both on Steam, but I didn't buy a new gaming rig to play stuff that my old rig could have played, but now in 3D.  The newest games officially supported are not that new.
Since, supposedly, MS Flight Simulator 2004 actually works, and I have a dusty copy, I might try the even older version of FS for 3D compatibility, but as I said, I didn't buy this rig to play games my old one could have played (and in this case, DID play).

I will note that almost any game that came out under the game engine Unreal 3 might work, since Unreal 3, itself, did support nVidia 3D vision (and several of the 2011 titles with official nVidia support were coded using Unreal 3).  This brings me to the title that I am most excited (after 20 years) to play.  Descent is being recoded and re-released as a prequel.  Descent: Underground is currently in Beta, and was coded using the Unreal 4 engine.  In the Microsoft-like tradition of Flight Simulator 2004 to X, Unreal dropped support for NVidia 3D Vision.  That means that the new generation of games coming have almost zero chance of 3D support.  Further, Descent: Underground is supposed to support the Oculus Rift, but there are problems with that, too.

So, that's where we are?  There are only a handful of titles that support stereoscopic 3D viewing that have come out in the last 3 years, and none of them excite me.

Meanwhile, I think I'll watch 3D Blu-Ray movies on my rig, because those actually do work quite flawlessly.  I'm glad I decided to build my rig with an actual Blu-Ray drive, so the 3D stuff doesn't feel like a complete waste of money.

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