Before long I found myself living in a university dorm routing a string of coaxial cables out windows and across hallways to link about a dozen computers together for the sole purpose of Doom 2 deathmatches. And porn. Playing against human opponents without being hamstrung by a dial-up connection changed the way I looked at games. Deathmatches were intense, almost frantic, and we waged Red Alert battles of such epic proportions they slowed our systems to a crawl.
Then Quake hit, opening a new dimension to the first person shooter. Quake dragged me kicking and screaming to the mouse, and I must have played every shooter that followed, from classics like Duke Nukem to curiosities like Shogo. I was there the day the first Counter-Strike beta was released—we played it until 4 A.M. on a small LAN in a friend's living room before eventually succumbing to exhaustion amid a sea of empty pizza boxes and beer bottles.
So began a string of small LAN parties. A few times a month, and sometimes as often as once a week, I'd hole up with a few friends behind an Internet connection to take on the rest of the world. Battlefield 1942 became a big hit on those nights. We spent months just playing the one-level demo, and when we finally tired of Wake Island, the full game and mods that followed captivated us for years.
Reviewing hardware is a sweet gig for a PC gamer. There's never a shortage of fancy graphics cards or fast new processors to liberate from test systems for gaming sessions, and you can even justify some gaming time as professional development, or something. But over time, spending countless hours benchmarking left me less and less eager to spend even more time in my office playing games. The cooler confines of my living room beckoned, along with the comfort and slouching potential of my couch, and I timidly tip-toed over to the dark side by picking up an Xbox.
Believe it or not, the Xbox was the first game console I'd ever owned. I'd had plenty of exposure to everything Nintendo, Sega, and Sony had to offer over the years, but it was always through friends. At home, my PC was always the only gaming platform I'd ever needed.
The original Xbox was a perfect gateway drug for my first real taste of console gaming. It came from Microsoft and was built from what were essentially standard PC components, so it was safe and non-threatening—the perfect bait for someone who had snubbed consoles for years. Our relationship took some work, though. I tried to jump into Halo right off the bat, but was immediately turned off by the lack of a keyboard and mouse. As comfortable as my couch was, shooters were definitely out. But there were plenty of other titles to choose from, and we'd soon traded Battlefield for Burnout and deathmatches for fighting games.
Need for Speed: Most Wanted was the first title to really pull me in on the Xbox. It didn't suffer from the control problems that plagued my experiences with console shooters, and I probably spent more time with that game on my couch than I did with Doom 3 and Half-Life 2 on my PC. And I played a lot of Doom 3 and Half-Life 2.
Soon I felt my allegiances slipping, as additional console titles started to dominate my gaming time. Forza Motorsport, Ninja Gaiden, Splinter Cell, The Warriors, and Lego Star Wars were all more enjoyable on the couch than the best my PC had to offer at the time. Some of those games were even available on the PC, and at higher resolutions with better eye candy, but I played every single one of them from the couch with an oversized Xbox controller in my hands. In fact, were it not for a tryst with Battlefield 2—a game whose squad support is perfectly suited for smaller LAN parties—I might have abandoned PC gaming entirely for my Xbox.
Before long, Microsoft unleashed the Xbox 360. This was a proper console rather than a PC hybrid, so there was no questioning my love for consoles when I picked one up. That love has only blossomed since. Unique titles like Rockstar's Table Tennis, Gears of War, Crackdown, Geometry Wars, and most recently Forza Motorsport 2 have had me captivated ever since. I can't even remember the last time we had a small LAN party. These days we're happy taking turns at the wheel, watching each others' backs in Gears of War, trash talking in Table Tennis, and seeing who can last more than five minutes in Geometry Wars. In fact, apart from benchmarking, I haven't touched a PC game in more than six months.
A big part of my shift to console gaming is the fact that I already spend entirely too much time in front of my PC working, but for broader audiences who don't happen to work out of a benchmarking sweatshop, consoles remain alluring. System costs are much lower and there's no need to fiddle with drivers, patches, or inconveniences that tend to complicate PC gaming. Online gaming is a snap, at least with Xbox Live, and console life cycles tend to be longer than typical PC upgrade schedules. Games don't look quite as good as they do on a high-end PC, of course, but Gears of War proved that even first-generation titles can look spectacular, especially when you're ten feet away on the couch.
Console gaming tends to be more social, too, and perhaps it's that atmosphere that makes non-gamers more likely to pick up a controller. The fairer sex, at least in my experience, also tends to be more open to console gaming. Perhaps that's more the nature of the games themselves, though. Consoles tend to offer a greater array of mainstream titles with relatively simple gameplay mechanics that are easy for casual audiences to pick up. The best of those titles, such as Rockstar's Table Tennis, also offer enough depth for hardcore gamers to master.
For a while, I thought I was pretty much finished with PC gaming. However, I've been logging a number of hours playing PC games—the life of a hardware reviewer is a tortured one indeed—and it's pulled me right back into the PC. First-person shooters just don't translate well to consoles; the controller's all wrong and sitting that far away from the screen leaves me feeling incredibly removed from the action. On the PC, though, the genre delivers a visceral satisfaction that rivals the best moments I've had with console games. There's just something about nailing a perfect head shot or well-timed rocket juggling that pushes all the right buttons in my brain. With new titles like Quake Wars, Team Fortress 2, Crysis, and Unreal Tournament 3 on the horizon, there will be plenty of new PC fragging arenas to enter, as well.
So perhaps I haven't completely deserted the PC as a gaming platform after all. I'm certainly converted to the virtues of consoles, but the keyboard and mouse are still capable of captivating, particularly when genres don't translate well to controllers.