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The experience — continued

These issues are relevant because... well, let me tell you about my experiences with using 3D Vision. I first tried Far Cry 2, because that's a game I've spent quite a bit of time playing, so I'm familiar with its (very nice) visuals. When you run the game, the profile overlay pops up recommending that you adjust a couple of image quality options. I had trouble finding these options, until I realized that I had to switch the game into DirectX 9 mode rather than DX10. Once I'd done that, I was able to make the recommended tweaks, including reducing shadow quality.

I also had to turn off the game's crosshair indicator. This is a common problem with 3D Vision and FPS games: a single crosshair in the middle of the screen will wreak havoc on the 3D mojo. Either the crosshair looks like it's floating very close to your face, or you'll see two of 'em. Both are disorienting. In its stead, Nvidia's drivers have their own crosshair built in, easily enabled with a key combo. The drivers appear to auto-sense the correct depth for the crosshair in response to what's happening in the game, and it serves its function pretty well, for the most part.

There are spots where this band-aid approach causes problems, though. For instance, some games use the crosshair graphic as an indicator, making it change color or shape depending on what's happening. The Nvidia crosshair is just an add-on and doesn't replicate that behavior, so you may lose out by using it. I also had some moments when I was zoomed in, looking at my target either through iron sights or a scope, when the Nvidia crosshair just didn't seem right. In the grand scheme, those issues aren't very common, however, and the Nvidia crosshair is generally a decent substitute.

With those changes in place, Far Cry 2 looked pretty good. The illusion of depth was real and obvious enough, and like I said, it's better than past attempts at stereoscopic 3D, generally speaking.

One of the first things I noticed is that the amount of depth shown, by default, is very much on the low side, something like 16% of the total possible. At this default setting, one can perceive differences in the third dimension, but object themselves look flat—as if one were seeing a cardboard cut-out of a gun placed clearly in front of a cardboard cut-out of a bad guy, with a cardboard cut-out of a tree placed well behind him. I understand the reasons Nvidia chose to make the default setting have a relatively small amount of stereo separation; it's easier on the eyes and presents fewer problems when the effect isn't working perfectly. With lots of depth, initially adjusting to 3D Vision after putting on the glasses can take a few seconds to focus—like staring at one of those funky 3D poster things that were popular in in the '90s. Still, the more I played with 3D Vision and the better the game's compatibility was, the more separation I found I wanted. At 70-80% of the total possible depth, the cardboard cutout problem is largely banished, and most objects in a game take on a perceptible form. In some cases, I found myself reaching 100% of the available separation and wanting even more. That's not really practical most of the time, though.

Although 3D Vision added tangible depth to Far Cry 2, the experience wasn't perfect. Certain things, like on-screen indicators (the hand icon that appears before you open a door, for example), particle-based smoke effects, and water reflections just didn't work right. They're not aware of 3D Vision and don't have proper stereo separation, which confused my eyes. I found that in frantic action, in the midst of a firefight, 3D Vision became disorienting, as my visual system worked overtime trying to process what it was seeing. I'd "lose focus" on the stereo image when an icon popped up and struggle momentarily to regain it. More than once, my character died in a routine skirmish while I was disoriented. This is a tough standard to meet, particularly when you're dealing with games not expressly designed with 3D Vision compatibility in mind, but anything less than perfection can spoil the added value of a 3D display scheme like this one—especially in a fast action game.

Undaunted, I moved on to the game I most looked forward to trying in 3D: Race Driver GRID, a visually stunning title that just cries out for an added dimension. I figured I'd spend hours racing around the track in 3D with this game. I was shocked, though, when I saw Nvidia's compatibility recommendations: you're supposed to disable motion blur, which GRID uses to good effect, and to turn off shadowing entirely. On the face of it, the idea of losing shadowing seemed like a bad idea. In reality, it was even worse than I'd thought. Without shadows under the race cars—particularly your own—the game loses its sense of depth, even with a 3D display. Deeply disappointing.

As I was testing GRID, my kids walked into the room, and I decided to have them try out 3D Vision. They were puzzled by the muddy, doubled images they saw onscreen without the glasses. When I asked my nine-year-old son what he saw when he put on the shades, he happily reported that he could see things correctly again, as if he were wearing some kind of secret decoder glasses. Beyond that, I couldn't quite get him to articulate that he saw depth in the display. When I asked him what he saw that was different, he said it looked like the cars were floating above the track without any wheels—which is precisely how GRID looks without any shadows beneath the cars. Both my seven-year-old daughter and my son took turns trying on the glasses for a while, but neither of them seemed especially wowed by the effect.

I moved on to other recent games with varying degrees of success. Call of Duty: World at War worked about as well as Far Cry 2, with few visual compromises required except for the Nvidia crosshair, but less-than-perfect results. Crysis Warhead looked quite good at first, until I got into the heat of battle, where this game's intensive particle effects were completely broken. Plumes of smoke seemed to float way out in front of the screen, far from the objects burning. Water reflections didn't work, sending my eyes and brain into a twisted tug-of-war, for which there could be no winner. And, well, check out the taillights on this jeep. I snapped this picture of the display with a camera, but you can see the problem without the aid of the glasses:

Two jeeps, one set of taillights

The jeep's taillights are floating out in space, unconnected to either the right- or left-eye image of the jeep itself. With the glasses on, what you see is two sets of taillights, one off to the right and another to the left.

Mirror's Edge worked better, and I was able to combine 3D Vision with PhysX effects for a perfect storm of Nvidia marketing hype. Moving quickly through this game's virtual obstacle courses in 3D is a real treat. The high-contrast color palette of this game brought out another quirk, though: ghosting. When looking at a dark skyscraper juxtaposted against the bright sky, I could see a second, faint copy of the building, somewhat offset. Obviously, the left- and right-eye images were bleeding together, as if the glasses shuttering wasn't quite up to blocking out everything. Once I noticed the ghosting, I later spotted it other games, but nowhere was it quite as obvious, or distracting, as in Mirror's Edge.

In a little ray of hope, Fallout 3 was almost perfect, with all quality options cranked, marred only by the need for the Nvidia crosshair and the unfortunate fact that the sky textures were often scrambled somehow. I could see the potential for 3D Vision in this game, but I was beginning to get the impression that this tech would never fully realize its potential.

And then I tried Left 4 Dead.

Valve has obviously been working with Nvidia. For one thing, L4D has its own, depth-aware crosshair that behaves perfectly with 3D Vision, adjusting to depth more quickly than the one in Nvidia's drivers.

Beyond that, though, here's the thing: everything works just as it should. Nothing shatters the illusion of depth, even in the smallest detail. It just works. Like gangbusters. Well enough, in fact, to change my outlook about 3D Vision. Perhaps some of it is the fact that this game uses an older 3D engine and a darker, more subdued color palette, but killin' zombies has never been more fun. I could actually see the possibility of people, quite willingly, wearing funny glasses in order to have this experience when gaming.

I made this discovery about Left 4 Dead's 3D excellence shortly before my buddy Andy Brown, of old-school TR fame, arrived in Damage Labs to serve as one of our 3D Vision test subjects. I resisted the urge to share my thoughts with Andy initially. Instead, I played things close to the vest in the hopes of getting an honest reaction out of him that was totally his own. And I started him out with Left 4 Dead, to see how 3D Vision in its purest form would appeal to him. I should say here that Andy is a smart, open-minded guy, but he's a prototypical hard-core gamer who doesn't tolerate gimmicks that get in the way of gameplay. I suspected the sheer novelty of 3D glasses wouldn't count for much in his book.

Somewhat to my surprise, Andy's initial reaction was pretty darned positive, thanks to the magic of Left 4 Dead. He didn't laugh, didn't call the whole scheme cheesy, and seemed to see the appeal of it quite clearly. Andy spent a fair amount of time running around in L4D with the glasses on and came away fairly impressed. His positive reaction to the whole scheme faded as I walked him through other games, though, winding up in bemusement over the state of particle effects and water reflections in Crysis Warhead.

My next victim was my buddy Mike, who joined Andy and me for a little Left 4 Dead co-op action. We took other machines and let Mike sit at the 3D Vision system. Mike was immediately impressed with the 3D effect, and he wound up playing through the entire first co-op campaign in Left 4 Dead while wearing the glasses. Every so often, between levels or during breaks, he'd stop and say, "You know, it really does give you a sense of depth," or something like that, in slight wonderment. Eventually, he gave that up and just started hitting on Zoey, who we all agreed looks unexpectedly hot in true 3D. Although that might have been the Leapin' Leprechaun speaking.

After more than, heck, at least 90 minutes of solid gaming with the 3D Vision glasses on (and a few pints of the Leprechaun), Mike didn't have any complaints about headaches, irritated eyes, or anything of the sort. I expect that next time we all get together for some L4D co-op, he'll be asking for the 3D Vision system again.