Dell Alienware X51 Review

Dell Alienware X51 Review

(Disclaimer: The Alienware X51 that CGM was loaned for the purposes of this review came with Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit pre-installed; all commercially available models on Dell’s Website come exclusively with Windows 8.1 64-bit.)

The recent arrival of Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One, which by their respective manufacturers’ own admissions are internally similar in many respects to dedicated gaming PCs, has blurred the line between that of game consoles and PCs. The argument for abandoning the 5-8 year console cycle in favor of the more modular and cutting edge PC platform has never been stronger. Indeed, with the advent of successful digital game distribution models such as Steam and Origin, significantly lower price points for games, easy access to a far wider variety of titles both new and old, and the imminent arrival of Valve-approved Steam Machines, informed console gamers who have yet to dip their toes in current-gen waters are likely to seriously consider going PC at one point or another. It is this fence-sitting segment of the market for which the Alienware X51 from Dell appears to be designed, at least in part. Dubbed a “mini-gaming desktop” by its manufacturer and approximately taking up the same physical footprint as an Xbox One (albeit with an external power brick that is at least one-third larger), the X51 is pictured on Dell’s website as the perfect companion for your large-screen LED panel and high-end home theatre, suggestively supplanting the traditional game console from its natural home. And in the opinion of this staunch console and occasional PC gamer, the X51 nearly delivers on the promise, but is held back by a number of common PC issues that sadly limit most of its appeal to the already converted PC Master race.

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Like most made-to-order Dell products, the X51 has a variety of custom configurations ranging between $700 to approximately $2000, depending on the installed video card as well as the amount and/or type of RAM, hard drive and disc drive installed. The version we were given came equipped with the most powerful video card option, the NVIDIA GeForce GTX 760 Ti, bringing the price tag to around $1500. In the world of serious PC gaming, this is actually considered to be more than affordable (there are far less-powerful gaming laptops on the market for around this price), but it’s a steep price nonetheless for those accustomed to console gaming. The connectivity choices however leave very little wanting, offering just about every standard video and audio output option you could ask for whether you’re gaming on a PC monitor or TV. The HDMI-CEC handshake with my Sony Bravia TV could not have been smoother; as soon as the X51 was connected and powered on, the TV did the same and moved straight to the correct input (a must for any device in a modern home entertainment center). The standard pack-in Alienware keyboard and mouse were serviceable enough, but as the length of the cable was not suitable for living room testing, I eventually swapped them out for my own Microsoft wireless keyboard and mouse combo, which worked instantly upon being plugged in, and thankfully, the same could be said for my wired Xbox 360/PC controller, which Steam also recognized and supported after a brief driver install.

For those with limited vertical space the X51 can be laid horizontally on its right side, perfect for fitting inside a compact entertainment unit.  Doing will hide one of the large, colour-customizable LED lights that adorns the chassis on either side, but for most people with decent visual taste, this is probably for the best. In fact, all three LEDs on the unit can be turned off by default, and while the gaudy “Gray Alien” hood-ornament on the front of the device can’t be removed, it can be rotated to accommodate the look of the unit in the horizontal position. What the unit lacks in appearance however, it makes up for in operation; the boot-up time from power-on to desktop is less than 20 seconds total, and aside from the initial switching on of the fans, the X51 is near-whisper quiet, even while running games at max settings. Enabling Steam’s Big Picture Mode at startup made things even easier, bringing me straight to CGM’s library of installed games in moments with one press of the power button, just like powering on a console.

“..aside from the initial switching on of the fans, the X51 is near-whisper quiet, even while running games at max settings.”

Regrettably, it was the actual running of PC games where the X51 gave this reviewer pause, and ironically, much of the experience was not the direct fault of the hardware. Max Payne 3, one of the more graphically-intensive games that was pre-installed for the purposes of this review, would not run past the title screen due to an issue with the Rockstar Social Club client being out of date, despite all Steam updates for the product being fully installed. A little online research revealed that while there was a fix, it was not one that could be handled within Steam. Keeping in mind the limited time for the review and having encountered this sort of problem with other games on Steam with my own personal laptop in the past, I determined that I would have to leave the issue there and move on.

For the games that did boot up, most performed exceedingly well. Batman: Arkham City, Portal 2, The Witcher 2, and The Stanley Parable ran flawlessly at 1080p with all the visual settings set to the maximum.  Portal 2 and Arkham City impressed in particular, with incredible detail and dazzling particle effects on display at an infallible 60fps.  Even without doing a side-by-side comparison of the games with their last-gen counterparts on Xbox 360 or PS3 it was fairly easy to determine that the X51 far outclassed them, especially in the obvious areas of resolution, framerate, anti-aliasing and texture detail. It should be noted however that in almost every case, getting these results required manual adjustment of the settings; the games did not automatically default to the optimum settings on their own.

 

 

Metro: Last Light and its 4A engine somehow managed to confound the X51 however. Initially, it set high expectations with a buttery-smooth tunnel shootout sequence with Atryom at the game’s opening, then slowed to a juddery, sub-30fps crawl during the lengthy, non-combat portion that directly followed at The Order’s home base. Dialing down the effects did reduce the frame judder somewhat, but ultimately the headquarters sequence was barely playable (and much less watchable) even with all the visual settings at their lowest. This isn’t to say that the X51 couldn’t handle the game at all, but much like the unfortunate outcome with Max Payne 3, the amount of tweaking and investigating that would have been required on the part of this reviewer was more than could realistically be allotted for the purposes of this review, so it had to be left unresolved. This did leave a bit of a question mark over my head as to how well the X51 would perform when running even more recent “current gen” titles, but the fact that Dell claims on its website that the X51 can easily run Tomb Raider at up to 118 frames per second at 1080p would seem to indicate the issue I encountered was isolated to Last Light only.

The feeling that I came away with from my experience with the Alienware X51 is that for a PC-curious console gamer, the machine is a paradox. On one hand, it soundly delivers as a dedicated gaming PC in overall performance and breathtakingly quiet operation. But on the other hand, as a gaming PC designed to be connected to a TV and become a key component of one’s entertainment center in mind, its visual design, short mouse and keyboard cables and inherent Windows PC nature end up working against it somewhat, holding it back from the ideal living room gaming rig that it could be. Depending on the user, many of these shortcomings can be easily overlooked or compensated for with the right optional peripherals and a generous dose of time, patience and online research, but for those gamers looking for a Steam Machine-like, fuss-free entry into modern PC gaming out of the box, the X51 makes a very good case, but doesn’t quite get there. In the end, it’s just a really powerful, off-the-shelf gaming PC with all the PC pros and cons that we’ve grown to love and/or hate, so newcomers to PC gaming should consider themselves warned. On the other hand, if you are a card carrying member of the PC elite that simply doesn’t want to fuss with building a custom rig, feel free to add a full point to the score.

Metro: Redux Brings the Apocalypse to Next Gen Consoles

Metro: Redux Brings the Apocalypse to Next Gen Consoles

Things are looking pretty grim and desolate for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, and now it seems that a nuclear apocalypse is coming for them too.

Well kind of.

Today 4A Games and Deep Silver have announced that Metro: 2033, and Metro: Last Light will be coming to next generation platforms.

Metro: Redux will be a remastered version of both games. Players will be able to purchase Metro: 2033 Redux and Metro: Last Light Redux separately via digital download, or be able to purchase both in a physical release at a discounted price.

The game has additional animations and features, such as being able to check you watch and inventory, as requested by fans. It will also feature all the DLC from both games bringing an extra 10 hours of content to the games.

Also, the game will allow the player to choose what kind of play style the game will adapt to. There’s the regular “Survival” style which is more of a slower burn with smarter A.I and limited resources where stealth is more encouraged. In the “Spartan” style, player will have more resources, and will make their character more resistant to enemy attacks.

Both Metro: 2033 and Metro: Last Light are based on the novel Metro: 2033 by Russian author Dimtry Glukhovsky.

Metro: Redux will be released later this summer for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and PC.

 

Metro: Last Light (PS3) Review

Metro: Last Light (PS3) Review

Metro: Last Light was almost lost to gamers when THQ flashed a Game Over screen, but thankfully Deep Silver stepped up to make things right because it’s a bloody, terrifying and at times rather beautiful good time with a gun. The game finds a nice balance between stealth n’ machine gun FPS styles along with a spattering of surrealistic Silent Hill-style horror and a vividly unique world to create a deeply immersive experience. At times the game is a shoot em’ up, at times it’s a creep out survival horror, and occasionally it’s a character-driven sci-fi think piece. The mix is just right to keep the game unpredictable and full of variety. Sure, there are flaws like some dodgy character animation and an episodic narrative that sputters out, but when Metro: Last Light is working it’s an enthralling experience that feels closer to a big company marquee release than an indie attempt to crack the AAA market.

metro_quote_side.jpgUkrainian studio 4A Games kicked off this franchise with Metro 2033, an adaptation of Russian sci-fi novelist Dmitry Glukhovsky’s post-apocalyptic chiller (that’s right games from novels, that’s a thing now). Glukovsky had already written a sequel, but wisely the game is its own story with the author’s involvement. You play as the silent Artyom, one of the underground survivors of a nuke-scarred Moscow. With the surface city completely inhabitable thanks to an unfortunate mix of radiation and radioactive monsters (those ones are the worst!), humanity has taken to living in underground subway stations. The remaining humans are split into tribes who have taken over each station and use military grade ammo as currency. Most of the monsters are your usual winged semi-dragons, hairy beasts, oversized spiders, etc; however, there’s a special breed called “The Dark Ones” who have psychic powers, Predator-style invisible camouflage, and generally superior ass-kicking abilities to the normie monsters. Most of those guys were taken out at the last game, but one baby remains and Artyom is sent out on a scouting mission to find it because they share a special psychic connection. Inevitably, it goes wrong and you’re sent on an adventure through the underground Metro encountering various monsters and monstrous factions of humans.

The set-up and world of Metro: Last Light are fantastic. The story is second to the adventure and eventually fizzles out, but thankfully that’s not enough to kill the game. The 4A designers have created such a remarkable world of rotting tunnels filled with equally rotting corpses and burned out cityscapes and filled that world with so many action scenarios and peculiar character beats that it’s hard to care. Between each major set piece, you’ll wander through a new tribe of humans, glimpsing sights like a shadow puppeteer struggling to come up with an animal the post-apocalypse children he’s performing recognize. The game is filled with details like these and the human’s shelters all feel distinct and lived in. There’s a troupe of actors who perform for survivors of all factions, a communist revolution on the rise, a shantytown of gangsters, and even a Nazi cult determined to eradicate mutants. All are distinct and performed by talented voiceover artists with delightfully put-on Russian accents. Unfortunately, the developers didn’t quite have the time or tech to do detailed facial animation that nails the characterization and that’s a shame. Fortunately, 4A did ensure that there was enough going on at all times that you rarely focus directly on lip-reading or facial animation. The story formed through all the worlds might be episodic and tacked on, but the moment-to-moment immersion in the Metro world is so intense that you’ll never notice.

When you aren’t wondering through one of these communities, you’ll be either on the surface or in the connecting tunnels pursued by monsters (both literal and human). The designers really came through here too with shadowy atmospherics and disgusting corpse designs to give you the willies. They’ll frequently toss in haunting horror gags like shadows with no source to get in your head and it works wonders. Mixing horror with a FPS isn’t easy, but works well here thanks to Metro: Last Light’s sense of pacing. There are plenty of shootouts and stealth sections, yet they’re always connected by creepy subterranean links where the level design demands you to take wrong turns for shock effects and battles could burst out at any minute. You’ll constantly feel on guard and with ammo scarce and gas mask filters-fleeting on the surface. Survival horror is a constant presence and executed well. The visual design demands that it be played in the dark thanks to nearly constant flashlight and lighter lit sequences and the scares are so good you’ll curse 4A for making you leap from your couch and feel wary of radioactive monsters in your bedroom. Yep, they done good.

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Of course this being a FPS, that’s where the meat and potatoes of gameplay is and fortunately it works well. Controls are responsive and there’s a nice mix of stealth n’ shoot em up. Any time human enemies need to be dealt with, you can hide in the shadows to slit throats for silent kills. It’s fun and effective, but at times AI intelligence can be so daft that you’ll stand face to face with someone who can’t see you or slip a toe out of the dark and be spotted from across the room. Fortunately, the shooting gallery approach is just as fun with plenty of varied weapons to try out and ammo always in healthy supply. Frankly, unless you’re overwhelmed with enemies, there’s no point in cutting down the ranks with stealth because shooting them is so easy and far less time consuming. There are still plenty of tense moments and nice bonuses like blood getting splattered all over your mask that needs to be wiped off mid fight, but it’s often easier just to plow through any shooting scenario like Arnie in Commando without fearing death. Difficulty can of course be adjusted for the hardcores (even mid-level), but on normal and easy modes getting through is more about persistence than skill building. Some of the elements added to increase difficulty like the gas mask filters that constantly need to be replaced are undermined by an abundance of refill availability that often prevents survival horror hoarding from coming into play.

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Metro: Last Light isn’t perfect, but, thankfully, all the flaws like inconsistent difficulty, a weak narrative, poor facial characterization, and the occasional choppy animation are mild distractions at worst. Overall, this is a pretty stellar mix of FPS and survival horror tropes that livens up both dwindling genres. The world is so cleverly conceived and exquisitely designed that it’s often just as pleasurable to wander through and soak up the atmosphere as it is to machine gun an army of giant spider and/or Nazis. Given that killing giant spiders and Nazis are two of the primal joys of gaming, that’s really saying something. The folks at 4A Games deserve to be commended for what they accomplished. Critically, I’m sure that will happen. Let’s just hope that the sales follow.