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Live from Quakecon 2004

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Cyrus Peikari reports from the trenches of Quakecon 2004, in between fragfests with Doom 3.
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Earlier this month I was lucky enough to get my hands on one of the first retail versions of Doom3, the most anticipated video game ever. On August 3, 2004, ID software had a midnight sale at 12:01 am at the Best Buy in Plano, TX where the first copies were released and autographed. So unlike the other attendees here at Quakecon, I have had more than 10 days to tweak and tune Doom3. At the end of this article, I will give some basic tips for squeezing the most out of your video card.

I'm assuming that you read my previous article, How to Build the Ultimate Gaming Machine on a Budget. I showed you how to put together a machine worthy of the advanced graphics supported by Doom3. However, at this very moment, I am writing the current article live from the showroom floor of Quakecon 2004 in Grapevine, TX. I'm watching it on the big screen.

Everyone here was excited to see Doom3. Don't worry; it hasn't been over-hyped. In fact, it has exceeded everyone's expectations. It was breathtaking. When they opened up terminals for people to play, there was almost a scuffle to be the first to try it (Fig. 1).

Figure 1Figure 10.1Fighting nearly broke during the premiere of Doom3 at Quakecon




The "bring your own computer" (BYOC) was an event itself. Thousands of custom computers sprawled further than the eye could see (Fig. 2).

Figure 2Figure 2The custom mods are one of the highlights of the conference




Each machine was a masterpiece. It was even better than last year. One unique mod is shown in Fig. 3.

Figure 3Figure 3 This mod was made out of a newspaper vending machine. It is actually a game server; the top part conceals a hub of 32 ports. It has wheels on the bottom so it can easily be rolled into a LAN party




I was hoping to interview the lead network administrator of the BYOC, as I had requested from the Quakecon PR company beforehand. I was hoping to get stats on the networking challenges, massive power requirements, etc. However, the lead network administrator of Quakecon was quite rude. It reminded me of the old Berkeley UNIX days on PDP mainframes, when the network admin was omnipotent and thus arrogant and vicious. But I was able to forgive his faults after I saw what a tidy ship he ran (Fig. 4).

Figure 4Figure 4 A picture is worth a thousand words. This shot of the Quakecon network operations center is a metaphor for how disorganized the conference was




NVIDIA really stole the show here. They debuted Doom3 to thousands of attendees on the big screen in a smoke-filled exhibit hall (Fig. 5). Their 6800 video card is the state of the art, but at $500 or more, not many can afford it. However, tonight they debuted their new 6600, which is basically the same card with a crippled clock speed. It retails for $200. However, I still believe it about equals the quality of the video card we put in our gaming system (discussed below), which you can get for $150 online.

Figure 5Figure 5 NVIDIA's debut of Doom3 on their new graphics card was a big hit




I want to divert from Quakecon for a moment and give some basic video tweaks to everyone, especially those who built our ultimate gaming machine on a budget. It turned out that our Asus Radeon 9600 XT gives a stunning performance when running Doom3. You can get this 128MB gem for only $150 online at the moment. You will find that it performs only slightly slower than cards costing $500 or more. At least, that is, from the perspective of an online multiplayer.

The Asus card we used comes with SmartDoctor software that lets you overclock the video RAM and CPU on the fly, all from a Windows GUI. To get the utmost performance, I overclocked both of them all the way using the sliders on the GUI, which promptly crashed my video card. The GPU cooling fan spun down to zero RPM. Fortunately, SmartDoctor has a temperature alarm for the GPU, which I had set to shut off in case of overheat (in this case, greater than 75 degrees centigrade). This is a good idea if you don't want to fry your card. (ID Software tonight mentioned that they had set a few video cards on fire while testing Doom3 in their labs).

After trial and error and rebooting a few times, I was able to find a graphics overclock setting that was stable. I then fired up Doom3, which looked spectacular. Doom3 is pitch black, and some users complain that it is unplayable with their video cards. Thank goodness for ATI, whose drivers (that come with the graphics card) let you toggle brightness, contrast, gamma, and more — all on the fly, during gameplay! This turned out to be a lifesaver.

Note: It is very important that you update to the latest video drivers for your graphics card.

ATI has also released a beta of their Catalyst driver installer that is custom-tuned for Doom3. Early reports indicate that it can significantly improve your framerate, which is a measure of how fast the game is rendered in frames per second (FPS). FPS is directly related to the perceived quality of the game.

In order to test your framerate, from Doom3 go to the console (CTRL-ALT-TILDE) and type "timedemo demo1". To see your framerate in multiplayer online, go to console and type "com_showfps 1". During the demo, I got a solid framerate of 60 FPS. Online it is sometimes less, usually more, and sometimes as high as 80 FPS. Both of these correspond to very high quality play. However, using the plasma gun in large, open areas, for example, takes a lot of rendering power and can lag your framerate.

That's it for now; I'm going back into Quakecon to interview some of the gamers competing in the LAN shootout. I'll be here all weekend. I wish you could be, too.

TIPS

  • You need a bare minimum of 1.5 Ghz Pentium or above in order to play Doom3.
  • You will probably need to run your own server to get a decent chance of playing online.
  • Running a server is very CPU intensive. You need about a 2.6 Ghz Pentium or above to make it playable for others. That's why Doom3 is limited to only 4 player multiplayer online at the moment (but some mods have already come out to allow more).
  • A high-end, 128 MB card is the bare minimum needed to render Doom3 at medium quality or above at 800x600 resolution or above.
  • You need a card that supports DirectX 9.0 or above in order to render the "heat haze". This feature shows the waves of heat rising from hot objects (e.g., after a frag).
  • The Asus Radeon 9600 XT gives the best bang for the buck, if you are on a tight budget.
  • You MUST upgrade to the latest Catalyst drivers from ATI.
  • Consider trying the Catalyst Beta specifically tuned to improve Doom3 FPS rates.
  • Tweak your video settings using this online guide: http://ucguides.savagehelp.com/Doom3/FPSVisuals.htm
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