FINAL FANTASY XV WINDOWS EDITION

In what will very likely prove to be the day's strangest videogame crossover, although let's not rule anything completely out yet, Square Enix and Electronic Arts are bringing Sims 4 outfits to Final Fantasy 15 Windows Edition on Origin. And not just any Sims costumes, oh no: I'm talking about the Llama Suit and Plumbob, wearable by Noctis in the FF15 single-player campaign. 

The Sims 4 costume pack will be included with all purchases of Final Fantasy 15 on Origin until May 1. The FF15 Decal Selection, "an array of cool and colorful decals" that you can plaster on the Regalia (that's the big-ass car the boys like to cruise around in) is also on the table for anyone who preorders from Origin. The EA deal works the other way around, too. Beginning March 8, a crowned prince Noctis Lucis Caelum outfit will be available for Sims 4 players.   

It's an amusingly odd crossover, but not quite unique. Purchasing the game on Steam will get you a Half-Life costume and crowbar instead, along with an HEV Suit, Scientist Glasses, and a crowbar for use in FF15: Comrades, the downloadable expansion that adds co-op multiplayer and customizable avatars. 

We recently spoke with some of the developers of Final Fantasy 15 about the process of bringing the game to the PC, and the decision to embrace mods, which designer and development manager Kenichi Shida told us wasn't a difficult choice at all: "We know that [PC gamers] wanted it, and that we had to give it to them," he said. "We want people to be as free as possible and make they want to make." 

Final Fantasy 15 Windows Edition comes out on March 6. 

Frostpunk

Frostpunk, the game about building and maintaining a society in very undesirable (read: frosty) circumstances, will release in March. But in the meantime, studio 11 Bit has released details about the game's "advanced endgame", which involves keeping your society on the straight and narrow or, if you want, tyrannically beating it into the shape you desire.

In other words, you'll have plenty of freedom regarding how you'd like to evolve and nurture your snow swept community. "You can try to be the noble one and listen to the people, no matter if they're right or wrong," says lead gameplay programmer Aleksander Kauch, "or you can believe that your cold-blooded calculations will prove valid over the course of survival."

One example provided is if you take the "path of Order" which, by the look of it, is basically taking the law and order (or police state) route. It allows you to build guard stations and institute neighbourhood watch and patrol programs. 

More on the meat of the update can be read over here, alternatively there's a video embedded below. On the subject of pricing, the game will cost US$29.99/EU$29.99 when it launches next month. If you want an idea of how it is to spend some time in Frostpunk, Chris played it last year and enjoyed it.

Hunt Down The Freeman

There's a game on Steam called Hunt Down The Freeman, released on February 23 by developer Royal Rudius Entertainment. It's bound to cause a few double-takes for anyone browsing the Steam store because it's got Gordon Freeman's picture stuck right on it. This isn't some free Half-Life mod: it was made using a license for the Source engine, and it's being sold for about $25 (with a discount until March 2).

If you go to its store page you'll immediately notice a few hundred extremely negative Steam reviews. Dig into the discussions page and you'll find more than just complaints of bugs and glitches, but also scores of accusations that the developers are using assets from other mods and games without permission. You'll also see a strange explanation from the developers who say the release was rushed in response to harassment from Half-Life fans—as well as a claim that the version of the game that was released isn't the version that was intended.

Hunt Down the Freeman had a troubled start—a couple of years ago its Indiegogo campaign raised exactly $12 from a single backer—and now that it's been released (or some version of it has, anyway), the trouble continues. Along the way, it's managed to piss a hell of a lot of people off.

I talked with the developers of Hunt Down The Freeman to try to unravel the drama.

Did the creators of HDTF use assets from other mods without permission? 

This appears to be the reason for a lot of complaints in the forums, but according to the developers, including game director Berkan Denizyaran, who I spoke to on the phone, and a member of Royal Rudius Entertainment, who answered a few questions via email: no, there are no stolen assets in the game. An early demo of the HDTF did use assets from other mods, I was told, but they were used as placeholders during development. The developers say these placeholder assets are not present in the finished product.

The Steam forums are filled with posts from users comparing various textures and assets to those from other games and mods, and it can be a bit of a nebulous process trying to verify their accuracy, what version of the game they're from, and if these assets are in fact taken from other mods or games. However, a member of the team of one of the mods in question, Holymac from Firearms: Source, posted in the Steam forums that the team had looked into it and didn't see any of their work being used

"Our art team determined that upon a cursory look of the content released with the demo," wrote Holymac, "and assets the HDTF team provided willingly, it appears no theft of intellectual property has taken place."

I sent a follow-up email to the Firearms: Source team to ask if they had done any more investigation since January, and received a response from project coordinator Vincent Micelo, stating: "The source content in question was inspected by some of our team members and they agree that it is original content. We have no further statements."

The developers of Hunt Down The Freeman also point out that just because an asset looks familiar, doesn't mean it's been stolen. In an email to PC Gamer, Gabe, who identifies himself as Head of PR for Royal Rudius Entertainment, writes:

"People have found assets that they stated were stolen, but then we've given them the source we bought it from, like the US soldiers in our game, they are from TurboSquid, a site where you can buy models and use them for commercial purposes. Another example would be a shot-up car from S.T.A.L.K.E.R. was found in our game and paraded as definitive proof that we were stealing. It took me three minutes to find the car, and it was in one of L4D2's DLC files, of which we have permission to use."

I've also sent an email to the Black Mesa development team—some of the textures and models in HDTF are said by some forums posters to be taken from Black Mesa without permission—though I have not received a response yet.

Is it as broken and buggy as Steam reviews say? 

Well, yes. I can confirm this particular complaint. I played about 30 minutes of Hunt Down The Freeman this week and I ran into a number of bugs, which brings us to the developer's claim that the wrong version of the game was ultimately released:

"We kind of failed on the file organization," Denizyaran told me on the phone, "and the person who was supposed to release the final version, released an older version of the game. And right now we are basically collecting all the files, the final versions of everything, which is ... it's a pretty big game."

"On the day of the release, it was a big shock for all of us when we saw the game on streams and realizing it wasn't the game that we had on our end," Gabe said in his email.

I can't say if their the developer's claim that an older version of Hunt For The Freeman was accidentally released is accurate, all I can say is that what I played certainly doesn't feel like a finished game.

Apart from bugs, how is the game? 

This is kind of the sticking point for me: while I haven't played much, what I have played hasn't been good, and it's not really something that bug fixes or visual improvements alone will change.

I was initially impressed by the cutscenes, particularly the cinematic opening sequence, in which scenes from the main character's traumatic life are blended together as he grows from a child to an adult, joins the military, and ships out during the Black Mesa crisis from Half-Life (including a couple nice cameos from G-Man). Later scenes, however, feel like a change in tone, consistency, and quality. More importantly, between these scenes are a collection of mostly unimpressive FPS levels. And again, the quality and consistency varies from one level to the next.

It begins (rather abruptly) with a brief level where you battle a few zombies and headcrabs as your character attempts to locate his squad within the Black Mesa complex. Even on the small starter levels I became lost more than once, with no real indication of where I was meant to go. There are no on-screen prompts as to what your character can do—I discovered, eventually, that I could go prone and even cling to walls.

After these few small levels, I eventually wound up in a massive outdoor firefight between human soldiers and some sort of alien enemies that advance from three directions. I joined the fray, grabbing a rifle and firing at the slowly encroaching aliens. I killed several and kept fighting, but eventually I realized they were never going to stop spawning. In the gif below you can see a clip of this street fight, and I have about seven more minutes of recorded that are basically identical.

Finally, I just picked a direction and ran down the street past the enemies, wound up stuck in a loading screen that took over a minute to resolve, and then arrived in another bland level of city streets filled with more aliens (and several Source Engine Error icons). I kept running until, for some reason, the screen slowly went black, though I could still hear and even fire my own gun, and I could still see the UI. I waited in the dark for about a minute, then finally quit.

In short, what I played feels like an unfinished mod project with rudimentary level design. I was told a re-release of the completed game would happen Monday, March 5, so I plan to revisit the game after the update and see how it looks, and what exactly has changed. Bug fixes would certainly be welcome, but I don't think a glitch-free experience would make up for the general quality of the FPS levels I played. If a large team of experienced developers worked on HDTF, as I was told, it's definitely not evident in what I've seen so far.

If Valve is done making Half-Life games, which seems pretty likely at this point, then should we welcome enthusiastic fans picking up the torch? I do like the concept of HDTF and how it views Freeman not as an unlikely hero but as a crowbar-wielding serial killer, which makes sense from the perspective of a confused soldier just trying to do his job. Different takes on familiar source material can be jarring (hearing G-Man with a new voice in HDTF certainly was) but it's not a bad thing. Except when, y'know, it's bad.

It's natural that fans of Half-Life are protective of the series, and any game associated with the characters and universe we care about is going to face extra scrutiny. This will especially be the case when a licensed Half-Life game features Gordon Freeman, G-Man, and other characters so prominently, and even more so when the game being sold appears to be a bad one. 

That doesn't excuse the many abusive forum posts I've seen aimed at the developers, but the negative reviews and complaints are perfectly understandable considering the state of the game. We'll see if any of those reviews become more positive after the game is updated on Monday.

Empires of the Undergrowth

Over Christmas this year in sunny Adelaide, South Australia, my son and I ran 5k most mornings, pausing only to marvel at the dirt teeming with vast numbers of ants. Why did they travel in lines? Where were they going? Why were they carrying toenail clippings, but not a half-eaten sandwich someone had dropped? We swatted a lot of ants from our legs as we pondered these questions.

Like any good parent, I knew where to find answers: SimAnt on the Internet Archive. What is SimAnt? Some edutainment title? Not in the slightest. In 1991, you played SimAnt not to learn stuff but to prove you could take down a spider and wage war in the kitchen. I’d almost forgotten that the manual was basically a 107-page thesis and that SimAnt’s design hinged on the idea of colonies as superorganisms.

Why did the black ants follow the yellow ant to and from food? It left a pheromone trail, visible with a toggle. Why would ants puke into the yellow ant’s mouth when its health was low? According to the manual, this process is called trophallaxis and as the designers wryly note is "not a pretty sight", which is why they decided to animate it. SimAnt was Maxis’ third sim, after SimCity and SimEarth, and it was a unique experience.

"Where is my SimAnt spiritual successor?" I asked Twitter. A friend pointed me to Empires of the Undergrowth, which their Kickstarter page notes is influenced by both SimAnt and Dungeon Keeper. 

...my queen was casually destroyed (to increasingly dissonant piano music). My motivation for beating Empires of the Undergrowth is now to exact revenge.

The Early Access build made me feel like an ant-obsessed 13-year-old all over again. Empires is certainly recognizable as a SimAnt successor but it’s not a direct remake. Both games employ pheromones in directing ant behavior, for example, but you don’t play as just one ant in Empires. Instead, you assign ants to groups and drop pheromone markers for them to follow. This fleshes out the real-time strategy elements, affording the player more control over units rather than having to rely on overwhelming numbers in battle.

Also, instead of simply piling food and eggs into a nest, you 'purchase' hexes for storage and nurseries with excess food gathered from a range of sources. Some are benign, like seeds and weevil larvae. Others are scary, like the Devil’s coach-horse beetle. Adjacent nursery tiles generate chambers of ants who must be assigned to pheromone markers together and these can be upgraded when more food is available.  

Empires’ premise is that scientists have discovered a new species of ant that can steal genetic material from its foes—Formica ereptor. On completion of missions (narrated by a documentary filmmaker, who delivers what functions as both commentary and instruction), the player can use royal jelly to specialize new ants via a tech tree, as if they were assimilating DNA.

A mission concludes, and you return to the laboratory’s formicarium to continue developing the persistent colony. To unlock more missions, you test the formicarium against unpredictable, hilarious, and infuriating challenges. The first time I tried one, my queen was casually destroyed (to increasingly dissonant piano music). My motivation for beating Empires of the Undergrowth is now to exact revenge.

It’s like in SimAnt, when I first zoomed out to the yard and saw a man stomping around, complaining about food. After he carelessly squished one too many of my brave soldier ants, it was time to turn his stupid, blue house into a swarming mess. I don’t know how Empires will play out, but I’d like to ruin some scientists’ lunches, perhaps carelessly left next to the formicarium. Or maybe that’s just me. 

Vengeance is a helpful motivation to have as a mass of crawling insects. Usually in games you have a clearly defined character, whether a witcher or an arctic fox, but there’s a different kind of agency to being, as SimAnt’s manual describes it, "the intelligence of a colony". 

Pages 63-65 of SimAnt’s manual outlined outrageously detailed ways to cheese the game. I’ll spoil one: "Sneak into the red nest and dig lots of deep holes. The red queen might go too deep and drown in the next rain." Would an ant really do that? Or do you have to have a human brain to dream this up? SimAnt was (resolutely) a sim, but Empires seems more content to be a game.

...the first time I saw a cute little hermit crab scuttling towards my colony, my heart gave a flutter. (Then we consumed it, presumably as regurgitated liquid.)

As such, in SimAnt, you could (for the most part) guarantee success with a conservative approach to overwhelming your enemies. Empires balances authentic melee and ranged units (wood ants really do spit acid) with helpful controls, like being able to turn off food collection during battle, to alleviate frustration. It’s a compromise, but one that has been implemented elegantly.

At the beach the tide demolishes swathes of ants (like SimAnt’s lawnmower) unless you’re paying attention to a timer. Would ants know when the tide is coming in? I’m not sure. Would the player freak out over an unexpected mass drowning? Probably. My favorite moments in Empires occur when the ants’ fragility is emphasized by the level and scenario design, but learning doesn’t always have to come via punishment. 

This is from SimAnt’s manual: "Food is shown in SimAnt as green balls. On a black and white monitor, they won't be green, but they will be balls." Modern technology allows Empires to more beautifully represent nature, and the first time I saw a cute little hermit crab scuttling towards my colony, my heart gave a flutter. (Then we consumed it, presumably as regurgitated liquid.)

You may also want to be aware of "arachnophobe mode". I’m Australian and most definitely not afraid of spiders, but the wolf spiders are very realistic. My skin actually crawled when two invaded the nest, accompanied by dramatic orchestral music.

SimAnt’s manual defines SimAnt not as a game but a "software toy", including the following (amazing) example to illustrate the difference between the two. "With a ball, you can play tennis (a game). You can play catch. You can throw it at someone. You can bounce it. You can make up a hundred different games. Besides games, there are other things you can do with a ball. You can paint it, use it to plug a leaky roof, or just contemplate its roundness."

Especially in Experimental mode, that was SimAnt. The manual even suggested you build a walled arena, fill it with antlions and pit ants against each other in battle. "Throw in a spider to add to the thrills." It was like being a kid, making sand islands in the gutter after it rained and marooning ants on them, just to see what they did next. By contrast, Empires of the Undergrowth is definitely a game, with directed scenarios and explicit progression. But ideas like "childish curiosity" and "natural beauty" underpin the design nonetheless. 

How authentic are SimAnt and Empires as ant colony-building experiences? I’m no myrmecologist but I have accidentally learned a lot about ants by playing them. And the more I can talk about ants, the longer the break I can take when my son and I next go for a run.

Empires of the Undergrowth is currently in Early Access.

Into the Breach

Our review calls Into the Breach a challenging and intensely rewarding strategy game. We love its oppositional smallness and depth, the way it allows you to make mistakes but make every move feel critical.

The eight unlockable squads let you attack Into the Breach in totally different ways—like using judo or swashbuckling to defend Earth. Despite those strategic differences, there's still a ton of shared tips and information worth knowing. Here's the stuff we'd send new players into battle with.

Above: A deeper look at what we love about Into the Breach.

Key tips

Prioritize earning ReputationOf the three types of rewards you can get for completing missions, Corporation Reputation is the one you should aim for. Not only can it be spent on valuable weapons and power cores after you've cleared an island, but it can also be used to buy Power Grid directly—making it more versatile than hoarding plain Power Grid alone. It's far more advantageous to stock up on reputation when choosing missions and only go for the ones that award Power Grid if you're getting uncomfortably low and don't think you'll survive long enough to unlock the store. Power cores are also rarely rewarded, but often spike the difficulty of a mission so it's up to you to determine if it's worth the risk.

Get the siege mech upgrade that negates building damageA Vek is attacking a building. You can kill it, but smashing it with your melee mech would shove it into a civilian building, incurring casualties. One of the easiest ways to get out of this common situation is with upgrades that allow your artillery pieces to deal zero damage to buildings. Consider making this your first power core investment.

Like chess, control the center of each mapDespite all the giant aliens and mechs, Into the Breach shares a lot of DNA with chess. And just like chess, you should always strive to control the center of each map. While years of strategy gaming might lead you to believe your ranged siege mechs are better in the back, you're severely restricting their ability to project damage by only allowing them to fire in one direction. Instead, keep your group huddled around the center, where it can easily move to the outskirts to defend any buildings the Vek might attack. If keeping your more fragile mechs out of harm's way is a concern, you can always give them a nice HP boost with a power core.

Don't worry too much about mech HP (or death)HP is a resource, and you should spend it to win. Don't be afraid to absorb lower-damage hits, step in fire, or block a Vek. Likewise: dead mechs are never destroyed, they're just at 0 HP. If you have a passive ability that can heal them, they'll reboot without their pilot and can continue fighting. As for pilots, losing one can sting but is hardly a game-ending loss. Whether you win or lose, you can always send one pilot back in time to start a new game which lets them retain all of their experience and unlocked abilities. This is your primary pilot who you should always aim to protect. Because you can only send one, the other two pilots on your team are largely expendable.

Press Alt to check the order of attackPositioning one Vek to kill another is an obvious play, but be sure to check out the attack order first to understand who goes first—especially if you're trying to stop a Vek from attacking a building by killing it with another one first.

Pick the right pilot for your teamEach mech can be piloted by a soldier that, as they level up, unlocks new passive abilities. At the start of each campaign, you can choose one of several pilots that already have one passive trait unlocked. For beginners, Abe Isamu is a great choice because his mech becomes armored, letting him ignore one point of damage from attacks (but not damage from other sources like being pushed). Early on, you can effectively use Abe like a tank to soak enemy damage and block cheap shots at your buildings. If you're bad at planning, Isaac Jones gives you another free turn reset each battle. Finally, more advanced pilots require power cores to use their abilities, meaning they won't be useful until later in a campaign. These are best left for more experienced players.

Other stuff to know

You can overcharge your powergrid to increase your defenseIf you fill out your Power Grid meter, each addition piece of Power Grid will increase the percentage chance that a building resists enemy damage entirely. It's a nice to have bonus, but not reliable so don't hoard Power Grid over corporation reputation. 

Take advantage of the whole 'time travel' thingOnce per battle you can reset the entire turn, letting you undo a royally dumb decision. It's always a good idea to use this if you mess up or if you realize a more efficient play (for XP, HP, or saving a time pod) you can make instead.

Everything but powergrid is disposable, sacrifice a pilot if you have toWhen push comes to shove, you always want to prevent the Vek from attacking a building. If you have plenty of power grid to spare, losing one or two in a battle isn't so bad, but when things are dire don't be afraid to sacrifice mechs and your non-primary pilot.

Make all your moves first, then actLike chess, it's helpful to walk through your attacks and their resulting consequences before actually acting. You can use the undo button as many times as you want to move your mechs around, but once you initiate an attack there's no going back. Only once you've devised a plan of action that does the most potential damage and saves any targeted buildings should you finally start making moves.

Plan each turn with your weakest weapon in mindWeapons like the Gravity Mech, which does no damage and only pulls a target one tile forward, seem pretty weak at first glance. But instead of using them on their own or as an afterthought to your more powerful attacks, build your entire attack plan around them. You'll be surprised how much more useful they become.

Use friendly fire to push your own mechs into or out of dangerBecause mech HP is renewable, don't hesitate to use friendly fire to manipulate the positioning of your own mechs. Sometimes all they need is a little push to get them that extra distance to thwart a Vek attack on a building. Likewise, you can also push them away from an enemy attack to let them fight another turn.

Don't block too many Vek from spawning, as you'll make later turns even harderBy positioning one of your mechs or an enemy vek over top of a spawn point, you can prevent more enemies from joining the battle at the cost of HP. But being too aggressive about preventing reinforcements can create a nightmare in later turns when you have six Vek on the field. It's better to kill a Vek than to block reinforcements, so focus on that first.

Events like seismic activity happen before Vek can attack, so don't waste effort killing Vek that are on these tiles Likewise, environmental attacks like seismic activity or volcanic eruptions happen before any of the Vek can make their attack. Don't bother wasting time killing Vek if they're already standing on a tile marked with one of these environmental hazards. 

If you complete every objective on an island, you earn a bonus  Achieving a "Perfect Island" earns a free reward that you select before spending Reputation. In the image above, we were offered a great weapon, pilot, or two free Grid Power.

Shields don't prevent damage from insta-kill abilities like mines or seismic activityOnce in a while, you might find your mech sporting a protective shield that negates incoming damage. It's great for blocking an attack, but won't work against mines or environmental hazards that instantly kill a unit instead of dealing a set amount of damage.

Power cores can be reused, so assign them to HP while you save up for a more powerful useDon't let power cores sit in your inventory unused. Assign them to mechs and use them to boost their move distance or HP and then, if you buy a powerful weapon you need to activate, you can always repurpose them later.

Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six® Siege

Rainbow Six Siege launched at the end of 2015, and it's experiencing a minor renaissance today. If you're hoping to become more competitive for the latest season, hitting 144fps on a high refresh rate monitor definitely helps. But what sort of hardware does that require? To answer that question, I’ve put together a suite of test results on all the latest graphics cards, along with several previous generation parts, and three gaming notebooks. I've also collected benchmarks from seven of the latest CPUs, though Rainbow Six Siege ends up being relatively tame when it comes to CPU requirements (at least if you're not livestreaming).

Many competitive players drop to lower quality settings to boost framerates, but it’s important to point out that Siege uses render scaling combined with temporal AA by default. The render scaling is normally set to 50 percent, so unless you change the setting, 1920x1080 renders at 1360x764 and then scales that up to 1080p. This of course introduces some blurriness and other artifacts, and if you want optimal visibility I recommend setting this to 100 percent scaling (or disable temporal AA).

As far as graphics cards, everything from GTX 770 and R9 380 and above can easily break 60 fps at 1080p medium, and dropping to 1080p low allows even lower spec systems to run well. Higher quality settings naturally require more powerful hardware, but most PCs built within the past several years should be more than sufficient.

Let's start with the full rundown of the features and settings before going any further.

Rainbow Six Siege includes most of the key features we want from a modern game, with the only missing items being the ability to fully disable the HUD (although you can toggle plenty of it), and the lack of mod support. The absence of mod support is frustrating, but not uncommon for Ubisoft games. The desire to prevent cheating and hacks is often cited as a reason for not supporting mods, but as with other popular competitive games, that hasn't completely stopped people from figuring out ways to exploit the system.

Rainbow Six Siege settings overview

Under the Display options you can change the resolution, V-sync, and FOV, while all the quality options are under the Graphics menu. There are five presets (plus 'custom'), ranging from low to ultra. Using the presets with a GTX 1070 Ti at 1440p, with 100 render scaling unless otherwise noted, the presets yield the following results (with performance increase relative to the ultra preset):

  • Ultra: 78.3 fps
  • Very High: 86.2 fps (10% faster)
  • High: 97.6 fps (25% faster)
  • Medium: 116.2 fps (48% faster)
  • Low: 144.1 fps (84% faster)
  • Minimum (no AA): 154.0 fps (97% faster)
  • Ultra with 50 render scaling: 121.0 (55% faster)

If you're looking to play Rainbow Six Siege at 1080p, the hardware requirements are pretty modest.

We consider 1440p and a 144Hz display (preferably G-Sync or FreeSync) to be the sweet spot for displays, and Rainbow Six Siege proves quite demanding at higher quality settings. Note also how big of a difference the default 50 percent render scaling makes—and the option to adjust render scaling was only introduced into the PC version in late 2017 (meaning, prior to then, everyone on PC was running with 50 percent render scaling if temporal AA was enabled).

Rainbow Six Siege has ten primary quality settings you can adjust, plus two more related to the way temporal AA is handled. It's a bit odd, but I've found that after enabling at the ultra preset, as soon as you change any setting (which triggers the 'custom' preset), even if you put it back to the 'ultra' defaults, you get a relatively large boost in framerate—around 20 percent. There's almost certainly a change in image quality as well when this happens, though it's difficult to determine exactly what's happening. For the following tests, all settings are at the default ultra settings, but using the 'custom' preset, and performance changes are relative to that.

Texture Quality: Sets the size of the textures used in the game: 6GB for ultra, 4GB for very high, 3GB for high, 2GB for medium, and 1GB for low. Requires reloading a map to change. Cards with less VRAM can be impacted more, but with a high-end card dropping to low only improves performance by about four percent.

Texture Filtering: Controls the type of texture filtering, either linear or anisotropic. Only causes a small three percent improvement in performance.

LOD Quality: Adjusts the distance at which lower detail geometry meshes are used. Minor impact of around four percent.

Shading Quality: Tweaks the lighting quality, skin subsurface scattering, and other elements. Less than a one percent improvement in performance.

Shadow Quality: Sets the resolution of shadow maps as well as other factors for shadows. Dropping to low improves performance by around ten percent.

Reflection Quality: Adjust the quality of reflections, with low using static cube maps, medium uses half-resolution screen space reflections, and high uses full resolution screen space reflections. Dropping to low improves performance by around seven percent, with only a minor change in image quality.

Ambient Occlusion: Affects the soft shadowing of nearby surfaces and provides for more realistic images. Uses SSBC (a Ubisoft-developed from of AO) by default for most settings. Turning this off improves performance by around 14 percent, while switching to HBAO+ (an Nvidia-developed form of AO that's generally considered more accurate) reduces performance by a few percent—potentially more on older AMD cards.

Lens Effects: Simulates real-world optical lenses with bloom and lens flare. Turning this off made almost no difference in performance, but it may have a more noticeable effect when using scoped weapons.

Zoom-in Depth of Field: Enables the depth of field effect when zooming in with weapons. This didn't impact performance in the benchmark sequence but may affect actual gameplay more. If you don't like the blur effect, I recommend turning this off.

Anti-Aliasing: Allows the choice of post-processing technique to reduce jaggies. By default this is T-AA (temporal AA), which uses an MSAA (multi-sample AA) pattern combined with previous frame data. T-AA-2X and T-AA-4X use samples beyond the display resolution and can require a lot of VRAM. FXAA doesn't work as well but is basically free to use. Turning AA off improves performance by around four percent.

Render Scaling: Combined with the AA setting (when T-AA is in use), it adjust the rendered resolution, which is then scaled to your display's resolution. The default is 50, which improves performance by 50-80 percent compared to 100, but this is somewhat like lowering the display resolution. I prefer this to be set to 100, though for performance reasons you may want to lower it.

T-AA Sharpness: Determines the intensity of the sharpening filter that's applied after performing temporal AA, but can actually negate some of the benefits of AA. Negligible impact on performance.

For these tests, I'm using 100 percent render scaling, which will result in performance figures that are lower than what you may have seen previously. I’m also testing with the latest version of the game, as of late February 2018, using the then-current Nvidia 390.77 and AMD 18.2.2 drivers. On the medium preset, I also switch to FXAA instead of T-AA, while the ultra preset uses T-AA.

Rainbow Six includes a built-in benchmark, which I’ve used for this performance analysis. Different maps and areas can alter the framerate, but in general performance scales similarly, so the ranking of GPUs should remain roughly the same. One thing that's worth pointing out however is that AMD GPUs tend to perform quite a bit better in higher complexity scenes (eg, when there are half a dozen or so character models in the benchmark sequence, with wall explosions going off), while the Nvidia cards hit higher framerates in less complex environments. Despite having an Nvidia logo and branding, then, Rainbow Six Siege often runs better on AMD graphics cards right now—not that any GPUs are affordable at present.

MSI provided all the hardware for this testing, consisting mostly of its Gaming/Gaming X graphics cards. These cards are designed to be fast but quiet, though the RX Vega cards are reference models and the RX 560 is an Aero model. I gave the both the Vega cards and the 560 a slight overclock to level the playing field, so all of the cards represent factory OC models.

My main test system uses MSI's Z370 Gaming Pro Carbon AC with a Core i7-8700K as the primary processor, and 16GB of DDR4-3200 CL14 memory from G.Skill. I also tested performance with Ryzen processors on MSI's X370 Gaming Pro Carbon, also with DDR4-3200 CL14 RAM. The game is run from a Samsung 850 Pro 2TB SATA SSD for these tests, except on the laptops where I've used their HDD storage.

Rainbow Six Siege graphics card benchmarks

At 1080p medium, everything from the RX 560 and GTX 1050 and above is able to break 60fps averages, though minimums on some of the cards fall just short. I've also included AMD's 2400G with Vega 11 and Intel's 8700K with HD 630 in the charts, at both 1080p medium as well as 720p low settings. Both the integrated solutions are playable, with the 2400G easily breaking 60fps, though at 1080p low it does fall short (53fps).

If you're looking to play Rainbow Six Siege at 1080p, the hardware requirements are pretty modest—the game lists a minimum requirement of a GTX 460 or HD 5870, while the recommended GPU is a GTX 670/760 or HD 7970/R9 280X or above. At low to medium quality 1080p, the recommended GPUs should be able to hit 60fps or more, while the minimum GPUs will only be sufficient for around 30-50 fps.

But what if you're hoping to max out a 144Hz or even a 240Hz 1080p display? For the latter, you'd need at least a GTX 1080 or RX Vega, and even then you'd need to drop to low quality. The difference between 144Hz and 240Hz is pretty minimal, however (unless you're hopped up on energy drinks?), and for 144Hz gaming the 1060 and above at low quality should suffice.

Maxing out the settings at 1080p ultra drops performance by about 30-40 percent, depending on your GPU—even more on GPUs that don't have 4GB or more VRAM. The R9 380 and GTX 970 are still able to hit 60+ fps, though the RX 570 4GB stumbles a bit relative to its direct competition. I'd strongly suggest dropping to the high preset on most of the GPUs, which boosts performance by about 25 percent relative the ultra and doesn't cause a significant drop in image fidelity.

For 144Hz 1080p gaming, you'll need at least a 1080 Ti to max out your monitor, or the 1070 and Vega and above if you're willing to reduce a few settings. 240Hz on the other hand is out of reach of even the Titan V, unless you tweak the settings or use render scaling. As with 1080p medium, AMD GPUs tend to deliver a better overall experience than their direct Nvidia competitors, at least if we go by MSRPs. The 580 8GB has a significant 20 percent lead over the 1060 6GB for example, possibly thanks to the extra VRAM. The Vega cards also just manage to edge out the 1070 Ti and 1080, though it's basically a tie.

If you're looking to hit Platinum in ranked play, you likely won’t want to go beyond 1440p, and even then, running at lower quality settings in order to hit higher refresh rates would be advisable. If you have a 1440p 144Hz G-Sync or FreeSync display, however, you can get an extremely smooth experience at anything above 90fps or so. Dropping a few settings (eg, using the very high preset for a 10 percent performance boost) should suffice on everything from the 1070 and above, or medium to low quality on the 1060 and above.

4k gaming isn't a great choice for competitive shooters, at least not unless you're running a 120Hz or higher 4k display, which are now starting to appear. But even then, hitting 120fps at 4k and maximum quality is basically a pipe dream—even the 1080 Ti comes up just shy of 60fps. There are ways to change that, of course. As an example, using ultra quality with 50 percent render scaling, which renders at 2716x1528 and then upscales with T-AA to 3840x2160, the GTX 1080 Ti gets up to 95 fps. Welcome to the new 4k, which is actually 2.7k.

Rainbow Six Siege CPU performance

For CPU testing, I've used the GTX 1080 Ti on all the processors. This is to try and show the maximum difference in performance you're likely to see from the various CPUs—running with a slower GPU will greatly reduce the performance gap. For Rainbow Six Siege, the CPU ends up being practically a non-event, at least if you're running anything relatively recent. Even 4-core/4-thread CPUs like the Ryzen 3 1300X and Core i3-8100 (which is basically the same performance as an i5-6500) only drop performance by 10-20 percent at 1080p medium, and that's compared to an overclocked 4.8GHz i7-8700K. Move to 1080p ultra and the gap between the fastest and slowest CPU I tested is only four percent, and at 1440p and 4k it's basically a tie among all the CPUs.

The 4-core/4-thread parts do show more framerate variations and lower minimums, and if you're doing something like livestreaming you'll want at least a 6-core processor. But if you're just playing the game, all the CPUs I tested can break 144fps (with the right GPU). Older 2-core/4-thread Core i3 parts or chips like AMD's FX-6300 might fare worse, but you should be able to easily hit 60fps or more.

Rainbow Six Siege notebook performance

What about playing on a gaming notebook? Because the CPU doesn't have a major influence on performance, the only real difference between the desktop and notebook Nvidia GPUs is their clockspeeds—the notebook parts are typically clocked about 10 percent lower, though the GT73VR is actually overclocked to desktop GPU speeds. The biggest gap I measure between the desktop and the notebooks is about 15 percent (the 1070 at 1080p ultra).

I also wanted to show how the render scaling isn't quite the same as actually playing at a higher resolution, so for the laptops I used T-AA-4x with 1280x720 (supposedly the same as 2560x1440) and 1920x1080 (3840x2160 simulated). Instead of being slightly slower, the notebooks outperform the desktop GPUs at these faux-1440p/4k resolutions, and with fewer jaggies as a bonus. I'd recommend sticking with your laptops native resolution if possible, however.

If you'd like to compare performance to my results, I've used the built-in benchmark to make things easy. Just remember to switch to 100 percent render scaling for the ultra preset, and FXAA for the 1080p medium results. I collected frametimes using FRAPS, and then calculated the average and 97 percentile minimums using Excel. 97 percentile minimums are calculated by finding the 97 percentile frametimes (the point where the frametime is higher than 97 percent of frames), then finding the average of all frames with a worse result. The real-time overlay graphs in the video are generated from the frametime data, using custom software that I've created.

Thanks again to MSI for providing the hardware. These test results were collected February 22-26, 2018, using the latest version of the game and the graphics drivers available at the start of testing (Nvidia 390.77 and AMD 18.2.2). In heavy firefights, AMD GPUs tend to do better, which is good to see considering the game has Nvidia branding—no favoritism is on display here. Part of that may also be thanks to the age of the game, as AMD and Nvidia have both had ample time to optimize drivers, and the popularity of the game has been a good impetus to do so.

With plenty of dials and knobs available to adjust your settings, Rainbow Six Siege can run on a large variety of hardware, which might partially explain its popularity. More likely is that the tactical combat appeals to a different set of gamers than stuff like PUBG and CS:GO, and Ubisoft has also done a great job at providing regular updates to the game over the past two years, with the new Operation Chimera and the Outbreak event set to go live in the near future.

Far Cry® 5

AMD and Ubisoft have partnered to gift Far Cry 5 to gamers who purchase a select prebuilt PC. Qualifying systems must have a Radeon RX Vega 64, Radeon RX Vega 56, or Radeon RX 580 graphics card inside and come from a specific list of vendors, of which there are several.

In the US, system builders participating in the program include AVA Direct, CyberPower PC, Cybertron PC, Digital Storm, Extreme PC, Falcon Northwest, iBuyPower, Maingear, Origin PC, Puget Systems, Velocity Micro, Xidax, and Xotic. There are several more in the EMEA region and other territories that are participating as well.

Free game incentives are not unusual, though in what's become an unfortunate sign of the current times, the promotion only applies to prebuilt PCs and not standalone graphics cards. While not stated, this seems to be an acknowledgement that the demand created by cryptocurrency mining has caused a shortage of standalone cards, which are incredibly difficult to find in stock and at a fair price. That's not the case with system builders, however, hence why AMD can run a promotion like this.

How it works is after you purchase a qualifying system, you'll receive a coupon code for Far Cry that you can redeem at AMD's rewards site for your Uplay library. The promotion is in effect now and runs through May 20, 2018, and you have until July 15 to claim your copy. Just bear in mind that you'll have to wait until the game releases on March 27 to actually play it.

If you're interested in this offer, be sure to read through the fine print (PDF).

Far Cry® 5

The new live-action trailer for the upcoming Montana mayhem simulator Far Cry 5 is a doozie. It tells the story of Joseph Seed before he was known as the Father, and his early days with Pastor Jerome. 

Jerome Jeffries is a Gulf War veteran who served as a priest in Hope County for 15 years. He befriended Joseph Seed during that time, but the two came into conflict once Seed's Project and Eden's Gate cult seized power. Jeffries was beaten and left for dead—a flash of the aftermath can be seen in the trailer—but he survived, and ultimately takes up arms against the cult as part of the Resistance. 

The trailer doesn't say much that we didn't already know, but it sets a hell of a mood (and once again, there's that all-over-the-place tonal dissonance) and offers some insight into just how much sway Seed has over his followers: They're obviously disconcerted by the day's events, but still aren't exactly beating a path to the door. 

Far Cry 5 comes out on March 27. We got some hands-on time with it last month

Heaven's Vault

Back in March 2017, Sorcery! and 80 Days developer Inkle announced a new project called Heaven's Vault, a "character-driven graphic novel crossed with an open-world adventure game." In January of this year it released a brief teaser describing the game as "an archaeological science fiction adventure," which is an intriguing concept but not terribly informative otherwise. 

Today, however, the studio announced that the game will also be coming to the PS4, and that bit of news came with a new trailer revealing some actual gameplay, and more information about what's in store on the PlayStation Blog

"Heaven’s Vault is the story of archaeologist Aliya Elasra, who sails the Nebula with her robot sidekick Six, finding and translating inscriptions written in the lost language of the ancients," Inkle narrative director Jon Ingold explained. "And when we say language, we really mean it: for Heaven’s Vault, we’ve created an entire language for you to figure out as you play."

Ingold said the glyphs are a puzzle mechanic "with a narrative twist," because every inscription in the game tells part of the story, but it's all subject to your translation. Glyphs have meanings that combine into words that form the phrases found inscribed on ruins throughout the Nebula, but if you get one of those words wrong, "you might get entirely the wrong idea about a place or what an artifact was for."

Inkle described Heaven's Vault as its "most ambitious, beautiful and complex game to date" when it was announced, and Ingold didn't back away from that claim, calling it "bigger, better, and deeper" than 80 Days—quite a promise, given how good 80 Days is. (Reminder: It's really good.) It's expected to be out sometime this year; Ingold said a proper release date will be announced soon. For now, you can find out more at inklestudios.com, or on Steam.

Ion Maiden

Ion Maiden is an old-school shooter made in the same Build engine as Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior. On the heels of its reveal, publisher 3D Realms and developer Voidpoint launched Ion Maiden on Steam Early Access today. It's $20 ($18 through March 7) and contains a "multi-hour preview campaign." 

Starring Shelly "Bombshell" Harrison, the protagonist of 2016's Bombshell, Ion Maiden is a proudly retro FPS. 3D Realms promises "huge, multi-path levels filled with those famous colorful keycards and plenty of secrets and Easter eggs to discover." Ion Maiden will not feature regenerating health or a cover system, but instead promote classic running and gunning. 

"But just because this is a true old-school first-person shooter doesn't mean there won't be all the good new stuff the last two decades have brought," the studio said, pointing to improved physics, improved resolution support and auto saves. 3D Realms is also teasing some sort of multiplayer component on Ion Maiden's Steam page

Ion Maiden will officially release this fall. 

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