Sunday, April 26, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Returning to Mechwarrior Online!

I've been playing a great deal of MWO with my revamped PC, and the phrase "it's like night and day" would be accurate: my frame rates consistently rest around 60, the controls are smooth and responsive and, this is the kicker, I no longer have connection or driver issues that manifest, making my "game" experience into a kind of torturous meta-game experience where I'm gang pressed by my passion into debugging a notoriously touchy game engine.  But it's there more new material for me than just a nice, smooth, comfortable gaming experience.  I've also begun playing "Community Warfare" games, 12v12 objective-oriented slugfests that involve managing waves of mechs, your own and other people's, and, in a larger game structure.  These games are usually aimed at resolving territory disputes: the winner gets to hold on to a planet which, at present, doesn't really do a whole lot for people, aside from give them bragging rights.

The whole purpose of this "Community Warfare" thing is that it ties back into the game's larger fiction.  The Battletech/Mechwarrior universe is home to a number of conflicts, but one of the biggest ones is the fight between the outlandish Clans, the self-exiled descendents of a military-space-messiah, and the savvy political houses of the Inner Sphere, the people who stuck around Earth and the variously civilized world that surround it.  All these factions historically vie for territory and influence, and when the Clans initially invade the Inner Sphere factions explode in a kind of concerted cohort, all working together with the hope that they'll be able to stall out the Clan invasion.  This struggle has a storied history, rich with crushing defeats (mostly on the part of the various Inner Sphere factions) and occasional bold victories comes to a head, historically, with the Battle of Tukayyid, a sort of weird trial-by-combat for the fate of the entire Inner Sphere.

Piranhi Games is trying to bring that history to life with a re-enactment of Tukayyid's famous battle occupying most of the next week.  They've disabled the territory-oriented part of Community Warfare and channeled all combatants into a single high-intensity battleground, where they are fighting for supremacy over one world, instead of dozens of worlds at once.  As I type this, PGI is tallying all the wins on the planet, waiting to see who's in control of more territory when the dust settles.  The aim is admirable: in a game as grind-heavy as MWO, giving players an identifiable objective , especially one rooted in the Battletech mythos, is a great way to get players excited, and make their sometimes-futile-feeling efforts into something with a clear purpose behind it.  Here, there's a full out, knock down brawl, filled with rewards and with a dandy tracker telling us just how we're doing.

In Battletech history, Tukayyid was a turning point, where the Clans, who had until then been running roughshod over the Inner Sphere, were thoroughly defeated.  It represents a fight where the advantage of superior technology that Clans had, until then, been reliant upon was removed, thanks to the interdiction of the Com Guard, a kind of ancient order of surprisingly well armed telecommunications-oriented warrior-monks, and thanks to the less restricted battlefield tactics employed by the Inner Sphere units, who were free from the behavioral restrictions that Clans imposed upon themselves during combat.  During this reenactment, however, the Com Guard aren't a part of this conflict, since that faction and the technology they brought to bear doesn't exist in MWO at present, and the other advantage, that of improved unit cohesion and tactical coordination, isn't something that can be mechanically reinforced.  PGI attempted to alloy the advantage of Clan mechs somewhat by doing things like making Inner Sphere mechs a little bit hardier, and giving them some behavioral quirks that give them a slight combat advantage over their Clan opponents, but it's widely debated just how effective those bumps have been.  After all, the whole point of the Clans is that their tech is just better: their weapons hit harder, more often, from farther away.

So this historic turning point, wherein the Clans are pushed back by hardy Inner Sphere fighters, has become something very different.  As of when I write this, the Clans are winning, and by a significant margin: 65% of all matches have ended in a Clan victory.  With a mix of coordinated units and random players involved in the event and concentrated in a single engagement, it's presenting a pretty clear overarching narrative: the Inner Sphere is losing, and the tweaks that were made to their chassis aren't really helping.  The historic victory that Tukayyid was is being replaced, in the continuity of MWO's history, by a moderate defeat that might turn to crushing with enough time behind it.  In fact, the only aspect of the battle that seems to follow Battletech lore is that Clan Wolf, the only Clan to achieve an unqualified victory during Tukayyid, is kicking every other faction's ass.  Wolf pilots have been racking up points at nearly a 2:1 ratio, compared to the players in other factions.

Aside from that, Tukayyid appears to be a pretty one-sided conflict, with the Clans beating back the Inner Sphere handily.  And while part of that is certainly the way that Clan and Inner Sphere mechs play differently, a big part of it also likely comes from the way people actually engage in play.  Because Inner Sphere mechs do actually have a tactical advantage in this fight: they're more customizable and, as a result, players can do some crazy shit with them.  Their light mechs, used for scouting, can move much more quickly, and their heavy and assault mechs can take advantage of smaller or lighter engines that allow them to carry more weapons and ammunition into combat.  A coordinated group of Inner Sphere mechs is more flexible and versatile than their Clan counterparts, but that coordination is a must if they want to beat back the technologically superior Clans.  And therein lies the rub: most of MWO's player base isn't actually associated with a unit and, as such, isn't playing Tukayyid as part of a team.

Pugs, a shorthand term for "pick-up groups" in gamer parlance, dominate the landscape of MWO.  Sometimes that means a coordinated unit gets an easy win against a bunch of filthy pugs, but Tukayyid is proving that it's just as possible for pugs to be matched against one another and, when that happens, the Clans seem to win at an alarming rate.  Perhaps meta-data will emerge later on that will help illustrate how accurate this presumption is, information that will present a recognizable pattern in terms of how games play out, but at present there's none of that to be had.  All we can really see here is what happens when all the Clan players and all the Inner Sphere players mash together, and the result is less like what happened at Tukayyid and more what happened in every conflict leading up to it: the Clans are winning at a steady pace.

Does this mean "historical combat" is dead in MWO?  Probably not.  Even if this doesn't play out the way it did in the history books (or franchise novels) it isn't the end of the world, and Battletech has a wealth of massive historic battles to mine.  It could be that PGI will run the clock back and fight the Battle of Luthein at some point instead, a longer campaign and a much closer fight.  Or it could be that PGI will look forward, to an era when Clan tech began to integrate into Inner Sphere mechs and units.  With lighter, more powerful weapons, Inner Sphere mechs could become less distinguished from their Clan counterparts, which could lead to a re-enactment of the sundering seen in the darker late chapters of Battletech history, which involved the fall of most of the Clans, and the rise of a terrifying religious faction.  At this point, it's impossible to say, but whatever happens, I'll be there.  As long as PGI keeps dangling prizes in my face, I'll be there.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Super Nerd Sunday Presents: Entering into The Jaws of Hakkon!

When I saw that Dragon Age: Inquisition had some DLC up for sale, I was skeptical at first.  I've been burned before by Bioware's DLC.  Dragon Age and Dragon Age 2 both featured exhaustive DLC packages that emerged long after their titles dropped and I finished trolling through them, packages that asked me to replay games I'd long since finished.  Mass Effect 3 did the same, but bracketed it with some steep pricing, considering the amount of gameplay provided: "From Ashes" featured a single new mission, clocking in at maybe an hour or two, at most, and a new character, who the game was actually built around the absence of, at a price point of $10 (relatively reasonable for by Bioware's standards).  That was the easiest of Bioware's DLCs to purchase for ME3: the others were couched behind pay-gates, and would have still required me to play through the entire game again in order to experience new or expanded content.  I'd not only be spending money, I'd be essentially queuing up a new chore, forcing myself to replay a game I'd finished if I wanted to experience new or expanded content.

So when I say it took me a while to come around to buying "Jaws of Hakkon" DLC for DAI, I hope you understand that when I finally did do so, it was less the product of a long form marketing campaign and more an act of faith in a team that had already done so many things right.  Bioware has dropped the ball, at least for me, a number of times over the course of the Dragon Age franchise, but DAI was an unqualified victory, a return to form, to Bioware's heyday of exhausting, wonderfully immersive RPGs with lots of moving parts, most of which worked, some of which failed spectacularly, all of which pushed narrative forward towards some kind of iterative story.

I did my best to suspend expectations, but I was intrigued on two fronts: how did Bioware plan to justify the cost of their expansion, and how did they plan to integrate it into a game that I had already completed?  DAI took me months to finish, and I had no desire to start a new playthrough for the sake of DLC as finals began to ramp up at work.  A big part of why I bought "Jaws of Hakkon" was because the expansion could actually be played after the game proper had been completed, something Bioware had done previously with some of Dragon Age: Origins content.  But unlike DAO's endgame content, which was packaged through EA's then-emergent third party vendor system and essentially presented new narratives after the fact, DAI's DLC presented itself through existent game frameworks: after finishing DAI's central plot, the Inquisition's various inquisitorial duties remained, and you, as the Inquisitor, were imbued with authority to pursue those aims.  The DLC formed itself as one of those aims, as another area, another "module," to use a tabletop term, that you could engage with.

And therein lies the strength of DAI's DLC model: by making a unit of DLC that effectively works as a new area, Bioware actually alloyed most of my misgivings by letting me know what I'd be engaging with, in a real sense.  Unlike previous Dragon Age expansions, which either added iterative side-quests contained in the course of the game-proper (in Dragon Age 2) or added new sub-game types to the game after the main story is finished (in Dragon Age: Origin), DAI's DLC added new areas for me to explore that, more or less, followed the same pattern as all of the other areas I'd previously explored.  There was little to no guess work to be had as I made my purchase: I understood the price of what I was buying, and I understood what I'd be getting.  I was spending $15 for a new area, not unlike The Exalted Plains or The Fallow Mire.  What's more, I understood what this meant in the context of Dragon Age: Inquisition.  And this is where things get brilliant.

See, Dragon Age: Inquisition's non-essential areas, the areas that don't need to be exhaustively explored to propel the main story forward, all serve two central purposes.  They give players access to new equipment and, at times, special abilities, and they give players access to new aspects of story, lore, or history that would otherwise go unseen.  The first purpose is pretty well traversed territory for most RPGs: if you do side-quests, you get cool new gear.  It's a concept as old as RPG play itself.  Investigate that kid's dead brother, and you'll get a cool new sword that prevents your ranger from getting snared by spiders.  Help the town guard out, and you'll get a new breastplate to commemorate your friendship and stop arrows from piercing your heart.  It's the latter purpose that DAI explores to its fullest extent.

Because while any sort of exploration recontextualizes or expands existing storytelling tropes within any given game's context, DAI's gameplay focuses heavily on expanding the character's (and by extension the player's) understanding of the world around them and its history.  Each optional area, each "gameplay module," essentially constitutes a new chapter in that history and, just as often, in the lives of the characters exploring said area.  One area might explore Dwarven history, and bringing Varric along while you check that area out might provide you with new and exciting insight into just what it meant to be a surface dwarf way way back in the day.  Another area might explore the history of the Dalish in exile, and their relationship with the Fade in ancient times.  Bring Solas with you while you scope those areas out and you might get a few new tidbits of information out of him, and maybe some brownie-points while you're at it.  Given how much of DAI's central plot involves developing a more thorough understanding of the history of the world of Thedas, and how fundamentally that history is reshaped by your explorations, which literally reach back millennia at times, at one point tracing all the way back to the First Blight, these new chunks of story actually represent a pretty significant incentive for some players.  DAI's story is rich, and its attempt to build a new concept of what it means to inhabit a world is revolutionary.  I've haven't seen a game work so hard to earn my narrative respect, or do so much with it once they have it, since the first Bioshock.

And that's where the real strength of "Jaws of Hakkon" lies.  Not in its gameplay, which is more or less exactly the same as all the other gameplay you've seen to date.  "Hakkon" is an exercise in repetition on that front, just like all of DAI's other side-quest areas.  No, "Hakkon's" real selling point is that it explores a culture largely marginalized and maligned in previous Dragon Age games, a culture that is actually integral to the history of Thedas and its peoples, a culture with a rich understanding of the forces that DAI's story orients itself around so centrally: the Avvar.  A weird collective of barbarians, vaguely reminiscent of the Nords, with a good amount of Celt mixed in there for measure, the Avvar have served as Stormtrooper-style enemy cannon-fodder in previous Dragon Age games, and act as a faction of minor antagonists in some other sections of DAI.  They get some minor face time, and serve up some great visual jokes after you first arrive at Skyhold.  It isn't until "Hakkon" that their cultural topography begins to come into focus and, through that cultural topography, an understanding of the Fade begins to present itself as well.

See, the Avvar are barbarians.  But they're barbarians with a highly enlightened stance on magic.  The Avvar fundamentally understand the nature of the Fade, and treat it as another aspect of the natural world around them, in a way that confirms much of what Solas says throughout DAI.  But unlike Solas' moderately deceptive and cagey revelations on the Fade, the Avvar, in their discussion of the mutability and communicability of Fade spirits, are consistently forthright: the spirits of the Fade are there to help and, in the event that things go especially wrong, they need to be put down.  This permissive attitude speaks to a number of underlying themes revealed in DAI's central plot, reflects back on a number of existing revelations and expanded my understanding of the cosmology of Thedas considerably.  The story I got out of this particular module of DAI was well worth the money spent, even before I finished the central plot.  My only regret, spoiler alert, was that I couldn't bring Solas with me while I explored this area.  His departure at the end of the game, and the revelation that accompanies it, had already occurred and, as such, he wasn't available, but it would be interesting to see just what one of the oldest and most venerated (and feared) Fade spirits would have to say about a culture attenuated to dealing with beings like him on a daily basis. 

And that's the driving force behind my engagement with "Hakkon."  That's what actually makes me excited about any other DLC that DAI throws my way.  If they make all their DLC packages cute little iterative story expansions, in the tradition of Fallout: New Vegas and Fallout 3, I am thoroughly on board for the ride.  DAI's narrative is already head and shoulders above the other entries in the series, and its slow-burning world expansion reminds me of the best qualities of other old-school RPGs.  Between Pillars of Eternity and "Hakkon," I'm up to my ear-holes in story, and I could not be happier.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Far Cry 4 and the Art of the Anti-Climax!

When I wrote about Far Cry 4 last, it was about how I was sure that I could already see the end of the game unfolding just so, propelling me towards an absurd conclusion bereft of choice.  As I calypsoed past the third boss into the framing narrative notes bracketing the final conflict I rolled my eyes at just how right I'd been: this villain, who I met only briefly, whose antagonism to me represented little more than an inconvenience, less of an inconvenience than other characters who I was meant to take as friends and allies, died.  I never got a chance to know her, much less to decide her fate.  Then it was on to the last handful of missions before the credits rolled.  I thought I knew what was coming.  In retrospect, I suppose I sort of did.  I knew that there would be an internal political struggle, wherein I'd be asked to eliminate so-and-so's competition.  I knew that after that, I'd be asked to finally assault Pagan Min's fortress, which would give me access to the last of the collectibles, sheltered until then by impassable walls.

But I was surprised by just what happened from the conclusion of that internal power struggle on.  And here's where the spoilers really begin, because I'm going to talk very frankly about the end of the game, at least as I experienced it, and, to me at least, it was genuinely surprising.

I never imagined just how bloodlessly I'd be able to resolve those final conflicts, how I'd be able to let Sabal live while still supporting Amita, how I'd be able to let him walk away without some kind of trippy scripted fight sequence.  I certainly didn't think that, after a fairly pabulum assault mission with some neat scripted aspects to it, I'd be able to drive right up to Pagan Min himself and sit down to eat dinner with him, where I'd actually have a discussion about my mother.  I never thought, after watching Noore pointlessly hurl herself to the beasts of her own arena after learning of her complexities as a character, that I'd be able to civilly talk about old times with this man who had been, in his own mind, my stepfather.  But I was given actual choice in the end of Far Cry 4, and that choice redefined the game for me.  If I ever play it again (and I probably won't), I wholly plan to sit at that dinner table and wait to see if anyone comes back. 

The notion of resolving a first person shooter without conflict, resolving a shooter by talking to people, is original conceit, especially when it's set against a game as bloody and absurd as Far Cry 4.  Over the course of Far Cry 4 I killed hundreds, maybe even thousands of people.  Murder became a casual act for me, more a casual, low-stakes interaction than engaging with a character in conversation.  Even the most visceral takedowns felt casual by the time I finished playing, less like I was stabbing a man through the heart with a kukri and using his pistol to mow down his teammates, more like I was opening a letter and dislodging its contents with a healthy shake.  It was little more than clerical work as I ventured in search of the next narrative "whatever" the game was going to throw my way.  The casual violence started in the game's tutorial and never really let up, which is why I was so pleasantly surprised by this conclusion.

Yet to hear critics discuss it, ending the game this way was the height of betrayal.  Their game was terminated, after all, without a boss fight.  In its place there was a dialogue with a man who, by the end of the game, I'd become quite similar to.  I understand their complaint from a structural perspective: Far Cry 4 is a game without a climax, a narrative aberration.  But the anti-climax that emerged in its place was one of a handful of strong choices they made in their game, along with those bold initial formulations I mentioned previously (protagonist of color, problemitization of imperialistic dynamics and all that).  To critics, this anti-climax represented an act of aggression against players on behalf of developers.  Critics were robbed of "an interesting final boss," and instead were given a fight that, by the end of the game, they should've been well prepared for, maybe even tired of.

Which was almost certainly the point.

The Far Cry series has always straddled a strange border, with action sequences that were sometimes tense and unforgiving or, upon occasion, absurdly broad and cartoonish.  Far Cry 2, my first experience with the series, was perhaps the most subtle and self-aware entry in the series, though Far Cry 3 certainly aspired to, at least to hear its writer discuss things, reframe the tropes of the first person shooter genre.  Far Cry 4 seems to have done so, if only in its own strange way.  By removing a climactic framework, Far Cry 4 plays with the grinding, repetitive nature of its own gameplay and the inevitable trauma, dissociation, and desensitization that comes from prolonged exposure to violence.  Far Cry 4's ending was the final note in the wavering last movements of a symphony: after a somewhat disappointing battle which felt easier than any other fight I'd engaged in to that point, the game ended with me having a quiet discussion with the man I'd spent most of the game trying to kill.  Those frustrating scripted moments of games and cutscenes past were replaced with actual choices, and when I made those choices, specifically a set of choices aimed at discontinuing a cycle of violence, I was rewarded.  Not by a grand conclusion, but by a quiet dissolution into something that wasn't quite peace, but wasn't the perpetual conflict I'd spent the game entreating either.

Far Cry 4's anti-climax plays on some of the game's fundamental problems: by the time it rolls around, most players will probably have long since maxed out their character, and the "best" weapons (particularly the Ripper, which effectively breaks the game when you're not being forced to play stealthily) will have been in their inventory for a while.  All of the tricks that you'll use in that last fight will be well practiced, known entities that you'll have expended in side quests and, in my case, some marginally more challenging main story missions that precede the final non-fight with Pagan Min.  Some players, like me, might have even felt bored by the way the game was playing.  It's something of an unfair judgment, but I stand by it: Far Cry 4 felt tedious by game's end.  I still enjoyed exploration, sometimes, but the actual run-and-gun play wasn't fun.  Even the most dynamic boss fight (the optional battle with the Rakasha spirit in the Shangri-La quest line) felt shaky and ill-conceived.  I was done with my war before that last fight began.  Being able to walk away from it actually made me see the entire game in a new light: not as a celebration of violence, but as a critique of its cyclical nature, of the inevitable manner in which it begets more violence until, finally, it undoes its own cycle.

That's a bit of a bummer, and it's not what we're accustomed to seeing in first-person shooters at all.  Even smart, savvy FPSes that really work to let players avoid conflict or invert violence against their opponents, games like the Half-Life series and the Portal series, build up climatic boss oriented action sequences that effectively terminate their games.  The kind of dragging boredom that weighs down Far Cry 4's systems in its fourth and fifth acts is different.  It has less in common with the repetitive violence that inhabits most FPSes, and more in common with the grind that draws 4X games to their conclusion.

As I watched Pagan Min fly away, I was at first mystified.  But then I thought of every game of Civilization I'd ever won: I'd spent my game grinding the AI down, beating them back, slowly building up my forces until I could steamroll not only the enemy I was fighting, but the enemies I knew would come at me afterwards.  By the time it all ended, I was never happy or euphoric.  I was tired, exhausted by the boom-bust cycle of play, the feverish micromanagement that all the little subsystems arrayed before me required.  I was ready for the game to end, ready for the AI to acknowledge it was beaten.  As the player, with control over the save and reload buttons, I had ultimate authority in this space.  I could manipulate time, undo my failures, and repeat every battle until it sorted out just as I wanted.

Pagan Min, flying away in his helicopter, seemed to realize that.

I could have shot him down.

I did not.

I understand that problematic elements related to my choices supposedly emerge in Far Cry 4, but I know this only from reading various game guides.  I saw none of it myself.  Instead, I simply watched a pair of stoners pack up and head off to...wherever.  I didn't really care.  I uninstalled the game immediately.

I was done with Kyrat.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Super Nerd Sundays Presents: Rebuilding My Religion!

I rebuilt my computer about two years ago.  I thought it was time, some of my hardware was starting to show signs of fatigue, and games that had been running smoothly had begun to chug.  Mechwarrior Online was foremost among them.  Built on an engine created over half a decade ago, there was no real reason for MWO to run poorly on my computer, but it did, sometimes dropping as low as 20 FPS, an appallingly low standard for contemporary games played on high-end custom systems.  I was psyched to assemble my new machine, to see how MWO would run on it.  Lo and behold, I booted it up and, within an hour, was running MWO in a brand new Windows 8 shell and a new processor three generations ahead of the one I'd replaced.

MWO now ran at a peak of 20 frames per second, with dips into the 8-12 range during periods of heavy activity.

I was devastated.  I'd shelled out hundreds of dollars on a new system, and it was struggling with a game built on an aging engine, itself built on the bones of the venerable, decade old CryEngine.  What's more, it struggled with nearly every task I built a computer to tackle.  Sure, it handled word processing and web browsing admirably, but I could buy a fucking laptop for that shit.  Process intensive first person shooters, RTSes, and RPGs all chugged and skipped.  Star Craft 2, a game built to be uniformly and universally usable, slowed down during major fights.  I found myself unable to issue attack orders and, as such, my units would quietly stand and die while enemies swarmed them.  This with the settings set to their lowest.

I thought it might just be "hardware gremlins" for a time, but as performance issues continued to stack I grew more and more frustrated until, at long last, I turned to the internet to find out just what was wrong.  I began with MWO's forums, not because they were the most useful, but because MWO's performance decrease was the most dramatic.  What I discovered was shocking: apparently, a number of AMD processors, including the one I'd purchased, had known issues utilizing multithreading properly with a number of prominent game engines, MWO's among them.  That meant using an OS like Windows 8, where a number of processes constantly run in the background, with a game like MWO, which requires a lot of processor-attention to populate objects and details, and share information with GPUs, would dramatically reduce MWO's performance.  Disabling background programs would help, but even things as obsequious as Steam or my anti-virus software interfered with performance. What's more, this was a well documented and well known issue, at least to MWO's user base: if you used an AMD processor produced after a certain date, you could expect dramatic performance drops.

It's a testament to how much I love games in general, and MWO in particular, that I kept pushing ahead despite these technological issues.  It's a testament to how poor I am that I didn't replace these parts long ago, after I realized what the major issue was.  But a combination of fear (What if I break a new part when I install it?), indolence (Look at new parts and figure out the best combination for my price bracket?  So much wooooooork!), and a nasty work schedule last semester all combined to keep me from assembling a new system.

Until two days ago.

Because two days ago I sat down, stripped my motherboard out and replaced my aging AMD FX-4100 Zambezi quad-core with an i-7 4790 Devil's Canyon quad-core.  I get very nervous whenever I wire up my motherboard, so my hands were trembling as I unbolted the old board, then rebolted the new board into my case's fittings.  It took me three tries to get my GPU to mount correctly, and when I finally finished I realized, after the fact, that I'd connected the case's internal speakers incorrectly when my new motherboard didn't post BIOS, but the notion of unpacking all the work I'd just done to rewire that one component seemed so silly.  Instead, I sat down and booted up MWO, and set up a Testing Ground match for myself to see how my framerate was in a controlled environment.

My previous framerate of 10-20 was replaced by a baseline performance of 140-170 frames per second.

MWO ran the way it had in the old days, before I'd replaced my old AMD for a sexier, newer, slower thing.  Hell, it ran better.  Much better.  Suddenly, I could play the way I'd used to.  Readers with long memories will recall that I used to be into the MWO tournament scene.  I'd pilot suicide mechs, leading durable, but not SO durable, mechs into dangerous high-risk-high-reward combat situations to break lines.  I did it in an era where that style of play had a much better return-on-investment (thanks in part to smaller match sizes) but, even after the increase in match sizes, I still kept it going.  With my reduced framerate, all of my "high risk" tactics had to go out the window.   I could no longer deftly maneuver through enemy ranks at breakneck speed, or delicately pin-wheel in and out of enemy fire, spreading out damage across my torso sections while slower, heavier teammates took advantage of my distraction.  At 20 FPS, I was limited to using LRMs, and hoping for a high-damage alpha connection.  My new processor let me play MWO the way I wanted to again, and what's more, it lead to an almost immediate uptick in my in-game performance.  I went from barely breaking even to landing two to four kills per match, even when my team was losing.  Instead of limping towards death, hoping I wouldn't have to sacrifice myself for my teammates, I could make plays again.  I could confidently one-on-one damn near any target I ran into, and anything I couldn't stand my ground against, I could run from.

I was playing like my old self.

That's the best parallel I can think of.  As I've aged, I've come to terms with the reality of my body failing.  It was never particularly great to start with, but once thirty rolled around doing fifty pushups was less a fun morning challenge and more a god damn nightmare I did to avoid feeling even worse the next day.  With my i-7 installed, every felt easier.  Perhaps quitting drinking is a better parallel: everything I do on my computer is sharper now, more focused.  I don't need to take as many breaks.  My movements are more fluid, more coherent, most sensible.

Every single game I've been playing, every single process I use, has been improved.  I ran a test play of Dragon Age: Inquisition with my girlfriend, and while we were watching the snow fall in Haven during an NPC she pointed out to me the way that my GPU could now effectively process all the environmental effects that my CPU had been struggling to tell it about before.  Falling snow, trees gently swaying in the breeze, the shadows cast by a fire in a cabin behind Solas as he talked to me about the Fade.  All of these things, which were previously hurdles that the game chugged to avoid showing me, were now rendered without issue.  They were the background noise the developers had meant them to be, not the effects-that-needed disabling for me to enjoy the game proper.

I still dislike the stress of replacing or retooling hardware.  It's unlikely that I'll rewire my case so that my internal speakers actually work again any time soon.  But the stress, the money, and the tension of watching my system reboot and recognize its new hardware was all worth it.

This is a love letter to rebuilding when it goes right.  Does it always go right?  Of course not, but that is, in a sense, part of the point.  This performance uptick wouldn't feel so sweet if I was used to this kind of thing.  But now I sit, dutifully monitoring my core temperatures with a third party program I installed for fear that my hardware might overheat (a legitimate concern with higher-end Devil's Canyon line processors, apparently).  Instead of lamenting the voodoo impairing my hardware interactions, I worry that my computer might be running too well, that it might perform so marvelously that it will destroy itself.  Four days ago, flash videos would stick and hang.  Now, I tab-browse if I die early in MWO or Dragon Age: Inquisition's multi.  If I receive a Gmail message while I'm playing Far Cry 4, I don't have to log into my email on my laptop to read it without making my game crash.  These things seem normal, but after going so long without them, they feel like luxuries.  I'd made a religion of my thirst, but I'm pleased to say that, at long last, I'm out of the hardware desert I built myself in to.