My first experience with 3D gaming was back when I reviewed 2010's Civilization V here at Cheat Code Central. It was one of the first products to be compatible with NVIDIA's 3D Vision goggles, and the company furnished the equipment so I could try it out. As I wrote in the review (you can find it here), Civ V looks great with 3D, but it's just not the kind of game that will be dramatically improved by an extra dimension. Most of the time, you view the world from a bird's-eye view, and because strategy games lend themselves to marathon play sessions, you won't want to add a technology that makes your eyes tired.
So, when NVIDIA began promoting Portal 2 as a great 3D experience, I was intrigued. It's a first-person game in a 3D environment, and it's entirely possible to play just a few puzzles at a time, stopping whenever your eyes get tired. Indeed, Portal 2 proves to be a perfect case study in the current state of 3D gaming, showcasing everything that's great about the technology and making apparent some of its pitfalls.
What's great about Portal 2 with 3D Vision is that it simply looks terrific. Even a basic screenshot has extra depth to it, with the portal gun popping out in the center. But the effect really shines when you see it in motion, especially when you have to solve puzzles by catapulting yourself across the room. If you turn off the lights for ambience, the visuals rival those of a 3D theater experience.
Gamers and movie fans have been disappointed plenty of times by promises of in-home 3D, but I assure you, NVIDIA is not selling snake oil here. This is the real deal: 3D glasses that make your games come alive without introducing a whole host of visual problems. Does that mean you should rush out and buy a pair of 3D Vision goggles right now? Maybe. But let's take a look at those pitfalls first.
One issue is that these goggles aren't fully compatible with all games right away. From a technological standpoint, it's impressive that 3D Vision works as well as it does with games that weren't designed for it; rather than requiring the game to put out separate 3D information, 3D Vision simply takes the depth data from DirectX and uses it to make an image that the glasses can read. From a practical standpoint, however, it's frustrating when games don't look right. With some new games, NVIDIA has to work with the developers and release driver updates. This was the case with Portal 2; since the game's release in April, NVIDIA had to fix some minor bugs, including artifacts on water and image corruption.
You can check a game's compatibility—from "Not Recommended" to Portal 2's "Excellent" rating—on NVIDIA's website. So far, it seems the company has been doing a good job of working out the kinks with popular games, although Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit, Red Faction: Armageddon, and Total War: Shogun 2 are on the "Not Recommended" list. I imagine that future support will depend on how well 3D Vision kits are selling.
In addition, the entry costs are rather high. To use 3D Vision glasses, you need to make sure you have a compatible display screen and graphics card, and if you don't, replacing your gear can cost a lot of money. After all that, the cheapest 3D Vision set (the new wired model, due out this month) costs $100. This may not be a devastating sum for a dedicated PC gamer, but it's hardly couch-cushion change, either.
The final issue has to do with the use of "active shutter" technology. When you see a 3D movie in a theater, the glasses you wear are polarized, filtering the image so that each eye sees something different, thus adding depth. 3D Vision, by contrast, has you wear glasses that sync to the computer monitor. The monitor displays an entirely different image with each frame, and the "shutters" in your lenses block alternating images so that each eye sees something different. By avoiding the filters that normal glasses use, this enables the almost unbelievably high-quality images you see through 3D Vision.
It also, however, creates a variety of problems, some of which I've already mentioned: it might not be compatible with your monitor, and the glasses are expensive. Another issue is that if you play with the lights on, you might have to adjust your settings to stop your glasses from flashing. Let me tell you, flashing glasses can be headache-inducing. Still another snag is that your glasses either will contain a battery that needs to be charged (which seems a little creepy) or will need to be plugged in to the computer while you play (which is annoying).
So far, no one has managed to create a product this good without active-shutter glasses, but if 3D technology keeps improving, a format war could result—with 3D Vision potentially in the role of Betamax (or HD DVD, for you young kids out there). This is already happening in the TV realm; this year, LG dropped support for active-shutter 3D on its LCD models.
Portal 2 is an amazing experience in three dimensions, and if you want to be on the cutting edge of PC gaming, you should consider 3D Vision, especially if you already have the required hardware. Other gamers, however, might want to wait a few years in the hopes that the technology will improve and prices will come down.
By Robert VerBruggen
CCC Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*