3D: a gamers’ guide

Everything you need to know about playing 3D games

The arrival of 3D technology into cinemas and now our homes is one of the most controversial aspects of popular entertainment. Some see it as a massive creative leap forward, the equivalent of Renaissance painters discovering perspective; others dismiss it as a gimmick, a means of selling ever more expensive movie tickets and TVs to gullible thrill-seekers. And now, at the heart of this whole debate, is the games industry.

All three of the major console manufacturers are backing 3D as a concept (some more than others, but we’ll get on to that in a bit) and most game publishers, too, are supporting 3D with their main titles. There’s now an interesting range of games available, showcasing the potential for 3D in the interactive sphere, and several massive examples are due out later in 2011.

Arguably, it is in games where the tech could really make a difference. While seeing stuff flying out of the screen can certainly enliven films, the ability to perceive depth might actually make a palpable impact on the very nature of game design, leading to environments of greater immersion and a more intuitive navigation experience. Anyone who’s ever tried to leap from one platform to another in a polygonal world, like Assassin’s Creed or Super Mario 64, will know what I mean.

So what do you need to play 3D games at home, and what titles should you try first? With the significant help of James Rivington from TechRadar, here’s our quick guide to 3D entertainment for the interested console owner…

What you need

A 3D capable televisionThere are basically two types of 3D technology for the home: passive and active. The former requires those cheap plastic glasses you get in the cinema, and the latter uses battery-powered LCD specs. “The advantage of active 3D is that it supports full 1080-line high resolution,” says James. “Passive only supports 540-line half-resolution 3D; so active is obviously the better option in most cases.” However, if you’re also planning on watching a lot of 3D TV and movies with your whole family, then a TV that employs passive 3D tech might work out cheaper.

But should you go for an LCD TV or plasma screen? “Plasma is popular with home cinema buffs, because the contrast ratio you can achieve on a high-end plasma is still beyond even the best LCD TVs with LED backlighting,” says James. “But LCD TVs have always been very popular amongst gamers because of the added brightness you get from an LCD panel. Plasmas have traditionally had the advantage when it came to smooth motion but LCDs produce a hell of a lot more light, which can make for a more clear and vivid picture with brighter colours – and that in turn can give you the edge as a gamer.

“However, 3D plasmas do still have a few ninja skills in their 3D closet. 3D TVs suffer from a phenomenon called crosstalk where the left and right images bleed into each other, creating a sort of ghosting effect. The cheaper 3D TVs tend to exhibit this behaviour a bit more than the high end ones but as a rule, plasma TVs have so far been more successful at keeping crosstalk to a minimum.”

If you’ve just started saving up for a new TV, keep an eye on the latest models as new features are being added regularly. LG is making grand claims for its “flicker-free” CinemaTV displays, which use cheaper passive glasses. “It’s worth looking at Samsung’s new 3D TVs, which feature improved lightweight active glasses using a version of Bluetooth rather than infrared for signal synchronisation,” says James. “And of course we can expect to see more glasses-free 3D TVs this year and next – so far, models have been small, expensive and ineffective, but that’s bound to change in time.”

LG, Sony and Toshiba all showed off glasses-free models at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and Toshiba claims it’ll launch a range in the UK next year; with the first batch of prototypes the viewing angle is very narrow (you’ve tried the Nintendo 3DS, right? Same thing) but then that was also the case with the first generation of 2D LCD televisions. We might have to wait five years before displays are big, affordable and viewable from all around the living room.

For now, here are three of our favourite models:

Sony KDL-40NX713 (£1,000): Converts 2D to 3D, and can be upgraded to full 3D with a TMR-BR100 emitter and TDG-BR100 glasses.

Philips 46PFL9705H (£2,500): Does a good job of overcoming the “ghosting” typical of LCD/LED 3D TVs.

Samsung UE65C8000 (£5,000): The world’s largest 3D LED TV, with a stunning, thin, 29mm titanium-finish frame.

Some sets also “upscale” 2D footage to 3D via a process I’m not even going to pretend to understand. Of course, it’s more subtle than “proper” 3D, but it works reasonably well on my Sony HX8.

If you’re not sure, go to a decent electronics shop and try all of this out before you buy.

An HDMI 1.4 cable”HDMI 1.4 supports various types of signal switching data which allow 3D Blu-ray players, multi-channel amplifiers and TVs to talk to each other and select the correct modes automatically,” says James. “You will probably be able to get a system working with HDMI 1.3 cables, but you may have to do some manual switching – not a major issue really.”

You can pick up basic cables for less than a tenner, and these will usually do the trick (ThatCable has an award-winning HDMI 1.3 option for a fiver). For high-end 1.4 cabling you might want to opt for the WireWorld Chroma 6 or a Chord Active (both about £50). But is it worth spending extra on a fancy product, with hi-tech insulation and super-shielding? “A home cinema expert will tell you that it’s always worth investing money in quality cables,” says James. “Not only is it possible that a cheap cable may degrade general video and audio performance, it may also fail to carry the system data which is needed to keep HDMI-based equipment and 3D systems running smoothly. That said, the majority of casual gamers could pick up a cheap cable and not encounter any problems at all.”A surround sound set-upSure, you can play a 3D game without a big home theatre set-up, but you’re losing some of the immersive nature of the medium. There are dozens of sound systems on the market, which offer seven channels plus a bass subwoofer. For standards, look out for products that support Dolby Digital Plus or better yet, Dolby TrueHD (7.1). Alternatively, there’s DTS-ES (6.1) and DTS-HD Master Audio (DTS-HD MA).

“Many manufacturers are also working on adding an extra dimension of movement to the front-channel speakers,” adds James. “So sound could move up and down, as well as left and right. There are two ways to do this; by adding two more actual speakers, or by using psycho-acoustic processing. Samsung, for instance, will offer both techniques in their forthcoming range of home theatre systems…”

PC gamers can also listen out for the Dolby Axon technology, which offers spatial 3D to in-game voice chatting. This makes other players sound like they’re really in the environment, shouting from a distance, rather than sitting right in your head.

The games machines

Here are your 3D options on different gaming platforms.

The PlayStation 3If you want to experience 3D games on a big TV in your living room, right now, PS3 is certainly the way to go. Sony is heavily backing the technology (see its dedicated 3D website here), which is unsurprising considering it manufactures hardware all the way down the 3D pipeline, from filmmaking equipment, to displays, to consoles. The company has an expert team in the UK dedicated to evangalising 3D to developers; one member of that team, senior engineer Ian Bickerstaff, gave a fascinating lecture at last year’s Bradford Animation festival explaining the art and science of 3D entertainment and how Sony is helping studios to exploit the technology.

Setting up the machine for 3D is simple. Just head to the Settings section of the XMB, select Video Output Settings, then HDMI and finally Automatic – the system will now check your TV and ensure the 3D signal is compatible. Make sure you’ve also selected the 3D option on your TV, and that your TV is connected to your PS3 via an HDMI cable. Most 3D compatible PS3 titles have a 3D option on the menu – hit that, and you’re away.

There is already a reasonable selection of games to try. Here is pretty much everything that’s been released so far:

• Auditorium (PSN)• Call of Duty: Black Ops• Crysis 2• de Blob 2: Underground• Dungeon Defenders (PSN)• Enslaved: Odyssey to the West• EyePet• The Fight: Lights Out• Ghost Recon: Future Soldier• Gran Turismo 5• High Velocity Bowling• Hustle Kings (PSN)• James Cameron’s Avatar: The Game• Killzone 3• MLB 11: The Show• MotorStorm Apocalypse• MotorStorm: 3D Rift (PSN)• NBA 2K11 • PAIN (PSN)• Prince of Persia Trilogy (PSN)• The Sly Collection• SOCOM 4: U.S. Navy SEALs• Super Stardust HD (PSN)• Swords and Soldiers• Top Spin 4• TRON: Evolution• Tumble (PSN)• WipEout HD (PSN)

Coming soon…

• Cars 2• Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection• Mortal Kombat• Ratchet & Clank: All 4 One• Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception• Virtua Tennis 4

We’ll follow this feature with a list of the best titles, but for now I’d recommend Killzone 3, the gritty sci-fi shooter that makes effective use of 3D technology – there are times it genuinely helps with the experience, especially in sections where you’re sniping distant enemies; the extra depth information really helps to pick them out from the scenery.

I’m also enjoying the insane futuristic offroad racer Motorstorm: Apocalypse, which regularly splatters your screen with muddy water and sends buildings crashing to the ground around you. There are some marvellous effects and the game’s frantic, explosion-filled gameplay provides a better showcase for the tech than the more austere Gran Turismo 5.

And, of course, the PS3 features a Blu-ray player that can play a whole range of 3D movie titles.

Xbox 360Although technically 3D capable, Microsoft is holding off on supporting the technology for now. In a statement last year, the company noted: “It’s projected that less than one half of 1% of all TVs in the US this year will be 3DTVs. And 3DTVs will make up only 5% of the TV installed base three years from now.”

There are, however, a few third-party titles that let Xbox owners experience stereoscopic visuals: Call of Duty: Black Ops; Enslaved: Odyssey to the West; Crysis 2; and the XBLA title Invincible Tiger.

Nintendo 3DSNintendo’s dual-screen console is currently the only gaming system to offer glasses-free 3D. It uses “parallax barrier” technology to send a different version of the image to each eye, creating a stereoscopic effect. The device also features a 3D camera, and comes with several fascinating augmented reality demos that overlay computer graphics on to the real world as viewed through the LCD screen.

It’s easy to set up and use (you charge it up, switch it on and, hey presto, autostereoscopic fun!), but the console has to be held in a steady position directly in front of the player; the effect is easily lost if you move just centimeters from the hotspot. Also, some purchasers have complained of dizziness and headaches when playing for too long, but most people won’t have a problem. The 3D effect can be turned down, and even off, using a slider control on the side.

The launch line-up wasn’t great, with Super Street Fighter IV, Nintendogs + Cats, Pilotwings: Resort, Ridge Racer, Ghost Recon: Shadow Wars and Pro Evolution Soccer proving the best of a distinctly half-hearted bunch.

There are some promising titles on the way though – even if most of them are based on very familiar brands. Nintendo has the submarine sim Steel Diver in May (much better than it sounds) and then The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D the month after. Animal Crossing 3DS, Kid Icarus, Paper Mario 3D, Super Mario, Mario Kart and Star Fox are also on the way this year. From third-party developers we can expect Resident Evil: Revelations, Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater, Pacman & Galaga Dimensions and Harvest Moon: The Tale of Two Towns. Still no absolute killer apps in there, but a crowd-pleasing bunch.

PC3D gaming has been a reality on PC for a couple of years. The most popular solution is Nvidia’s 3D Vision, which provides a pair of 3D glasses and all the drivers you need to get the system working on your PC, which has to be running Vista or Windows 7. You’ll also need a 3D monitor and a compatible Nvidia graphics card – most of the GeForce products are fine. The company reckons that more than 500 titles are compatible with its technology, including Call of Duty: Black Ops, Starcraft 2, Left 4 Dead and Far Cry 2. Bigpoint, a publisher of free-to-play online games, is also set to support 3D, with two titles, ToonRacer and Ruined Online, arriving this spring.

We can also expect a range of glasses-free PC laptops, with Dell, Asus and Toshiba all unveiling models this year.

SmartphoneOver the past few years, Japan has seen several mobile phones using the same glasses-free 3D technology as the 3DS, but these haven’t made it over to the West. That’s all about to change. Two major new Android handsets will feature autostereoscopic displays: the LG Optimus 3D and the HTC Evo 3D. Even more intriguing though are the glasses-free 3D tablet PCs that manufacturers are developing. Toshiba has been showing off a 12.1-inch model, complete with an accelerometer that works in conjunction with the stereoscopic display, allowing users to manipulate and effectively peer around the objects on screen.









Keith Stuart

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