SLIDESHOW

GDC 2016's biggest reveals: Tiny gaming PCs, VR launch games, and the most powerful graphics card ever

There was something for every gamer at GDC 2016.

nuc skull canyon close up
Credit: Gordon Mah Ung
Let the games begin

Two words were on everybody’s lips during the annual Game Developers Conference held in San Francisco this week: virtual reality. And with both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive poised to launch in the next few weeks, it’s easy to see why.

But wandering virtual worlds wasn’t the only PC-centric news to flow out of the show. From the most powerful graphics card ever announced to hardcore gaming computers disguised as mini-PCs to yes, VR experiences galore, here’s the biggest news from GDC 2016.

radeon pro duo
AMD Radeon Pro Duo

After first teasing a graphics card with not one, but two of its powerful Fiji GPUs at E3 last June, AMD’s finally revealed the final product during its “Capsaicin” event Monday evening. On paper, the $1500 Radeon Duo Pro is easily the most powerful graphics card ever created.

AMD didn’t get too nitty-gritty with details—like core clock or memory speeds—but the card will pack integrated closed-loop water-cooling just like the Radeon Fury X, and require a hefty trio of 8-pin power connections. If the card’s dual Fiji GPUs merely double the Fury X’s main specs, that means it’ll pack a total of 8GB of HBM RAM and 8,192 stream processors. It’ll probably be clocked at slightly lower speeds than the Fury X due to power and heat concerns, though.

Here’s the really interesting tidbit: AMD’s main target for this card is VR developers, not gamers. It’ll be launched sometime in the second quarter—though keep in mind that the release date for dual-GPU Fiji has already slipped multiple times.

amd gpu roadmap
Credit: Gordon Mah Ung
AMD's future

AMD spent a large chunk of its Capsaicin event talking up its plans for the future, both in terms of VR support and a sneak peek at its GPU roadmap.

AMD said the Radeon Pro Duo and its power-efficient net-gen Polaris GPUs will be the foundation of AMD’s VR push, and the company will offer “Radeon VR Ready Premium” and “Radeon VR Ready Creator” system certifications for gamers and developers, respectively, to identify PCs ready to rock virtual worlds. AMD’s even working with Crytek to seed universities with Radeon Pro Duo systems for VR development.

AMD also provided a glimpse of the GPUs powering Radeon graphics cards in the future. After Polaris launches in the middle of this year, new “Vega” GPUs with HBM2 technology will launch around the end of this year/beginning of next year, while “Navi” GPUs with “scalability” and “next-gen memory” will launch near the beginning of 2018.

intel skull canyon nuc
Credit: Gordon Mah Ung
Intel Skull Canyon NUC

AMD’s processor-pushing arch-rival Intel also revealed an explosive new product: The new Skull Canyon NUC even aims at AMD’s Radeon business with integrated graphics so powerful, they can play the gorgeous Just Cause 3 at 1080p resolution at 30 frames per second or higher. That’s better than the Xbox One version of JC3, and the NUC’s so darn small.

The Skull Canyon NUC packs a Core i7-6770HQ processor and Intel’s top-end Iris Pro 580 integrated graphics. And if you want to beef up its gaming even more, the teeny-tiny PC’s compatible with Razer’s new Core external graphics cards dock. Be sure to check out our Skull Canyon NUC hands-on for the full low-down.

zotac magnus en980
Credit: Gordon Mah Ung
Zotac Magnus EN980

A trio of intriguing new gaming PCs starring Nvidia hardware made their grand debut at GDC.

First up, there’s Zotac’s Magnus EN980, the most powerful mini-PC yet in Zotac’s army of itty-bitty computers. Zotac crammed a Core i5 Skylake processor and a GeForce GTX 980 into this 9x8x5-inch bare-bones system, along with integrated water-cooling. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and Zotac knows it—the company’s selling the Magnus EN980 as a top-notch, tiny-sized gaming PC that’s ready for VR. That GTX 980 should make it even more powerful than Zotac’s Steam Machine, and far more powerful than Intel’s Skull Canyon NUC.

msi vortex
Credit: Brad Chacos
MSI Vortex

Move over, Mac Pro—there’s a new cylindrical sheriff in town. After debuting the Vortex at CES in January, MSI started shipping the pint-sized gaming PC in the midst of GDC. Despite its small stature, the Vortex rocks some big-time hardware: configurations with up to a 4.0GHz Intel Core i7-6700K, 64GB DDR4 of RAM, dual Nvidia GeForce GTX 980 graphics cards, and a Super RAID 4 setup for onboard storage.

Wow. It’s all made possible by the Vortex’s custom internal design, as well the unique cooling system the PC takes its name from. Read up on all those details and more in PCWorld’s MSI Vortex coverage.

razer core
Razer Blade and Core

The gaming gurus at Razer also took the wraps off a pair of shiny new PC products during GDC week.

The refreshed Razer Blade gaming laptop provides a solid spec bump over last year’s model, but for $400 to $500 less. Now that’s an upgrade we can get behind. Maybe Razer hopes you’ll invest that money back into the company. The Razer Blade Core, an external graphics card dock that powers up laptop gaming via Thunderbolt 3, went up for preorder on Wednesday for a staggering $400 or $500, depending on whether you bought it bundled with the Blade or Razer’s new Blade Stealth ultrabook.

cryengine
CryEngine V

So why’s Crytek helping AMD get VR-ready rigs in the hands of university students? Easy: “’Can it run Crysis?’ has now been replaced by ‘Can it run VR?’” Crytek’s Frank Vitz, the Creative Director on CryEngine, said during an event announcing the launch of CryEngine V and a new “VRScore” virtual reality benchmark created in conjunction with Basemark.

The powerful CryEngine will be just as potent as ever, but Crytek’s taking a radical new approach with the latest iteration of its graphics tech: It’s basically donationware. Developers can pay what they want to use it—even nothing. “We hope you’ll think of us,” Vitz says. Crytek’s also releasing ready-made assets that developers will be able to buy for use in CryEngine V titles.

nvidia gtx 980
Nvidia GameWorks 3.1 SDK

AMD didn’t hog all the graphics spotlight at GDC 2016. Nvidia announced the GameWorks 3.1 SDK, which provides developers with ready-made tools to implement nifty optional visual features in their games. (Tools that work better on GeForce graphics cards, natch.)

The new technologies add more realistic volumetric lighting, shadows, and ambient occlusion to GameWorks, after the technologies—Nvidia Volumetric Lighting, Hybrid Frustum Traced Shadows, and Voxel Accelerated Ambient Occlusion (VXAO)—debuted in Fallout 4, The Division, and Rise of the Tomb Raider, respectively.

Nvidia also launched new PhysX Library tools, including PhysX-GRB, which taps both CPU and GPU to provide up to a 6x performance increase over the existing Nvidia rigid body dynamics SDK implementation. Wowee!

logitech g610
Logitech G610

At GDC 2016, Logitech introduced its most compelling-looking mechanical keyboard in years, mostly because the Logitech G610 heralds the return of traditional Cherry MX Red and Brown switches rather than Logitech’s own Romer-G switches.

Beyond that, the Logitech G610 adopts the neat, clean aesthetic of the Logitech G810 over an aggressive-looking design. The return to Cherry switches comes at a price, however: While the G810 featured full-blown 16.8 million-color RGB backlighting, the new G610 only offers monochromatic backlighting. But hey, it costs a lot less, too—just $119, compared to the G810’s $159 sticker price.

obsidian tyranny
Obsidian's Tyranny

After enjoying a successful partnership with Pillars of Eternity, Obsidian and Paradox are teaming up again on Tyranny, a dark new isometric RPG where you’re the bad guy. The details provided were light, but Obsidian says the game will feature a branching narrative in a world where the fight between good and evil already took place—and evil won. Look for it to launch before the end of 2016.

Paradox also revealed launch dates for Hearts of Iron IV and Stellaris, its two hotly anticipated grand strategy games. Stellaris’s space-faring adventure will release May 9, while World War II title HOI4 will launch on June 6, a.k.a. D-Day.

sulon q
Sulon Q all-in-one VR headset

Most of the hardware and software at GDC 2016 revolved around virtual reality gaming, though. We even saw some fresh VR headsets introduced.

During the Capsaicin event, AMD and Sulon announced the Sulon Q, a new wireless headset that blends augmented reality and virtual reality in one wire-free package. It’s able to do so because the device essentially packs an entire Windows 10 PC right inside the headset itself, powered by an AMD APU with integrated Radeon R7 graphics.

That chip’s nowhere near as powerful as the Radeon 290/GeForce GTX 970 graphics cards that the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive need as a minimum, but Sulon says the headset will be capable of console-quality graphics and navigating the real world with the help of a “Spatial Processing Unit.” Time will tell if this evolves into a compelling solution or fades away as vaporware, but it’s certainly an interesting idea. 

optoma vr headset
Optoma VR headset

Optoma’s newly announced VR headset is also wire-free, but instead of baking a full-blown PC into the headgear, it instead relies on streaming content from a PC to the headset using a proprietary wireless signal operating at the 60GHz band. Details weren’t provided, but it could be UWB (ultra-wideband) technology, which is faster than Wi-Fi.

That could be awesome—wireless VR is superior to tethered VR for mobility reasons—but it could backfire as well. Pumping PC gaming-quality graphics demands a lot of bandwidth, which is why the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive leave you cabled to your computer.

playstation vr
Credit: Martyn Williams
Sony PlayStation VR

Virtual reality isn’t limited to powerful PCs alone, however. Sony announced price and release info for its PlayStation VR accessory for the PlayStation 4 during GDC. PSVR will ostensibly cost $399 when it hits the streets in October. That’s favorably priced to the $599 Oculus Rift and $799 HTC Vive, but the truth is a bit more expensive: You’ll also need the $350 PlayStation 4 itself, as well as the $60 PlayStation Camera and a pair of PlayStation Move controllers at $50 each. That winds up being $560 for the full experience if you already own a PS4, or $910 if you need to buy the console too.

Then again, the Rift and Vive require a powerful $1000-plus gaming PC to function, though they’ll be able to offer more visually potent experiences than the PS4. Things are getting interesting!

oculus home
Oculus launch VR games

Interesting hardware is useless without interesting software, though. And at GDC 2016, VR games were out in full force.

Before we dive into some intriguing individual games, let’s dig into the meaty stuff. Oculus revealed the gaming launch lineup for the Rift VR headset, which is set to start shipping to preorderers later this month. The games clock in at a healthy 30-strong, including space sims like Elite: Dangerous and Eve: Valkyrie, the platformer Lucky’s Tale that comes bundled with every Rift, and a bunch of games already available with Samsung’s Gear VR.

Curious? Here's the entire list of Oculus Rift launch titles.

minecraft oculus
Minecraft for Gear VR

The flow of games between the Oculus Rift and Gear VR—which is also powered by Oculus’ software—goes both ways, though. Mere weeks after announcing that the Windows 10 version of Minecraft is coming to the Rift, Microsoft revealed that a Gear VR Minecraft port is in the works, too. Microsoft’s sure putting Minecraft’s universal appeal and VR-ready design to good use.

That wasn’t the only big Microsoft announcement from the show: The company also announced that it will allow game makers to enable cross-platform gameplay in their titles, starting with Rocket League players on the Xbox One being able to play with PC gamers. Of course, the owners of those other platforms need to give cross-platform games a thumbs-up—but Sony, which has a long history of allowing PC-PlayStation crossplay, indicated it’d be interested in listening to the idea, at least.

assassins creed vr
Credit: Mark Hachman
Assassin's Creed VR experience

There won’t be a new Assassin’s Creed game this year for the first time in recent memory, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any Altair in your life. Ubisoft announced that it’s creating an Assassin’s Creed VR experience to tie in with the upcoming movie. Details once again are scarce, but Practical Magic’s Matthew Lewis said they’ve been working on the set of the upcoming film, 3D scanning the environments and “capturing the world of the film in painstaking detail.”

Assassin’s Creed ’s parkour antics could certainly make for an interesting VR experience if done right. But if it doesn’t wind up being at least as cool as this I’ll be deeply disappointed.

rock band vr
Rock Band VR

Rock Band kicks butt. Rock Band VR for the Oculus Rift kicks even more butt by placing you in the virtual shoes of a guitar god. Just listen to this from PCWorld freelance games reporter Hayden Dingman’s Rock Band VR demo:

“Put on the Rift and you find yourself on a stage, hanging out with a bassist and drummer. My demo started with the curtain closed, asking me to turn on my amp (by looking at it), do a mic check (by speaking into the Rift’s microphone), and then getting the drummer to count us in. Then the curtain opened, the crowd of big-headed weirdos started cheering, notes appeared on a monitor at the foot of the stage, and I launched into the opening lick of Aerosmith’s Walk This Way.”

Yes, please.

htc vive
SteamVR's Desktop Theater Mode

Finally, one of the great parts of PC gaming is backward compatibility, and Valve’s baking that strength into the SteamVR experience for HTC Vive. At GDC, the company demoed SteamVR’s Desktop Theater Mode, which basically allows you to play traditional 2D games in a virtual reality theater with a massive display.

Hayden Dingman tried it out and confirmed you can watch movies via Netflix and VLC with it as well. “It utilizes (to an extent) the same tech as Steam’s in-home streaming,” he said. “Really feels like Valve’s been playing the long game here.”

And just imagine how badass it’d be to host a virtual LAN party with your far-away friends in a massive VR theater.