Steam’s “Big Picture Mode,” Jet Set Radio HD and Borderlands 2

I’ve been playing a lot of video games lately on a system that rivals the consoles in ease of use, no need to sit at a desk hunched over a keyboard and mouse and fully controllable using just a game controller.

This isn’t a new console – though it feels exactly like a console a generation ahead of the 360 and PS3.  It’s Steam’s Big Picture Mode used with a wired 360 controller.  And it’s brilliant.

Here’s how I’m set up for hardware:

  1. My PC is an 18-month-old Alienware gaming laptop.  With an HDMI output.  That means I can plug it directly into most HDTVs or monitors.  It’s nice and portable, but it was pretty expensive.  A desktop computer with a decent video card would do just as nicely for a permanent solution.  I justify it because I can use the laptop for gaming and working anywhere I want to.  Instead of two computers I just use the one.
  2. I have a TV in the living room with an HDMI input – one connection and I’m set up.  In the bedroom I have a projector, also with HDMI so a single cable puts my game on my wall as well. This is where I play most – lying in bed with a big projected wall of video.
  3. A wired XBOX 360 controller – Big Picture Mode and many games support the 360 controller natively which means less configuration and hassle getting a new game mapped to another game pad.

This setup doesn’t work for traditional PC games that require a keyboard.  Starcraft 2, Guild Wars 2, and most annoyingly, the entire Mass Effect series don’t support the controller without some pretty complicated hacks, and just aren’t fun at that point.  Playing a game like Starcraft 2 without a keyboard and mouse – or with a wireless one on a couch or bed – just isn’t comfortable.  Mass Effect’s lack of support for the controller is inexcusable as the games are all on XBOX 360 and work just fine with the controller.

So what games do I play?  Lately it’s been Sleeping Dogs, Borderlands 2 and Jet Grind Radio HD.  Both Sleeping Dogs and Borderlands 2 completely blow their console counterparts out of the water.  Full 1080p resolutions, high-resolution textures and (for Borderlands 2) PhysX support make these games feel like they’re from a future console generation.  What PhsyX does for water in Borderlands 2 is nothing short of gorgeous.

I was a huge fan of Jet Grind Radio when it came out for Dreamcast back in 2000.  It’s probably my favorite game for that system, but it had some flaws that made it hard to universally recommend.  Playing with a 360 controller solves one of the major ones – the camera.  The Dreamcast version annoyingly used the same button for resetting the camera with one of the moves.  Now it’s all handled with the dual analog sticks we’ve grown accustomed to in the decade following the Dreamcast’s demise and Sega’s exit from the console market.

It struck me too, playing this old favorite just how well the cell-shaded style it pioneered holds up.  Playing the game at 1080p with modern anti-aliasing looks amazing, and since the original game had minimal textures everything maintains a clean, comic book appearance.  It’s a very fun arcade-style game and does get pretty challenging but for $10 it’s worth a look – especially if you’re a fan of the old game and this song makes you nostalgic for the last and greatest Sega console.


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