Sunday, May 14, 2023

My first digital game pre-ordering experience

I don't pre-order games. Actually I don't pre-order them now would be more correct. The last game I pre-ordered was Mass Effect 3's Collector's Edition from GameStop in 2012. This was only done because I wanted the physical edition which of course had a finite number of copies. It was the last physical game disk I ever purchased, as digital distribution was ubiquitous by then as well as easier and cheaper to manage overall. Digital editions however by their very nature do not ordinarily sell out in the same way. So unless there is some pressing need to play a game ASAP or you want some lame digital pre-order "boost" then you can certainly wait beyond release day.

Waiting is generally a good move, especially now. Some games thrive and maintain their original RRP for weeks if not months before a sale but others are released with these high hopes but alas do not perform to these hopes and we get what happened with Forspoken, a 33% discount for two weeks just seven weeks after release. Additionally an unfortunate common trend now is simply to wait before purchasing a game because it inevitably needs serious post-launch bug fixing and optimisation. So if this isn't done in a timely fashion, it may be best to actually wait for the game to be discounted before being able to enjoy an adequate experience. At time of writing I'm waiting for EA's Star Wars: Jedi Survivor's post launch bug-fixing.

So my first digital pre-order ever is now The Last of Us Part I, a PC port of a PlayStation 5 remake of an older PlayStation 3 game from 2012. I pre-ordered it because I genuinely wanted to play the game on release day, so that I'd be finished as soon as I was able, in order to watch the acclaimed HBO series which had just finished airing. After recently playing two of Sony's PC ports, God of War and Marvel's Spider-Man Remastered and reading that the developer Naughty Dog had released a successful port for an Uncharted game just a few months previous, I felt confident that there wouldn't be much of issue even though it might not be 100% there on launch day, I would still be able to start it and have it corrected in a few days or a week.

Originally the game was set to be released on March 3rd 2023 so I paid Green Man Gaming €49.19 on January 25th for my The Last of Us Part I pre-order. About 10 days later we got word that the PC release was being put back a few weeks to March 28th. There was little by way of negative reaction to this as there have been some high profile PC release failures recently and it was suspected that Sony/Naughty Dog had some polishing to do as they didn't want the negative publicity if things didn't go according to plan, such as releasing the game to a new market: PC gamers. Green Man Gaming sent me my pre-order key on Sunday, March 26th. This allowed me and others who pre-ordered the game the ability to pre-load - download the game data before the game unlocked on March 28th. Everything was going according to plan.

At about 17:00 on March 28th I loaded the game for the first time and was met with a great menu for me to examine as well as a shader compilation timer that seemed quite slow. The menu kept me distracted for a while as it was one of most feature rich menus I'd ever seen with a staggering amount of options, especially for graphics which for a new game are of high importance. Despite making selections based on it's own recommendations and doing some all important key rebinding which took probably over 15 minutes I noticed that the game was still building shaders! It hadn't frozen or anything it was just moving very slowly. I said I'd not interrupt the process by launching the game as I'd expect massive stuttering if I tried playing before shader compilation was complete, so I left it alone.

It was 45 minutes approximately before shader compilation was complete; It took less time for the entire game to download and install. But no matter it was ready to play now. It loaded up fine, but just a few minutes in, it crashed to desktop (CTD). Now obviously this is "almost" expected behaviour at this point and it didn't deter me. What did annoy me however was that it crashed twice in less than half an hour. When compared to God of War or Spider-Man that crashed only the same amount in 42+ hours I knew there was something wrong.

I examined the Steam page for the game and was met with hundreds of reports of system instability and crashing. The Steam score itself was negative. The launch was a disaster!!! I did try a few more times over the following couple of days, tweaking settings and graphical options but sadly the crashes persisted. I sent all crash and performance reports to Naughty Dog, and why not? I was basically a beta tester at this point. On April 1st I installed Patch v1.0.1.6, dropped all settings to medium preset, Turned DLSS off and capped FPS to 60 to bring VRAM usage to 7.3GB - as my limit was 8GB - and I wanted to be sure not to tax it. Sadly is crashed after 20 minutes.

Nvidia released driver hotfix 531.58 and the game had Patch v1.0.1.7 to install for April 4th. The shader building process that ran on day one had to be reinitiated due to the driver change. Thankfully the patch addressed this and they only took 24m 54s, an improvement but still far to long. I returned all graphics preset to high, with exception of textures to medium which wasn't the way I wanted to play but said I'd try it together with DLSS Performance. For the first time there were no crashes during a 1h 40m game session, so things are improved. I made no changes and there was no patches two days later on April 6th but it CTD again after 30 mins.

At this point I gave in, ordered and installed an RTX4070Ti in order to (a) have enough VRAM to use the high or ultra textures which have the most impact to how a game looks and (b) in the hope that it would be powerful enough to defeat the game's instability. Initially with patch v1.0.2.1 on April 12th and v1.0.3 on April 15th there was CTD but not before 90 minutes had passed this time, a serious improvement. On April 27th a Patch to  v1.0.4 started the shaders at 30% and took less than 10 minutes to compile. Subsequently there were no crashes at all following this and the game worked perfectly on multiple days through to the end credits.


While the pre-ordering process itself worked fine and did what it was supposed to and in the end I was able to complete The Last of Us Part I within 6 weeks of release, the purposed of pre-ordering: playing immediately was not fulfilled. It wasn't fault of the pre-ordering process itself but clearly the fault of the developer/publisher which dropped the ball. 

Had I not pre-ordered,  I'd not have purchased the game on release in the state it was in - and I have followed through on this notion with Jedi Survivor which is not apparently in an acceptable state. It's unlikely I'd be pre-ordering another title any time soon especially in the current environment of PC game releasing in a clearly unfinished/unoptimised state. It was however a good learning experience.

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