A while ago I got my hands on an old laptop with a defect that was too costly to repair, exceeding the value of the machine. Thus, I got it for free, and with some workarounds, I got it to work. This is a five year old machine with a discrete AMD GPU. At first, I was skeptical about its capabilities for gaming, expecting that I can probably only play a few shmups or fire up emulators for older systems, but the actual results completely blew me away. I will go through specific results in a while, but let me just add that you can get even better performance from used desktop PCs. Just before I got this laptop, a friend of mine suggested I buy a used PC with an NVidia GTX 1060, which sometimes show up online for as little as 300 euros. With such a machine, you would get even better results. Anyway, my argument is that with a cheap used machine you get perfectly adequate performance for gaming, with some modest drawbacks.
So far, I have tried four games, most of which are admittedly a few years old, but seeing how few genuinely impressive games have been released recently, I would argue that those are still top games. The titles in question are Resident Evil 7 (2017), Devil May Cry 5 (2019), Sekiro (2019) and Elden Ring (2022). Here is how well my machine is doing:
Resident Evil 7 runs at essentially full HD resolution (1050p). Thanks to an fancy scaling algorithm called FSR I can play it with excellent imagine quality and impressive frame rates. Before getting that laptop, I did my limited gaming on a PlayStation 3, so I know the difference between sub-30, stable 30, fluctuating 30 to 60 fps, and stable 60 fps quite well. RE7 seems to run at around 60 fps, on this total potato of a machine. Granted, this is largely due to FSR, which was not available when the game was originally released, so due to advances in computer graphics old hardware got more capable over time.
Devil May Cry 5 was the first game I finished. I kept the resolution at 720p or 800p at low to mid graphics settings, which gave me stable 60 fps. This was probably not the best this machine can do but as I am “satisficer” this did not bother me. As this is a very fast-paced game, I wanted to limit the chance of my inputs getting eaten due to framerate drops. I will address the issue of the comparatively low resolution in a short while. Sekiro runs quite well, too. I only dicked around in the opening area a bit thus far, though. The game offers a resolution of about 950p at high graphics settings, and so far this seems to be a stable 60 fps experience. I will have to see how this develops once bigger enemies show up.
Lastly, there is Elden Ring. I expected nothing and what I got was a buttery smooth experience at 800p, with high graphics-quality settings. Quite frankly, the game looks really good, and far better than I had expected. I was also pleased that it controls better than Dark Souls. I explored some rock formations, killing a bunch of giant bats. On one hand, I feel like diving into this game, on the other, I know that this is an enormous time sink, so I will go through some shorter titles first. I did not expect that I can run a game as recent as Elden Ring with such a good performance.
One standard objection you may have is that a resolution of 720p or 800p is far too low. This would be the case if you play on a very large TV or a ginormous screen. From a friend of mine I know how crappy the base PS4 looks on a 4k TV, but also how impressive the output of the PS5 can be. However, if you game on a smaller screen, you do not need your computer to push so many pixels. I simply game on the laptop screen and the image is really sharp. I would argue that 800p on a 15 or 16 inch laptop screen is sharper than 4k (2160p) on those 80+ inch TVs. The Steam Deck, by the way, uses a resolution of 800p and people seem to generally be impressed by the image quality.
Also, in motion resolution differences are simply not that relevant. This is true when comparing 4k to 1440p as well. In particular in a fast-paced game like Devil May Cry 5, and even more if you do not disable motion blur in the settings, you end up with what looks like a pretty crips image even on 720p. On that note, the HD images you get with an algorithm like FSR are of course not fully equivalent to rendering the scene natively but, again, when playing the game this seems quite negligible. I have not come across people talking about potato PCs turning into decent enough gaming machines with FSRs. Instead, there is a lot of discussion about boosting framerates at very high resolutions.
Speaking of PC gaming as a whole, I think that this scene is a bit ridiculous. In this corner of the Internet, the channel Digital Foundry is revered and those people mentally masturbate about things like aliasing artifacts in screenshots that they magnified by 5x. The link above to the FSR website of AMD also has examples of this kind of mental masturbation when they boast about boosting Resident Evil Village from 128 fps to “up to 300 fps”. You need to get your head checked if you think that this has any practical significance. There are hardly any monitors out there that can run on more than 144 Hz, and even a stable 60 fps provide a very good experience. In particular in a single-player game there is little need to go beyond that.
Other features PC aficionados jizz their pants over are hair and shadow rendering, or raytracing. Those are all very expensive operations. Again, if you actually play games as opposed to staring at screenshots with a magnifying glass, you can probably do without all of this. Raytracing in particular is of dubious quality. Yes, I have seen the demos and I agree that it can look quite good but standard global illumination methods can look very good, too. I recall that there were few releases such as Control where developers made the argument that you needed ray-tracing to fully appreciate the game when they simply did not bother do implement proper reflections, which made some surfaces look really bad with a GPU that does not support raytracing.
In summary, I am very pleased with the state of PC gaming. If you are more interested in playing games than running benchmarks, you can get a surprising amount of entertainment value out of obsolete hardware. I was under the wrong impression that I would need to spend in excess of 1000 Euros for a semi-decent machine, but as I now know, this was a complete misconception. I can probably get years of entertainment out of the defective laptop I am using. It’s certainly sufficient for playing a bunch of games I missed. There will of course come a point at which new releases will barely run. With a bit of luck, I will be able to run Final Fantasy XVI, though, which is the only release in 2023 next to the Resident Evil 4 remake I care about. In any case, I see little need in buying another game console anytime soon.