Gaming on the Go: The Best of Laptop Gaming

Hitting the road or taking flight doesn’t mean that you can’t take the gaming with you. Unlike consoles, which are reduced to handheld games via a Sony PlayStation Portable, Nintendo GameBoy or Nintendo DS (not to mention all those mobile phone and PDA games), you can actually play the same PC titles on the go that you play at your desk.

Of course you’re not going to be engaging in any epic multiplayer encounters on an Airbus A380, as no one will be too happy with you setting a Wi-Fi network, or running RJ-45 cables through the cabin, but that doesn’t mean strategy and action games are grounded either. Laptops can actually handle the latest games as well as any desktop system.

There is actually a category of gaming laptops from many manufacturers these days, and whether you’re going for the pretty in pink Goth Girl portables from Voodoo or Alienware’s other worldly inspired go anywhere gaming rig, one thing is also clear – gaming laptops aren’t the old school IBM Think Pads. Even the stodgy makers such as Dell, Gateway and Toshiba have seen reason to enter the games arena, with machines designed more with Crysis in mind more than Excel.

Size Matters
When it comes to laptops, size does matter, as does weight. An ultra portable might be easy on the back, but it isn’t going to let you do much in the way of gaming beyond letter you play Free Cell or possibly some 2D titles from yesterday (see below if this is the route you choose). On the flip side there are plenty of desktop replacements — a nice way of saying a laptop that weighs so much you might feel like you’re carting around a small mainframe — and these will certainly let you do everything that an actual desktop system can do. However, whichever route you go, there are a couple of factors to remember:

• Upgradeability – laptops are typically more difficult to upgrade. This isn’t entirely impossible, but if you’re planning on gaming on the go, you should get the most powerful machine you can afford (and then some). Because this could be it. Swapping out video cards or even installing additional memory isn’t for the faint hearted.
• Form Factor – gaming laptops are big heavy machines. While playing Battlefield 2142 at 50,000 feet above Kansas is worth every penny, you’ll pay another price. You have to carry this dead weight around with you when you’re not using it.
• Battery Life – the downside to those pretty graphics and speedy processor is that you actually get less bang from the battery. And a laptop with a dead battery is truly dead weight!

Gaming on the Go
Another issue to consider is where you might do your portable gaming. Do you travel a lot and spend time at hotels? Games are a good way to kill time in between meetings, and if you’re staying at larger hotels, broadband including Wi-Fi is typically affordable or even free. So having a good gaming laptop will let you keep your ranking, and play with your friends no matter where your travels take you.

On the other hand, are you traveling by car, train or plane? PC gaming just isn’t good for the road trip, so unless you and your buddies are on some washed up rock star’s tour bus — we won’t judge — PCs and the open road don’t exactly mix. Even a stretch limo doesn’t off the space you need. On the other hand trains and planes aren’t the worst places to get the game on.

Sitting in coach can make gaming a little tough, and you’ll be cramped. For these times you might consider a strategy game or even simpler adventure games that are less twitch based. This way you can play with the touch pad if needed. And if you’re really crowded for space, at least you can use the PC to watch a movie.

Gaming accessories

Have a special gaming keyboard or teamspeak headset that you with their desktop setup? Good for you but leave those extras behind. A gaming laptop is heavy enough, and there is little reason to lug around extra keyboards or other controllers? What’s next a monitor? Gaming on a laptop means sacrifices, and that includes going barebones.

First, try and use a smaller travel mouse. It isn’t as precise or comfortable as a gaming mouse, but when on the road every ounce counts, and unnecessary items can get lost or broken. Likewise, keep the number of games you’re bringing to a minimum. If you can load up the PC with games that don’t need the disc to launch then by all means, but it is silly to bring along every CD-ROM for those times when you might play them. Stick to a few favorites, and rely on a simple mouse and use the laptop’s keyboard. It isn’t the best interface, but during a cross-country flight it is good enough.

Games for Travelers
And picking the right game for your travels can be tricky. Here are some tips for games that those dedicated road warriors.

Turn-based Strategy: Making the most of long travel
This is sometimes considered a true thinking gamer’s game. Addictive and intriguing, games such as these can have you playing well into the wee hours of the night, as you play just one more turn. Thus these are a good choice for long distance flights. Because they’re turn-based, meaning you move each piece as you would in a traditional board game, they’re also good for frequent stops and starts. So interruptions, such as the guy next to you have to get up to use the rest room, isn’t a problem. And because they’re very immersing you might not notice the hours pass by. Often times you might even be at your destination before you conquer the world.

Civ IV (2K Games) is the latest version of the popular world conquering game. Beginning at the dawn of time you have to guide your civilization through the eons of time to the modern day, discovering new technology, exploring strange lands and occasionally conquering those who stand in your way. This new 3D version is an ideal game for those with nVidia or ATI powered machines.

Alternate choice for less powerful laptops: Civ 3 offers the same basic addictive gameplay, but without the fancy graphics. If you’re running on Intel-integrated graphics, or on an older machine, you can still conquer the world in style.

Real-time Strategy: Making the time pass in real time
Did you score a whole row to yourself, or do you have a cushy seat in Business Class and can stretch out a bit? Do you have a couple of hours to kill but need to get in the game, and have it wrapped up before you land? Then a real-time strategy game is a good option. These games come in many favors including fantasy, historical, military and sci-fi. They are typically all about exploring, harvesting some form of resource, building an army and destroying the enemy. They’re good for those on the go because a typical skirmish can be played in about an hour.

Age of Empires III (Microsoft) and Supreme Commander (THQ) are two good examples of ways of uncovering the blackness, known as fog of war, and eventually destroying the enemy. Whether you prefer the historical “Last of the Mohicans” stylings of Age of Empires III, or the near future showdown of Supreme Commander, the world is yours to conquer with realistic 3D images and lushly rendered settings.

Alternate choice: Age of Empires IIis a blast from the past, namely the dark ages. This is the time before laptops had powerful enough graphics to run 3D games. And fittingly this RTS begins with the fall of the Roman Empire, letting you build an empire from the ashes.

Sims, Tycoons and Business as Usual
Playing a flight simulation while in flight is probably too surreal, plus it really requires specialized controllers. And you’re bound to look plain silly plugging in the joystick: “look, that guy is pretending that he’s flying the plane!”

On the other hand simulations, such as Sid Meier’s Railroads (2K Games) are fun, but can be justified as “work” when you check with the office. You can always say you were testing out some theories on business development on the PC.

Alternate choice: SimCity is still a classic game that is available in several forms, including an online version of the classic title. This game lets would-be city managers devise the perfect utopia… at least if you can balance taxes, maintain roads and other amenities and cope with unforeseen problems such as natural disasters and monster attacks!

Time to get some Action: Shooters on a Plane
Fraggin’ your way through a long flight can help relieve some stress. With a beefy portable and a little bit of room to stretch out you can lock and load in a single player campaign, or go up against some bots to practice for a multiplayer session. At your hotel, dorm room or office you can use the high-speed broadband connection to engage in multiplayer combat. Just be sure to have access to power, because they games can be a real energy suck.

Battlefield 2 (Electronic Arts) offers solid multiplayer action, plus has numerous maps where you can go up against swarms of bots. For the sensation of being part of a team, play as a squad leader in Brothers in Arms: Earned in Blood (Ubisoft), a WWII shooter that is the next best thing to a trip to France.

Alternate game: There are ancient shooters that don’t require 3D graphics, but if you can’t run the latest crop, skip the FPS genre and try a game like Alien Shooter (Big Fish Games) instead. This top-down shooter is simple fun, and it almost feels like a blast from the arcade days.

Game is a foot: Mysteries and other distractions
Most laptops come with a few games, but if Free Cell isn’t your style of game, consider some other options such as downloadable versions of Reversi, or board games like Axis & Allies and Monopoly, which can also be played by more than one person.

Nancy Drew: The Creature of Kapu (Take 2 Interactive) lets you play as the teenage super sleuth. And while you don’t have to have be female to play as Nancy, you’ll feel a bit of girl power in solving the case.

Alternate games: If that isn’t enough for you, there are plenty of titles in the bargain bins that will run on 2D and older laptops.

Gaming doesn’t have to be something you do in a desk chair. Whether you’re 30,000 feet in the air or ensconced in an anonymous motel room in Scranton, a quick game of something or other can refresh the soul, energize the senses, and make your seatmates or fellow travelers insanely jealous.

This article is part of our series on Travel for Geeks.