Wispy white clouds stretch across a blue sky. A gently rippling river rests at the foot of a lush hillside. Trees sway in the wind. These images from the video game The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion are so realistic on a Voodoo Omen machine, I momentarily forget that a bow-touting bandit is firing arrows at my onscreen character, who is now close to death. I quickly cast a healing spell and regain valuable health points. Then I go on the offensive. My virtual left hand unleashes multiple fireballs at my attacker and the bandit becomes engulfed in flames. But he continues to launch arrows my way. I charge toward him and deliver the coup de grâce with a swing of my sword. Calvin, the wood-elf mage, triumphs once again.
Before you label me a 40-year-old virgin, consider this: you haven't truly played a video game until you've done it on an Omen. From complex lighting effects and objects that obey the laws of physics to sophisticated artificial intelligence and cinema-like picture resolution, PC video-game developers have introduced all kinds of awesome innovations to make their worlds immersive. But here's the catch: to take full advantage of all those features, you need a machine with serious computing power. Enter companies such as VoodooPC.
Founded in 1991, the Calgary-based firm builds some of the highest-performance “gaming rigs” on the planet. “For our Omen line,” says VoodooPC's founder and president, Rahul Sood, “we went out and chose the best hardware we could get our hands on.” The Omen system I recently demoed–the Voodoo Omen Intel Core 2 Duo With Crossfire–costs about $7,300, plus another grand per year in upgrades to keep it on the cutting edge. And that price doesn't even include a monitor, keyboard or any other peripheral device. (For a fully tricked-out Omen with extras like a 46-inch Samsung LCD monitor, Logitech digital THX 5.1 sound system and a gaming keyboard, you'll shell out upwards of $16,000.) But my demo machine did boast a gamer's wish list of components, including the fastest CPU on the market (the Intel Core 2 Extreme), two gigs of high-performance RAM (Corsair TwinX) and a pair of ATI Technologies' top video cards, the Radeon X1900s.
Best-of-the-best hardware is just the starting point for Omen systems. Like the car crews in The Fast and the Furious, VoodooPC's techies tweak parts so they perform at higher levels than intended by the manufacturers–a process known in the industry as overclocking. Overclocked components can get hot enough to fry eggs and the chips themselves, says Sood. But his company solves this problem by using a custom liquid cooling system in its top-of-the-line Omen products. “It works much like a car radiator,” says Sood.
When you buy an Omen, you get plenty of options to pimp your PC. For the exterior, you can choose Poison purple, Monaco yellow or 20 other high-gloss car-paint finishes. You can even pick the colour of the cooling liquid. Why bother with the aesthetics on the inside of the machine? Well, the right side of the Omen features an “eye of the storm” window, showcasing an illuminated interior of translucent cooling tubes, mirror-like pieces of metal and high-tech microchips. And with VoodooPC's so-called “origami” cabling system, nearly all the wires stay neatly hidden from view. (OK, you might need to be a game geek to fully appreciate that last one.)
If you think that VoodooPC's styling and performance would appeal only to people fluent in Klingon, think again. The company's customer base cuts across ages, professions and geographic boundaries. “We sell to everyone from a kid who has saved every last penny to buy one of our systems to professional athletes,” says Sood. VoodooPC's biggest market is the United States, followed by Europe and then the Middle East.
I had only one night with the Omen. So I chugged a couple cans of Red Bull at the beginning of my evening. First, I threw myself into frenzied firefights with heavily armed super-soldiers in the first-person shooter FEAR: First Encounter Assault Recon. (Intense.) Then, I trekked through Tamriel, the gorgeous fantasy world of Oblivion. (Mind-blowing.) And as dawn approached, I duelled warriors, rogues and shamans in the massively multi-player online role-playing game, World of Warcraft. (Humbling.) At the end of my marathon session, I had enough virtual memories to last a lifetime.
Still think the Omen is only for nerds? Trust me, the difference between gaming on it and your run-of-the-mill Dell is like driving stick instead of automatic, smoking a Cohiba instead of a wine-tipped, or more precisely, watching the new versus the old Battlestar Galactica.