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For want of a nail: How hardware hijinks fracked my AMD Radeon R9 Fury testing

Joel Hruska

Hardware reviewing is often a hectic process. Whenever you’re dealing with pre-release drivers and early hardware, there’s a greater-than-average chance that something might go wrong. Sometimes, that’s the fault of the company providing the hardware. Sometimes, it’s because the reviewer screwed something up. And sometimes… sometimes it’s because of mind-boggling hardware issues that you didn’t know existed in the first place.

My problems began with the death of my test mouse. At first, this didn’t seem like much of a problem. I typically test hardware with the rig configured next to my workspace for easy access, which makes shifting my work mouse from one system to another relatively easy. In addition, there are plenty of applications that provide quick administrative access to a testbed. Between these various options, I was confident I had things covered, especially since I’ve been using both RDP and TightVNC for years. I turned down my significant other’s offer to use her mouse and opted to manage my various login sessions with TightVNC for mousing and a physically connected keyboard.

I fired up my testbed, installed the new Catalyst 15.7 drivers, launched BioShock Infinite… and the application promptly crashed. This was odd, but it wouldn’t be the first time that an odd bit of driver didn’t get properly uninstalled. I uninstalled AMD’s driver suite, double-checked to make certain there were no odd bits of Nvidia software hanging around the testbed, ran Display Driver Uninstaller, rebooted into Safe Mode, ran the uninstall sequences for both AMD and Nvidia hardware (just to be certain), rebooted again, reinstalled the Catalyst 15.7 driver, ran BioShock Infinite again…

And the game crashed. The 2K intro video played perfectly, but died immediately thereafter.

BioShockInfinite

The problem wasn’t confined to BioShock Infinite. Company of Heroes launched and benchmarked perfectly, but Metro Last Light and Total War: Rome 2 wouldn’t launch at all. At this point, I was convinced I was seeing a driver problem or Steam error — but Steam’s “Check Game Files” option found no errors. Swapping to the Radeon Fury X or a GTX 980 Ti (uninstalling and reinstalling drivers each time) didn’t work, either. Company of Heroes 2 always worked, but Metro Last Light (Safe Mode or regular), BioShock Infinite, and Total War: Rome 2 never did, whether I was using AMD or Nvidia hardware.

I downloaded and reinstalled all three applications from scratch, but it did no good. None of the crash dumps in BioShock Infinite contained any useful information, just a generic “The thread attempted to read from or write to a virtual address for which it does not have the appropriate access” error. Not helpful. Running “scannow /sfc” on the Windows 8.1 installation fixed nothing, but I clearly had a problem somewhere deep in the OS.

My preferred "drastic solution" at approximately 11 PM on Thursday night.

It was time for something more drastic. I pulled a fresh SSD out of the pile — and realized that I’d lost my last two high-capacity thumb drives on the flight to LA to attend E3 last month. I yanked the Blu-ray burner out of my girlfriend’s system, and hooked that up while she dug through the detritus of 2006 to find DVD-R’s that would still withstand a trip through a burner. Those tasks completed, I burned myself a fresh copy of Windows 8.1.

One complete reinstall, patch-up, and re-download session later (bearing in mind that Windows 8.1 has approximately 6000 patches to install before it’s finished), I was ready to test. I fired up BioShock Infinite…

And the game crashed. Again.

Cue wheezing sound of inarticulate fury.

Jess knocked on the door, perhaps alerted by the sounds of an imminent stroke victim (she’s pre-med, after all). I explained the situation almost entirely in four-letter words.

She looks at me and says “Why don’t you try it with a regular mouse hooked up?”

Me: “Alright, fine. I don’t see how that could matter, because I’ve plugged my own mouse in multiple times to launch a game, but fine.”

I plug in her mouse — a humble-but-beloved Microsoft Intellimouse. I leave it plugged in after launching BioShock Infinite.

BioShock Infinite launches normally. So does Metro Last Light and Total War: Rome 2.

I let fly with some language normally heard only the decks of sailing ships. It was 1 AM on Friday morning. I’d been working on the AMD Radeon R9 Fury review since 3 PM.

The moral of the story

Normally, I’d chalk this up to ordinary hardware issues and not bother writing a story about it, but I’m curious to toss this question to readers to see if anyone has the answer: Why on Earth is a mouse required for launching certain games, and why doesn’t the game simply return a “You need a mouse and keyboard to play this title” rather than dumping users straight to desktop with what looks like a GPU driver crash?

TMYK

I’ve been unable to turn up any information on what actually causes this, and it doesn’t affect every single game. Some titles will launch just fine without a mouse. Windows itself is designed to be usable from a keyboard, even if navigating without a mouse is downright tedious in spots. The crashes in question affected games written with very different engines (Unreal Engine 3, Warscape, and the 4A Engine). It’s clearly game-specific, because Company of Heroes 2 launched with absolutely no problems.

What happened to me is a goofy corner case, an artifact of a particular test situation, and unlikely to affect other people — but if you’ve thought about streaming games from a headless box, it’s possible that the situation could come back to bite you. If my nine-hour sojourn into despair and random hardware failures can save anyone else some troubleshooting trouble, it’ll be time well spent.