I've been mucking about with the Windows 7 beta for a few weeks now and it really is like zipping along on a Japanese maglev train compared with Vista's logy boiler-fed code. Microsoft's VP of Interactive Entertainment Chris Lewis is capitalizing on similar sentiments, telling Gamesindustry.biz that "Windows 7 will be great for games," and that "It's all good news...the early testing cycles are proving very promising overall."
Let's level set. In terms of raw frames per second, games actually perform on par with Vista, so no, with Windows 7 we're not talking a return to halcyon Windows XP days. But looking at overall performance, from the time it takes the operating system to be functionally accessible after you've logged in, to the disk-crunching and memory-swapping processes that comprise that hugely relativistic metric we call "the enduser experience," it feels like another (leaner, swifter) animal entirely.
It took me over a year to even noncommittally switch to Vista. My tolerance levels for each Windows iteration derive almost exclusively from game performance. For older, less intensive stuff, Vista works fine. But for silicon-thrashing heavyweights like The Lord of the Rings Online and Crysis: Warhead, I routinely ghost-restore old XP images. I could really care less about DirectX 10. The difference between 30 and 60 fps means absolutely nothing to me, but between 20 and 30, or 15 and 25? Another matter entirely.
That said, raw performance hasn't been a personal bugaboo for months, now that my up-clocked hardware's finally wrestled bleeding-edgers like Crytek to the mat (not to mention obsoleting the need for a standalone space heater). Windows Vista or Windows 7, the difference hardly matters — at least to me — anymore.
At the same time, I'm increasingly skeptical about the other branch of Microsoft's big "extreme makeover" games push, aka Games For Windows.
Since 2005, Games For Windows has been a marketing attempt by Microsoft to establish elemental mainstream linkage between its Windows brand and computer, i.e. "PC" gaming in general. It's supposed to make the whole affair more alluring by hoisting platform standards like "easy installs" and widescreen resolutions and Xbox 360 controller support. While those sound nice and official, the reality is that most of those pieces were effectively developer-supported before Microsoft wrapped them in a trendy sales pitch.
What really makes or breaks the whole Games For Windows angle then, as far as I'm concerned, is its Live component. That's where Microsoft's actually value-adding features, taking cues from its successful Xbox Live services and even interlinking the two where possible. I'm talking about gaming "meta" layers like achievements, cross-platform interaction, personal gamer scores, and multiplayer matchmaking tools that actually improve your online experience (when they work properly, which they still sometimes don't).
What's troubling is that GFW Live launched all the way back in mid-2007 with the belated Windows version of Halo 2. Since then the service has only accrued slightly more than a dozen Live-enabled titles. What's more, several of those have been fairly mediocre, e.g. Kane & Lynch, Shadowrun, Lost Planet, and Quantum of Solace. In a massive lineup, they'd only taint the mix, but in GFW Live's case, they're massively staining it.
Let's run the numbers. In 2007, Microsoft had seven GFW Live enabled titles. In 2008, they made parity with seven more. By contrast, the number of overall Games For Windows branded titles released in either year was four times that.
So two consecutively mediocre years... Surely we'll finally get our bumper crop of Live-enabled games in 2009?
Think again. Year-to-date, we're only looking confirmedly at Relic's Dawn of War II, Volition's Red Faction: Guerilla, and Eidos's Battlestations: Pacific. You can make a case for a few others, but they're as yet tentative when it comes to timetables.
Here's what's even more confounding: If console games like Square Enix's The Last Remnant and Volition's Saints Row 2 and Monolith's F.E.A.R. 2 can arrive fully Xbox Live enabled, why aren't these 2009 Games For Windows titles de facto GFW Live-enabled too?
I love the new GFW Live interface. It's simple, unobtrusive, responsive, adds complementary metrics like achievements, and extends my constellation of online gamer pals built off years of console play over to my preferred gaming platform.
But to date, it feels like it's still in launch mode, with at best uncertain plans for proper and dependable future mainstreaming.
So hooray Windows Vista Service Release 3, i.e. "Windows 7." You're a champ, even if it's partially because we've all upgraded our hardware to pry away Vista's clumsy death grip.
Now could someone please take the tricycle wheels off GFW Live, and ante up the Games For Windows standards list by adding "Supports GFW Live"?
Matt Peckham hasn't scotched his Windows 7 install since he downloaded the beta. You can follow his dispatches at twitter.com/game_on.