Windows 7 for the Gamer
Do you remember how gamers reacted when Windows XP launched almost ten years ago? It wasn't favourable at all until Service Pack 1 came out, with most users either sticking to their installations of Windows 2000 (if you were cool) or Windows 98 (if you were normal). Or, to summarise in a single world: aaaaaaaaaaarrrgghghhhXP.
Of course, history repeats, and 2007's Windows Vista was, by and large, avoided by most users - gamers especially. It suffered, initially, from driver compatibility issues, a drop in performance and a high price, but as time went on it apparently fixed many of its initial issues and eventually surpassed the levels of performance seen in XP. The few times we tried an installation it got stuck with an error screen, and eventually we just booted back into XP and kept it like that for a couple of years. Until now! Today marks the launch of Windows 7, which has spent most of the last year being hyped up. It's shiny, new and makes an immensely pleasant sound when you boot up and shut down. And it can still sync the iPhone, which is a major relief - we forgot to check before we installed. Phew.
As a desktop experience we're already sold. Windows 7 seems to make life easier from the outset, and it's certainly nice to experience the aesthetic niceties of Aero over XP's overbearing Luna - although, to be fair, we'd been running a custom theme for years. It's safe to say Windows 7 is full of enough snap, crackle and pop to entice people over from previous iterations of the operation system, and if we were to spout a common nugget of uninformed buzz-terminology we'd say it's got the looks of Vista with the speed of XP. It's also nice to finally be on a 64-bit platform and sporting 4gb of RAM, of course. The only caveat for users finally upgrading from Windows XP is there's no alternative than to perform a completely fresh install - although most anal PC users (ourselves included) wouldn't have it any other way.
As gamers, though, it's a tentative time: will Windows 7 cause a drop in performance like the initial releases of XP and Vista? There's been contrasting reports over the course of the OS's beta period, but our brief experience with Street Fighter IV, Crysis, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Dawn of War II and Company of Heroes in the final version suggests no reason to worry. The evidence will rack up over time, but our initial experience is nothing but positive.
One of the biggest new features for games is the support of DirectX 11, which should eventually produce higher-quality graphics when users' hardware is up to scratch. The OS also slightly refines Microsoft's Games Explorer feature, which collates installed games into one easily-accessible list and now has the ability to display stats about the games you've been playing - but only if the title in question supports it. Few do. Premier digital distribution service Steam is also noticeably missing from the service, although reports say that Windows 7 at least gives Valve the ability to incorporate their service into the Games Explorer if they are so inclined.
And, whilst we're on the subject, if you're a user of Steam you're pretty much able to transfer your games library from XP to 7 hassle-free. The service has its own backup wizard, but we're chronically impatient and tend to use an ever simpler solution: Steam keeps configuration, save and installation files in its /steamapps directory, so simply keeping that backed up in a safe place and copying it back after reinstalling Steam in Windows 7 will have you up and running in minutes. This method even works on games that carry additional DRM protection, such as BioShock, although we're not 100 percent sure whether GTA IV (which requires all sorts of extra jiggery-pokery, such as the Rockstar Social Club) will copy over.
Sadly, Microsoft's own Games for Windows service seems to remain as confused as ever. There are no new releases on the horizon, and there remains confusion over Games for Windows and its Live! variant. Ironically, after installing Fallout 3 (one of the premier Games for Windows titles) it failed to show up in the Games Explorer, which is supposedly one of the prerequisites for wearing the badge in the first place. Our copy of Street Fighter IV reinstalled fine, however, and we can only assume that most Games for Windows titles should carry over okay. Ultimately there's not that many to worry about.
Outside of reinstalling all our games, we're currently playing the sometimes-gorgeous S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat - preview coming soon - on Windows 7 and belatedly experiencing DirectX 10 for the first time, while the game supports the eleventh iteration, we don't yet have the hardware to appreciate it. And it's all - touch wood - working fine.
As for bigger implications, it's a bit hard to say. The whole medium of PC gaming seems to be changing, with many highlights coming from an ever-increasing amount of indie games and experimental projects from low-key studios. Some of our recent PC highlights have been from the likes of Amanita Studio's Machinarium (a hand-painted point-and-click darling created in Flash), Ovolo Games's City Life (a bizarre, fantastic pixel-art styled game that combines Tetris and Sim City) and Zombie Cow's hilarious Time Gentleman, Please! (which everyone should be forced to play as part of their childhood education). All of these games exemplify the virtues of producing for the PC, and embody the spirit of the platform far more than a six-month-delayed port of some 360 blockbuster. Although those are nice too.
If there's a clear missed chance with the Windows 7 launch, however, it's that Microsoft have failed to capitalise on a prime opportunity for promoting gaming on the PC. Vista arrived with the disappointing reveal that Halo 2 would make its belated way to the PC, but Windows 7 launches with nothing whatsoever. If Apple can create an entire advertising campaign around a series of cheap, cheerful games on the iPod Touch, then it's a disaster on Microsoft's part that they've not spent any amount of time promoting any games on the PC.
It's sad, then, that Microsoft seems to have missed a trick. PC gaming is all-too-often reported as in decline, and leaving the gaming press to focus on an ever-dwindling stream of time-delayed ports from the 360 will only further the downward slide. Microsoft need to step back, rethink what the platform is good at, and celebrate what the PC can do. We should be seeing games like Empire: Total War, Eufloria, Tropico 3 and Football Manager 2010 promoted alongside Windows 7 itself.
The big question, then: is Windows 7 worth buying for gamers? We'd have to say probably not. We're certainly glad to have incremented from XP, but our favourite parts of the OS have nothing to do with games. But is the PC a valid gaming platform? Absolutely.