Microsoft has been talking about Games for Windows for half a decade now, and the first two games that fully represent the promise of an easy, console-like multiplayer experience on the PC are available—Halo 2 and Shadowrun. We didn’t get code in time to review these titles this month (we’ll post both reviews online when they’re done as well as in next month’s issue), but I’ve spent more than a few hours playing both, and frankly, I’m concerned—these games have serious problems.
The promise of the Games for Windows effort is laudable: Redmond says it will deliver an Xbox Live–style friends list, seamless multiplayer, easier game installs, and even Microsoft marketing dollars spent to promote the PC as a gaming platform. The problem is that the entire initiative is tied to “gaming-friendly” Vista, which is not as gaming friendly as Microsoft hoped due to unstable, poor-performing drivers and spotty support for gamer must-haves like SLI and hardware audio.
But let’s talk about the games. I’m not going to kvetch about the insanity of requiring Vista for Halo 2—a game designed to run on a Pentium 3/GeForce4-powered console with 64MB of RAM. It’s silly, and everyone knows it. I am, however, going to complain about the developers pulling the feature that made Halo 2’s multiplayer revolutionary—seamless party-based matchmaking. In Halo 2 on the Xbox, you form a party with your friends, and then the matchmaking system automatically matches your group with other groups with similar skills—all in the game type of your choice. The Vista version of Halo 2 doesn’t work the same way, leaving you with the same tired in-game server browser we’ve used since Quake 2.
Shadowrun was to deliver on the Live for Windows promise of cross-platform multiplayer, pitting Xbox 360 gamers against PC players. Unfortunately, the game suffers from a host of Live-related problems, and it, too, is limited to Vista owners. Its buggy matchmaking works differently for PC and Xbox players, and signature Live features (like Achievements) work only sporadically. But the thing I really don’t understand is why Microsoft would tie a new title to Vista, particularly if the company’s goal is to sell as many games as possible.
When looking only at bugs, I think that Microsoft simply goofed on the implementation of Live on Windows, but when I look at the sales prospects for these titles, I’m beginning to wonder if these “missteps” are part of a larger strategy to drive gamers away from the PC.