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Looking at Games for Windows-based Shooters

For over two years now, I've been almost exclusively an Xbox 360 gamer (the two exceptions were "Sin Episodes" and "Half-Life 2: Episode 1," which at the time were PC only). For the past few months, however, I've also been playing three PC-based shooters: Crysis, Gears of War, and Unreal Tournament III. And while I'll probably write-up a full review of some kind soon, here are some initial thoughts.

First, PC gaming has come a long way in two years. I'm still using my old mid-level gaming card, but I'll upgrade to a new DX10-compatible card by the end of the month (most likely the PNY XLR8 8800GT with 512 MB of RAM). This is one of the reasons I'll likely hold off on the review: I'm curious to see how much things improve with a decent card. But oddly enough, two of the games, Gears and UT3, look great even in low-res (800 x 600). Crysis looks horrible. Actually, it looks even worse than Far Cry (it's technological predecessor) on my current card.

Incidentally, my current graphics card--an ATI Radeon X1600 with 512 MB of RAM--is the weak link in my desktop PC from a Windows Experience Index point of view. It received a score of 4.6, the lowest item in my system. The CPU, meanwhile, garners a 5.3, the next lowest score. So I suppose if I get a decent video card, my overall WEI score will still be 5.3. My memory and hard disk both got a 5.5 rating.

I'm interested to see how different companies are responding to the whole "Games for Windows LIVE" thing. In case you're not up on the issues, the short version is that Microsoft is essentially charging customers for something (online gaming) that other games have offered for free for years. The problem with this is that the "Live" experience on Windows pales in comparison with that on the Xbox, so there's little value there. So while some games--like Gears, notably--totally suck up to Microsoft even to the point of offering Xbox-compatible Achievements points, others--especially UT3--completely forego the whole Microsoft nonsense, right down to not even supporting the Xbox 360 controller. (Which I think is a mistake.)

While there's a trend of sorts of console games coming out simultaneously with the console version (like Call of Duty 4) or even trailing the console version in some cases (notably Gears), PC exclusive titles are still very common too. UT3, go figure, is out for PS3 and PC, but not Xbox 360; the 360 version will ship in the spring. (And if it's anything like the PC version, it's going to be the first must-have game of 2008.) Crysis is an interesting case as its PC-only to my knowledge and absolutely requires a high-end video card to get a decent experience. I wonder if it's even possible to make a 360 version of this game. I wish they would try.

So how are these games? By and large, all three are excellent in their own way. Crysis is a classic style shooter that, like Far Cry, is mostly about the visuals. Gears is still one of the best single player games I've ever seen, and I like that the PC version adds a new mission, though I'm still not quite there yet. (I just hit mission 3.) UT3 is absolutely stellar, combining the graphics engine from Gears with the speed and performance of UT2004 and previous UT titles. (I've often argued that UT2004 was the best shooter ever made on any platform, and UT3 very nicely continues this tradition.) UT3 is, in many ways, to Gears as Quake 4 was to DOOM 3: These use the same engine, but the newer titles just perform much better while retaining the same graphical look.

I'll write up something longer in a few weeks. But if you're wondering why my Xbox 360 Achievements have slowed down a bit, this is most of the reason (The other is Call of Duty 4, which my son and I have been playing exclusively online; there are no multiplayer Achievements in this game for some reason.) I'm not sure if any of these games are enough to get me off the console regularly going forward, but it's a good sign. I'm a big fan of shooters and, right now at least, there are great options on both the PC and console sides.

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