1. DirectX 10
Without a doubt, Vista's support for DirectX 10 is the primary reason why gaming in the Windows environment will transcend gamers' wildest dreams and far exceed the visual quality of even the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. "When DX10 games come out, the end result will be a significant increase in visual fidelity," said Microsoft's Donahue.
This means a marked increase in the number of objects and/or characters on the screen at a time, as well as dramatic impact on the level of background detail - trees, water, stars - in outdoor and indoor environments. It also means, for example, that characters' clothing and fur will flap in the wind. Based on the early gameplay screenshots released for DX10 games such as Crysis, the impact of this new version of DirectX is quite clear even at a glance.
This increase in graphical quality is the result of a number of enhancements in DirectX 10 code, operations and resulting capabilities. As an example, a brand-new shader model (Version 4.0) in DX10 allows for more detailed and nuanced 3D graphics. (A shader guides GPUs in defining 3D objects with colours and/or textures.) DirectX 10 is such a leap forward in graphics technology that Microsoft has actually included the old version of DirectX - Version 9 - in Windows Vista along with this new version. In fact, Vista's much-vaunted Aero interface actually runs on DirectX 9.
To take advantage of this new functionality, gamers will have to purchase new DX10-compatible 3D graphics cards, such as nVidia's GeForce 8800 series. On the downside, these cards cost between $400 and $600. On the upside, nVidia will likely announce and release lower-end versions of these graphics processors sometime over the next few months.
Based upon the early buzz and screenshots of this 3D action shooter, it's highly likely that upon its release in late 2007, Crysis will single-handedly make Windows Vista good for gaming. Under development by German developer Crytek and being published in the United States by Electronic Arts, Crysis challenges gamers to repel invading alien forces intent upon conquering Earth.
The game's embrace of DirectX 10 has resulted in near-photorealistic graphics that have gamers around the world drooling.
3. Windows Game Advisor
One of the chief difficulties with PC gaming is determining whether or not a system's processor, memory and video card are capable of supporting a state-of-the-art game. Microsoft's Windows Game Advisor allows gamers to quickly ascertain how their systems stack up with the click of a button. That's pretty handy.
4. Games for Windows Live
Scheduled for release in May, this new service will provide interoperability between the Xbox 360 and Windows Vista platforms. This means that when Halo 2 is released in May on Windows Vista, PC gamers will be able to play against Xbox 360 gamers. Other titles that will support cross-platform multiplayer gaming are Shadowrun and Uno, one of the most popular multiplayer games on the Xbox Live service.
Games for Windows Live (also known as GFW Live) is a subscription service that functions in a similar fashion to Xbox Live. Gamers will be able to choose from two tiers of service - a free Silver account that will allow minimum multiplayer functionality or a full-featured $50-per-year Gold account. Logging into GFW Live will provide matchmaking, access to new downloadable games, and more. Gamers who already have Xbox Live accounts will be able to transport their gamertags (usernames) and accounts to GFW Live.
One of the advantages to these Live services is that they keep track of gamers' accomplishments in both single-player and multiplayer games over time, allowing a player to develop a network of friends as well as a reputation to uphold (or improve upon) with those friends. This is a quantum leap over previous incarnations of PC-based multiplayer games, which until now have existed in isolated game-by-game instances with no centralised usernames or tracking of statistics.
In theory, GFW is a powerful, forward-thinking idea. However, we do have some substantial concerns around Microsoft's ability to protect users' security. A number of controversies have recently erupted over hacked Xbox Live accounts, an inability of Xbox Live support staff to identify and prevent identify theft, and numerous other complaints regarding online security.
Given the networking and security similarities between Xbox Live and GFW Live, this is a potential deal-breaker for this innovative new service. Until Microsoft demonstrates that it is addressing these security problems, it's impossible to recommend that gamers rush out and sign up for the service. Thankfully, there's no real reason to do so yet because there aren't a large number of games available.
5. Parental Controls in Vista
Parents will love the ability to regulate the types of gaming content their children are able to play. And Windows Vista goes one step further by allowing parents to regulate when their kids are able to play games as well. This probably sounds Draconian to some, but these parental controls demonstrate that Microsoft understands parents' needs in the changing digital world.
6. DirectX 11...and beyond
One of the strengths of Windows-based gaming is the constant evolution of the platform at the hardware level. Microsoft has been quick to capitalise upon these hardware improvements with a constant series of revisions and upgrades for DirectX.
With DirectX 10, Windows Vista has ushered in a new architectural foundation for Microsoft's DirectX API, and it's clear that this is just a launching point for Microsoft's development team. "We'll revise DX10," Donahue says. "That's no secret."
This means that over the next five or six years of Windows' current incarnation, gamers will play games on an ever-evolving platform that will maximise the use of PC hardware. This is a far cry from the finite fixed world of console gaming on the PS3 and Xbox 360. For many gamers, this constant improvement - and the tremendous amounts of power this evolution unlocks - is the very reason we play PC games in the first place.
"If you look to the graphics hardware guys, they're not even close to being finished with graphics processing power," Donahue explains. "On a regular basis, we get together with these guys as well as game developers and publishers to talk about where we want [Windows gaming and DirectX] to go three to five years down the road. We then begin to map out how we're going to get there."
See PC Advisor's definitive Windows Vista review.