Microsoft have quietly relaunched their Games for Windows Live service. Their online gaming application, used to connect players in multiplayer games, suffered from a lack of games and support ever since it was launched as a paid-for service in 2007.
In the brave new world of Games for Windows Live reborn, both Fallout 3 and Grand Theft Auto IV will use it for updates and multiplayer. Compared to the lackluster launch games of Halo 2 and Shadowrun, these A-list titles are a clear statement that Microsoft haven't surrendered the field to Steam and XFire just yet.
But what will the relaunch mean to gamers? First off, GFWL is now free for its users. Microsoft have even refunded the people who used Live exclusively for the PC and not with Xbox Live. Developers are also allowed to add it to games for free, which is a big reason why it's now part of a lot of new games. It matches Valve offering Steamworks, a similar free developer's suite.
Microsoft will be creating a PC-specific marketplace offering demos, videos and expansions for the eager gamer to buy.
For example: we'll only be able to buy the Fallout 3 DLC from there. That's a big coup for an untested platform. The first drop of content in January will be a major test of the servers.
If you fancy trying it out, logging into GFWL through Fallout 3 will install the new software. A much more user friendly interface pops up, this time docking at the top of the screen and enabling access to all the options right away. It's much smoother compared to the older, clunky original that took up the centre of the screen and was covered in Xbox-specific buttons.
We must admit, it's also a touch quicker than using Steam's in-game overlay as well. All these cosmetic changes simply present what was already present in a much clearer manner. There's a profile tab, a friends list, a message centre, a list of people that you've played with recently and a chat tab that enables you to talk to people on your friends list.
What's interesting is that GFWL can still only be accessed in-game, so in order to see the interface you need to load into a supported game. They had the chance to make it a standalone application, but decided to tie it to games. Where both Steam and XFire excel is in showing you what games your friends are playing so you can select which one to join. For GFWL if you're just looking to join someone online you'll need to load up a game you might not want to play. That's not great.
Grabbing GTA: IV multiplayer as an exclusive is a big deal, as well as a huge test for Microsoft. Halo 2 and Shadowrun both suffered major connectivity issues. On Xbox Live GTA is as smooth as a peach; we'll expect the same on the PC. Fail there Microsoft and, frankly, you'll never be taken seriously by gamers again.