Gaming On The Microsoft Surface Pro [REVIEW]
Update: For my list of the best Windows 8 Store games right now, click here.
Microsoft Surface Pro reviewers did a good job. Let me just say that. They tested the device under as many different conditions as you could think of, they ran whatever programs they deemed relevant to their readers and they doled out scores that, I think, laid out the new device just right. The Surface is not perfect, it's definitely nifty, and it may just be a step in the right direction for Microsoft.
But what the hell does it do for gamers? Most reviews touched on this, letting people know with which settings they can run which high-profile games, and that's all well-and good if you're reviewing a gaming computer, but the Surface is a tablet with the (supposed) ability to run any program on Windows today. It's a completely different beast.
I don't want a megaton rig to run "Battlefield 4" so realistically I forget I'm sitting down, I just want to be able to access the new wave of PC games, indie and big-publisher alike, that I won't be able to get on my consoles. So what can the Microsoft Surface Pro, running Windows 8 in all its controversial glory, do for me?
Well, despite my grandiose plans, the first thing I did was look for solitaire. Having been on a Mac for so long, I missed those stupid virtual cards and the time-melt they gave me. But alas, it was not pre-installed, I had to venture into the Windows Store to find "Microsoft Solitaire Collection" and then, of course, "Microsoft Minesweeper." Both are free, and both are optimized for touch screen use.
In fact, the fancy Surface stylus, which shows you where you're pointing at the screen before you actually make contact, made this version of "Minesweeper" the most efficient I've ever played. With leaderboards, statistic tracking and even achievements, both games felt appropriately modern. "Minesweeper" even had a "Spelunky" inspired mode called "Adventure" where you take a spelunker through some caves in rogue-like fashion, uncovering traps much as you do in the traditional game. It was a nice, cute surprise, but only worth a couple plays.
On to the real stuff.
The type cover keyboard for the Surface is an absolute necessity unless you plan on carrying around a Bluetooth keyboard wherever you go. Word processing, which as a writer is my number one concern, is an absolute cinch, but when it comes to gaming there is one significant caveat. I booted up Team Meat's "The Binding of Issac," a dual-stick shooter that utilizes both the WASD and arrow keys in equal importance.
The arrow keys are weird.
In order to keep everything compact, Microsoft split and squished the up and down keys into the space of one, sitting the left and right at normal size out to the sides. In "Isaac" you're meant to shoot projectiles in all directions using those keys, and I found myself clumsily shifting my middle finger as I felt around for the right button, at least in the beginning. Like any gamer with any control scheme, I found my way past the hardship and acclimated myself, but these are anything but a natural fit for quick action.
And then there's the track pad, about the size of a hipster's eye glass lens, which is to say I can fit about two fingers on it at once before they start squishing together. I promise, my hands are fairly normal for a grown male. You're not going to want to do anything but the most rudimentary of mouse navigation with this thing. I was considering going at "SimCity" with it, but we all know how that would have turned out. Instead I headed over to Kongregate.com for a quick spell at "Kingdom Rush." I discovered something kind of amazing.
The track pad was predictably limited, but plugging a mouse into the USB port would have defeated the purpose of this test. Instead, I picked up the aforementioned stylus. It dawned on me, the computer recognizes, just like it would a mouse, where I'm hovering my stylus, which means I can highlight items before actually clicking. The screen recognizes the stylus up to about an inch away from the screen.
You cannot do this with just your finger and a touch screen. That's impossible.
But with the Wacom developed technology integrated into the Surface screen, the stylus can achieve something I had never considered. In "Kingdom Rush," the game transmits important information while your mouse is hovering over units, defense installations and enemies.
And guess what, that stylus has a right click too. A forefinger sized button just above the tip clicks in for that coveted second menu. It is a mouse, only more accurate (when correctly calibrated), quicker and more inherently natural. Yes, we've been using the mouse for a long time, but the best part is this system doesn't have to catch on for it to be useful. It already does the mouse better than the mouse does the mouse.
For a simpler game like Kingdom Rush, this means I can take my Surface tablet, no keyboard, and lounge back while I use the stylus to control everything. With keyboard intensive games, this means weaving the stylus between my fingers to type, as I'm doing right now, and transitioning to a pointer position when I need to make an on-screen adjustment.
The stylus may very well be the Surface's greatest gaming innovation, if completely under the radar and pretty much useless for first-person-shooters and the like. But for strategy games, or anything that's mouse-intensive, aside from action heavy MOBAs and RPGS, I don't think I want to go back. It's amazing how well it translated into a flash game built specifically for a mouse.
But there may be one reason, for now.
The Surface kicks into high gear whenever, and I mean absolutely all the time, a game is running. Yes, even "Solitaire" had the poor guy huffing, the fans notably whirring. Let me be clear, performance on-screen didn't suffer at all when this happens, but the hardware got hot. It got hot enough to make me second guess resting it in my lap for fear of it exploding.
From that last statement you may have guessed I'm not the most technical person, but I do have less-than-fond memories of an HP completely pooping out because I overused it in bed. I don't want this to happen with my Surface, so right now I'm pretty weary. Since I can't get too technical on stuff like this, I'll leave it at that and move on. I'm sure as technology improves in upcoming Surface revisions, this issue will slowly go away. For all I know it's not really an issue at all. Our friends over at MobilenApps should have a much better idea.
The Windows Store
...is pretty vacant, but it's also brand-spanking new. Like the "Microsoft Solitaire Collection" and "Microsoft Minesweeper," there are plenty of basic and expected high-profile games that wouldn't dare miss a new platform. "Angry Birds" was early to the party, and Ubisoft just recently put out "Rayman Jungle Run." Most of these games are simplistically mobile, though some are not. A touch enabled version of "Toy Soldiers: Cold War" shows promise for a bigger emphasis on graphic-heavy titles, especially considering this isn't the Microsoft Surface store, it's the Windows 8 Store. Microsoft is probably hoping it becomes a hub for all kinds of games, casual and hardcore alike, but right now it definitely leans in the casual direction.
Which brings me back to the stylus, because I just love using it with games that would normally beg for your index finger instead. The accuracy is unparalleled and I believe it makes most games at least a little bit easier to handle. If you're skeptical, there's another aspect to the store you should know about.
Microsoft is pushing demos as hard on this store as they did for the Xbox Live Arcade. Nearly every title I saw had a "Try" demo right next to the "Buy" button, so no more scanning for free versions of a game you're on the edge about.
My Grand Conclusion
Yes, you can run whatever PC game you want on this thing, even if it's "Borderlands 2" running at two frames per second. Obviously that's not the point. The point is, the Surface is hitting some weird middle-ground for gaming just like it is for computing. The stylus goes a long way towards maximum accessibility, but the heat issue is definitely a setback for that ideal, resting-on-your lap image.
But I see no reason to feel regret about the purchase. My AAA gaming, for now, stays on consoles, and I'm pretty sure everything else I'm going to want, the Microsoft Surface Pro can run. The Windows Store has some growing to do, but if developers utilize it as the middle-ground Microsoft hopes it can be, gaming on Windows 8 tablets in general may be a truly unique way to go.
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