As a casual gamer I've been looking at both software and hardware part of market for the last 2 months awaiting for the situation to clear a bit so we could see who is the on the top of this truly crazy holiday season.
First a bit of introduction.
For the last 2-3 years, most of the gamers will agree, there had been a silence on the market. Sure, there were games coming out, but since we had Far Cry/Doom 3/Half Life2 all in a short period of time, there had been almost no new high profiled games on the market.
But recently they all started to come, one by one. First we had a bit of a warm-up with the S.T.A.L.K.E.R and now we had literally 20 top games going out in last few months. Not just shooters (though they tend to collect all the attention most of the time) but quite a few of top strategy games just as well.
On the other hand we had pretty much the same thing going on in hardware department. Since the arrival of nVidia 8xxx series ATi had been mostly silent and/or unsuccessful so we had one and the same architecture leading the market for a full year - not something we were used to.
But things have changed...
At the same time that we had new games coming, we've also had new DX architecture going mainstream (both in games and in hardware) and new hardware following it. I'll completely neglect 8600 cards and even worse ATi answer, those couldn't be accounted as "mainstream DX10" cos they couldn't handle even the DX9 titles in their full glory.
And today I think that we're quite close to the answers about the kings and queens of this 3-year hardware/software development.
Let's start with games.
I think it's mostly safe to say that Crysis is pretty much marked for the top spot in the software department. Ok, I can't say it's the best game ever (because I haven't played beyond demo yet), but technically it's pretty safe bet to say it's most advanced and it will probably be an example for the rest of the games coming out in next 2 years, mostly the same way that happened to Far Cry. It's also a good benchmark for the hardware, and I'd be dumba** not to say this as well - it is currently only game that can't be played with just any hardware that you pick. Did you get that? Maybe you're plugging your ears, but it's truth. Ok, some gamers will want 60-100 fps while playing, and that's fine with me if they want to brag with it. But any game around that will play without dropping minimum frames to tens all the time should be just fine with 30-40 fps range. Believe me, most of my gaming I've done on <30 fps and truth to be told - I've rarely had regrets about it. Now read the above once more, as here is the truth coming to stab you right in the eyes - any game around right now will play at or over 30 fps at your desired resolution with the hardware you have (or can afford/plan to buy). I've put in this part "desired resolution" intentionally. Why? Cos' if you've got 24" LCD you had to be dumb not to spend extra 100$ on a bit higher grade graphics!
And now let's move to the hardware!
So what I say right here and right now is - if you have 19" LCD (mostly at 1280x1024 or 1440x900 which is more or less same number of pixels) you'll be fine with new ATi 3850 cards or nVidia's new 8800 GT 256MB card. That's fair, right, pairing 170-200$ screen with 180-200$ card, especially since other components in this computer are most likely to be coined around E4xxx series CPU and P35 motherboard with 2GB of RAM. So if you've got this hardware, you can play any game out right now at high visuals and that's it, 'cos this hardware can follow just fine at 1280x1024 resolution.
If you've got yourself 24" screen (let's face it - it's either 19-20" or 24", there is little ppl going to the middle) you're up to 400-500$ price range for the screen itself. Now, above configuration CPU+MBO+GPU+RAM is almost at the same 500$ range, just to point out that you're not likely to have above hardware with 24" screen. Nope, if you've got money to spend on 24" display you've got some extra money to spend on better graphics and CPU. It's not much, it look like 8800 GTS 512MB will be just 100$ more than above mentioned mainstream, and here you get high-end part, I'd even say it's top-card as not one sane person will give 2x the money for 8800 Ultra for 2% speed-up when you can get 2x GTS and let's say 70% extra speed. So we have 24" screen, new 8800 GTS "v2", and one of the E6xxx CPU's from Intel together with a perhaps bit more expensive or OC friendly P35 board once again. You have 4GB of RAM as well, and probably Vista (in dual boot with good-old XP I'd say -just in case :D ). With these parts you are again sure to be playing just about any game out there at 30+ fps at 1920x1200 with everything at highest levels, AA, AF, HDR and all other mumbo-jumbo... So we're settled?
Finally - the conclusion should be here... right?
Nope, we're up to the starters again once more. Why? Ok, so you can't miss - you get just about any card that came out in November/December if you've got 19" screen (8800GT/GTS 256/512MB or 3850/3870 again 256 or 512MB shouldn't matter) and new "tomorrow to be launched" 8800 GTS 512MB for everything else. What's the problem?!
But here we come back to the Crysis from the start of this post. Unless you've got no limits on your platinum cards, and can afford triple-SLI or quad-Crossfire and quad CPU's with high-speed DDR3 you're about to find out that this is only game that isn't playing at desired minimum framerates with your hardware. This is why I've picked it among those 20 games in the first place.
So what are we waiting for? Basically - a lot. We have nVidia and ATi struggling to push new Crysis drivers out ASAP (nVidia seems to be a bit ahead at the moment), Crysis team is just about to release new patch that should polish the performance a bit, and even Microsoft is helping with Vista hotfixes and patches (not to mention SP1 due out to leak in mostly finalized RC1 in this month or close by). A LOT of teams around the same problem right? So probably it will be fixed right? At least to the point that you can play High details+AA/AF on DX9? Sure. No problem. Than just let people with extra budget buy a bit better or OCed card to have the same in DX10 and that's it. But I've got even better suggestion. With Crysis actually being rushed-out in the very end (according to some sources) I think we'll even have this very game playing just fine on the hardware I've mentioned above, and that's in DX10. Hey, if every team gets 5-10% speedup, I think it's possible ;) And with early-rushed-game code it's achievable, same with new graphics chips that haven't had drivers polished for them yet, and Vista is hopefully around to be a bit better when SP1 finally hits the shelves.
If this happens we can say it's done deal right this moment, meaning that even if you're not rich brat (with platinum card and 4x 30" screens on triple-8800-Ultra rig with 8GB DDR3 and 5GHz quad CPU or something sci-fi like that (for the rest of us)) - you are settled:
mainstream -> E4xxx CPU+any 88xx/37xx card+P35 MBO+2GB DDR2+19" screen = any game running great
high-mainstream/high-end -> E6xx CPU+8800 GTS 512+high-end P35 MBO+4GB DDR2+24" screen = any game running great
And of course, this will negate a bit that Crysis is on-top but they can always brag that everyone jumped in to get them going smoothly ;)
If this doesn't happen, than you're mostly down to same, with 2 exceptions. You'll probably be stuck with the same hardware, but you'll have to admit that there is one game that you won't see with just EVERY option on high, and second one is that Crysis will have their place as being that very game, that only above mentioned Richie Rich can play at full details (though probably only on one of it's four 30" screens :D )
So we're waiting...
For Crytek to publish patch
For nVidia/ATi(AMD) to publish drivers
For Microsoft to publish Vista SP1 (or better yet - DX10 for XP :P )
But don't wait for that to start gaming! That's not the point! It's just the opposite - get your rig going and play the other 19 titles in the meantime! And have a merry-gaming-Xmas :D