We take a look at Microsoft's new tablet, asking if it will finally deliver heavyweight MMO gaming on the move.
Many of us are drawn to MMOs because of the persistent world they create. Log in and our characters are there, ready to explore, quest, raid or anything else we choose. But even though these worlds are always online and open for play, our access to them isn’t. We’re either tethered to a desktop or locked to a laptop with all our games and settings, always in range of a broadband connection or Wi-Fi signal.
The theory was that tablets would change all that. With a high resolution screen and buckets of battery life, this could finally be the high powered laptop that would get us into MMOs, whenever and wherever we chose. Unfortunately, it’s not been the case. Aside from some tablet-only titles and specialist screen-casting software, playing MMOs on our iPads has remained lackluster.
Enter the Microsoft Surface. With Windows 8 out of the box and packing a meaty processor, it feels like these would be ideal for cranking up an MMO on the move. With that in mind, we’ve taken a closer look at the latest from Redmond, in order to discover if it can truly offer mobile MMO nirvana.
First things first: what is the Surface? In a nutshell, it's a new line in tablets that have been designed from the ground up by a specialist team at Microsoft. It's resulted in a pair of devices: the Surface RT is based on the same Nvidia Tegra 3 chip used in some Android tablets, while the Surface Pro sports an Intel Core i5 CPU. There are a range of other differences between the two devices, including battery life, weight and connectivity.
As a result, the pair also run different versions of Windows 8. The Surface RT comes supplied with Windows RT, a specifically tailored version for ARM chipsets. To get the full-featured Windows 8 experience, you'll need to pick up the meatier Surface Pro. If we're going to try to squeeze our MMOs on to a tablet, it's one of these that we'll choose.
Squeeze is definitely the right word. The Surface Pro will come in 64GB and 128GB flavors, meaning that the average MMO game client is likely to devour at least a quarter of your overall storage space. If you're hoping to have a menu of games to choose from then only the top of the range model will cut the mustard. Although pricing hasn't been announced, expect to fork out at least a grand for one of these at launch.
Scratching the Surface
Having a processor and operating system capable of running our MMOs is only half of the problem, with the graphics capability of the tablet being a great unknown. Without a separate graphics card chipset, the Surface Pro is likely to rely on the integrated elements of the Intel Core i5 processor. The good folks over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun have indicated that the Core i5 is likely to have Intel HD 4000 graphics, which they claim is barely enough to run Skyrim on the lowest of low settings. This shouldn't be a barrier to some of the older MMOs, but anyone hoping for top-tier graphics will be severely disappointed.
The other great mystery is the amount of RAM the tablet comes equipped with. MMOs are unique in that they have a ferocious appetite for memory in order to display the multitude of player characters around you, each with its own custom facial features, appearance and equipment. You'll have experienced the harsh results of inadequate memory if you've ever wandered into a highly populated area, only to watch your game plummet into a slide-show of holiday snaps.
Assuming that we're able to slide our MMO onto the tablet, and that there's enough grunt for our game to run smoothly, it should be plain sailing. The Surface Pro sports a cover that doubles as a keyboard and trackpad, as well as a USB socket that will probably handle a mouse or gamepad. Once our settings and preferences have been copied over from our regular gaming platform, we should be good to go.
Let's do a bit of a reality check here: is it a good idea to spend what will probably be a thousand dollars on a tablet that's likely to struggle with the newest MMOs? Unless there's another reason why you'd want a Surface, the answer is almost certainly no. It's likely that a good quality gaming laptop will provide much better performance for less cash, even at the cost of battery power. The only curve-ball is if Razer produces a gamers-first tablet running Windows 8 Pro, in which case all bets are off.
The other option is to use your desktop as a streaming or remote desktop source, in which case the Surface RT is more than adequate as long as the USB connector supports a mouse. It's also possible that streaming gaming providers Gaikai and OnLive could step in to provide MMOs to your Surface, should your desktop or home broadband connection lack the clout needed.
Ultimately though, it's worth asking if this is a concept that's worth pursuing. Should we look to take our MMOs in our bag with us, grabbing a Big Mac while we do boss fights or a quick latte while we quest? Or should we ask for developers to branch out, producing online games that are all interlocked with the same virtual world, yet tailored to suit the device we're playing on? If the noises coming from big publishers are anything to go by, it's this second road that they're heading down.
Whatever heavyweight, mobile MMO gaming looks like, it's clear that we're not there yet. Only time will tell if Surface brings us closer to that destination or not.
Gareth "Gazimoff" Harmer, Staff Writer