Steam does a tremendous amount of business for Valve, and while it's had a number of competitors over the years -- Direct2Drive, Amazon, Desura, Impulse, GamersGate and so on -- game publishers have come to realize there is nothing stopping them from offering up similar types of services of their own. Electronic Arts started this out by relaunching its online store as the client-based Origin last year, and now Ubisoft has followed suit with the launch of Uplay PC. Unfortunately, it's not just the basic idea the service currently shares with the initial launch of Origin.
Uplay PC operates through a client, just like Steam or Origin. You can purchase and download games, maintain a friends list, chat with other users, and view your Uplay game achievements. Beyond that, it offers nothing new or unique, something that has been a consistent criticism of Origin, particularly following its launch. Among PC gamers who have amassed a collection of games on Steam and appreciate what it has to offer, it's hard to see any reason to begin buying games from a competing service when it doesn't do anything better or offer cheaper prices. While Uplay PC may be less of a direct competitor to Steam than Origin is due to it offering only Ubisoft-published titles (at least for the time being), it is still a digital distribution platform where you can purchase computer games and chat with friends.
Of the fairly standard features Uplay PC does currently offer, none of them work as smoothly as they could. Users don't have profiles; they only have avatars which have to be changed through a browser, not the client. The store is very simplistic, with only a handful of Ubisoft games currently available. Its homepage doesn't display the prices of the games it features, and the banner image used to promote certain promotions can't be clicked to be sent to a page with more details; you instead have to make use of a button below it to reach this page. The media offered on individual game pages leaves something to be desired; you'll find only a handful of screenshots and a single video, even in the case of a big title like Assassin's Creed III. And the options offered for browsing the catalog also feel lackluster, though perhaps Ubisoft deliberately offered up a very limited number of choices of genres and brands to look through while the catalog is still small.
These are, admittedly, fairly small issues, but they are annoyances nonetheless and are especially noticeable since there simply is not much to Uplay PC at the moment. In all fairness, these sorts of things are what you would expect from a newly launched service like this. The platform does offer an easy way of viewing your Uplay achievements and cashing in the points they grant you for various rewards (like wallpapers or certain in-game content), and it features a free-to-play area at launch. Of course, the games listed in that area are merely links to games you play in your browser, and Ubisoft's launch of Ghost Recon Online, which I'd expect it to promote heavily through Uplay PC, is relegated to a banner ad at the bottom of the free-to-play section as opposed to an actual listing.
To Ubisoft's credit, it is kicking the launch off with a promotion as likely as any to get gamers to download and try out the program at least once. Starting yesterday and running through Sunday, one Ubisoft PC title will be sold each day for $1: Thursday was HAWX 2, Friday is From Dust, Saturday is Silent Hunter 5, and Sunday is Driver: San Francisco. Other games are also on sale, but the $1 games are the big attraction, Driver being the most attractive of the bunch -- bizarre premise aside, it's a solid game, and its controversial always-online DRM was dropped last year in favor of something more tolerable.
DRM is something that could affect the fortunes of Uplay PC. To many PC gamers, Ubisoft and the Uplay name especially are associated with strict DRM. Co-opting that name for a service that is specifically asking gamers to hand their money over may not have been the wisest choice, particularly with this launch coming just a few weeks after word spread of a vulnerability in the Uplay DRM that put gamers' computers at risk.
Origin is more than a year in and still trying to achieve feature parity with Steam, which continues to introduce new features of its own, so it will presumably be a while yet before Uplay PC does anything particularly unique. (The achievement viewing is handy, but I suspect many -- PC gamers especially -- don't care.) First impressions are important, and with Ubisoft sure to attract users with the $1 sale, it seems like a more feature-rich Uplay PC would have been nice to show off, but remember that Steam was once upon a time almost universally maligned. As a result, I wouldn't dare to think of offering any kind of final judgment on Uplay PC now. I do however wonder if the head start Steam had in amassing an active user base and developing features will make rival services like Uplay PC forever feel like second-rate wannabes.