It was meant to launch last year, but as they say: better late than never. The release version of the Vulkan graphics API, derived from the abandoned carcass of AMD's low-level Mantle API, has finally been released royalty-free to all and sundry.
As I mentioned before the jump, Vulkan — which was called GLNext for a period — is a platform-agnostic graphics API that gives developers a much lower-level access to hardware than what DirectX 11 or OpenGL currently allows.
The basic idea is giving developers more control over the hardware will result in less overheads and more performance gains. Vulkan, much like DX12, is also designed from the ground up for multithreading.
Early benchmarks from DX12 — particularly from Ashes of the Singularity, currently the most taxing game that takes advantage of Microsoft's updated API — have been impressive, especially for AMD owners.
Initial results from Vulkan shouldn't take that long to eventuate either. NVIDIA has released a set of drivers that conform with the new API's standards. AMD has some beta drivers out, although it doesn't have DirectX components so it's not a suitable replacement/upgrade yet.
Intel has released some open source, Vulkan-ready drivers too. Even Imagination Technologies has announced plans to include full support for the Vulkan API in the next version of the PowerVR GPU SDK, due to be released around next month's Game Developers Conference.
Initial benchmarks shouldn't take that long to eventuate either. Croteam has already patched in Vulkan support for their acclaimed first-person puzzler The Talos Principle — although they've warned users not to expect improved performance just yet. GPU-bound sections of the game could see performance drops of 20% to 30% for now, while CPU-bound scenarios might only run marginally faster.
Furthermore, while there are plenty of big names supporting Vulkan it might be some time before programmers on the ground really get to grips with the API. Offering lower-level access to the hardware also makes coding more difficult, and the Khronos Group has announced that they will continue supporting the higher level OpenGL standard.
Multiple developers have already pledged to support Vulkan in their engines going forward. DICE, Epic, Unity and Valve have also contributed to the development of Vulkan, although it'll be some time — like DX12 — before its use in games becomes more widespread, and more optimised.