Cliffy B has called it "the way the game is meant to be seen". After getting a solid half a day with the campaign and multiplayer on the upcoming Gears of War on PC, we're inclined to say it might just be the way the game is meant to be played too.
We assume most people will be familiar with Gears of War, but for those of you who aren't, here's a quick run down. When Gears came out on the 360 in November 2006, it blew gamers away with its spectacular graphics. Some would say they were the best ever seen in a game. With the camera positioned just over the shoulder of your COG (huge super soldiers), you were thrust into the middle of a war with mutants from below the planet's crust in a squad-based action shooter with a heavy emphasis on cover. Fantastically realistic environments, gruesome chainsaw-splitting alien killing and perhaps the most convincing gameplay yet in terms of actually making you feel like you're slap-band in the middle of a frenetic firefight combined to make it many people's game of the year. We were certainly impressed. And so far four million of you were too.
So when Epic games announced they were porting the game to PC, the platform it was originally conceived and shown to game journalists on, we couldn't help but feel all warm inside. And when the developer announced that there would be exclusive content with the PC version, we had to sit down and drink a glass of water. We went down to see Microsoft for some hands on time with the game's campaign and multiplayer.
The game includes five new single-player chapters set in the middle of Act Five, which culminate with a boss battle with the Brumak - "four storeys of teeth and guns" as Cliffy B describes it. The new chapters take place towards the end of the game, right after you flee the Brumak and just before the final train mission. There are also three new multiplayer maps, Courtyard, Sanctuary and Goldrush, bringing the total number of multiplayer maps shipping out of the box to 19, and a new multiplayer mode, King of the Hill. If that wasn't enough, you'll also get Cliffy B's favourite new feature, the game editor, and, of course, improved graphics made possible by higher resolutions and more RAM in top-end PCs.
'... all the while you are being stalked by the Brumak itself until the inevitable face off.'
The new chapters begin with Marcus and the rest of the team blocked by a drawbridge they can't close. You're immediately ambushed by the Locust. Marcus and Dom go off on their own to try and restore power to the bridge. We won't spoil it by going into masses amounts of detail, but what we will reveal is that you get to fight all the usual suspects employing similar tactics as before. Wretches, Drones, Theron Guards, Boomers and a Seeder (which, by the way, you have to take down without the Hammer of Dawn) all make an appearance along the way, and all the while you are being stalked by the Brumak itself until the inevitable face off.
Highlights include tip-toeing through a shanty town area with the Brumak stalking you overhead. You can hear its grunts, its breathing, as if it is about to jump down and rip your face off. It's pretty intense stuff. Then there's a seeder fight in a theatre hall. That's pretty good as well. But there's nothing here in the new campaign content that's a major departure from the gameplay we experienced in the 360 version. It's all about cover and being patient as you flank the Locust and chew them up. It's firefight, little break, firefight, little break. But this won't make 360-owning GoW fans feel any better. The extra campaign content, especially the fight with the Brumak, has drawn most complaints. Looks like 360 owners won't be getting any of this via download either - Cliffy B says it's impossible. Oh well, 360 owners' loss is PC gamers' gain.
The new campaign content also fills in some of the gaping plot holes in the 360 version. You learn why the Lightmass bomb ends up on a train, and where it's heading, and a little bit more detail on Marcus' father and the war with the Locust. In one cutscene you have to impose your orders on Delta Squad pretty forcefully. Afterwards, Dom comments: "You sounded just like your old man back there." Marcus replies: "He tried to prevent this war." It's clear that the PC version will make GoW's story much easier to understand.
One of the big questions we had was how the excellent 360 cover-based control system would work on a mouse and keyboard. Apart from the traditional WASD movement and mouse button click to fire, Q zooms in on points of interest, R is reload, F revs your chainsaw if you're carrying the Lancer (why wouldn't you be?), E picks up ammo and the mouse wheel cycles through weapons. The cover system is tackled by making you hug the environment automatically if you push against it and the space bar is for jumping out. When in cover, you hold the right mouse button to pop your head out, release to get back in. It's the use of the space bar that's crucial here. One of the great things about GoW was the ease with which you could move Marcus Fenix from cover to cover, flanking the Locust without putting yourself in danger and through that convey an intense Saving Private Ryan type firefight. While it took us a good half-an-hour to get used to the control system, during which we died in set-pieces that we probably would have breezed through if using the 360 pad, you do get used to it, the space bar works well as a 'jump from cover to cover' key. You can use the 360 pad if you want, with the game automatically detecting the controller if you switch mid-game, but that kind of defeats the purpose of PC gaming we think. Better to get used to the keyboard and mouse now rather than later.
Cliffy B told us that the development team has implemented little tweaks to compensate for the turning speed and aiming accuracy a mouse and keyboard affords the player. We noticed a few things that might be evidence of what he was talking about. There's a slight delay when swapping weapons. We also felt a good deal of recoil, especially the Torque Bow, which forced your targeting reticule up as you fire, making it a lot harder to aim.
Turning to the multiplayer, the PC version again has extra content. There's three new multiplayer maps, Courtyard, Sanctuary and Goldrush, as well as all the maps that were made available via DLC on XBL for the 360 version. In total an impressive 19 multiplayer maps will ship out of the box. There's also a new multiplayer mode, King of the Hill for PC gamers to sink their chainsaws into.
The multiplayer game we played was four VS four King of the Hill on the new Courtyard map. By the time we played multiplayer we had already got to grips with the controls, and so were able to play without feeling like a cack-handed noob. King of the Hill isn't much different to the annex mode that already exists in GoW. You battle to control a certain point on the map, and you have to hold it for a total of 120 seconds to score for your team. There's not much more to say other than it all felt very similar to GoW online on the 360. In the games we played everybody simply headed straight for the hill, battled to take control of it then struggled to hold it. It was actually a lot of fun and quite accessible, but it's in no way revolutionary. We expect PC gamers to play the mode in a slightly more sophisticated fashion when the game is released next month.
The graphics are simply stunning. We'd say the original 360 GoW still has the greatest graphics of any game out at the moment, even a year after its release. That you can achieve higher resolutions with the PC version just improves on this. We were playing the game on a Dell hooked up a 32-inch Samsung LCD in 1920 x 1080, higher than the 360 game's 720p output. While we admit the game looks better on PC, this will please resolution purists only.
While Gears of Wars is a Games for Windows title and supports Microsoft's PC equivalent of Xbox Live, it won't need Vista to run. There will be no cross-platform play either, which will disappoint PC gamers who had hoped to put to rest the age old PC VS console arguments. At least it'll be free though, unlike XBL , and you'll get another set of Achievement points. Woot.
PC GoW is not a port. It's more of a director's cut or an original vision. The higher resolution, extra content and a control system that doesn't make it any better or any worse combine to make PC Gears a complete package. While 360 gamers have been battling the Locust exclusively for a year now, there's a feeling that the game is finally coming home. Time to ready the welcome mat.