When Gears of War came out as an Xbox 360 exclusive, it blew me away. The graphics were mind blowing, the combat did an amazing job of making you feel like you were bogged down in an intense firefight, and the chainsaw... well, let's just say, the first time I split a locust in half with it, I nearly soiled myself.
Xbox 360 owners rejoiced, as did developer Epic and publisher Microsoft - the game has been a phenomenal success. But there were always a few niggles. The story wasn't told with anything remotely resembling cohesion and events seemed to happen without explanation. The background to the war with the Locust was left unexplained, we never found out about Marcus Fenix's father, nor any detail on his trial, and there were perplexing bits in the game where you'd finish one level then be thrust into a completely new area without anyone in the game batting an eye-lid. Perhaps the most glaring example of this was the plot hole that occurred between Delta Squad escaping the monstrous Brumak - an enemy every Gears player wanted to fight but couldn't - and the final section of the game which sees you on a train carrying the Lightmass bomb speeding towards a gaping chasm in the earth. We did what we were told of course, without really letting the confusion bother us, since Gears of War was such a roller coaster of a ride. Now, a year after the game came out on 360, the PC version has arrived, and it does a good job of filling in some of those gaps while retaining the core gameplay that made the game great in the first place.
None of that makes any sense to you? Let's back up a bit. Gears of War is a squad-based third-person shooter which sees you assume the role of super soldier Marcus Fenix, imprisoned after being found guilty of treason. Set on the earth-like world of Sera, Gears takes place some 14 years after Emergence Day, the day the Locust Horde emerged from the bowels of the earth and started chewing everything up. The game begins with Marcus' friend Dominic (himself a super soldier and playable in co-op mode via LAN or online) busting him out of prison and bringing him back into the thick of the action. Gears is famous for its brutal depiction of war - because of the way the camera is positioned the game looks like Saving Private Ryan on steroids. The combat is all about getting into cover, flanking the enemy and dispatching them in increasingly gruesome fashion, including sawing them in half with the chainsaw and curb stomping downed enemies with the heel of your size 20 boots. Essentially, it's intense skirmish, cut scene, intense skirmish, cut scene.
The game proved a massive success on Xbox LIVE, and held the top spot until Halo 3 came out in September. Through a number of game modes you played as one of either Delta squad or a squad of four locust in eight-player matches. A year after the game came out, I still regularly return to the game online, it's so much fun. Amazing to think that Epic had considered [/xurl=/pc/gears_of_war/news-6771.html]dropping[/xurl] the multiplayer portion of the game. Quite simply, Gears of War is so good, we gave it a 10.
So on to the PC version. What's new? The game includes five new single-player chapters (replacing the old Act Five) which culminate in 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 an impressive 19, and a new, less impressive 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 the extra grunt modern gaming PCs have under the hood.
The new chapters begin with Marcus and the rest of the team blocked by a drawbridge they can't close. Those gaping plot holes are quickly filled in - you need to rendezvous with a train carrying the Lightmass bomb because the powers that be have decided that the best way to end the Locust's existence is to deploy it in a huge Imulsion sinkhole. The train is being overrun by Locust, so speed, and getting that bridge working, is of the essence. As leader of the squad, Marcus orders fellow squad members Baird and Cole to wait at the draw bridge while him and Dom try to restore the power. Baird, being the moany git that he is, complains, but Marcus puts his foot down. Afterwards, Dom comments: "You sounded just like your old man back there." Marcus replies in a non-too complimentary tone: "He tried to prevent this war." So very quickly we're given some more backstory.
We won't spoil the new stuff 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, and all the while you are being stalked by the Brumak itself until the inevitable face off, which we won't spoil either.
Funnily enough, my favourite bit of the new campaign wasn't the Brumak fight but the section where you tip-toe through a shanty town area with the beast 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 run-down 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.
On face value it's better looking than the 360 version. Cliffy B has said it's the way the game is meant to be seen. Indeed, the extra processing power does improve things. The already stunning character models are more detailed, the gritty, harsh world of Sera is more vivid and blood splatters with increased impact. The differences are not massive, and will of course depend on what spec PC you game on, but we have to say that Gears is just about the best looking thing on PC at the moment - at least till Crysis comes out anyway. It certainly pushes the latest PC hardware, so hardcore PC enthusiasts who want to play the best looking games available should get their graphics fix right here.
But does it play better? The 360 game was praised for how intuitively you could move in and out of cover, and this translates to mouse and keyboard excellently. 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. Jumping in and out of cover is tackled superbly with the space bar. When in cover, you hold the right mouse button to pop your head out and release to get back in. It's the use of the space bar, which is also used for the stunning 'roadie run', that's crucial here. 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, and 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.
The development team has implemented little tweaks to compensate for the turning speed and aiming accuracy a mouse and keyboard affords the player. Indeed, PC owners might be slightly put off by the slower pace of Gears compared to other PC shooters. We noticed a few things that might be evidence of what Epic was talking about. There's a slight delay when swapping weapons. We also felt a good deal of recoil, especially the Torque Bow, which forces your targeting reticule up as you fire, making it a lot harder to aim. But the fact of the matter is you can move the camera about much quicker than in the 360 version, and zooming in with the mouse wheel is instantaneous. To us, the enemies feel a little tougher in the PC version, perhaps to compensate for your PC enabled advantage, but there's nothing here that detracts from the already stunning gameplay.
On to the multiplayer. The new maps, Courtyard, Sanctuary and Goldrush, bring the total number of multiplayer maps shipping out of the box to 19. The new multiplayer mode, King of the Hill, is a lot of fun, but isn't going to have gamers falling over themselves to compete in. Here Epic has simply added a pinch to the mix, rather than sprinkle. You'll have to make use of Microsoft's Xbox Live PC service of course, but the game is wholly playable on a free account, which is an important feature. You'll need the Gold account for online matchmaking, though, which is a bit of a pain. It won't make any difference of course if you're fully signed up through an Xbox 360, but to others this may grate.
A lot of 360 owners have complained that the extra bits in the PC game should have been included in the original game. There have even been accusations that Epic deliberately held the extra content back to give gamers a reason to buy the PC version on top of the 360 version. This has, of course, been denied, but there's evidence in the game that Epic is targeting these gamers. One, you can jump straight to the new campaign missions without having to work your way through from the beginning of the game, two, there's a whole new set of achievement points to add to your gamerscore, and three, there are three additional cog tags to find. Since 360 owners won't be getting any of this as DLC, according to Cliffy B, if you want this extra content, you'll have to get the PC game. This is all exclusive to PC owners.
There's two ways to look at Gears on PC. Either you played the 360 version, love it, and want the PC game for the extra campaign chapters and the Brumak fight, or you're coming at the game fresh and fancy something new for your high-end PC gaming rig. Let's say you've played the 360 version to death. Is £34.99 too much to pay for a new campaign level and some new multiplayer maps? It depends of course. Big Dave, my flatmate, is a hardcore PC gamer, but loved Gears on 360 when we played it co-op. He wants to buy the PC game just for the mouse and keyboard controls more than anything else. My personal opinion is that the price is a bit steep if you've seen everything the 360 game has to offer. The initial wow factor I felt when I played the game a year ago wasn't experienced this time round, and as a result, the game does lose something. It's still unbelievable fun, especially in co-op and in multiplayer, but its impact is diminished somewhat.
Let's say you're new to Gears and want a great-looking game to push your hardware. In this respect it's a must have. You'll be blown away by the game. I'm a little jealous actually. The first play through of Gears is always the best, and I sometimes wish I could wipe my memory and play it fresh once again, a bit like amazing films.
That's not to say Gears on PC is perfect. Wouldn't it be great if you could pit PC owners against 360 owners, helping to settle that tired keyboard and mouse VS joypad debate? Unfortunately you won't be able to. Epic has said that this is impossible, since the PC version was built using an updated version of the Unreal game engine. Bah.
We had a bit of a discussion here in the office about whether Gears on PC deserves a 10 like the 360 version. We thought about dropping it down to a nine because the wow factor is somewhat reduced. But we thought better of it - the 360 game's soul shines just as bright now as it did a year ago, and so the PC version, with its improved visuals, lengthened campaign, more multiplayer maps and a game editor at least matches it, and perhaps even exceeds it. 360 owners might not be as interested as PC-only gamers will be, but that doesn't stop Gears from being one of the best games ever made. Buy the game and experience it for yourself, if for nothing more than to see why 360-owners say the Lancer/chainsaw is one of the best videogame weapons ever.