Gears of War PC review
If my lack of enthusiasm for this game is a bit obvious I apologize, but I've played Gears on the 360 to death, which is actually a good thing, as I can offer irrelevant opinions about both versions.
But more about that later; what's interesting right now is the quality of the port, which fortunately enough isn't a disaster. Quite the contrary actually, as the movement and aiming scheme has been properly calibrated for the mouse and keyboard, and from a technical point of view your computer will probably choke trying to render all the prettiness this game has to offer.
Based on the Unreal 3 engine, on both platforms, Gears of War is an impossibly pretty looking game, and that's good when you're trying to create a proper setting for an action game, in a devastated fantasy world, almost razed to the ground by a conflict with some sort of strange alien race, called the Locust. The whole planet has been destroyed by the conflict, and that's the first thing the proud owner of Gears PC sees after exiting the introductory jail cell.
The way Epic managed to create something so beautiful from an artistic point of view and then turn it into dust deserves respect.
You see what was once a great "human" city, you explore it, and you're only left with your imagination, trying to recreate the Gears of War universe without the war. It's that little thought creeping up your mind when you see a ruined, yet beautiful vista: hey, I wonder how that looked like when it was a whole. And that's a bit surprising for a game which is essentially just a shooter.
Going back to the jail cell, the former occupant is you, Marcus Fenix, freed because the infantry is running out of cannon fodder. From this point on, the story evolves around Fenix and a small band of tough guys who try to end the conflict using some sort of super weapon, recently developed by...someone, I guess. This translates in about 10 hours of gameplay, which is pretty short, but the game is so intense and brutal, it doesn't really matter.
Gears of War isn't trying to "recreate the genre", or "break new grounds", or do any other thing so many other games claim to do. It focuses on non stop action, marching on intensity, feeling, and coolness. And that's a good thing in my book, because I'm sick and tired of hybrids which try to combine every single game type in just one package, and fail miserably at every single one.
To quote CliffyB, the game perspective is "2nd person", which means you see Fenix from behind, very close to his shoulder, with the ability to zoom in on your weapon for proper aiming. The system is extremely good looking, and easy to get used to.
The main game mechanic is the use of cover. This means that every single encounter which involves combat (and that's all of them) will take place behind some sort of boulder, or wall, or anything which might stop bullets. Every single thing you do is thought out in such a manner you can do it while crouching behind something. You can navigate from safe spot to safe spot with ease, without the camera getting in the way, or the control scheme; if feels natural, and cool. This also makes the game's pacing a bit slower, and more tactical, as you have to fire in short, controlled bursts, without leaving cover. And, if there isn't enough time, blind fire is always an option.
So you have to think the fight, you have to flank your enemies if possible, and use your head a little.
Once the cover system sinks in, the game is hard to beat in its category, especially on the PC. The character animations are properly pretty and fluent to look at, you actually feel something when you shoot someone, the special effects are great, all adding out to that elusive thing called "feeling".
And there you are, behind a rock, shooting like crazy in the general direction of a pack of enemies closing in, when the ammo clip runs out. You quickly tap "R", but it's taking too long, and you tap it again. Surprise, the weapon jams, and Fenix starts hitting it, behind cover, and you, the user, are probably hitting the mouse against the table. Soon, the system becomes clear. If you time your reload, the weapon will fire longer bursts, the ammo clip will last longer, and the damage output will be doubled. For a perfect reload, that is. This system is great, making what is essentially the most basic thing you do in a shooter, reload weapons, a fun and rewarding way to kick even more ass.
At this point, I'd like to say that this deserves its separate paragraph: the Gears of War Chainsaw > all.
Another thing this game has it's consistency in design. The levels are properly tied together, it feels that the campaign was thought out by people who know what the "other guy" is doing, instead of having separate level designers doing their own thing, not having any idea about the work of the rest. You feel you're progressing, you feel you're accomplishing something. And then there's the little things; for example, at some point during the campaign you're being warned continuously that the "night's coming". The people around you are actually scared about this, they keep repeating it, insisting you move faster, in such a convincing way it actually makes you curious about what's about to come.
And that's variation. After nightfall, you have to approach your encounters differently. And after that you'll drive a SF jeep. And then the enemies will change. You do different things, in different settings.
The only place where the gameflow breaks is exactly where the PC version brings something new: 5 additional singleplayer chapters, designed to fill in the obvious blanks from the 360 version. Quite honestly, it doesn't fill in anything, but at least you get to fight a pretty damn cool boss. Also, I understand leaving story elements out for the sequel, but Epic takes this a bit too far, the most obvious example being Fenix's background, hinted in a quite a number of events, which remains unknown until the game ends, and you're none the wiser.
Moving on, the main campaign was clearly thought out with cooperative play in mind. And, as we all know, coop is the best thing in the universe, ever, which makes the package even more attractive. Mediocre games can be saved by coop; Gears of War is a good game, with great coop, so it's even better. You're getting quite a few events throughout the game which are designed for 2 players, the difficulty levels are also thought out with coop in mind, so you'd better find someone to play this game with, for the full experience.
Speaking of the full experience, if you want to tackle the multiplayer aspect of the game, together with coop, you need Windows Live (the Xbox counterpart of Live for the PC), which is basically an unified system for matchmaking, friends lists, text and voice messaging, all in one. Live is great on the Xbox, but on the PC it's trying to do something which might not be appreciated by many people: pay to get all the options. You can play online for free, but if you want multiplayer achievements, ranked matches and more host options you need the Live Gold membership. And that costs money. If I can understand some sort of subscription for the 360, having this on the PC is a bit exaggerated. Also, LAN play isn't present.
There are a few multiplayer modes, which allow up to 8 players in the same game. I suppose the online mode isn't for everyone. It's not exactly a FPS, and it's not exactly a 3rd person shooter, either. Still, it's worth giving it a shot.
Finally, the tech.
I think it's safe to say that if Crysis didn't exist, Gears would have been the best looking game to date, on any platform. This feat is even more impressing when you realise this game is already a year old, too.
Gears of War looks great because of the excellent art design, the beautiful vistas, the insanely detailed characters, and simply because you had a year to drool over the 360 screenshots; there's nothing new I can say about it.
Putting both versions side to side, it's hard to declare a winner. The PC has the higher resolutions, and you can apply anisotropic filtering, which makes quite a difference. The 360 has _slightly_ better lighting and character models, plus the self shadows, which seem to be more detailed on the console. All in all, both versions look absolutely gorgeous. Obviously, all the prettiness comes at a cost, but I suppose that's nothing new. If you want smooth framerates at the level of quality shown in the screenshots, nothing less than a dual core CPU, 2 gigs of Ram and 8800 or HD2900 will do.
Steep, but then again, it's worth it.
Graphics related, Gears can run in DirectX10. The lame thing about this that the game will look exactly the same on both APIs, but the performance drop will be huge. Not to mention that you can't enable FSAA unless you're running DX10, which seems like a cheap marketing decision for upgrading to Vista.
Fortunately, the sound is also equally good. The music is great, the voice acting is brutal, and convincing.
So, this is it. The drooling is over, everyone can play Gears of War. If you like action games, and your computer can handle it, there's no excuse not to play it, and most importantly, play it in coop. It's worth every single penny.
Hmm, a bit more enthusiastic than I expected.