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Gears of War

Platform(s): Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Epic Games


PC Preview - 'Gears of War'

by Alicia on Oct. 4, 2007 @ 4:55 p.m. PDT

Gears of War blends the best of tactical action games with the best of survival horror titles, thrusting gamers into the harrowing story of humankind's battle for survival against the Locust Horde.

Genre: Action/Shooter
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Epic
Release Date: November 6, 2007

Gears of War was one of the 360's flagship titles, and for good reason. With responsive controls, finely tuned multiplayer and incredibly detailed visuals, Gears of War was one of the first titles that really began to show the full potential of the 360. Of course, a console is just a console (even if it's next-gen), and what dazzles in the living room may fail to impress when it comes time to play a game on a PC. Microsoft has arguably run up against this gap between console product and PC expectations with both the cross-platform flop Shadowrun and the weakly received Halo 2 port that was supposed to help push Vista onto gamers. What hurt both of those games is that, simply, PC gamers know that even a mid-grade rig is capable of delivering much more than anything Microsoft's Xbox line of hardware can achieve, so a straight console port is likely to be considered sloppy and lazy by players.

Epic, on the other hand, is a developer that does not seem acquainted with the concepts of "sloppy" or "lazy." When the time came to bring Gears of War to the PC, Epic sat down and spent a full year on rebuilding the game with the strengths of PC hardware and the needs of PC gamers in mind. The result is a game that, while superficially familiar, feels surprisingly fresh and new when you sit down to play it over again. While Gears of War does use the Games for Windows Live initiative, the Achievements have been rebalanced based both on the new PC content and on feedback from 360 users. The single-player campaign gets a serious boost in both difficulty and length, thanks to five new levels that now appear as part of Chapter 5 in the game's campaign mode. Multiplayer features new maps, a new gameplay mode and a total rebalancing of weapon placement to optimize every map's gameplay potential regardless of which multiplayer mode in which it appears.

PC players also get a map-editing program designed to facilitate a Gears of War modding community, superficially similar to the editor that shipped with Unreal Tournament 3. Although Epic admits that this editor is going to be overall simpler than UT3's, it compensates by releasing the Kismet visual scripting language used in designing virtually everything about Gears. By giving players Kismet and all of the other tools and assets used to design Gears, Epic hopes to simplify the process of creating mods so that more players can contribute to the community. In addition to the exclusive content, Gears PC buyers also get the complete content of the 360 original and all of the content released as downloads via Xbox Live.

This alone would be impressive enough, but Epic went a step further and entirely rebuilt the game's controls and, to some extent, the graphics. The Gears PC levels deliver crisper visuals that allow for more detail and more complex shading in the already-impressive backgrounds. The human characters have a craggier look to them, faces and armor more gritty and weather-beaten and also seem a bit lankier than their famously squat 360 counterparts. The original game had a certain cartoony quality that stands out much less now, instead looking something like a Frank Miller or Mike Mignola drawing, if it could walk and talk on its own. The feeling is perfect for Gears' bleak and yet somehow exuberant storyline, where the end of the human race and looming alien invasion is nothing so much as a chance for spectacular things to happen.

The reconstructed PC controls go a long way toward making the upgraded graphics feel as impressive as they do. While Gears PC can still be played with a 360 controller plugged into the host machine, a player who does so shortchanges himself (and may begin struggling at higher difficulty levels, let alone in multiplayer). Epic built full traditional mouse and keyboard support into Gears PC, and the new content is clearly balanced with mouse and keyboard play in mind. They went so far as to make sure that the game's hint interfaces and tooltips entirely change based on which control scheme the player is using. The effect is so seamless that when playing Gears, the only sign that it was once a 360 game is perhaps your own memories of going through a given level before.

The mouse and keyboard controls are, if anything, a better way to take advantage of Gears's oft-praised cover mechanics. Now players can automatically initiate dodging maneuvers by double-tapping a given key, and with a little practice, using the space bar and one of the WASD keys to execute the various special mantel maneuvers becomes second nature. Mouse input allows for faster and more accurate aiming, even though players using keyboard and mouse input have to deal with more factors designed to negatively affect aim (like recoil and pauses for reloading). Even a novice who adapts to the control scheme can quickly begin playing on the level where failure is a matter of player error, not player ignorance.

The editor was a little too complex to allow for hands-on time during the seven hours allotted for the event, but Jim Brown, the lead level designer for Gears PC, ran through a half-hour demonstration of how the process of building a simple level might go. Reduced to its core, the process is roughly as simple as building cubes, filling them with art assets and then dumping in a player. Building a good level is a more complex process that involves detailing the level's cover points and how they might interact with each other, figuring out weapons placement and using Kismet to carefully construct the level's sequence of events for things like audio, enemy attacks or various other conditions. Kismet is interesting in that it gives the if-then language of programming a visual basis. Instead of needing to program events into the editor, Kismet allows creators to place certain conditions in boxes (such as, say, whether or not a player is in co-op for a level), and then link that state to various outcomes. These outcomes can be linked to which weapons appear in the level, which enemies or virtually anything else about the game. Seeing what the mod community does with a language as flexible and visual as Kismet, which Epic used to design the actual Gears levels, may be the most fascinating thing to come out of the PC release.

There was plenty of time for a small team of about a dozen journalists from various online outlets to get hands-on time with both the campaign and multiplayer aspects of the game, and both shone brightly. We played Gears on PCs equipped with 8800 GTX graphics cards, 2.66Ghz dual-core Pentium processors and roughly two gigs of RAM. (Contrast this with Gears's minimum requirements: GeForce 6600 or ATI X700, 2.4Ghz Intel Pentium processor and 1 GB RAM.) For the most part, gameplay was amazingly smooth and fluid for such an affordable setup, although there were occasional frames of stutter during some moments of campaign play. Graphics were obviously on highest settings for us journalists, so players at home could easily eliminate this with some adjustments and still get an insanely gorgeous game for their money. Playing a PC game on a rig the average PC gamer would be likely to own was a pleasant change of pace from demos on unattainably absurd high-end Alienware rigs, and whichever Microsoft employee provided Epic with "real" PCs for the demo should be commended.

First, players were encouraged to run through the game's tutorial level with the PC controls, to adjust to the changes, and then to attempt the five new levels added to the game for the PC release. Of the 12 editors present, only two were able to complete all of the new content within the allotted time and face the much-anticipated new boss, the Brumak. The actual battle with the Brumak was a fascinating blend of using the game's cover mechanics properly with the exacting demands of a more console-style boss fight. Defeating the Brumak required destroying parts of his enormous armored body in sequence, and then using the sniper rifle in a precisely prescribed method to kill the pilot. Running out of ammo or failing to use all of the new dodging and movement features usually spelled defeat.

Even the levels that built up to the Brumak fight were wickedly challenging, though, asking players to try and lower a sabotaged bridge so the main force can proceed through a wrecked area called Timgad. This demanded running a gauntlet of various Locust types and dealing with some tactically challenging areas where the Locust controlled well-fortified areas bristling with machine cannon placements and plenty of winding tunnels from which to launch sneak attacks. Note also that all of the journalists were playing on Casual mode if they made it as far as the Brumak; attempting to play on Hardcore (or while using the 360 controls) usually stalled editors in the second or third Timgad area. The new content's stiff challenge is exactly what players who are interested in buying PC Gears for the new campaign features would want to see, and Epic even added in a feature that lets player start directly at the beginning of Timgad in their games, if they wish.

Gears PC's multiplayer, although more fine-tuned than the 360 edition, was still eminently recognizable. For our hands-on, we tried out two of the three new maps (Gold Rush and Courtyard) and a totally new team multiplayer game mode, called King of the Hill. In this mode, players try to get control of a specific area of the map and maintain control until the battle ended. The longer a given faction kept a player in the circle, the more points they amassed. The more members of a given faction in the circle, the more quickly the team earns points, but a game that ended with an entire team being wiped out by a single well-thrown grenade proved why trying to cluster a team together in the Hill to get more points was a bad idea. Instead, this editor's team was able to achieve several shut-out victories by quickly finding the "Hill" area (which spawns at random), stationing a single player in the ring and then having the others fan out to guard any chokepoints that approached the "Hill." The most brutal matches for this occurred in Courtyard, where the Hill tended to spawn in more open, accessible areas than it did in Gold Rush. In Courtyard, it was more typical for the Hill to change hands from team to team rapidly as snipers picked off one group of defenders, just to be picked off themselves when they tried to take control. This is a sophisticated and very satisfying game mode, and one that really lets the tactical elements of Gears multiplayer game shine.

A lot of PC ports of console games are, well, worthless. Ordinarily, I try to be a more polite editor, but there's really no excuse for the sort of dismal product Capcom (in particular) and even Microsoft have been expecting PC gamers to get excited about in the past. PC is the filet mignon of gaming, and the powerful potential of a high-end rig requires extra attention to let players get the most out of gaming with it. Epic has gotten everything right in this port, making sure everything from the graphics to the controls to the bonus features were actually lifted to the standards of the very best PC titles already on the market. The care put into the level editor alone speaks volumes to Epic's commitment to porting Gears to PC at highest possible levels of quality, a job lesser developers would've farmed out to secondary teams or simply not done.

PC gamers can rest assured that when Gears of War hits next month, they're not getting a console's warmed-over sloppy seconds. They're getting an honest-to-goodness PC title that they can be proud to own and play. Let's hope more developers follow in Epic's footsteps when it comes to bringing their console hits to the PC.

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