Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: November 6, 2007
It's no surprise to anyone that Gears of War eventually made its way to the PC market, going by the title's successful run on the Xbox 360 and how often the PC gaming community has asked Microsoft for it. The PC port of Gears of War doesn't have an incredibly large list of differences or many new features from its console cousin, but despite the title's relative age, the gameplay proves that it simply doesn't need that crutch to attract PC gamers who are looking for a quality shooter this holiday season.
Set in the future, Gears of War puts the player in the boots of the grizzled Marcus Fenix. On a planet that mankind has heavily colonized, a race called the Locust has begun emerging, pouring forth from the ground and decimating what was once a beautiful landscape. It is the job of Fenix and his squad to recover the Resonator and use it to map out the incredibly detailed Locust tunnels woven throughout the planet's crust.
If Gears of War is anything at all, it's an action title that doesn't pull very many punches in how it handles combat. Rather than being a run-and-gun shooter, the game both encourages and requires taking cover behind low walls or around corners. The humanoid Locust are quite adept at handling their own rifles and shotguns, making combat in Gears of War more a matter of selection and use of cover than reflexes alone. To keep things fast-paced, enemies know when to rush your position and when to scramble back for cover of their own, just as your own squad members do, so combat never really boils down to everyone sticking to one place and simply trading fire back and forth.
The control scheme works just as well as it did on the console, with its mix of fluid context-sensitive actions that work reliably and are easy to get accustomed to. By double-tapping the W key or by holding the spacebar, the player will begin to sprint ahead, sacrificing the ability the shoot and some agility for pure speed. Sprinting against the corner of a wall will cause the player to slam up against it and take cover, where the player is protected from enemy fire until he pops up to lay down some of his own. If the player is behind cover and needs to leave it quickly, he can dive out to either side, or hurtle backwards or forward by pressing the spacebar and the proper direction. Context-sensitive commands like these really make the cover system in Gears of War work. The commands are executed nearly flawlessly, and players will be hard-pressed to find a situation where they feel that they cannot control their character without undue frustration.
Reloading in the game can be as simple as pressing a button and waiting, but this is made into a tiny mini-game of sorts, thanks to a slider bar that appears every time you reload. The bar is made up of three shades of grey, and a marker begins sliding from left to right —dark to bright — as soon as you reload your weapon. By pressing the reload button again when the marker is in the dark shade, the reload jams and takes twice as long than if you were to just leave the slider be and do nothing. By pressing it while the slider is in the neutral shade, the reload takes slightly less time than normal, but if it is pressed in the little sliver that is the bright shade, the reload not only happens nearly instantly but the reloaded ammo will also deal more damage than normal. Though it may sound intrusive, the reload system quickly becomes second nature and successfully hits the sweet spot.
Gears of War is a very brutal title, with weapons that are fully capable of dealing mortal damage to an enemy in little more than a heartbeat. The player can carry up to four weapons: two main, one pistol and grenades, all of which have specialized roles. The poster weapon for the title is the human Lancer rifle, a fully automatic assault rifle with a chainsaw bayonet, capable of cutting a Locust in two with one brutal swipe. Other main weapons include the Locust rifle, with its powerful three-shot burst; a shotgun; sniper rifle; and the Hammer of Dawn, which sends a powerful laser screaming down from orbital satellites. Pistols in the game are limited to only two types and mainly serve as the poor man's sniper rifle or backup weapon, while grenades are used to clear out enemies who are hiding behind cover or to close the holes in the ground from which the Locust occasionally pour out.
As stated, Gears of War is a brutal game, thanks in no small part due to the gory conveyance of weapon damage onto both friend and foe alike. When using the Lancer to saw an enemy in half, Marcus grabs the poor soul with his left hand and diagonally cuts him in two from shoulder to hip, a scene that is displayed up close to let blood splatter the camera. Popping a Locust in the head with a powerful shot will blow its head apart like a watermelon. Manning a mounted machine turret and sweeping a hallway full of Locusts will cut them down, and when the barrels stop spinning, all that will be left are a smattering of large bloody chunks where a squad of enemies once stood. The violence is over the top and incredibly visceral but fits the theme of the game and drives home the point that there is absolutely nothing that the two sides of the conflict won't do to wipe out the other.
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 first things that will catch the player's eye will be the instances of extreme gore, but looking past that red sheen, players will find a fully detailed world. The Locust, with their unblinking eyes and hideous faces, are as memorable and easily recognizable as your squad mates, who are decked out in massive armor from neck to toe. The architecture in the game is incredible, both from a beauty standpoint and from that of how it actually resembles a once-proud and thriving city that was reduced to desolation and rubble, thanks to years of continual war. A large amount of effort looks to have been put into the animations for the characters, which accurately convey realistic movement and the sheer mass of the characters. This is well represented by how your character slams into cover, sends dust and debris flying in all directions, and then swings out and levels his weapon to begin firing some rounds.
Gears of War is littered with bits of audio that either help to inform the player or simply draw him into combat. When running low on ammunition, weapons will give a series of warning clacks to let the player know without forcing him to take his eyes off the action. Thanks to a massive amount of voice work, the player can simply keep his ears open and listen to the squad as they announce when they're taking cover, reloading, moving up or have killed the last enemy in the area. Weapon fire is loud, obnoxious and harsh, befitting the title's overall theme, but it is the sounds of a Lancer's chainsaw idling, revving up and slicing through Locust flesh that will ingrain itself into the player's memory. Music in the title is a largely suppressed and foreboding orchestral affair, swelling when the action heats up and simply accentuating the gameplay that is taking place rather than trying to overpower it.
Multiplayer is one area that the PC version of Gears of War seems to handle better than its console iteration. Probably the biggest draw of the title's multiplayer is its cooperative mode, putting the second player in the role of Fenix's friend and fellow squad member, Dominic, and letting both players progress through the entire campaign from start to finish. The conventional multiplayer is made up of more or less the same gameplay and maps as seen on the console, although it has a much better netcode, though with the PC version, map makers can use the bundled editor to craft their own creations and spice up the map roster.
Reduced to its core, the editor 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.
Ultimately, Gears of War does well to overcome its status as a console port. The title adapts to mouse and keyboard controls flawlessly, handles multiplayer better than the original, and it retains the same level of quality that made the game such a smash hit with its initial release on the Xbox 360. The new content, such as additional levels, help extend the campaign experience, but one of the biggest strengths of the PC as a platform is that of the customization options that stem from the bundled editor. Assuming you have a PC that meets the recommended requirements, Gears of War is simply as stellar a title as it ever was, only now it makes nearly full use of the strengths that only the PC platform can provide.
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