Gears of War PC Hands-on Preview

Gears of War for the PC is close to being a perfect port.

Take the original game's content out of the picture for a moment. Forget the fun cooperative firefights and the flanking maneuvers. Ignore the visceral melee combat and punched-up violence. Don't pay any attention to the detailed architecture and solid level design.

Here is a textbook example of a smooth transition to the PC.

The game's menu looks nearly identical to the Xbox 360 version. The multiplayer operates in much the same way, with matchmaking supported by Games for Windows Live, supporting the same local and online cooperative options. Even the PC version's achievement points can be carried over to your Xbox 360 score. All of this works wonderfully.

But much like Resident Evil 4, Gears of War was a deliberately paced game, and not one that would immediately take to the PC platform. Though it adds new content in the form of five singleplayer chapters, three multiplayer maps, and some improved visuals, it all really comes down to the controls--and thankfully, developer Epic Games has nailed that aspect in every way.

Control Freaks

Of course, when using an Xbox 360 controller for Windows, the game feels virtually identical to the Xbox 360 version. However, rather than relying wholly on the gamepad to deliver the authentic Gears experience, Epic has taken us keyboard and mouse users into full account. The "A for All" setup of the Xbox 360 version--which allowed users to dive, run, and enter cover using only the "A" button--has been converted into a "Spacebar or Double-tap WASD for All" option. It's not nearly as complicated as that sounds.

For instance, double tapping the "D" key will send you diving to the right, while a single tap of the spacebar while holding "D" will do the same. I found a combination of both controls to be optimal, as did some of the Epic crew. Double-tapping "W" put my character into the crouched hustle, followed by a simple tap of the spacebar to slide into cover. This feels almost as natural--if not moreso--than the Xbox 360 version, and takes only a minute of practice to warm up to.

In an interesting bit of programming, the game's tooltips will actually change on the fly depending on the current control input. This brings up another elegant solution. To counteract the increased accuracy of the mouse--which very well could have ruined the challenge of the game, let alone the multiplayer balance--Epic has in turn increased the weapon recoil for mouse users, applied automatically upon detection of input.

In fact, at one point I was playing with an Xbox 360 controller in one hand and a mouse in the other, the recoil changing in real-time. The Epic developers had earlier remarked that there should be a special achievement for doing so. "Control Freaks," quipped Epic's Cliff Bleszinski, always ready with the witty achievement titles.

Though the game won't accept simultaneous input from both, you can move with the controller, stop, aim with the mouse, and fire on either. Performing a test-fire with the mouse steadied at one point on a wall sent a spray of bullets straight up to the sky. Seconds later, firing at that same spot with an Xbox 360 controller created an impact smear measuring only a few feet in length. Some serious tweaking has certainly taken place, and while it's not enough to annoy, it is enough to make a difference in balancing the gameplay for the laser-accurate PC crowd.

Extra recoil obviously won't be much of an issue if your target dies with the first shot, so another hindrance had to be devised for sniper rifles. To partly solve this issue, players who take damage while attempting to snipe will now have their aim affected. As compared to the rock-solid shooting arm of the 360 version, you'll now have to be a bit more careful, and a good deal faster, when sniping at players from afar.

Despite the added kick-back, playing Gears on the PC is an altogether freeing in comparison with the original. After a few hours with the game, I much preferred the PC controls. Quickly moving on the diagonal, snapping from enemy to enemy, and switching weapons with a click of the mouse wheel was all too easy, but in a good way. Plowing through the new singleplayer content, it really did feel like a fresh experience.

The New Adventures of Timgad

The five new singleplayer chapters focus on the area of Timgad, and fill in a little of the story before the original Act 5 missions. Timgad itself isn't particularly notable. Beginning with a battle to lower a drawbridge, the extra levels are just that--extra levels. These new spaces aren't radically different from the original Gears levels, although some were satisfyingly difficult. No, the new hallways and courtyards aren't worth mentioning in detail. What really makes the new content is the Brumak.

Going back to the original Unreal Engine 3 tech demo, he was there. Then he showed himself in a trailer. He followed that up with an even more popular appearance in a television commercial. It is altogether surprising he doesn't have his own IMDB entry. And yet, he was nowhere to be seen in the original Gears. Where was the Brumak?

Where have all the Brumaks gone? Continue reading to find out.

_PAGE_BREAK_ Like a Dino-Rider gone wrong, the lumbering Brumak stalks you throughout the new singleplayer chapters, finally giving you a chance to meet him in person at the end. Each brief encounter with the Brumak isn't much of a battle, but they give you enough of a taste of his unsavory character to have you anticipating the final assault. I made it a personal mission to reach this boss fight before my time with the game expired, and I made it only just in time. I had to take that thing down.

As it turns out, he's not the most difficult boss ever constructed, but he does have a few nasty tricks up his well-armed sleeves. The Brumak's rockets attack in wide arcs, zipping around the cover that usually means safety in Gears. Only with a clever game-plan and plenty of ammo does he become manageable. After a few well-timed sniper shots, he was felled, and the game segued into the next chapter--the original opening of Act 5.

Speaking of segue-ways, one of the minor complaints I had with Gears PC had to do with the load times. Like the Xbox 360 version, each chapter drifts into the next, with the game seamlessly moving from level to level without a single loading screen. Unfortunately, even on Epic's beefy computers, I did notice a few hiccups at times when moving from one area to the next, and not always at the preplanned caching sections. This wouldn't have been an issue if it hadn't sometimes occurred when an enemy was running straight at me. Out of the five chapters I played, this happened maybe three times, but always at the same places.

Still, these load hiccups are a small price to pay for the improved visuals. Gears looks absolutely fantastic in the high resolution of a widescreen monitor. The textures have been improved a good deal from the Xbox 360 version, and at the highest settings with DirectX 10 enabled, every pock-marked face and stony wall looks better than ever. If you're worried about your Quake 3 machine not being up to par, a single core 2.4ghz Intel chip with an nVidia 6600 graphics card and 1GB of RAM was given as a minimum spec. You will surely want more under the hood to have the game at all resembling its former self.

Standing victorious over the Brumak, I had become the first person outside of Epic staff to conquer the new content. Representing Shacknews, I now turned to face my colleagues in four on four multiplayer combat, King of the Hill style.

Hamburger Hill

Three new multiplayer maps ship with Gears of War PC, all supporting the new game mode: King of the Hill, a variation of the Annex mode. King of the Hill unsurprisingly revolves around taking control of a small, single circle on the map. As you stand in the glowing hoop--which changes color based on the controlling team--more points are slowly added to the scoreboard for your side. If an enemy enters the ring, it drops to a neutral color while in limbo. Not the most original of game types, it turned out to be more fun than I had expected.

I have never been a big fan of King of the Hill gameplay, but I have to admit, it works well in the context of Gears. Contrary to the usual Gears mentality, the control point is almost always planted in an area without cover. This exposes those who would dare to take control, thereby making it extremely difficult to stay alive. Respawns are set on 15 second timers, which is just long enough to guarantee the hill changes hands. This makes for an exciting round, but also a cooperative one, as teammates must strike a balance between risking their lives for personal glory and supporting their team in its kingly endeavors.

The new maps lend themselves well to the game type. Courtyard is just that, a large open courtyard set amongst towering ruins. What makes the map interesting are the elevated starting locations. At the beginning of each round, both teams can clearly see eachother across the open space, and can note exactly where their enemies are funneling down into the low-lying choke points. This gives a slight advantage to those who pick their heads up from the firefight long enough to observe their surroundings.

The control points change location from round to round in King of the Hill, and are often nestled away on the higher points of the map. Gold Rush starts the teams at low elevation, but the hill might spawn on the upper or lower sections of the map. Luckily, an icon is included to point you in the direction of the point, although the icon sadly does not denote height, leading to some very confused starts.

The included game editor is a full-featured affair, although little documentation will is provided. Epic hopes that players will take it upon themselves to learn the ropes, share their knowledge on the forums, and create their own single and multiplayer maps. The "Kismet" visual scripting tool will allow editors to create chains of if/thens and other scripting statements, easing the programming requirements for would-be mappers. Players who want to share their finished creations will have to do so outside of the game, however, as auto-downloading is not an included feature due to PC security concerns.

After several rounds of humiliating defeat, our opponents wised up and began to give us a challenge. Much like an online match, just as they were putting up a fierce fight, it was time for me to drop out. Funny how that happens.

Mad World

I never expected to like Gears of War in the first place. It seemed like such a tired cliche from the beginning, with its silly dialogue and overblown action. Giant soldiers shooting alien invaders in a post-apocalyptic city--what a concept. Of course I was wrong in my presumption, as the game turned out to be a textbook example of how to execute a third-person shooter.

And at the end of the day, Gears of War for the PC is close to being a perfect, textbook port.

It takes the original game, retains its unique pacing no matter the control scheme, and adds enough content to reward those who've waited this long to play it. It looks great, it runs under XP or Vista, and it runs well. For those who have played the original, the game probably isn't worth another buy just for the new content, but who was expecting that? For those who haven't yet experienced Gears, even in this busy season of PC releases, it's a no-brainer.

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