- Reviewed on: Windows PC (Running on a Windows Vista box with a 3.0 GHz Intel Dual Core processor, 2GB of RAM, and a 512MB ATI Radeon X1900 XT graphics card; displayed at 1920x1200 on a Dell 2407FPW 24-inch LCD)
- Also available for: Xbox 360
- The Good: Graphics superior to the Xbox 360 edition; two hours of exclusive campaign content; new multiplayer mode and maps; powerful map-making and modding tools; excellent controls using keyboard and mouse, gamepad, or both
- The Bad: That PC gamers had to wait a year to get their hands on this superlative shooter
- The Verdict: With graphics that have been turned all the way to eleven and all sorts of new single- and multiplayer content, this PC port will make console gamers boil over with jealousy
Ridley Scott once said of his ultra-realistic, hyper-intense war film Blackhawk Down that it was an attempt to capture the power and drama of the opening half hour of Saving Private Ryan and extend it over the course of an entire film.
Gears of Wars, a sci-fi first-person shooter that takes place in a devastated human world, can be described similarly in that it takes the visceral, adrenaline charged experience of a military movie like Blackhawk Down and stretches it out over the course of a dozen hour game, providing hardly a moment for the player to catch his or her breath.
But by now Gears of War, originally released a year ago for the Xbox 360, is so well known that it seems a waste of time to get into a discussion about its thrilling narrative and innovative move-and-cover game mechanics (if you're completely new to Gears, check our review of the Xbox 360 edition to whet your appetite).
I'm here to tell you about the newly released Windows PC version, which elevates the experience players had on the console by adding a bit of extra sparkle to the graphics, exclusive single- and multiplayer content, and a powerful map editor. In short, it's that rare instance in which PC gamers are getting a port of a console game that outshines its living room counterpart in just about every way.
The grind gets an upgrade
Before developing the biggest selling Xbox 360 title of 2006, developer Epic Games was better known for making blockbuster PC games, most notably those in the popular Unreal franchise. Gears of War is their first try at moving a game originally developed for a console to the PC, and judging by the care with which it's been ported Epic still has high regard for its original Windows gaming fan base.
Of course, the graphics are tweaked. Suped-up PCs running Windows Vista and Microsoft's DirectX 10 are far more powerful than the Xbox 360, and there are clear visual improvements to Gears of War when it's running at a maximum resolution of 1920 x 1080 on one of these machines (my review machine lacked a DirectX 10 video card, but I did get a chance to play the game on a high-end rig during a recent Epic Games studio tour). Rendered via a powerful gaming PC, the cracks on our battle-scarred, tree-necked soldiers' faces look as though you could run your finger through them, and the dilapidated cities they wander through are bleakly beautiful, filled with high definition rubble and nearly photo-realistic crumbling concrete.
But Epic has done much more than glitz up the graphics. They also crafted more than two hours of exclusive campaign content in the form of five new story segments inserted late in the game that lead up to an awesome battle against the Brumak-that two-story monster with the massive maw seen we saw in last fall's popular "Mad World" Gears of War television spots but never actually got to go up against in the console edition.
The new content is critically unassailable; it integrates seamlessly by exploring a story path left in question in the Xbox 360 version and adds plenty of fun and original combat scenarios. It's the sort of thing that ought to make Xbox 360 players green with envy.
Epic has also enhanced multiplayer. All of the modes and maps available in the Xbox 360 version-including the downloadable content that has been released over the past year-is here, as well as a PC-only king-of-the-hill game type in which players race to gain control of a particular area of the map before the other team. The new mode differs from typical king of the hill matches in that the area to be claimed is usually defensible, with barricades and other environmental objects offering strong protection against enemy assaults. I found the only way to conquer an area held by an opposing team was through a well co-ordinated team attack.
But the most enticing supplement for many players will be the PC edition's powerful map editor. It's basically the same program that Epic used to design the game, which means ambitious modders can do almost anything they want, whether it's build their own levels, experiment with game physics, or even create their own Gears of War themed machinima. The only downside is its complexity; rookie mapmakers can expect to spend weeks learning the ropes before churning out something worth sharing.
Personally, though, the most interesting thing about Gears of War for Windows to this reviewer is how it allows players to effortlessly alternate between a keyboard and mouse or a gamepad. Menu instructions and in-game cues directing you to press certain buttons adjust themselves on the fly based on whichever form of control you happen to be using, ensuring you're never asked to press the left trigger of a gamepad when you're using a mouse or vice versa. It might seem small, but it's a big step toward making PC gamers, who often suffer through ported games in which help menus and in-game instructions refer to gamepad controls, feel as though their preferred platform is just as important in the eyes of game developers as a console.
My love for you is like a truck
At the end of the day, Gears of War remains one of the most pulse-pounding, viscerally gratifying games around, regardless of whether you play it on a console or a PC.
However, if you happen to have the option to choose between the two platforms, go PC. It has everything that made the Xbox 360 version (including gamer achievement points that can be added to your existing console tally via Games for Windows Live), plus plenty more.
And if you've already played Gears on a console? The extra content, though tremendous, probably doesn't warrant shelling out an extra $60. However, if modding is your thing, then the Windows edition is indispensable.