Gears of War
I Reel Back in my chair, chuckling, as a group LOL breaks the silence in Epic's dimly-lit testing room, twinkling with the LEDs of 14 state-of-the-art games machines. We're playing the Gears of War PC's new King of the Hill mode, which has just seen myself and four other players kill each other viciously from behind one after another in a hilarious cartoon chain of death. As the legendary lead designer CliffyB said to me earlier in the day, the new multiplayer game is indeed, "fucking hilarious. Gears of War has shifted over four million copies on Xbox 360 alone, won countless Game of the Year awards and become one of the most popular online shooters of all time. Until Gears' console release this time last year, developer Epic was more famous for Unreal Tournament and the all-conquering Unreal Engine 3, used as the de facto modern game engine to build titles such as BioShock.
Now the company is preparing to unleash on PC not only the hugely entertaining violent blaster Unreal Tournament 3 but also Gears of War - a massive game event that we're marking with a studio visit and hands-on feature of both games, as well as unique cover art specially created for us lucky buggers here at PC.
OK, I'm assuming here that you know what Gears of War is about - that it's a third-person action shooter starring Marcus Fenix and his three Coalition of Ordered Governments cohorts taking on the evil Locust menace yada yada yada. So no faffing about here - I wouldn't be the bluff Yorkshire chap that tells it like it is if I continued to blather on round the edges like a News 24 reporter filling between bulletins. Gears of War, a game that was built for the Xbox 360 from the ground up, Is enormous amounts of fun to play'on PC, with a host of new single-player missions, mouse/keyboard support, a new multiplayer mode, three brand new maps and co-op play over Games For Windows Live.
My first experience of Gears on PC had to be the new five single player missions built around the Act V encounter with the infamous Brumak beast, which Cliffy B succinctly described as "four storeys of teeth and guns," and was only previously viewed in a brief cutscene on the Xbox 360 game. The new level is unlocked from the beginning, so if you want to jump in and experience the Brumak battle immediately from the off, you can. Although be warned, it appears near the end of the game, so if you're new to Gears, you will be pwned...
"The Timgad level was always an idea early in development, but ultimately you have to decide how much to bite off and still keep the quality you want" said senior producer Rod Fergusson. "Also you get the biggest bang for the buck with the Brumak. No-one was really asking for new weapons or a new character, they were all like, "I want to fight that thing!"
You begin the level at a drawbridge (apparently based on London Bridge) that shorts out, meaning you and the team have to get power to the sector, just as hordes of Locust enemies descend on the area - including the Brumak - kicking off a manic shootout that eventually splits the four-man COG team in two, taking you and partner Dorn into the grim nether-regions below the structure. The Brumak is a dominating presence throughout the levels, so even though you don't get to take it on until the fifth chapter, the hefty beast will never be too far away, trying to smash its way down through the girders of the bridge to your position below, or cutting off your escape route with collapsing concrete. The new sections have some memorable set-pieces, including my personal favourite - a shootout in an old theatre overrun with sniping enemies in the balcony, scuttling Wretches on the stairs, and an insect-like behemoth Seeder in the main stalls. Still, I'd rather face all that than a Royal Variety Performance.
After a further series of intense firefights with the Locust, you and your team eventually come face-to-face - well, face-to-ankle - with the Brumak, the frightening Rancor-like monster, loaded with multiple gun/rocket launcher installations and controlled by a grunt atop its head. I won't reveal any spoilers here how you see off the lumbering piece of alien filth, but suffice to say that taking the Brumak down was an immensely satisfying boss battle, and I felt like the tearful, sobbing Rancor-keeper in Return of the Jedi when I walked away from its massive, lifeless corpse.
Gears looks fantastic on PC - crisp, hi-res visuals with great scalability, from mid-range cards to DirectX 10-compatible behemoths that'll run 1920 x 1200 pixel resolutions and above, for life-like facial animation, smooth movement (caught in the Epic mo-cap studio just around the corner) and beautiful-but-war-torn architecture of a civilisation torn to shreds by a brutal alien invasion.
Epic have also succeeded in making the transition from controller pad to mouse/keyboard really smooth too, giving you the option of traditional' keyboard mapping, with the space bar used for the action button for going into cover and running, or using a nifty double-tap Advanced mode - hit W twice quickly and hold down, for example, and Marcus will run forward using that trademark over-the-shoulder 'war reporter' shaky-cam. After a few minutes of the latter combined with mouse-look, I'm confident you'll never need that Xbox 360 pad for Windows. Although the dynamic context-sensitive on-screen prompts will cleverly change from mapped keys to buttons automatically if you do prefer to plug one in. You big girl.
Onto multiplayer, and it was here that I had a thorough thrash of the aforementioned new King of the Hill mode on the three brand new maps specially created for Gears on PC by People Can Fly, the Polish developers responsible for the Stakegun-powered shooter Painkiller (see Painkiller vs Gears box). They are: Courtyard, a city park with some great high areas to use the awesome Hammer of Dawn orbital laser weapon; Gold Rush, an industrial level set on an emulsion drilling platform at the bottom of a massive crater; and Sanctuary, a very gothic 'non-denominational religious building', with atmospheric, creepy lighting.
"King of the Hill is sort of a spin-off from Annex, where you're taking over territory, but instead of it constantly changing, there's only one bit of territory per round and one team member has to be in that circle to score points," said Fergusson.
"Also you play execution rules', so if you snipe someone in the circle from afar, and he goes down injured, he's still in there getting points! You have to move in there and finish him off." This, combined with the fact that Epic have also added instant breaks, so that any opposing team member making a suicide run into the circle can drain it to a neutral status immediately, means you get some hectic, thrilling and very funny matches that can be won or lost right up until the final few nail-biting seconds. Multiplayer is locked into Games For Windows Live, but before you begin to ready those fingers for forum flaming, it'll be completely free to play. All you have to do is sign up for the Silver package, and the Gears of War multiplayer modes are also compatible with Windows XP as well as Vista - no-one will miss out as with the Halo 2 and Shadowrun debacles (see the Gears For Windows Live box).
All of the new maps are fantastic with King of the Hill four versus four, but Fergusson assured me that every multiplayer map featured in Gears of War PC (that include the additional Map Packs 1 & 2) are compatible with other modes - and of course, you'll be able to play with a friend through the entire single-player missions co-operatively. Gears of War will also ship with an editor, although don't expect to completely overhaul the game with a new mod, as the utility has been tailored for creating your own multiplayer maps - the PC-from-the-ground-up title Unreal Tournament III is Epic's flagship mod-maker.
Gears of War is not your typical PC blaster - being a third-person action game described by CliffyB as "the iambic pentameter of shooting" and built specifically for the Xbox 360, the game wears its console heritage on its bloody sleeve.
However, Epic have looked to have created an excellent PC version of Gears, complete with new single-player content, new maps, better mouse/ keyboard control and free integrated Games For Windows Live co-op and multiplayer across as many different PC configurations as possible. As Epic gear up for development on the game's inevitable sequel, it's great to know that PC owners will finally get to play this killer series, and face-off against the Brumak beast - a fight that Xbox players can only wet dream about.
Download Gears of War
Let's Pretend, For the first half of the review, that no-one here has played Gears of War. We'll put our fingers in our ears, count backwards from 10 and allow the hype and hoop-la to drift from our ears like a beautiful smoke effect. And... you're under. So, Gears of War in one word: meaty. Even the sneering lips of the heroes manage to be muscular, and the dialogue stinks of five-day sweat The weaponry is tactile, and the sound effects are like someone slapping rashers of bacon over your ears. The gibs are stupid and make up for the desolate colour schemes of the planet. Not forgetting the stylised eruption of black blood - especially when you score a chainsaw kill - no game makes you feel like you're relentlessly punching a carcass quite as much as Gears of War. If you want to shoot shit and not get your tear ducts misty over some feminine emphasis on plot and characters, hello.
But shooting stuff, as wonderful as that always is, is exactly half of what Gears' single-player game is about. The rest is about taking cover. Cover isn't just a useful bonus here, it's a constant fundamental - it's bound by default to the biggest button on the keyboard for a reason. You'll spend more than half the game in cover, and once you get used to the way the controls reflect that it simply becomes the way you work.
When your teammates get injured - one of the most irritating parts of the game -you're forced to break cover and heal them. As a device to vary the action, it's perfectly acceptable, perhaps even clever. But as a human being I resent doing most of the killing, then getting told that if I don't heal some guy who had an Al failure and ran around beckoning bullets, it'll be game over.
On the subject of small gameplay devices, the active reload is another small but canny move. Take that bayonet gun - the last bullets make a warning click, and once it empties, a reload slider begins. Ignoring this will allow a moderate reload speed. Tapping reload at the right time can boost the speed, and hitting it spot-on will even give you a damage bonus. Try it and miss, and your weapon will briefly jam. It's simple, but when the Locust forces are advancing, it's a real pain - melee combat can kill you very quickly, especially if you don't have your chainsaw revved. When you're sniping, the damage boost can cause a headshot to take down a rocket-launching boomer in one.
Squad Al can always be a worry. But in Gears, it's good enough to make it feel like you're fighting on a team against another team. Both sides flank and charge, and you're free to take a leading role or hang around at the back. But if you do that, bear in mind that your squad will probably get hurt, forcing you forward to heal them. There's the odd gaffe - the teammate spinning around on the spot, caught between two see-sawing priorities, and the Locust who took cover from my squadmate then hid from him while staring directly through me. But I'm only saying this to show off how observant I am. They're very much exception to the excellent rule.
Now, let's accept the truth that you probably do know a bit about Gears of War. You want to know whether it's a shoddy Resident Evil 4 rush job. You want to know about those new bits that fill the confusing gap left behind on the 360. You want me to stop saying "Have you heard of videogames? I hear some of them can be quite fun."
The biggest fear for GOW was being forced, by sloppy interpretation, on to a 360 controller. Not only doesn't this happen, but the ease of control and the sheer, stupid boost of enjoyment I got from the game, having previously been saddled with the 360 controller, is a slap in the face for everyone who's ever got it wrong. Everyone knows that the mouse and keyboard is the best combination for shooters, and although GOW came from a console, Epic's PC heritage has done the platform proud.
The PC version is just plain better. Even the camera - the bane of the third-person shooter genre - doesn't cause any problems. I'm going to repeat myself and say that the squad control is rubbish again, just for the sake of saying something unpleasant. If you finished the game on the 360, you'll have noticed a bit of a plot change at the end; that's because most of the fifth act was missing. This has been restored for the PC, and these levels are bigger, more punishing, with more distance and Locusts between checkpoints than the console version. You'll also get to hunt the 30ft tall Brumak.
The worst thing that can be said about GOW is simply that it takes an engaging, well-developed combat system and works it to death. And, yes, the core gameplay is repetitive enough to occasionally break the immersion. But the loop of cover-kill-advance is broken up by just enough diversions - the blind Berserkers, the lightfearing KryII, vehicles and bosses - to keep you engaged.
Sadly, with these distractions, the game's instinct is to patronise you with deflatingly obvious clues. It would have been nice to have been trusted - if only for a couple of minutes - before being told what to do. But like I said, if you pansy intellectuals want to walk around thinking, go read a book.
The PC version of Gears of War is a welcome reminder of how much better PC gaming can be, and that it can do big, stupid action way better than the consoles that took stupid to the masses. And the extra levels that won't be released on Xbox because it can't handle them? Well, that's just fucking funny.
Bring Your Daughter
Co-op aside, you can get involved in some human vs Locust bloodshed on 20 maps, including three new ones for the PC. There's the usual array of deathmatch options and the ability to revive your colleagues is carried over from the single-player. Most interesting is King of the Hill, a PC-exclusive mode in which teams fight over a small ringed area of the map. It makes for some closely fought chaotic battles; with a full server, there'll be someone behind most walls. And we won't be playing against 360 users, so there'll be no dumbing down of the excellent mouse and keyboard controls. You will, however, need a Games for Windows Live online account, but a Silver one is free anyway.
Now that the 360 has been out a year, it's about that time when the developers are finally figuring out the system and how to take advantage of it. One of the most impressive instances of this is Gears of War. Once you start playing, there will be no doubt in your mind that this is a next-gen game in almost every way. Gears of War has been marketed for some time as the next Halo and although those are some big shoes to fill, it's clear that they may be slightly large for Gears of War, but they fit just fine.
The story behind Gears of War is simple, and yet effective. Basically, you're on a planet that has been losing a war against a race known as locusts. These locusts, huge brutes of which ugly doesn't do them justice, burrowed under all the major cities and executed a devastating surprise attack and decimated the defenses and population. In one of these battles, a soldier named Marcus Fenix disobeyed orders in an attempt to save his father and found himself in prison. That was 13 years ago and the war hasn't gone any better. Now the prison Marcus Fenix is in gets over run and a pardon comes his way, along with every other prisoner, freeing him to rejoin the fight.
The first thing that will impress you about Gears of War is the visuals. Large environments, extremely high levels of detail, beautifully designed areas all show off the 360's capabilities and set a new standard for visual effects. The sound effects are close behind as well and help immerse you into the Gears of War universe.
That's only the start however. Once the game begins you'll start to notice a few other things as well. First thing many of us will discovered is that running straight at the enemy, firing wildly is a great way to get plastered. Upon further review, it became clear that this AI wasn't the stand and shoot variety and required more planning. In addition, learning to cover behind various objects also plays a key role as you aren't going to be ignored standing in the open firing either. Basically, the developers clearly attempted to weave elements of actual combat into this game and it shows.
As you can imagine, the multiplayer component has a strong showing as well and includes a split screen option to play through the campaign along with the various other multiplayer options.
The hype surrounding Gears of War has clearly been justified and given more substance then might be expected. But then again, the stakes are high. As the PS3 entered the market with a handful of titles available and few coming in the next months, games like Gears of War make the cost and availability of the PS3 that much more difficult to swallow.
In a sea of so-so Xbox 360 software, sci-fi shooter Gears of War stands apart from the pack. We went to Lead Designer Cliff Bleszinski--known as CliffyB to his Internet friends--to take a class on how to make a true next-gen game.
Go big, or go home Gears of War's heroes and villains are a sturdy lot. "I don't want to make a game that feels like it has little small, spindly-type characters that look like they'd break it you dropped them," says Bleszinski.
Make melee attacks dramatic Keep the action intense. "You have these two guys that are engaging in this dance of death where it's almost like the prom date where the room melts away and it's just the two of them focusing on each other," says Bleszinski. "Except instead of trying to have a nice intimate moment of romance, they're trying to kill each other."
Make the world realistic The Xbox 360 hardware excels at creating complex, believable environmental physics, and much of Gears' gameplay will revolve around using your surroundings to survive--knocking over a pillar can solve a puzzle, take Gut an enemy, or create cover. "We want you to know you're safe in cover for a very short period of time," says Bleszinski, "then once you're in cover, you must make your decision as far as how you're moving from point A to point 8 and start engaging in that lethal game of Whack-a-Mole."
Keep things "in your face" Despite some early comparisons to tactical shooters like Ghost Recon, Gears of War is truly all about combat intensity. "This isn't a game about shooting random dots on the horizon," explains Bleszinski. "It's a game about up-close, in your face urban combat."
Microsoft and Bungie had just released the Halo 3 trailer, yet everyone was ogling Gears of War's graphics at this past May's E3 videogame trade show. That's how you know you've got one hell of a looker for a game. "From the start, the visuals in Gears of War have been incredibly important to the story and atmosphere we wanted to immerse the player in," says Jerry O'Flaherty, art director at developer Epic Games. Charred landscapes, rusty, burned-out cars, rubble-strewn streets, and an overall things-are-really-f'in-fed postapocalyptic vibe fill Gears' world, a future Earth scorched by its own inhabitants to deprive the invading Locust Horde aliens of its natural resources. Pretty grim, huh? "The ‘destroyed beauty' look of the environments came from a desire on our parts to not just make ‘levels' that the player moved through," says O'Flaherty, "but to actually give our world and fiction a history and a sense that things have happened here long before you, the player, arrived on the scene, and more things will happen when you are gone." And in case you're distracted by all this "destroyed beauty" eye candy, when prompted, you can hold down the Y button to automatically track any scripted events happening in real time around you so you don't miss anything exciting--like those Locusts blowtorching through the only door keeping them out of the room and you safe.
The game's beauty carries over to the living things, too. Rugged human soldiers slam into walls for cover or duck and run with motion and momentum that you don't see in most videogames; if s as if these moving images on your screen actually weigh 200 pounds each (maybe 300 with all that heavy-duty body armor). The aliens look equally lifelike, with snarling mugs and snakelike skin--Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn't know "ugly motherf***er" until he's peeped one of these creeps.
Snapshots and Media
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