Sure, Gears of War debuted on the Xbox 360 last year and became a blockbuster hit that sold more than four million copies. But did you know that when Epic originally showcased the game at the 2005 E3 trade show it was running on a PC? We learned that while visiting Epic's offices in North Carolina recently, where we got a chance to get some hands-on time with the upcoming PC version of Gears of War.
If there's a message that Epic wanted to convey, it's that the PC game isn't merely a port of the 360 game. Gears of War has basically been retuned to feel like a PC game, and the visuals remain on the cutting edge, so much so that you'll probably want to show off the graphics to your friends. The PC game will have all of the content that appeared in the Xbox 360 game, along with all of the extra downloadable content that was released over the past year. It will also ship with five new single-player chapters, three new multiplayer arenas, a new multiplayer game mode, and the latest version of the Unreal editor. This last element is worth noting because Epic will ship the exact same toolset that it used to create the game, along with all of the content used to build the game, so fans can experiment, tinker, and create their own unique levels and mods. And thanks to the many engine optimizations that have been done over the past year, the PC game is essentially running on a "new" engine, which means that much of the new content will never appear for the Xbox 360 game, we're told.
The new single-player content is designed to flesh out the final act of the game. When you first load up Gears of War on your system, you can start at the beginning of the game, but if you're a veteran of the 360 game, you can choose to dive into the new chapters. However, be warned that the new content appears near the end of the game, which means that you'll be thrown into some challenging battles. The new content is called Timgad, for the city it's based in, and it basically tells the story of how Marcus Fenix and Delta Squad get to the train station at the end of the game. As such, it helps fill in some of the glaringly missing narrative in the Xbox 360 game. If you're a fan of the boys of Delta, you'll be happy to hear that Microsoft brought in all the voice actors to record new lines, so you can hear Marcus, Dominic, "The Cole Train," and Baird in all their gravelly glory. There are plenty of grueling battles against the Locust Horde, culminating in a battle against the giant Brumak, a fearsome opponent that was only seen in a cutscene in the Xbox 360 game.
All of this new content will add up to about an hour of extra gameplay on the casual difficulty level, though if you ramp up the difficulty to hardcore and insane, you'll certainly have a fight on your hands. Regardless, when single-player is done you'll be able to turn to the game's impressive multiplayer suite. Gears of War has a cooperative gameplay mode with support for two players, as well as various competitive modes on a total of 19 maps. The new multiplayer mode is king of the hill, and it's a variation of the annex mode. In it, teams battle to control a certain point on the map, and you have to hold it for a total of 120 seconds. To seize a point, you have to clear it and have at least one teammate in it at all times. It takes a few seconds for control to be established after that. However, the opposing team can break control instantly if one of them can breach the perimeter of the control point. This can make for suicide charges to buy time for reinforcements to appear.
Epic has done some nifty things with the control scheme. You can plug an Xbox 360 controller into your PC and play Gears of War just like you would on the console. Of course, most PC gamers will use the keyboard and mouse. After all, playing with a mouse allows for much more precision compared to a gamepad. But let's say you're in the middle of a level and decide, on a whim, to pick up and play on a gamepad. In that case, the game will automatically detect the switch and "adjust" the feel of the game. Gears of War is tuned for both control schemes.
With that said, the keyboard and mouse controls are pretty intuitive, given that the W, A, S, and D keys are used to move around and the mouse is used to aim. Naturally, you can remap the controls any way you'd like. The only real learning curve is related to the game itself. Gears of War isn't a standard run-and-gun shooter. It's rather a game about using cover to shield you from enemy fire, and then "popping out" from behind cover to shoot back. To use cover, all you have to do is move against a solid object, such as a wall, and your character will "hug" it automatically. You can also simply move next to cover and hit the space bar. When hugging cover, you hold the right mouse button to "pop out" and aim, and release the right mouse button to return to cover. It's that simple. Other actions are also pretty intuitive. Running is as simple as double-tapping the W key. When you do that, your character runs at a crouch and the camera moves low to the ground and follows, a neat technique that reminds you of combat documentary footage. Likewise, acrobatic moves such as twirling from behind cover are as simple as moving in the direction you want to go and tapping the space bar.
Visually, Gears of War arguably looks even more stunning on the PC than it did on the Xbox 360. That's partly due to the nature of the platform. On the PC, the display is often just a foot or two away from your head, so you can soak up all the minute detail onscreen much easier than you can on a television that's across your living room. However, if you have a beefy system you'll be able to appreciate even higher resolution and higher-resolution textures than the 360 game. Of course, your mileage may vary depending on your system specs. We're told that the minimum system requirements are a 2GHz AMD or a 2.4GHz Intel single-core processor, 1GB of RAM, and an Nvidia 6600 or ATI X700 video card.
Gears of Wars will ship with support for Games for Windows - Live, the PC version of Microsoft's excellent Xbox Live service. However, it will not require Windows Vista to run. To maximize the potential install base for the game, Gears of War will run on both Windows XP and Windows Vista. The game won't feature cross-platform online play, so you won't be able to battle Xbox 360 players. On the plus side, though, you won't have to subscribe to Games for Windows - Live, because PC-to-PC multiplayer is free on the service. And because it supports Games for Windows - Live, Gears of War will feature a whole new set of 1,000 achievement points that you can amass. Epic learned some lessons from the 360 game and has reworded some of the achievements so that players have motivation to help their team. For example, in the 360 game, there was an achievement that rewarded you if you got 100 headshots in multiplayer. What ended up happening was that players would join games and just sit back with the sniper rifle to try to get headshots, rather than trying to win the round. That achievement has since been reworded so the goal is to get a single headshot in each of 100 different rounds. The idea is that once you get your headshot for the round, you can drop the sniper rifle and go help the team win.
Given that Gears of War will ship for the PC less than a year after the Xbox 360 game, Epic hopes to make PC gamers feel as if they're part of the club. The company did not want to ship the PC game years after the 360 game, which would have made it feel like the PC community was getting a warmed-over port. That's hardly the case here, and Gears of War looks like an amazing game and, more importantly, it feels like it was made for the PC. It will ship on November 6.