Next week, Microsoft and Epic will ship Gears of War for Windows, an XP- and Vista-compatible version of what is, still, the best-selling Xbox 360 game of all time. While it's likely that Halo 3 will soon eclipse that milestone, the significance and success of Gears cannot be understated. As I noted in my Gears of War for Xbox 360 review, this game offers one of the most immersive experiences I've ever seen in a video game, right on par with Half-Life 2 (arguably the greatest single player game of all time) and Bioshock, an over-hyped but still impressive title. Gears multiplayer, of course, is far less successful: In fact, it might just be one of the most miserable multiplayer experiences ever, given how good singler player is.
So here we are a year later, and Epic has ported its most successful game of all time to the PC. I've been playing Gears for Windows for the past few days, and while that's not enough time to arrive at a final score for the game, I thought I'd supply a few first impressions ahead of my full review, along with some screenshots.
Installation and configuration. Sadly, Gears for Windows is a poster child for the simplicity of console-based gaming. Whereas the worst experience you're ever going to have on the Xbox 360 involves having to wait 30 seconds while a software update is applied, the process of installing Gears for Windows can be horrifically painful. I was prompted to fix three issues in my system, related to Vista and device drivers, before the game would even start, a process that required two reboots. Yikes.
System requirements. Gears for Windows requires some heady hardware: In Vista, you must have a 3.7 Windows Experience Index (WEI) score just to play the game, which shuts out most laptops, and it recommends a 5.0 (!!!), which shuts out most desktops. My own system scores a lowly 4.6 thanks to a mid-level graphics card, and I was forced to seriously detune the graphics in order to play the game with respectable frame rates.
Graphics and sound. Assuming your system is up to snuff, the Gears experience is almost identical to that of the Xbox 360 version. It starts up in a 720p mode to match the Xbox 360 (1280 x 720), and you're free to try that or adjust it down as needed. (Or up, all the way to 1920 x 1200.) I had to go down, but it still looks fine. Note that Gears for Windows supports DirectX 10 as well, which should dramatically improve the graphics. (I don't have DX10-compliant hardware here at this point.)
Controller. I opted to plug in a wired Xbox 360 controller in order to make it as close to the Xbox 360 experience as possible. It works: Gears for Windows plays just like the Xbox 360 version.
Achievements. Unlike Shadowrun, which is available in both Windows and Xbox 360 versions, Gears for Windows actually includes a full slate of 1000 Achievement points, meaning you run the rack on both versions of the game and double your points. I plan to do just that.
Windows/Xbox 360 cross-platform play. Unlike Shadowrun, but like Halo 2 for Windows Vista, you cannot jump into Xbox 360 matches with Gears for Windows. And vice versa. This game stands on its own: If you want to play online, you will play against other Windows gamers.
What's new? In what I think is a nice touch, Epic has added a number of new experiences to the PC version of Gears. The single player campaign includes five new chapters, expanding the story beyond what was seen in the 360 version. (This includes the long-awaited showdown with the Brumack monster that figured prominently in pre-release videos of Gears for the 360.) There are also three new multiplayer maps and, most important, a new multiplayer mode, King of the Hill, which should be immediately familiar to any online deathmatch fans. Epic is also packaging in a game editor called the Unreal Editor so that aspiring game makers can create their own Gears multiplayer levels.
So is it any good? If you're a Windows gamer and haven't experienced Gears of War yet, you need to run out and get this title now, assuming of course your hardware has the needed punch. I'll post a full review after I've finished the single player campaign and sampled the new multiplayer modes. But my preliminary prognosis is guarded but very positive.