This will be the simplest review I've ever written, though I've certainly spent an astonishing amount of time using the product in question, this time Epic's Windows version of Gears of War, the hit video game that was released a year earlier on the Xbox 360 (see my review). The reason this review will be so easy to write is that I've already written it: If you refer to my previous review of the Xbox 360 version of the game, you'll discover almost everything you need to know (well, that and my preview of the Windows version). That's because the PC version of Gears of War, with a few exceptions, is almost identical to the Xbox 360 version. And depending on what we're talking about, that's both good and bad.
On the good news front, the Gears single player experience is as strong as ever: I awarded the Xbox 360 version of the game 5/5 stars, and certainly the PC version is just as good. Despite a year of time between the releases, Gears single player holds up today as a great combination of storytelling, plot, action-oriented game play, and the PC version even throws in several new levels, which I'll discuss below.
On the bad news front, Gears PC multiplayer is just as bad as it was on the Xbox 360--which is to say, horrifically, unbelievably bad--and since there aren't many people playing the game at all, you can almost never find online matches (cooperative or multiplayer) online anyway. Gears PC also loses some points for setup complexities that are common to the PC platform and non-existent to platforms. It just doesn't play as well on a PC as it does on the 360, even with pretty modern gaming PC hardware. Gears PC is a big.
OK, let's jump right in.
Gears PC single player
I'll assume by now you're familiar with Gears of War. If you're not, again, please check out my review of the 360 version. In the PC edition of Gears, you're presented with a superset of the 360 game that features five additional levels, or chapters. The game is structured just like the 360 version, with five acts, and the new levels occur right at the beginning of the fifth and final act. These levels revolve around a humongous creature called the Brumak, which is a Godzilla-like monster with a rider and mounted guns and rocket launchers. Before the 360 version shipped, Epic produced a promo video featuring this creature, but it was never really part of the game. In the PC version, you finally get to fight the Brumak, and it's a nice addition.
It's also clear from playing this game that the Brumak sequence was intended from the beginning: This is no throw-away add-on tacked on to the PC game to make it more interesting for repeat players. My guess is that Epic couldn't get the sequence working properly in time for the 360 version, or perhaps there simply wasn't enough space to include it. Either way, it's well done, integral to the plot, and actually adds some interesting information about the interactions between the lead character (you), Marcus Fenix, and some of the other people in your crew. It also explains why you're late getting to the train in Act 5, where the final showdown occurs as a result.
If you play the game with an Xbox 360 controller, you'll discover that it looks and acts identically to the 360 version, and since I'm now comfortable with this setup, that's how I played the game. You can also choose to play with mouse and keyboard, of course, and if you're a dedicated PC gamer, you might find this preferable. One advantage of the PC version, of course, is that you can bump up the graphical resolution and quality, assuming you have the proper hardware. There's even some DirectX 10 optimization. But the game runs dog slow even on the nicest hardware, and it stutters and comes to a stop occasionally, like rush hour traffic. This is no seamless Xbox-like experience.
One nice touch: If you're an Achievements junkie on the 360, please note that not only does Gears PC offer up a full 1000 points for your enjoyment, it does so in addition to the achievements you can earn on the Xbox 360 version of the game. So you can actually double your points if you don't mind doing everything twice. You can't, however, mix and match between the PC and 360 versions via cooperative or multiplayer play.
Epic also dropped support for split screen, so there's no way for two gamers to sit in front of the same screen and play the game cooperatively, as you can on the 360. You can, however, player cooperatively over your home network (with two or more PCs) or online, though again, I never saw very many people available for this. And that's a shame, because some of the achievements require you to play cooperatively as Dom, a secondary character in the single player campaign.
Overall, the Gears single player campaign is as good as ever and while the cooperative play is effectively useless, the addition of the Brumak chapters pretty much makes up for it. Gears single player is still the best single player game this side of Halo 2.
Gears PC multiplayer
Multiplayer, sadly, is another story.
I can't stress enough how horrible Gears of Wars is as a multiplayer game (see my review of the Xbox 360 version's multiplayer). What's really odd about this statement is that, for the longest time, Gears 360 was the most frequently played game on Xbox Live. I have no idea why so many people were playing it for that long, but Epic showed their appreciation to gamers by adding a number of maps and game types over time, and generally improving things as they could. No matter: Today as then, multiplayer gears is a joke. It is truly one of the worst online gaming experiences I've ever been a part of.
To bolster the PC version of Gears, Epic added three new (and exclusive) multiplayer maps to the 16 that previously existed on the 360 version. There's also a new multiplayer game type, King of the Hill, which should be immediately familiar to anyone who's played any first person shooter online over the last decade.
And none of this matters. If anything Gears PC multiplayer is even worse than on the 360 because, with the 360, at least people were actually playing the game and you could get into online matches. I've never seen an appreciable number of people playing the PC version online and as of today, it's a ghost town. And this, finally, is as it should be. Maybe PC game players just have more common sense than console players.
In addition to the single player campaign and multiplayer, Gears PC includes a level editor, which allows gamers to create their own multiplayer levels. This would be interesting if Gears multiplayer was any good, but of course it's not. So it isn't.
Averaging the two scores above, you will arrive at an even three out of five stars, but I feel that Gears of War is valuable enough as a single player title to warrant at least four out of five stars: The campaign really is that good, and if you've never experienced the Xbox 360 version of this game, you need to do so on the PC. I don't feel that the lack of PC/360 integration is a big deal, though I'd point to the inability to play cooperatively on a single PC as its one main drawback. Well, that and multiplayer. Regardless, Gears of War is as much fun now as it was when Epic shipped it for the Xbox 360 back in late 2006. Unless you've beaten the 360 version to death and just aren't interested, you'll want to give this one a shot. Highly recommended.