Gears of War for Windows review

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There’s a snobbery around console conversions to the PC and, as anyone who’s played Halo 2 on the PC will attest, it isn’t always undeserved. The Windows version of Gears of War, however, is an exception, not only because its graphics and gameplay haven’t dated in the year since it launched on the Xbox 360, but also because it’s a genuinely brilliant action game.

Gears of War for Windows review

Produced by Epic for Microsoft and using the Unreal 3 engine, Gears plays differently to most 3D shooters. The third-person viewpoint doesn’t just look good; it’s a crucial part of the game’s gritty duck-and-cover style of combat. Hit the spacebar as your hero, Marcus Fenix, approaches a wall or barricade and he’ll hunker down behind it, peeking out when you press the left mouse button to aim, then shifting back into safety once you release it. By holding the spacebar and pressing the W, A, S, D movement keys, you can make Marcus vault the barrier, roll out of cover or leap to another safe spot. Gears is all about hitting hard then hiding while the bullets rain down around you.

There’s even a plot, of sorts. On the ruined planet Sera, the remaining vestiges of a human army are battling an implacable foe, the Locust. Hideous creatures that spring from nests hidden deep beneath the ground, they’re resourceful fighters, heavily armoured and packing high-powered arms to match your own. As they, too, are capable of making use of cover, using group tactics and outflanking manoeuvres – even racing in with an offensive rush – Gears demands a gutsy but measured approach. You learn to scan each area for useful defensive points and flanking opportunities, while still moving fast when Locusts get upin your face.

It’s a solid, basic building block of gameplay. However, the real brilliance is in the way Gears expands the action with a stream of assured set-pieces. You might spot some second-hand ideas, as Epic takes the magpie approach to games ranging from Resident Evil 4 to Half-Life and Call of Duty, but each sequence is handled beautifully. You’ll find yourself asking how you can top a close encounter with a hulking blind beserker, but stomach-tightening sequences in the city after sundown, and some scary moments in a Locust-infested mine, do so effortlessly. We could probably have done without the odd driving section or mine-cart ride, but other than this Gears is as expertly paced as shooters come.

PC gamers get a slightly longer game, too, with some extra levels and new monsters merged in toward the end. Otherwise – and despite talk of DirectX 10 enhancements – this is basically the same title. Unlike Halo 2, however, this is no disaster. Twelve months ago, Gears was the most advanced game on any format, and at high resolutions on a large widescreen monitor it still looks a treat. You might at first be knocked back by the sheer feast of textural detail on offer and then likely be struck by the ruined beauty of the stately city architecture or the atmospheric weather effects. However, it’s the less obvious, cinematic touches that end up impressing most of all: the subtle shifts of focus and perspective as you look or move; the shake of the camera as it tracks you when you run. Gears puts you right in the action, and it’s a brutal, visceral experience.

Admittedly, there are valid criticisms. The meat-head heroes with their ultra-macho dialogue and clichéd characterisation aren’t particularly sympathetic. The plot is barely engaging and the game ushers you on from one battle to the next with no real sense of room to roam. But if Gears is just a dumb, shallow action epic, at leastit’s a very good one.

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