A while back, Microsoft readily admitted that its torrid new relationship with the Xbox had lead to the company neglecting the PC as a gaming platform. It went on to say that it would fix this, and it got pretty worked up telling us about DirectX10, the Games for Windows brand and the Games for Windows Live online multiplayer service.
Nice ideas in principle and all, but without the games to make use of them and with Steam acting as such a strong competitor, it had the impact of a soggy tissue. And what has Microsoft managed on the actual games front? Well, the PC version of Gears of War is coming out just one year after the Xbox release, compared with the two and a half years it took for the port of Halo 2. Hardly an improvement that'll have PC gamers across the country rummaging through their cupboards for the balloons and silly string.
On the plus side, in the last year Epic has found the time to fasten a few bells and whistles to its grunting, stomping monster of a third person shooter. When the PC version of Gears is released this October it'll be with an all new King of the Hill multiplayer mode, three new maps, a game editor and five new single player chapters. It's up for debate whether this makes up for the 360 days spent waiting since the 360 release, but after our playtest we can at least tell you that it's all good stuff that has Gears' trademark polish.
The new single player levels slot neatly into the middle of the original campaign, the aim here being for them to fill the holes in the plot. So hopefully PC gamers won't have to employ as much guesswork as to how and why the train and bomb at the end of the game come about.
More excitingly, the Brumack that you ran from briefly in the 360 version (the awesome, massive, techno-dino monster thing) will feature, with an entire level that has you being hunted by it in the cinematic way that Gears excels at. The climax of this sequence is a fight where you actually go mano a mano with this six-storey cybernetic bastard. And while we can't figure out how this is going to work (maybe that age old game mechanic of trapping the head and then just fighting that?), we're pretty sure it's a battle that's going to leave us with the kind of testosterone afterglow that has us wanting to eat a steak or crush a beercan with our heads. God forbid playing it in co-op mode. There'll probably be Top-Gun style windmill high-fives.
The new King of the Hill multiplayer mode works well, too. Horizontal rings about twelve feet in diameter float at waist height at various points on the map, and the goal is, as ever, to have members of your team stand in them, uncontested, for as long as possible. But these rings are always out in the open, which is kind of a problem in a cover based shooter. So trying to hold one of these pieces of territory for your team involves making yourself a sitting duck in one of the most well-equipped shooting galleries in gaming.
Winning this mode is going to need an interesting kind of tactics. If one of these rings is under the control of your team, your instinct is to hurl yourself into the fray and fight shoulder to shoulder with these defenceless guys who sorely need your help. But then you're left in just as terrible a position as them, which doesn't help anybody. What you really want to do is flank your opposition, rush them, play the irritating sniper, or do just about anything else which draws the fight away from your friends. You don't want to kill your opposition, or push them back, your goal is to distract them.
This contrasts nicely with what you want to do whenever the 'hill' slips into the hands of the other team, which is launch the kind of balls to the wall assault you rarely get to do in a game where the benefits for hunkering down are so great. While your team being the only ones in that circle is your ultimate goal, if you can just get one of your own inside it or kill the enemies in it, their score will stop ticking up. Which is pretty desirable.
So that's all well and good, but it didn't stop us being disappointed at the lack of a four player co-op mode, especially since most of Gears' levels are designed for four soldiers anyway. But Epic fed us the usual line about how it would have taken too much time, and how it wanted the features it chose to be working perfectly at the time of release, so that's a shame.
As for the lack of cross-play, that's more understandable. The PC version of Gears is getting a lot of slight tweaks to make it work better on the mouse and keyboard, tweaks like how much kick your weapon has that make it a fundamentally different game. But for anyone who wants to use a pad, Gears will recognise it instantly and let you use it with the default 360 controls from the second it's plugged in.
Graphics are a little more disappointing. Playing the PC version did reveal the kind of improved resolution that we were told about before we were let loose on the demo units, but it's going to take a serious rig to get Gears to make use of them. What's worrying is the version we were playing seemed to have lost some of the post-processing effects- the blood spray in particularly seemed more vivid and more defined, appearing even more cartoony than the 360's ketchup splodge gore.
Maybe that's something someone will be able to fix using the included SDK, maybe not. It'll be interesting to see what the mod community coughs up in the months after release, but on that front Unreal Tournament 3 is the Epic game we're really looking forward to. Any levels or mods for Gears PC are going to stay on Gears PC. With UT3, that stuff's going to be available for download from Sony's network. That's what we should be seeing Microsoft announcing here - it's not often these days it lets Sony get one over on it.