Thursday, June 05, 2008

Gears of War - Pretty Good Except for the Magic Spacebar.

Looking for a bit of mindless shooting fun I went out and bought myself Gears of War (PC version).

When the PC version came out in November 2007 reviews were very positive. The general opinion is that the PC version improves on the very successful Xbox360 version from a year earlier.

With just over an hours playing time my first impressions are good. It is a fun fast paced shooter with great graphics and sound. Some commentators have complained about high system requirements but it looks absolutely beautiful and plays perfectly on my aging 7900gtx. I am running at 1600x 1050 with high quality graphics . DX10 is of course unavailable on my setup so perhaps the DX10 functionality is what is causing slowdowns for others.

Although it is fast paced Gears is not mindless. On the middle difficulty setting (oddly named - hard core) it takes about half a clip to down even the most basic mob. This is too long to leave yourself exposed to enemy fire. Hiding and shooting from cover is a vital component of game play. The enemies ("The Locust") also exhibit a moderate level of AI employing cover themselves and executing the odd flanking manoeuvre.

Some folks have complained about the fact that you have to register on Windows Live to play the game. In truth you don't have to register but you are informed that you will be unable to save your progress if you don't!. Happily the basic free level of Windows live suffices so I don't really mind but the registration process itself was awful involving multiple restarts. It felt more like installing an MMORPG than a single player game.

My only real gripe with the game so far concerns a feature I call the Magic Spacebar. The spacebar can either cause you to duck or to jump depending where you are. It can also initiate a few other "cool moves" (tm) including rolls and sprints depending on the context.

Think about it: The same key that causes you to crouch can also cause you to jump. That is a recipe for disaster in a busy fire fight. Instinctively hitting space at the wrong time may cause you to leap into the air instead of ducking for cover while jumping over obstacles involves an unnecessary combination of ducking before jumping.

Why?

Why not have one button for duck and one button for jump? Why not let somebody crouch anywhere and jump anywhere? Although I am not personally a fan of "cool moves"(tm) in shooters these could easily be incorporated without resorting to a magic button. For example a quick tap on an arrow key while crouched could initiate a roll.

Magic buttons pops up a lot in third person action games and it seems to be a legacy of their console heritage. There may well have been a time when consoles were so limited in processing power and memory that player freedom had to be restricted so that they could only run, jump or crouch in certain predefined locations but those days are long gone and modern consoles can easily handle free form gaming. The limited number of buttons on a hand held controller is a more persistent issue but there are (just) enough buttons to cover all the main shooter functions without doubling up. Unfortunately Gears has chosen to assign one button to a pretty useless "Look at Place of Interest" button and has opted to combine crouch, jump and a bunch of other stuff in this one magic button.

Its not a deal breaker for me and I am getting used to it. The percentage of times when I try to duck and end up jumping up into a hail of fire is reducing. I just wish they had opted for something like COD4's much praised controls. For reference COD4's console control system can be seen here while Gears of War's controls are here.

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