It has been a goddamn agonizing year of waiting for Xbox 360 owners. More so, it has been waiting for what Microsoft has been promising since before the Xbox 360s launch. So we waited, helpless to the arduous pace of time. Way back in January, there were rumors of Halo 3 by Christmas, but they have been squelched by the great M (and Halo 3 was pushed into 2007). So we're at a Christmas 2006 without Halo... but luckily we have an understudy that's worth every bit as much as Halo, maybe more. It might be the best game to hit any console this year.
My first experience with Gears of War was something of disbelief. "Wow," I said to myself. "This is the same game I lauded with praises back at E3 '06 and now I'm finally playing it!" And for a few days of play my eyes were wide in astonishment, my ears overtaken by sound effects, and my triggerfingers no longer itchy; Gears
hit a sweet spot. A few articles ago
I complained about some of Gears' issues: the faults with the multiplayer matchmaking system, the overly simplistic button layout, and the little quirks regarding the chainsaw. Gears has a few problems that do not improve on the overall formula for a shooter; it has some faults. But even after that first feeling of disbelief wore off, today, I find myself engulfed in a game with deep replay value both online and offline, the best graphics I've ever seen in a game, and some of the most visceral, carnal, and bloody gameplay to ever grace a console. Oh, and did I mention that it has Co-op play over split screen, system link, and Xbox Live? Yeah, it has that too.
So the story goes: Humans on the planet Sera were living peacefully until the Locusts came from underground on a day called "Emergence Day." The Locusts killed millions. So humans, in an attempt to stop the menace, used giant satellite lasers, thereby destroying their own civilization. So the Gears mystique is a cross between The Matrix
and The Mole People
? you know, that terrible black and white film that was lampooned on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Of course, the Locusts in Gears of War would kick the shit out of the mole people, and then curb-stomp their faces.
In Gears of War's single player campaign, you play as Marcus Fenix, a badass in the term's most unabashed, manliest use. He's like steak and raw eggs, this guy, or a cross between Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger's character in Predator
? whatever he is, he's burly
. Marcus had apparently defied orders during one of mankind's great battles with the Locust Horde in an unsuccessful attempt to save his father. He was jailed for 40 years ? but then the locusts invaded the prison where he was being held. So, with the help of his long-time friend Dom Santiago, he escapes the prison and begins working with the last human resistance.
The story is lacking: there, I said it. All that I just stated was written in the manual. There are these crust-dwelling mutant creatures fighting humans for domination of Sera. That's pretty much it. And character development is largely ignored and we only get bits of it in passing. Of course, Gears basically is a "go here, kill everything in path" type of game, so this is somewhat forgivable. It wouldn't be forgivable if the gameplay was lacking. Luckily, that's not the case.
The game features three difficulty levels: Casual (which is far too easy), Hardcore (which is about right), and Insane (which is just...insane). I wish there was another mode which added the number of enemies you have to fight in the single player campaign because sometimes it feels like they scaled it back to keep the pace quicker. I would have liked to have some longer, more attrition based battles.
In the overall advancement of the genre, Gears of War has its share of innovations. The "active reload" feature is so innovative, I absent-mindedly press the right bumper in games that don't have it ? meaning all other games. Active Reload is a feature that allows the player to gain a bonus to their bullets mid-battle, while at the risk of jamming their gun. In the top right corner is the active reload gauge, under the ammo count. Pressing the reload button starts the gauge. If you press the reload button again as it passes over the highlighted area, you'll reload faster and even gain a damage bonus to the new bullets. If you miss the active reload, you'll jam your gun momentarily and have to wait until it gets unjammed.
Gears' now touted "stop-and-pop" mechanic (as opposed to run-and-gun from other shooters) is not new, exactly. The Metal Gear Solid series, for example, popularized the hiding behind cover mechanic back in 1998, so this is nothing unheard of. Even the recent Rainbow Six Vegas utilizes a very similar cover system. However, the way Gears blends this slow-paced element into the action of the game is something to praise. What the developers did, as stated by Cliff Blezinski in the game's manual, was "make it real." A true enough sentiment. Ducking and running, slamming into cover, and firing over that cover feel...well, real
. It feels like you're there. And all this is done with the context sensitive "A" button. I praise the effort to keep the game simple, considering what it could have been, but placing so much emphasis on "A" does burden that oft-used facebutton, and the time pressing it takes away from when I'd rather be using my thumb to turn around. (I discuss this in more detail in my other article "Gears of War, What is it Good For?") But that said, I think it's very well implemented.
The third person camera is flawless, taking some pointers from the camera in Resident Evil 4 where it's fixed over-the-shoulder. But the camera moves when it has to, namely when you're duck-running in the "roadie run." But this "smart" camera never gets in the way. Never. This is the best use of a 3rd person camera since Resident Evil 4; one of the best uses ever.
Another thing you might've heard of (and what Gears of War will certainly be remembered for) is the chainsaw-bayonet. This nifty addition is what replaces your traditional melee attack on the Lancer assault rifle (the standard go-to weapon). Rev up the chainsaw and hit the attack button while next to an enemy and literally rend them to shreds. It's pretty amazing sounding and blood spurts everywhere. This feature also makes Gears of War "M" rated in the most mature sense. This is regardless to the fact that the squad mates will curse on the battlefield. Cursing isn't a bother: but the chainsaw is just brutal. I wouldn't recommend playing this game with kids.
What really gives Gears of War the notch up on other shooters is how satisfying everything is. From the grind of the chainsaw, to the way the guns sound and respond, right down to the squishy explosions of flesh. It's all very satisfying and gory, which, perhaps, says something about our society's preoccupations at large. Still, what can be said is it makes you feel like something immense is always happening. Not a sound, graphic, or moment is ever wasted in Gears.
And you'll find that the gameplay in the single player (including co-op) is extremely well paced. There are "down" times followed by incrementally difficult battles. The game does seem to capitalize on that "10 minutes" repeated over and over like Halo, but each encounter is varied enough to make it a different battle. I found the boss fights (which all have small tricks to defeating them) to be too easy, even on Insane difficulty. My friend and I in co-op beat the final boss of the game on Insane in about 30 seconds.
Like Halo and Halo 2, regenerating health returns for another go in Gears of War. As you get hurt from collateral damage and the like, you'll see the red Gears logo appear emblazoned center-most the screen. Take too much damage and you'll be "downed" ? hunched over on the ground, helpless ? and can be taken out with a few bullets, a curb-stomp, or a chainsaw. Being "downed" comes more into effect in the multiplayer mode "Execution" where you have
to finish the opponent or they'll recover and continue the fight. Even though it seems that you can take tons of damage, the game is actually balanced really well, and you'll quickly suspend disbelief in order to trade blows with the enemy. Of course, there are times when you won't get a chance to regenerate. Get stuck with a grenade, stuck with a torque bow arrow, or just get blown to bits and you'll quickly find yourself at the "load last checkpoint" screen.
The weapons in Gears of War are also memorable. First, as I mentioned earlier, is the Lancer with the Chainsaw-Bayonet, probably the single most memorable gun. But not far behind are the Torque Bow, a bow-and-arrow weapon that fires explosive arrows, and the Hammer of Dawn, an orbital satellite laser that can incinerate foes in a matter of seconds but has a fairly long cool-down time. The shotgun, called the Gnasher only in the game manual, is probably the most used weapon online, accounting for nearly 1/3rd of all my kills. If you're close enough with the shotgun it's an instant kill, splattering your enemies all over the walls. There's also your standard sniper rifle, called the Longshot, which is deadly with headshots and can down an opponent with one hit of an "active reloaded" bullet. There's the game's rocket launcher/grenade launcher, called the Boomshot. There's a backup pistol which can be dangerous at mid-range and with its quick melee attack. And then there's the grenades which, apart from thrown, can be stuck to nearby opponents only to detonate seconds later.
Graphically, Gears of War is top of the pack. No game on any other system, even the computer, has yet to come close enough to compare. The closest, in my opinion, is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but even that looks dated when compared to Gears. Every texture, every polygon in Gears of War is amazingly detailed. The world looks dreary and post-apocalyptic, which really adds tons to the feel and immersion of the game. Sometimes, looking up at the archways in some areas, or the architecture on buildings makes me shake my head in awe. The amount of detail that went into each character model is likewise staggering. And all of this, all of it, never suffers from frame rate problems in game. I noticed some slowdown in the cutscenes, but that didn't affect gameplay. Gears of War is a work of art.
Online you have a number of options. Co-op is available, as is deathmatch. There are two versions of deathmatch: player matches and ranked matches. In player matches, the game does not record your deaths and kills and your exploits do not go toward any achievements. In ranked matches the opposite is true, everything is recorded, and your kills go toward achievements.
The mode of versus play is Warzone, which is, essentially, a team deathmatch. Players cannot regenerate, but can slow "bleed out time" (the time it takes you to die from being downed), and can be killed with weapons from a distance. In Execution, players regenerate after bleed-out time and have to be finished with a curb-stomp, close-range fire, or chainsaw (bombs and 1 shot shotgun blasts also kill instantly). There is also Assassination, which is a version of Warzone where the opponent's team has to kill a designated leader. Of these, my favorite is Execution, followed by Warzone and Assassination. A few more modes would have been helpful to keep everyone glued to their TVs longer, but what we are given is quite amazing.
Strategies have quickly developed on certain levels (there are 10 multiplayer levels in total: Rooftops, Escalation, Tyro Station, Canals, Clocktower, Fuel Depot, Gridlock, Mansion, Mausoleum, War Machine) such as rushing the sniper rifle in Gridlock, defending the warehouse in Fuel Depot, or asserting domination over the Torque bow in Canals, Tyro Station, and War Machine. There are counter strategies to these also, which work well. Getting the Boomshot or grenades in Gridlock can be advantageous, getting the sniper rifle in Canals and War Machine are also good counters. There are many different strategies and each team works together differently. This is why despite the lack of game modes Gears of War will persist as a multiplayer game.
Gears of War is an incredibly impressive game. Already it has achieved 2 million sold worldwide which speaks to the appeal of violence. But in regards to the game's balance and design it says that people do appreciate good games with mature appeal. It's also extremely fun and satisfying. Gears of War is not only the killer-app for the Xbox 360 and a system seller, but it's one of the best games to come out all year.