Gears of War is synonymous with the Xbox 360, analogous to the original Xbox's Halo and every bit as iconic within the gaming community. There isn't enough that can be written about how this game has shaped the image of the system of its original release, how it set the tone for everything that came after it and raised the bar for what we expected out of action games for this generation, both in terms of mechanics and in terms of presentation. Since this game's release, other big titles have come along: Halo 3, a sequel to Gears itself, and a slew of shooters to make fans' hearts burst. The only question now, after two and a half years for reflection and perspective, is if Gears of War was the Xbox 360's first true killer app.
Gears of War takes place on the war-torn world of Sera, where humanity has been battling a subterranean menace known as the Locust for many years. It is not known why the Locust have chosen to wage this war, but humanity has done its best to respond in kind, falling back to the only continent with a crust too hard for the Locust to quickly burrow through. The higher-ups in the military have decided that the COG soldiers will be attempting to take the war to the Locust, striking at the enemy where they live and hopefully ending the threat by nuking the living bejesus out of them. So the player is thrust into the role of Marcus Fenix, a COG soldier who has been rotting in prison and now finds himself as a member of Delta Squad. Mr. Fenix is having a very bad day, but this means a very good day for the player.
Honestly, everyone has days like this. Right?
There are two dominant concepts behind the gameplay in Gears of War. The first is the one that is obvious to anyone who watches: cover. Gears of War takes the spatial awareness inherent with a third-person perspective and combines it with the ability to use the environment specifically to protect yourself from enemy gunfire. Almost anything big enough for your character to hide behind can be used as cover, and once in cover you have the option of firing from cover, partially revealing yourself to better take aim, or to leave cover in order to seek more advantageous angles from which to attack. Battles often consist of moving from cover to cover, attacking your enemy as you move, giving the sense that you are gaining ground as you progress. More importantly, though, cover actually feels like it's very effective, and when returning to other shooters you may wonder how they would play with a cover system. You leave cover and you will die. This creates a great deal of tension, but it is a positive feeling.
The second concept that dominates Gears of War is simplicity of control: running, dodging, leaping, taking and leaving cover, and more are all controlled with the A button. It could be argued that there is too much functionality invested in the A button: because most of the actions you take are context sensitive and there are only a few directions by which cover can be left, the actions taken using the A button are sometimes finicky. It is imaginable that you might want to leap forward or run, but because you are standing next to a wall you end up taking cover against it. These instances can be reduced with careful use of the left control stick (since the direction you hold the stick determines the action you take) but they are still there, and in some rare cases they can make the difference between winning a battle and being killed. This is especially problematic in the higher difficulty modes, where any improper action can kill you, but the controls are overall very responsive and carefully focused.
Translation: you will be able to have fun shooting monsters in the face!
Graphically speaking Gears of War is a stunning game, doing things with character models and environments that are very impressive by any standard. This is the part of the game that is probably the most well-known, with everyone who has ever seen footage of it being struck by what Epic is able to squeeze out of its Unreal Engine 3. The game's look is as consistent as it is technically impressive, and though its art design may lean toward the contrived from time to time (why are subterranean creatures like the Locust humanoids at all?) its consistency is its primary virtue and its saving grace. Enemies are frightening, and if you're willing to turn off the part of your brain that wants more logic behind what you're seeing, you're in for a hell of a ride. One particularly nice feature is how all of the important enemy types are very visually distinct from one another: you will never confuse a Grunt for a Theron Guard, or a Wretch for a Boomer. Every aspect of the visual design, from the war-torn environments to the enemy design to the specific color palettes used for enemy characters and friendly characters, is leveraged toward achieving a specific experience and streamlining the way in which the game is played. Gears of War's graphics are great not only because they are technically impressive, but also because they are functional.
The sound design of Gears of War is similarly functional while being very impressive in its own right. The game's soundtrack is appropriately bombastic and "epic" in the sense that it's something you would expect out of a major Hollywood project, and the sound effects used to convey the condition of your environment are pristine and informative to the person who is willing to listen. When you hear a Wretch screaming in the distance it is a warning to break out your short-range weapons; when you hear a Berserker sniffing at the air around a corner, it is a signal to back away slowly or be ready to die. It would be difficult to list all of the ways in which the sound design serves to inform the player of his or her situation, but suffice to say that a tremendous amount of knowledge can be communicated by absolute silence.
The most noteworthy part of the game's sound design, from an aesthetic point of view, is its voice acting. In contrast to what may be expected, Gears of War has some of the best voice acting in the business. Small wonder, too; you take voice talents like Fred Tatasciore and John DiMaggio and push them enough, you're going to get some good performances. Part of what makes these performances stand out, though, is that you have this highly talented and professional collection of actors and they are acting out one of the most ridiculously masculine, stupid-action-movie-style scripts that this reviewer has heard in a long, long time. The contrast is something that has to be experienced in order to be believed, because every line is invested with such earnestness and emotion that you will believe every word of it, and then wonder exactly why you're getting so wrapped up in a conversation about shooting aliens in the face. This is not supposed to be a dig at the script, either, because it is very good for what it is, but the quality of the voice acting is almost at odds with it. It's almost surreal when taken at face value, but when actually experienced it makes for a more immersive game than Gears of War would have been otherwise.
Sometimes it's the silence that will get to you.
The story of Gears of War is one of the best examples of what makes the game work so well: it is incredibly stupid and unafraid of the distinction, seeking to be neither high-minded nor especially noteworthy save in how it gives the player opportunities to do very fun things. It is a narrative with all the unnecessary bits cut away and left on the floor, the video game equivalent of a really good summer blockbuster, and for people who appreciate that sort of thing there is a lot to like here. The story, like everything else in this game, is subservient to the experience that the creators want the player to go through. The best part of the way that Gears tells its story, though? There's never a cutscene where the player will think, "I wish I was playing right now."
That is the ultimate philosophy of Gears of War: all things are in place in order to make the game more immersive, faster-paced, and more fun. Great strides have been taken at cutting away the parts of games that the designers found unnecessary, so there are no expository cutscenes, long treks without fire-fights, or any particular section of the game that stands out as more boring than any other. There aren't many games that this can be said about, so I will reiterate: every part of Gears of War is fun to play. More, you will be playing more often than not, because Gears doesn't save the most impressive action for its cutscenes. There are one or two action sequences in cutscenes, yes, but they are scenarios that would not have been winnable under the mechanics of the game and they involve the characters running away from danger anyway, so there is no loss in the experience. This extends to every aspect of the game, from the way cutscenes can be relied upon to set up an interesting to scenario to how even reloading your weapon is made more than just a time-consuming process, so that a person who actively participates in the action of reloading is given advantages over people who do not. "Play me!" Gears of War demands, and then it does its best to accommodate the player and keep them going. Once you start, there may be no reason to stop except for exhaustion. Few games can claim that. That said, there are a few kinks in the narrative: there are some elements that you play through which aren't really covered in cutscenes, and the entire last chapter hits you like a train with no warning and no explanation. It doesn't make the chapter less fun to play, but it does break the sense of immersion when the player realizes he just jumped on a train carrying an enormous bomb without knowing why.
Maybe this guy knows why!
There are three ways to experience Gears of War: by yourself, in cooperative play with a partner, and through online deathmatches with up to eight people. The best of these is the cooperative mode, while the worst lies in the online deathmatches. I will cover why in the next few paragraphs, because they do a lot for affecting the lasting appeal of the game.
The campaign mode of Gears of War can be experienced by yourself or with a partner. By yourself the game is a highly focused experience which will put you on edge, challenge you in many unique ways, and force you to think tactically, with all of these virtues being amplified as you play on harder difficulties. You will experience the kind of spectacle that cinema cannot convey, and you will take part in battles that will make you feel like you are participating in a war. But the game really opens up, really begins to shine, when you play with a friend.
In the game's cooperative mode, one player takes the role of Marcus Fenix while the other plays as Dominic Santiago, another member of Delta Squad. In terms of game mechanics, Dominic and Marcus play exactly the same: they take the same amount of damage, move at the same speed, and are able to use their weapons in the same way. What changes the way the game plays is the very fact of having a partner: instead of doling out ineffectual commands to your Artificial Intelligence partners, you can coordinate with another thinking person in order to do things that are not possible otherwise. The experience of the game's scenarios, which are thrilling on their own, changes considerably with a partner, so that the shared experience is amplified by sheer virtue of your partner's participation. It is one thing to dodge out of the way of a Berserker and then shoot it with your orbital laser gun, but it is another thing entirely to see the same monster attacking your partner, draw its attention with a hail of gunfire, and then dodge out of the way while you and the other player try desperately to coordinate a proper angle of attack. The simple act of providing cover fire in normal battles is given more weight, because you are not just keeping the enemy's attention away from the other members of Delta Squad, you are protecting the person who is talking to you. The game is played best with a friend because of the emotional investment that we are able to put in another person and how we can play off of each other, becoming simultaneously more effective in combat and more thrilled by our successes. Gears of War is fun by yourself, but in cooperative play it is a triumph of game design. If a player has someone that they enjoy playing with, Gears co-op by itself could justify the purchase of the game. It is that good, and can last for that long.
Here Marcus and Dom demonstrate the value of the buddy system.
Deathmatch, however, is problematic for the same reasons that cooperative play is so fantastic. While cooperative play capitalizes on the mechanics of Gears of War, providing more meaning to using cover and protecting your friends, deathmatch pulls back the face of the system and reveals that Gears of War's gameplay was balanced for the campaign mode instead of head-to-head fighting. Whereas the campaign mode makes excellent use of cover and reinforces that leaving cover is a death sentence, the order of the day for deathmatch is the ability to move quickly, get up in the enemy's face, and kill them. In other words it is less about defensive play and tactics and more about being able to move as close to the enemy as possible and then hit them with a short-range weapon such as the shotgun. The mechanics of Gears of War are tossed aside, which stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the game and hurts the experience of deathmatch play.
As a package, Gears of War is a truly great product marred only by the flaws of a game that can't hold to an excellent design. In truth, I would probably rate this game more highly if it didn't have the deathmatch mode, or if the deathmatch had been retooled in order to make cover more necessary to the way the game is played. I can't really fault the campaign mode outside of the jarring lack of context in the last chapter, but the game's sometimes finicky controls in a genre that demands perfection keeps Gears of War from being as perfect as it could be. There is no question that Gears of War is beautiful, focused, and extremely fun, giving incentive to play with a friend, and while its flaws keep it from being perfect, the game is a must-own for anyone who can lay their hands on it. It won't last you forever, but the hours that you spend playing it will be among the best that you've experienced.