OK, I’ll cut to the chase: Gears of War is one of the best games that I have ever played. Ever.
I had ridiculously high expectations for Gears of War. Cliffy B (Lead Designer) talked about “changing the way that we’d be playing shooters”. He talked about Hollywood-level production values. He talked….and talked… until I started yawning and waiting for a release. And then the game released. And I realized that everything that he said, he’d delivered on.
In terms of genre, I believe that Gears of War can best be described as “a first-person Sci-Fi Action Shooter played from the third-person perspective.” But mark my words — the same way that we refer to free-roaming action games as “GTA-type games”, we’ll be talking about over-the-shoulder shooters with cover as “Gears-of-War-type games”.
You play in the Campaign mode as Marcus Phoenix, a six-foot-five-inch tough-as-nails Marine. The game opens with Marcus sitting in prison, until he’s “broken out” by fellow soldiers who need him back in action. Without giving away the story, things pick up right away and before you know it, you’re battling enemies. The “Locust” are the race of enemy creatures that recently emerged from their hiding placed within the center of this fictional Earth-like planet during a day of infamy commonly known as, “Emergence Day”. Feeling helpless and not wanting to surrender their city to the Locust, the government relocated everyone to shelters and destroyed the rest of the landscape. Your job is to work with your Marine squad to, what else, save the world.
Yes, the story is a bit cliche’. But it completely works. The setting helps to completely immerse you in the story as you progress. As much fun as the actual gameplay was, I found myself caring about the outcome of the story.
The graphics are quite simply the best that an Xbox 360 game has ever displayed. Period. The ruined buildings are breathtaking. As you’re running through the battlefields of play, at several points you’ll find yourself wanting to slow down the pace and actually look around. They’re just that beautiful. The mood of the story is very grim and dark, and the folks that did the lighting helped tremendously to create that mood. Unlike Doom 3, this is a dark setting where you can actually tell what’s happening. Every polygonal character — from the enemies to the weapons to the cars and tombstones that you’ll use for cover as you battle — they’re all shown in incredible detail. I was playing the game in 1080i on my High Def 27″ TV. I’m sure that on a 42-50″ Plasma or DLP TV that this would be truly amazing in 720p. It’s the type of game to make you consider going out to buy a better-quality TV.
One incredible scene has you batting in a rainy nighttime landscape. The feeling of immersion combined with the sound of the rain in 5.1 is indescribable. This has to be played to be appreciated.
As impressive as the graphics look, the gameplay is probably even more revolutionary. As mentioned, I totally shrugged off Cliffy B’s claims that his team would revolutionize the way that we play games. Mark my words — people are already in design studios changing the way that their shooters control and adding this “cover” feature to their projects. The emphasis in Gears is on “cover”, or using your surroundings to protect you from gunfire. (NOTE: This isn’t a completely new gameplay feature. Killswitch for the PS2 featured gameplay that was entirely dependent on “staying in cover”, “blind firing”, and using your surroundings to protect you.)
In Gears, you move the Marines (or Locust in Multi-Player) through the field from one cover object to the next. The field of play is carefully designed — almost like a chess board — so that you move your player from between the rubble where they’ll hide and wait for an opportune moment to pop up and shoot (or stay behind the cover and “blind fire”). The strategy element that has been present in first person shooters is multiplied in this setting. Do you try to run from cover to get to another cover object for a closer shot? Do you lob a grenade? How about using smoke bombs for additional cover and then surprising the enemy with a chainsaw slash? These are the choices that go through your head when you’re crouched behind that car.
One of the great team-related aspects of Gears is the fact that you can save your teammate from death. When a teammate takes a certain amount of damage, but not quite enough to kill them, they’ll take a knee. You’ll have a red icon on your display that will let you know who the team member is and a compass that will show you where they are. You can go over and help them before they die. The player who has been wounded has the option of hitting a button on their controller rapidly to “stop the bleeding” and last longer. This is a great feature and I think it will increase the camaraderie between teammates when you know that you could have been watching the game from the “I’m dead” cam, but instead you live to play on because MadSkillz31 saved you.
And all that great gameplay wouldn’t mean a thing if the game controlled horribly. And thankfully it doesn’t. Just hit the “A” button to duck into cover. You can use almost any object in the playing field as cover — if you hit “A” while near it, the Marine will slam his body into cover. One note: I did notice that in some areas when I went to enter cover, the Marine would do a running leap but for some reason the gameplay engine wouldn’t let me use that part of the field as cover. But this was a very rare occurrence.
The overall control is a very easy Halo-esque scheme where you use the right analog stick to control the eyes of the player and the left the move the player. The shoulder buttons control the firing and the A button switches between cover and, when it’s held down, lets the player run in a really cool “CNN War coverage” type view. I especially like the fact that the directional keys (up, down, left, right) are set up to switch between the four different weapons. This keeps you immersed in the battle, even when you need to switch weapons.
I thought the weapons could be a bit more varied. There’s a shotgun, a couple of machine guns, a rocket launcher, a grenade shooting bow and arrow and a few handguns. But this isn’t a reason to beat down on the game. The weapons that you do get are sufficient to take down the enemy.
I’ve never been impressed by the voice acting in any games, including Metal Gear Solid. MGS might be the best of the bunch, but they all sound forced and as if they’re in a soundbooth just trying to finish the lines and get back to their “real” acting gigs. Not in this game. The “colorful” language, the dialect, the emphasis on words — it all equals a stellar acting performance. Even the stereotypical Black guy — while a bit too over the top (especially when compared to the other players) is still entertaining and sounds like he’s truly in the midst of battle. Marcus’ voice actor is particularly notable. There were a few areas where I just had to smile that the voice acting was so good. I shot a Locust with a shotgun that came barrelling towards me and he splattered into a bunch of pieces. Marcus yelled out, “Lucky Shot.” It sounded really authentic. Also, when you take out enemies in swift fashion, Marcus yells out, “Oh yeah!”, but you have to hear the way he says it. I’m telling you, Marcus is the man.
The game in surround sound creates a mood that is incredible. There are some slower paced scenes in the game that are more akin to Resident Evil style gameplay and the sounds that emit from the game are very creepy. The music just puts the final touch on the game. The theme music is original and has a melody that will make it very recognizable as the signature ‘Gears of War’ track in the future. The music does change pace to match the intensity of battle and it kinda drops out as the battle subsides.
Modes of Play
The Campaign mode comprises the main mode of play. The game opens with ‘Casual’ and ‘Hardcore’ available. If you beat either of those, ‘Insane’ becomes available. I made my way through ‘Casual’ and I’ll be honest — I had an easy time in most of the game, but it got difficult in a few spots. I’m not the greatest at FPS games, but I can hold my own. However, there was a scene towards the end that had me screaming with frustration. After I completed the game on “Casual”, I started the Campaign mode again on “Hardcore” and already I’m feeling a bit inadequate.
In the Multi-Player modes, there are a few Deathmatch-type variants, but not the variety that’s present in games like Epic’s own Unreal Tournament. However, I think the modes that are available are very complimentary to the paced Gears of War style of play. Also, the eight maps provided are varied enough and are going to be adequate enough to tide over folks until Epic hits us with some kind of downloadable map packs. Let’s just hope that Cliffy can convince Mark Rein to keep the Xbox Live prices reasonable.
One thing that kinda got on my nerves is that they have these little medals that you can pick up all around the playing field for extra Gamerscore. I found 16 out of 30 my first play through. It’s rewarding when you find a medal. But in my opinion, the medals took me out of the immersion of the game a bit. I’m a bit obsessive compulsive anyhow and I found myself looking at anything that even slightly resembled a medal and trying to grab it. I understand why they’re there, but they kinda take you out of the experience. (Who am I kidding — I’m just mad because I didn’t find all 30.)
So what didn’t he like??
There’s not a lot to get upset at with this game. But there is one problem that was really annoying. When you play the game in Campaign mode Solo, they usually partner you with ‘Dom’. Dom’s a good guy and his gunplay is a big help to the team and much appreciated. But theres’ one thing about Dom that drove me to the edge of insanity. Even though there’s a very simple way of controlling the Marines under your authority by selecting the option for them to either “Attack”, “Cease Fire” or “Fall In”, ‘Dom’ likes to take chances. In the mode of play described above (where you can save your teammate), I would get frustrated at having to save Dom all the time. It was hard enough trying to stay in cover and take enemies out one at a time without trying to hold Dom’s reigns all the time. His aggressiveness would end up getting me killed. Anyhow, that’s just a small thing and only a problem in a few areas.
Another issue is the length of the game. If I can finish it in a night, it’s pretty short. I would have been through it quicker had the frustrating parts not challenged me so much. But to harp on these bits would discredit a game that is revolutionary. For the 7-10 hours that most gamers will spend on each of the Campaign difficulty levels, you’ll spend countless hours playing the team based modes online in the Multi-Player modes.
Lastly, (and this is going to be covered in another post) I got duped. I bought the Special Edition and I feel like Tom in the scenes of Tom and Jerry when Tom’s head turns to “Jackass” after he realizes he’s been had. A tin container. A “Making Of” DVD. “A CD-Jewel case” sized book with about 20 pages of art. And a CHEAP case for the actual game! I would have much rather had the actual DVD case inside of the case than this!
Seriously — we gamers have to do something to stop the corporate execs from punking us into forking over another 20% of the game cost for a few garbage extras. This is getting as much out of hand as the online content/horse armor crap.
Lastly, I was expecting a bit more in the way of a twist from the storyline. Without giving away any secrets (and there really aren’t any) I was hoping for some collusions between the Locust and the human government, maybe. Can I get a conspiracy theory, please? Something to muddy up the water a bit and make Marcus Phoenix, who is already the anti-hero, appear to be a bit more just and honorable than the government that incarcerated him. We don’t learn much about Marcus’ past in this episode.
I remember seeing a scene in E3 2005 where there was lava or something and that was absent from the Campaign mode. I also felt a bit misled by the “Mad World” commercial spot. Despite the campy music, the scene where Marcus crashes through the window to avoid the Locusts and ends up waking up in a nest of several big Locust monsters was chilling. Although the game was incredible and had it’s own great moments, I was kinda hoping for something like this moment in the Campaign mode. But enough bitching about the tiny nicks and chips on the surface. This is a first rate game and any of the imperfections are there to prove that the developers are only human and that they have some targets to improve on in future iterations of the series.
Mine eyes have seen the next generation of gaming — and it’s name is Gears of War. This is a genre-defining title that is going to keep Tim Sweeney, Mark Rein and Cliff Bleszinski in Lamborghinis, big houses and hot women for years to come. (See the “Making of” video to understand what I mean.) The only thing I hope is that they don’t lose sight of what brought them to this moment. The one good thing about the bonus DVD was watching the scenes where they slaved to try and get this thing to be absolutely perfect, and from this view, they achieved that. I don’t give scores because they lead to too much relative comparison and controversy and take the emphasis away from the game, but this is as close to perfect as any action shooter I’ve played.
The most interesting comparisons that are going to be drawn are not between Gears and Resistance Fall of Man, but between Gears and Halo. This is going to be a most interesting rivalry. And I think this is going to be a fanboy-free battle since both Master Chief and Marcus Phoenix are on the same exclusive platform. I’ve always struggled with the Master Chief fans. He’s a kick ass hero, but has he really kicked that much ass? I think most of the legendary status comes from the fact that we don’t know a great deal about Master Chief — least of all what he actually looks like. This is an admittedly completely juvenile statement, but what really would happen in fight between Master Chief and Marcus Phoenix? If I had to choose right now, my money’s on Phoenix.
Images courtesy of IGN.com