Gears of War
"Why?" I asked, genuinely surprised at the man's negativity.
"Because it looks too good."
It looks too good. This man was so used to video game developers promising the world and only delivering a few city blocks that he simply figured a game with as much to offer as Gears simply would never make it to the market.
Well, lucky for us, the man was wrong. On November 7th, 2006, Epic did release Gears of War, and it flew off the shelves. On November 12th, Microsoft held an event called "Emergence Day" where people could play online against the game's designers, members of the band Megadeth, and win prizes just for being online with the game.
Why all of this hoopla over a video game? Let's take a closer look.
Gears of War is a third-person shooter, but it plays like no other third person shooter you've ever seen. The game makes extensive use of cover. In fact, in the game's manual, it says, and I quote:
"Use cover in combat or DIE."
Almost every surface in the game provides some amount of cover. All you need to do is tap the "A" button and your character immediately slams himself against the nearest wall or large object with a satisfying "THUMP!" Once there, you can lean the left analog stick in various directions to either do contextual moves such as diving from cover, or switching from one piece of cover to another. You can also blind-fire from cover with a twitch of your trigger finger, or you can hold down the left trigger to aim your weapon more precisely. The upside of blind-firing is only your gun is exposed, so if the enemy is firing, you take no damage. The downside is your shots are highly inaccurate. The upside of aiming is your shots are accurate and deadly. The downside is that it leaves you partially vulnerable to attack.
That, in a nutshell, describes the major mechanic in the game. It may sound simple, but the correct use of cover in the game will make the difference between life and death. And not all cover is created equal, either. Some objects, like desks or couches, will degrade when fired upon, leaving you (or your enemy) more exposed. Each weapon in the game also has some kind of melee attack, including the never-fails-to-impress chainsaw attachment on the game's main gun, the Lancer. You quite simply have not lived until you've snuck up on an unsuspecting enemy, revving up your chainsaw, and ripping the guy in half, leaving blood and gore stains all across your screen.
But there's more to it than just hitting "A" and holding tight. You are part of a four-man team, and that's important to remember. Even the solo game is not a solo game. You will not survive unless you rely on your teammates, and they can rely on you. You can give them some orders (attack, defend, and regroup), and sometimes they will give you orders, and it's best you listen. Because any A.I. that's advanced enough to let your teammates take care of themselves is smart enough to let the enemy overtake you. The villains in the game, nasty alien beasts called The Locust Horde, don't rely simply on sheer numbers to take you down. They are a cunning group, and will smartly outflank you if you're not careful. This adds a whole new strategy element to the genre that most other shooters lack. More than once, I would be playing through a level I had already passed, only to find that the enemy that I had so readily shot down the first time was now nowhere to be seen, until he comes up behind me and blasts a hole in my gut with a shotgun.
If there is any problem with the game, it's that certain sequences make you split off with one other man from your team, while the other two go in a different direction. Now, there's nothing wrong with this mechanic specifically, but for some reason, it seems to make the teammate paired with you completely ineffectual. I can't count the amount of times I've had to replay a chapter because my idiot partner got himself killed just for being stupid. I don't know why the A.I. drops so sharply in those sections, because it only applies to your one teammate, not the enemy.
Luckily, there is a solution to this problem. If you have Xbox Live (and really, if you don't, this is the game to get it for), you can play the entire single player game cooperatively online with another player. That's right, you heard me, the entire game. This adds an entirely new dimension to the gameplay, as you can now discuss strategy on the fly, call for help, and get revived if you're dying. As fantastic as the single-player mode is, it's even better with a friend. You can also play co-op on the same system, but then your screen gets cut in half.
And this isn't the only multiplayer option in Gears of War. There is a robust versus mode as well. Now, seeing as how Epic is best known for their Unreal series of games, which are nothing but massive deathmatches, you would immediately think that the standard free-for-all deathmatch would reign supreme. That is not the case. There are three multiplayer modes in this game: Warzone, Assassination, and my personal favorite, Execution. Each mode is team based, although you can do one-on-one games as well.
Warzone comes closest to the classic deathmatch, where each team is simply out to kill the other team. Assassination makes one person on each team the team leader, and the game doesn't end until the team leader is shot. Also, in this mode, no weapons are available until the team leader picks it up first. Execution is similar to Warzone, except that you have to get up close and personal to kill your opponent. It's not enough to riddle someone with bullets, because they will heal over time. If you manage to knock someone to their knees, you have to get close to them and either chainsaw them to death, or do the second-coolest move in the game: the head stomp. This is where you put your foot on their face and literally crush their head under your boot. You won't believe it the first time you see it.
Since all three multiplayer modes revolve around teams, just like in the main game, teamwork is essential to victory. And it's incredible to be on a team where the communication is so clear that every move is coordinated and every plan comes to fruition. It bestows a sense of satisfaction you simply cannot get from multiplayer games where everyone is out for themselves. Epic has really done a fantastic job of moving the core gameplay elements from the single player mode into the multiplayer mode. At the time of writing this review, each multiplayer mode only supports up to 8 people total, or two four-people teams. However, considering the layout of the maps and the way the multiplayer works, this is more than adequate. In the future, Epic may release more maps or modes that allows for more people.
Another incredible feat that Epic pulled off was bringing to life those fantastic graphics we saw back in those early videos. Gears of War is without a doubt the best looking game in the history of console gaming, and perhaps the best looking game in the history of all video games. Every single detail of the world is fully realized and lovingly rendered. The theme of the game is destroyed beauty, and the games visuals reflect that. Everywhere you see ruined buildings and broken columns. The roads have potholes and the walls pockmarked. There are almost no smooth surfaces to be found.
And it doesn't stop there. Every character has a distinctive face, with their own personality, and body armor markings. The Locust also have several different types, each of which has different armor and skin. All the character actions are smooth, even when there are a hundred guys running across the screen. If you chainsaw an enemy, blood and viscera shoot onto the screen. If you head stomp someone in multiplayer, it's as if their whole head explodes, spraying everything around with gore.
Even more impressive is that the Xbox 360 handles all of these graphics without so much as a single hiccup. The framerate is constant and smooth for both the single player and the multiplayer. Only once in the past 8 days have I encountered anyone with slowdown problems on the multiplayer, and even then the problems only lasted for about two minutes before clearing themselves up. When you stop to think about how much detail is crammed into every single pixel of this game, and how fast some of the action is, it boggles the mind to think that this game has nary a technical hitch. It's no surprise that Microsoft engineers said that this game pushes the 360 harder than anything else before it.
The audio is equally impressive. Every sound in the game has its own distinct rhythm. Even the guns the Locust use have a separate gunshot pattern from the guns that your characters use. In the middle of a firefight, if you stop to listen, you can hear bullets firing, feet clamoring, bodies hitting walls and floors, shouts between teammates, frag grenades flying, and even more. You can actually tell a good deal about a battle just from the sounds in the game, so they're more than just fluff.
The soundtrack, on the other hand, isn't the most memorable in the world. Compared to some of the stellar soundtracks in Japanese RPGs or the Metal Gear Solid series, the score for Gears of War is simply workmanlike. But most of the time, you're so deeply involved with the gameplay that the music won't matter, anyway.
Epic has done the seemingly impossible with Gears of War: They've developed a game with extraordinary, groundbreaking gameplay, coupled it with top-notch graphics and sound, added some juicy multiplayer features, and put it all in a package that runs seamlessly the entire time. It's a fantastic feat and it may not be replicated for a long time in console gaming.
If you own a 360, you will have wasted your money on the system if you don't purchase Gears of War. If you don't own a 360, then Gears of War is the reason to buy one. This is that must-have, system selling game that people will be talking about for years to come. It's simply too damn good. I am proud to give Gears of War DVDTalk's highest ranking for video games: Video Game Talk Collector Series.