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|Gears of War Review - Available!
Gears of War. The very name sounds menacing, and in a way it is. Welcome to Sera, a once idyllic world that has been ravaged by the Locust horde. The Locust are a sickening parody of humans, only exponentially stronger and meaner. According to various tidbits I picked up from dialogue, the war with the Locust has been raging for the past 14 years, where victories have been far and few between and humanity has been pushed to the very brink of destruction.
The game starts out with you, Marcus Fenix, being released from prison and being handed a gun by his old friend, Dom. Right away several questions leap out at me: why am I in jail? Did I just not pay my traffic tickets? Who’s this Dom that’s supposedly been my life-long friend? I was patient, thinking that these issues would surely be resolved fairly soon, but was disappointed. You don’t find out until 3/4 of the way through the game that Marcus was in prison for running to check on his daddy after a Locust invasion. He also feels unjustly accused of desertion, which I really can’t understand. More on that aspect of the game later. Onward!
Gears of War is what is referred to as a “stop-and-pop” shooter, a genre that I have zero experience with. I’m more familiar with traditional shooters such as Halo and Goldeneye. Your character, Marcus, is a member of the COG, and his unit is apparently comprised of the baddest dudes on Sera. Each COG warrior looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger, plus a couple hundred pounds of solid iron plating for armor. Seriously, you can’t believe the types of steroids these guys are on. However, that isn’t to say that they are invincible like they would be in other games. While Marcus and co. are certainly tough enough to chew nails for gum, they can only take a certain amount of punishment before going down, which gives rise to “stop-and-pop”. There is cover everywhere in the game and you are rarely (if ever) engaged in combat without plentiful cover scattered about the map. Walls, crates, cars, trees, rubble – it all works, and you are required to make expert use of it to survive. If you try to play this game like the Master Chief, the first locust you encounter will end the game for you. That said, there is a very generous health recovery system where all you have to do is wait a few seconds behind some rubble without being shot.
This game is not for the faint-hearted, or the weak of stomach. If you’re worried about your stomach ulcers, stop reading right now. As Marcus Fenix, its your job to progress from level to level (or “Acts”) while keeping yourself and your squad alive. The game revolves around team combat, and this is especially true when playing co-op, either online or split-screen with a friend. In-game you’ll have anywhere from 1-3 additional AI’s in combat with you, and managing them effectively can really pay off in the heat of combat. While GoW is not a tactical shooter, you can give your squad basic commands such as “Regroup”, “Cease Fire”, and “Attack”. Sometimes a good old fashioned charge will work, since sending your team in to flush the enemy out while you hang back and play sniper can be an effective tactic. It all depends on the situation; experiment, and you’ll discover several useful techniques that can aid you in combat.
A few situations will require you to drastically change tactics, especially when the Berserker creatures are around. Berserkers are basically giant locusts that are blind but have excellent hearing and smelling capabilities. To be frank, your pitiful weapons are no match for the Berserker, which will tear you to pieces (I mean that very literally) before you get more than a few rounds off. Taking down this quick, cunning behemoth requires more than a little luck and perfect timing to boot.
Gears of War is one of the most graphically impressive games to ever come out. Its certainly the best-looking Xbox 360 game, and IMAO beats out Resistance on the Playstation 3 as well. Every graphical effect conceived by the mind of man has been implemented here and the 3D models all make use of extremely high-resolution textures. Even the dirt looks real. Oddly enough, the only thing to appear fake in this game is the blood.
The game is fairly confined, and you don’t really see many wide-open landscapes. When you do you can tell that the draw distance is pretty short, and it seems that Epic traded the ability to create massive environments and instead went with packing as many pixels into a tight space as they could. It certainly paid off but the downside is that Gears of War feels a little claustrophobic at times.
There’s a really good storyline hidden somewhere in Gears of War, but you rarely see it. You’d think that a game like this would be chock full of juicy details about the war between humanity and the Locust, but after playing through the entire game I’m left only with the impression that the humans are about to lose. Nothing else. No other insights.
I can almost see the designers at the Epic offices, all clustered around the supposedly thirty-year old Clifford Bleszinski, saying, “Dude, how can we make this really awesome shooter game with blood and guts like you wouldn’t believe?” I’d say they arrived at the story they did create more by accident than anything else. In the hands of a more capable design team, this could have been a truly moving game with plenty of detail and a real sense of purpose behind it. Instead we’re left with a game that seems to consist solely of moving from one area to the next with no real insights being offered as to why we’re doing what we’re doing. I still have no clue what the purpose of 3/4 of the missions were.
Gears sports some really amazing sound effects, especially when you’ve got the game blaring with full surround sound. Bullets whiz past your ear, explosions shake your house, and the blood curdling roar of the Locust sounds all too real. The voice acting was nicely done, although a few parts were a little cheesy. I don’t even want to know how they recorded the sound of a chain saw ripping through a Locust-creature’s flesh.
Very impressive sound overall, and the musical compositions weren’t bad either.
Controls are a very important aspect of any game, especially when you’re reaching for the stars graphically. If I’m wrestling the controls all the time I’m not going to appreciate the pretty bloom lighting and HDR. Thankfully, Gears of War has a superb control scheme and several clever additions that really add to the gameplay.
Ever since context-sensitive button design was invented by Nintendo game studios everywhere have copied this approach. Nothing wrong with that; its a great way of controlling the number of buttons you have to memorize and eliminates the cursed “combo” that most of us remember. Epic made extensive use of context when mapping their controls, and the A button does everything from kicking in doors to making a mad dash for cover. The other three buttons on the main face of the 360 controller have been given simple, menial tasks such as picking up ammo or revving your chainsaw (yes, there is an entire button dedicated to revving your chainsaw). I enjoy contextually based button commands but Gears kind of overdoes it with the A button. It controls too much, and after awhile you start to feel like the game is holding your hand and all you have to do is point your weapon.
I’m probably nitpicking with the controls. The style works well and I didn’t feel inhibited by the control scheme in any way.
One nice touch I liked was the “Active Reload” system, as I believe its called. You reload your weapons with the Right Button, which is located on top of the Xbox 360 controller. Tap it once, and you start to reload your weapon, which if left to its own devices can take as long as three seconds. Three seconds is an eternity in Gears of War, and you can remedy this by taking advantage of Active Reload. Once you hit the RB, a little meter shows your progress in reloading the weapon (the animations are nice as well). Each weapon has a “sweet spot”, so if you hit RB again while the slider is in that sweet spot, you’ll finish reloading faster and also gain a damage boost if you stop the slider perfectly (think the power meters in every golf game ever designed). Nailing that sweet spot can be crucial, especially in boss fights where every millisecond counts. Think of it this way: without using active reload you might be able to pop off seven shots in a minute with your sniper rifle. With active reload you can easily push that number closer to twenty, depending on your level of skill and how plentiful the enemies are.
Gears of War was certainly worth playing through. I’m not sure that it deserved the Game of the Year nominations that it received, but it is clearly one of the better games out for the Xbox 360 right now. At $60 its a steep buy, especially since the multiplayer deathmatch mode is kind of boring. Almost every multiplayer match descends into a race to see who can claim the Hammer of Dawn first, a weapon that controls an orbital satellite in the vein of Goldeneye. However, I really enjoyed playing co-op online, and the game becomes much more enjoyable at the point when you have a living, breathing ally alongside you instead of the sometimes questionable AI of your partners. (Seriously guys, I don’t know any soldiers who would forsake cover and charge a giant three-story crab.)
Before I close, there is one design flaw I would like to point out. Gears makes use of a checkpoint system similar to Halo’s, but occasionally screws it up. I shouldn’t have to run up a stairwell and through a long hallway and shoot the same bottle of proprane just to burn down the same door each time I die. The game is filled with little annoyances like this. I mentioned this to somebody and their reaction was “don’t die”. Here’s a hint Clifford: don’t make me want to put down the game for the rest of the day and come back tomorrow.
Other than that its a fun game. Too light on the story for my taste, but definitely an action-packed thrill ride.
Posted on January 15, 2007 at 1:15 pm