Gears of War Review
It finally happened: the Xbox 360 has its "system seller". The first real killer app is here for Microsoft's console, and its name is Gears of War. Epic Games, creators of the Unreal series, have gone way over the top and done an incredible job on this new futuristic shooter that blends classical style with futuristic firefights and plenty of violence and gore.
Fourteen years ago on the planet Sera, on a day now called Emergence Day, the ground literally opened up and an evil race of humanoids named Locusts invaded and started a war with the otherwise peaceful people. The Locusts brought massive weapons and unseen horrors with them, and the humans have been fighting for survival ever since. You play as Marcus Fenix, a COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments) soldier who has been imprisoned for treason some time during the war. All he did was try and save his father's life, but he went against orders to do it and got court martialled and tossed in prison when it was done. When the army comes to bust Marcus out, it's obvious something has changed, but it's only a matter of seconds after you unceremoniously walk out of your prison cell that it's time to pick up a gun and start shooting.
It also only takes a couple of minutes of gameplay to figure out that Gears of War is a totally kick-ass game with the best graphics that pretty much any game console has ever seen. The city you're fighting in has been ravaged by years of war, yet the massive Gothic, Greek, and Victorian structures are mostly still standing. You'll be fighting against the Locusts in these wondrous cathedrals, libraries, and out onto the city streets. The action is very violent and instantly gratifying - from the hard-hitting melee kills, to the very satisfying feel and sound of the weapons, to the copious amounts of blood and gore, it's obvious that the action, story, and visuals are coming together with pretty much no compromises.
Fighting from behind cover is a crucial part of winning many fights in Gears of War. Most firefights give you columns or concrete structures to hide behind, and you'll need them if you want to regenerate your health (the system here is like Call of Duty 2, where spending several seconds without getting hit will heal you fully) or take some time to reload. Marcus can dive in any direction and hop over short obstacles, but he's no gymnast so don't expect much in the way of high-flying acrobatics. For that matter, pretty much every male character in the game is as massive and muscular as a bodybuilder, and that goes for your enemies, the Locusts, as well.
As the orchestral music rises and you enter a Greek-style atrium, one of your squadmates (for most of the game you'll have three buddies with you) yells that Locusts are closing in. As they pour in from the other side of the room, you dive for cover behind a pillar and ready your sniper rifle. You pop out to spot and see a couple of Locusts setting up behind cover of their own. Unfortunately for them, their weapons aren't quite as good at this range as your rifle is. As they fire at you, you let go of the analog stick and Marcus pops back behind cover. You move over to the right side and pop out there for a better angle, zoom in, pull the right trigger, and in an instant one of the Locust's heads explodes in a shower of blood and gore. All of a sudden, you realize that your squadmate Dom just went down. One of the Locusts must have either went around or punched through - it's time to switch to the COG assault rifle. You tap right on the D-pad (up is for grenades, down is for your pistol which you'll always have on you, and left and right are your two major weapons, which you can swap out with guns on the ground) and Marcus puts the sniper rifle on the left side of his back and pulls his assault rifle off the right side of it.
Now how did Dom get taken down again? You don't see anyone and can only hear the annoying fire of the Locusts across the way, trying desperately to do some real damage to you. You've got a bad feeling about this - you go ahead and hold down the B button and the chainsaw that's on the end of your assault rifle roars to life. All of a sudden there's a Locust right in your face, charging at you for a melee kill. You frantically press the right trigger while still holding down B, and you realize that your enemy has made a huge mistake. The Locust practically walks right into the chainsaw. As the camera adjusts to give you a better viewing angle, the chainsaw tears through your opponent's head and his upper torso, blood flies everywhere - it's a little hard to see, really, as a bunch of blood has actually splashed against the "camera" - and the Locust's body crashes to the floor in three pieces, still leaking blood out everywhere. Dom's lying in a crumpled heap here, and it only takes one tap of the X button to get him on his feet again. Now it's time to finish off the rest of the Grubs across the room...
The next day, you and a friend do the same thing together in co-op.
Many fights in Gears of War have just the right amount of suspense, heart-pounding action, desperation, and satisfaction to rocket this game into "instant classic" territory. It's one thing to make an incredibly atmospheric horror game that scares the hell out of the player every couple of minutes, but it takes an even better game developer to maintain a top-notch atmosphere and simultaneously keep this kind of action fresh and fun without going too crazy. Even the guys at Bungie, working on the Halo series, struggled more with maintaining this delicate balance - while I'm sure it wasn't really an easy feat, Epic has made the whole process seem totally effortless.
Now that I've brought up Halo, it's time to start thinking about a broader comparison between the two games. Graphically, Gears of War makes both Halo games look like they belong back on the Sony PS1. Even compared to every other Xbox 360 game I've played, Gears of War looks amazing. It has an unflinchingly stable frame rate during every cutscene and firefight, yet the detail in the world is incredible. The action borrows important elements from Halo so the firefights stay exciting, and the player doesn't have to worry about health packs or ammo for your 12 weapons. Epic has also made sure that getting close-up kills are satisfying enough to be worth the effort of closing the gap with your enemy. The story and futuristic setting work perfectly here, much like they did for Bungie in their own masterpiece, but here your character has more than just a cool voice and generic name. Since this is a third person shooter, you'll see Marcus do the killing as well, and the perfectly-tuned camera positioning never robs you of a kill or causes you to get killed. I feel that the music in Gears of War isn't quite on the level of what we got in Halo, but it's still pretty close. Cooperative gameplay is a ton of fun as both players can throw together quick tactics for specific rooms (with the way cover works here, flanking maneuvers are very useful), and this even comes together nicely in the online competitive modes.
You're going to need to use cover to win on all three of the game's difficulties, although the lowest, Casual, lets you get away with going all Rambo more often than not. On the middle difficulty, Hardcore, you really need to know what you're doing and you'll definitely need to fire from behind cover and shift and move when the Locusts try to flank you. Finally, Insane mode feels even tougher than Halo on Legendary, although playing it in two-player cooperative mode gives you an advantage in that you and your buddy can revive each other in order to continue. Seriously, though, Insane mode feels nearly impossible, but I'm sure that plenty of people will beat it once they get the hang of the game.
In the cooperative mode, which can be played via split-screen or over the internet via Xbox Live, one player will control Marcus while the other plays Dom, one of his squadmates. The cutscenes and action all come through just like they do in the single player campaign, and it's so much more fun overall to have a real human player to work with. You can even revive your buddy when he falls, and the game doesn't penalize you for having one player die - only if both wind up dead at the same time will you get a Game Over screen. This is great because players don't have to be at the same skill level in order to enjoy co-op, and as long as the other guy is willing to revive you every time you fall, you'll both still be having fun.
Gears of War includes a few unique weapons and bits of gameplay that add something new to the formula - even if it's not much. The reload system here requires that you tap the right bumper button to start a reload. Now, you can just let it go and you'll reload normally, but there's also a meter on the top right of the screen filling up. There's a spot about one third the way through and if you hit the right bumper again in that spot, the reload finishes up faster and you're ready to shoot again in a fraction of the time. Inside that there's an additional tiny sweet spot and if you time it right and hit it right at that point, every new round you're putting into your gun will get a damage bonus so you can kick even more ass. Tap the bumper outside of the larger sweet spot, and you'll actually make your reload slower than normal (Marcus usually cusses as well when this happens). It's an interesting system that requires you to concentrate on the reloading at the top corner of the screen, and it's a trade-off since you've got to take your eyes off of the enemy movements to do it right.
The weapons here are also a good mix of standard fare and new, strange weapons. The Hammer of Dawn is probably the coolest new addition, as it will "paint" a target for a few seconds and then suddenly a beam of energy comes down from an orbital satellite. Of course, the Hammer only works outside, and it doesn't always work in the single player, but it definitely has its uses in multiplayer modes. You can really do some damage to people hiding behind cover with it. There's also the Locust torque bow, a high-tech version of a classic weapon that fires explosive arrows (guess what happens when you stick an arrow in someone directly). Overall, you'll find that the arsenal looks great but isn't quite that innovative in how they work, but in the end I have no problem with a standard assault rifle or shotgun as long as it gives nice big boomies.
Going online in Gears of War is still something of a challenge, as the game servers seem to have a problem getting solid games going. Even with my network properly set up for Live play, during the first few hours I spent more time looking at the "Connecting..." screen than I did playing the game, but after a while things calmed down a bit and I was able to play with fewer issues. I'm pretty sure the connection issues will get hammered out, but if they don't then it could mean for some frustrating evenings of just trying to get into more than a few games over the course of an hour or two.
Competitive modes online feel a bit light on content, but what's there really does work nicely. There are basically two modes: team deathmatch and last man standing with a few variations mixed in. Everything is round-based here, and once you get killed in a teamplay mode, one of your buddies has got to revive you before the enemy finishes you off completely. If you work as a team and bring up your teammates when they go down, then a round can last quite a while even though Gears of War limits games to four plays on each team. The maps are small and tight with plenty of cover, so you'll be using the same tactics you used in the single player game. But players can really raise the level of tactics using Xbox Live headsets, so even this soon after the game's release the fighting on Live is already intense yet very tactical. Most players already know they can't stand out in the open and fire wildly.
So what is Gears of War missing? For one, the maps for online play are pretty small and very tight; I wonder what this game would feel like if the world was opened up and longer-distance fighting was allowed. There are also few-to-no vehicles to spruce up the gameplay, although I think you'll find that the situations and story do enough of that to keep you coming back over and over either way, and the three difficulty modes change the game just enough each time to make you feel like you're almost playing a different game anyway. Finally, I was hoping for more multiplayer options (of all the 360 games out there, Perfect Dark Zero had probably the most multiplayer options) for custom matches. But all of these are slight annoyances or curious what-ifs rather than real complaints.
Gears of War raises the bar for action games and gives the Xbox 360 its first true killer app. From the magnificent visuals, orchestral music, and classical architecture, to the sci-fi storyline, beefy-looking characters, and violent and bloody action, the game sometimes feels like a fascinating exercise of extremes. In the end, all of it put together really works. With a fully-featured cooperative mode with true online play and plenty of other online modes for competitive play, this one will most definitely hold your attention for quite a while. Can this game possibly get 360 owners to finally stop playing Halo 2 online and start seriously looking at something else? It remains to be seen whether it really does happen or not, but my money is on "yes".