Review: Gears of War (XB360)


Gears of War
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Developer: Epic Games
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: 11/07/06

Epic is one of the more… let us say focused companies in the video game market today. For those not aware, Epic makes first-person shooters. A LOT of first-person shooters. Anything with the Unreal name attached to it? Yeah, that’s them. They’ve been around as a developer for a quite a while, starting out on the PC with games like Jazz Jackrabbit and One Must Fall (the less said about that, the better), but ever since the Doom craze hit, it seems like all they make are games in the FPS vein.

So Gears of War was a little surprising. Admittedly, the third-person perspective doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a shooter, but the squad based combat and requirement of the use of cover were certainly surprising. Initial observations compared it less to Unreal and more to games like Rainbow Six, only with large angry aliens, which was also shocking. Still, everyone was more or less unanimous in their declaration that Gears of War looked to be the game of the year.

I thought it looked stupid. I feel that I should express that up front. The Gears themselves looked ridiculous, the aliens non-descript, and the idea of the game turned me off instantly. But I am nothing if I am not a gamer at heart, and even though I managed to avoid a lot of the hype behind the game, I was still looking forward to playing the game, if only to laugh at it.

For those wondering, that’s not quite what happened. Let’s go.


1. STORY


At first glance, the story of Gears of War seems to be the story of an Earth torn apart by war, but that’s not entirely true. Rather, Gears of War is the story of one Marcus Fenix, former Gear turned prisoner turned Gear again, and those he commiserates with. The story of the war, as it is, is largely glossed over (which makes sense; the characters already know all about it, as they’re living through it), while the story of those on the field of battle takes the forefront. This sort of story CAN be done well; Saving Private Ryan did something like this, as did Halo, and in both cases it worked well enough, so it’s not impossible.

The problem in that comparison, unfortunately, is that in this case, we know little about “Emergence Day”, the day the war really began, and we know even less about the enemy, save their name: the Locust. Implications of importance are made, but nothing ever really comes of it, leaving us to wait for the sequel for any answers as to what’s really going on. It’s one thing for things to be vague for storytelling reasons, and that’s fine, but Gears isn’t doing that. Questions are raised that are within the realms of the story to explain or at least try to (what are the Locust? Where did they come from? Why do they use Human weaponry? Why do they speak English?), but nothing ever comes of it. It all culminates with a battle against a final boss that we see for approximately ten minutes TOTAL prior to his attack, and you’re left somewhat deflated by it all.

So, we’re ultimately left with the story of Mr. Fenix and his associates as they traverse the war-torn wastes. Thankfully, this story is significantly better, mostly due to strong writing of the character dialogue. The main characters (Fenix and company) are strongly written and have very dynamic and interesting personalities, and their story, while not superb or anything, helps keep the narrative flowing very nicely. The eventual clichéd story resolutions aren’t exactly awesome, mind you, but we expect them when they come, and they’re done acceptably enough that they don’t hurt the experience any.

All told, the story of Gears of War is solid, if lacking. Some depth to the plight and the war would have helped the game immensely, and some exposition on the enemy would have helped us hate them for reasons other than their shooting at us. But the story of Marcus Fenix and company makes up for this deficiency, if not override it. We care about Marcus, if not the war itself, and while a little more effort would have been nice, what’s here isn’t bad.

Story Rating: 6/10


2. GRAPHICS

Wow.


Look, let me get this out of the way up-front: the only major graphical flaws I noticed is that the enemies occasionally clip the battlefield in death, and when you’re looking for an entrance to the mine, the rain run-off, while it looks very nice to see it actually make contact with the characters, clips partially. Oh, and blood looks like strawberry jam, but I think this is supposed to be on purpose (I have no idea how someone could achieve the effect by accident).

Now, on to the good: Gears of War is THE best looking game on the 360, and frankly, the best looking game released all year. No, shut up. It is. The characters are all heavily detailed and exceptionally well animated, and even if you don’t like the block-of-meat character designs (as I don’t), you can’t deny that they look outstanding. Ditto the Locust; they’re hideous in the most pleasant way possible and animate exceptionally. Hell, when enemies get ripped open, the ENTRAILS move (which is both horrifying and impressive at the same time). The environments are visually stunning and make good use of light sourcing and visual effects. Oh, and if you own a TV that runs at 1080i, feel good about yourself: Gears of War looks exceptionally nice in 1080i Hi-Def.

In short, Gears of War is optical sex. And I mean the good kind, where other people are involved. You will find nothing this year that looks better, from a pure technical or presentation standpoint, period.

Graphics Rating: 10/10


3. SOUND

The game music is largely fitting, as it varies between ambient tones and appropriately action-oriented tracks when the ass-kicking commences. It’s not the sort of music one would desire to own outside of the product, but it works quite well in-game, and the intro track in particular shows that a lot of attention went into making certain the music matched the mood of the game.

The voice acting is absolutely superb. There’s not a single stand-out performance because nearly all of the voice actors are on top of their game and turn in an awesome performance, and they all deserve their paychecks. Bravo. The random chatter that pops up (to remind you of mission objectives, warn you of frag grenades or certain dangerous enemies, etc) is also variable enough that it doesn’t grate or get annoying, thankfully. The sound effects are all quite solid as well, and do a great job immersing you in the experience, and the gunfire and explosions are very powerful, which is very pleasing. Yet again we have another awesome aural experience, I’m happy to report, and those with high-end sound systems will be giving them quite a work out. Thumbs up.

Sound Rating: 9/10


4. CONTROL/GAMEPLAY


The gameplay in Gears of War is, in a word, tight. If you’ve played a shooter in the past few years, you should have a vague idea of what to do when you get into this: left stick moves and strafes, right stick looks around, congratulations, now shoot everything that moves. Gears of War, on the surface, is no different: it feels like a shooter, for the most part, which is to say, it feels exactly as it should. The controls feel tight and responsive, everything works as you expect it to, you can aim precisely as in most of these sorts of titles, it’s all very stereotypical, if quite well done.

Then you start really playing it.

The main thing to understand about Gears is that the cover system makes all of the difference. When you approach things that you can tuck and cover behind, a prompt pops up on-screen telling you as such. Press the button, and your character (usually Marcus) slams up against it, back-first, and peers into whatever direction you desire. Attacking from this position works in one of two ways: if you choose to aim, you pop out from behind cover and aim at the enemy as normal… or you can simply pull the trigger and blind-fire. Blind-fire is a surprisingly interesting concept I can’t really recall seeing in a game previously, and it works as you’d expect… you stick the gun out and shoot in the general direction you’re aiming. This can also be done with grenades, for reference. It’s a surprisingly simple concept that works well, even if you won’t use it much (except to maybe cover someone moving in or to buy a few seconds to catch your breath).


The other part of the cover system that’s flat-out cool is how seamless it is to transition from and to cover. If another object is in range that can be used for cover, you simply press towards it and press the button, and your characters simply moves to it. If the object is further away, doing this act makes them dive out and break into a hunched run for the next piece of cover. In short, it FEELS like real combat in style and presentation, which adds to the impressiveness of the experience.

And you really need to use the cover to your advantage, because death is fickle mistress here. Much like the Halo series, damage taken is regenerated as you cease to take it, but unlike Halo, you can’t stand up to more than a couple seconds of direct fire, even on Casual (easy) difficulty. The game MAKES you use cover to your advantage, and while this might take some getting used to, it makes the game more interesting than your typical shooter. Circle Strafing? No way pal, not happening here. This adds a more tactical element to the proceedings, and makes each and every battle that much more tense and engaging.

There’s also plenty to do in Gears; aside from the standard Campaign mode, you can also play the Campaign co-op, online AND off (and there are benefits to this; certain achievements can only be unlocked by playing as Dom, Marcus’ second in the group), as well as play versus games, again, online and off. Multiplayer modes include Warzone (competitive, team-based deathmatch), Assassination (kill the leader to win), and Execution (execute enemies to gain points). Among the normal “points to win” and “map to play on” options, you can also set your bleed out duration (how long a player bleeds before they die; bleeding players can be brought back into the fight if found by allies before they die) and turn Friendly Fire on and off. The online, in short, is generally pretty robust. I didn’t notice any lag when playing, either, and the matches are all fast-paced and entertaining, even when you’re face down in the river (which tends to happen, at least to me).

There are other little things that make the game great, too, beyond the cover system. Reloading has an added layer of depth; as the gun is reloaded, a Mario Golf-style bar pops up under the ammo indicator; press the reload button at the right time, and you halve your reload time and maybe increase your damage for a few seconds… press it too early or late, and you mess up and delay yourself longer. You don’t need to do this, but with minor practice, it becomes second nature. Grenades, when armed, show the traveling path as does the Tork Bow, a bow with exploding arrows), which makes aiming far easier for those without the knowledge to get the angles spot-on. The ability to run up and revive downed teammates, while not really that spectacular in single player, is a life saver in co-op and multi-play; the latter because it can keep the battle from going against you, the former because it keeps you from having to start up at the last check point. And the game, as is standard, only allows for a certain amount of weapons at any point in time, in this case four, to be carried with you. While you might miss the days of Doom where you could carry everything you could get your hands on, this emphasizes picking the right tool for the job, which is usually your machine gun with the chainsaw bayonet (yes, really, and it’s awesome) and something with more kick, like a shotgun or a sniper rifle.


But it’s not without its problems, as you’d expect. The AI, while quite solid, isn’t perfect; despite enemies shouting “Grenade” in their raspy tone, they don’t exactly make haste to book it away from such that often. Plugging them when they’re not properly behind their cover doesn’t result in much response, either, save their death. The weaponry, while varied, isn’t anything new or special, and there’s not a lot of it; it’s nice to have two functional machine guns, for instance, but weird alien weaponry is nowhere to be found, and the only unique weapons are the Torque Bow (bow with exploding arrows) and the Hammer of Dawn. The Hammer is a laser pointer of sorts that, when active, brings hell down with it via an orbital beam cannon (think Ghosts in Starcraft), and while it sounds cool, it’s very hard to work with, and in campaigns, it’s only really useful once in a great while (though it’s riotous in multi-player). The game also feels very short, and there are only two “boss” fights, only one of which is against a hulking giant monstrosity. Considering that we see a monster we never even face, that’s a heavy let-down. Oh, and there’s a driving level that’s okay, but not really anything special, and by the time it gets done you’ll be itching to shoot things again.

Negatives aside, however, Gears of War plays absolutely fantastic, and is one of the best playing games released EVER, let alone this year. Some more weapon variety and tweaked AI would’ve helped things immensely, as would a bit more length, but the experience is still well worth it, as the game is a hoot, and online even more so.

Control/Gameplay Rating: 8/10


5. REPLAYABILITY

There are three difficulty modes to choose from (the third, Insane, is unlocked after you beat the game once), online and offline co-op, and a very solid multiplayer mode to keep you coming back for more, as well as a crapload of achievements to, um, achieve. Sadly, you’ll have seen most everything the game has to offer after one run through the campaign, but the strong gameplay will keep you coming back, simply because it’s fun to play. Some more depth to the weaponry or length to the campaign mode would’ve been nice, but with the inevitable Xbox Live downloads to come (HINT HINT Cliff), you’ll most likely want to keep coming back for a while.

Replayability Rating: 8/10


6. BALANCE

Offline, Gears of War offers up a solidly challenging experience and three difficulty modes to choose from to give even the most gifted gamers a test. Some of the segments are substantially less challenging than others (fighting the Corpser, for instance, is a cakewalk, even on Insane difficulty), but the standard firefights are consistently challenging, and even on the lowest difficulty enemies exhibit somewhat intelligent AI behaviors. Online is what it is; cover plays a very large role in the gameplay, but the various complaints one can lobby against FPS titles (campers, respawn killers, et al) exist here as well. Still, equal players on equal footing should have some really strong, heavily contested battles, and none of the weapons feel particularly unbalanced in online play. All told, Gears of War feels well balanced, and for the most part should provide whatever degree of challenge you’re looking for.

Balance Rating: 9/10


7. ORIGINALITY

The vast majority in Gears of War comes from the gameplay and its implementation. The story dynamic is nothing new, and has been seen to variable degrees in Quake or even Epic’s own Unreal franchise, and many of the weapons are standards of the genre (though the chainsaw bayonette is really cool). The gameplay is the major standout here; the emphasis on pitched firefights reminiscent of Halo or FEAR or what have you combined with the “cover is king” mentality of Rainbow Six and other such titles is a nice touch, and how this all comes together leaves Gears feeling not quite like anything you’ve played. It’s a shame more originality doesn’t come through in the product, but there’s enough to make it feel like its own experience instead of something cribbed from a competitor’s playbook.

Originality Rating: 6/10


8. ADDICTIVENESS

The gameplay is easily the single most addictive thing to Gears of War. The major emphasis on heavy-duty firefights and taking cover or eating hot lead death is seriously intense, and this design and implementation ultimately makes the game very difficult to put down. The campaign mode is spaced out appropriately enough that you’re constantly doing something or finding something interesting, which helps keep you glued to the controller every second you get. But the single best indicator of the addictiveness is that the game is over WAY too soon; while the game could certainly have stood a few more hours of gameplay, it never wears out its welcome, which is an awesome thing.

Addictiveness Rating: 9/10


9. APPEAL FACTOR

Strong and engaging gameplay? Check. Heavy-duty action? Check. Strong aesthetics to appeal to presentation-oriented gamers? Check. Looks like we have a winner here. Combine this with the solid reputation of Epic (hello, Unreal), the combination of elements from games like Medal of Honor and Rainbow Six, and the heavy carnage and violence, and you have a game that can appeal to just about anyone (who’s over seventeen). And hey, there are aliens! Everyone loves aliens!

Appeal Rating: 9/10


10. MISCELLANEOUS


I experienced the odd network issue here and there when playing online… occasionally, when trying to join games I was dropped from the network for no adequately explained reason, which could have been personal network issues, except that when I did log a game, I had no problems. Also, occasionally the game pulls a Halo 2 visually… you know, where the world pops in, undetailed, then finishes rendering itself as you watch. This only happened once in two full completions of the game, though, so it’s not really noticeable, and doesn’t affect gameplay any. Otherwise, I am pleased to report no noticeable gameplay issues or problems.

That aside, I’m very surprised to admit that I loved the hell out of Gears of War. I had absolutely no expectations of the title going into it, and figured it would be largely unimpressive. Well, I am wholly pleased to admit that I was wrong. Gears of War is a phenomenal title, for the most part; it could stand a bit more polish in certain areas, yes, but as it is, it’s absolutely well worth every penny, and I think the following conversation, paraphrased, had while I was showing the game off, puts it all into perspective:

Friend of mine: “Thanks a lot Mark.”
Me: “For what?”
Friend of mine: “Now I have to buy this.”

And there you go.

Miscellaneous Rating: 9/10

The Scores:
Story: 6/10
Graphics: 10/10
Sound: 9/10
Control/Gameplay: 8/10
Replayability: 8/10
Balance: 9/10
Originality: 6/10
Addictiveness: 9/10
Appeal: 9/10
Miscellaneous: 9/10

Overall Score: 8.3/10
Final Score: 8.5 (GREAT).

Short Attention Span Summary
Gears of War is one of the best titles to come out all year, not just on the 360, but at all. The narrative is a little weak at times, and lack of variety hurts the presentation in some respects, which keeps it from being higher, sadly. But don’t let that bother you; if you’re at all a fan of the shooter genre, you NEED to own this and love it lots. Much respect to Epic Games for this, and I’m honestly heavily anticipating a sequel.