GEARS OF WAR (2006) – EPIC GAMES
When the Xbox 360 was launched in 2005, there was only one game that most fans wanted to play – Halo 3. Unfortunately, with the news at E3 in 2006 that Master Chief wouldn’t be arriving on the console for another year, it meant that in the interim period Microsoft needed a big hitter to draw in consumers and keep them hooked. Enter Epic Games (creators of the almighty Unreal game engine) and their newest IP, Gears Of War. The thing is, Gears didn’t just prove to be an effective stopgap for Halo, rather upon its release it became perhaps the best game you could buy for the Xbox 360.
The story in Gears Of War is a solid blend of science fiction, and good old fashioned action. The backstory is that humans have settled on a planet called Sera, where they have engaged for many years in the Pendulum Wars, a fight over a valuable energy resource called Immulsion. Eventually the Coalition Of Ordered Governments (known as the COG) came to power as the dominant political faction, but then an event known as ‘Emergence Day’ occurred, where a vast subterranean army called the Locust attacked humanity. Fourteen years later, humans have been driven back to their last bastion of Jacinto by the seemingly unstoppable Locust horde, and the COG army (called Gears…see the link, cogs and gears?) is the only hope that humanity has left to survive. At the start of the game you take control of Marcus Fenix, a Pendulum War hero who was imprisoned for deserting the front lines on Emergence Day to save his father. He is busted out of Jacinto prison by his best friend, Dominic Santiago, and joins Delta Squad in a mission to wipe out the Locust stronghold that exists beneath the surface.
While the sci-fi elements are perhaps a bit clichéd, the action element more than makes up for it. Marcus and the other members of Delta Squad (the mechanic Damon Baird and former Thrashball player Augustus ‘THE COLE TRAIN’ Cole) are the very definition of ‘manly’: impossibly muscled and with grizzly attitudes that make both the camaraderie between the group and the combat they get involved in very satisfying. It also helps that the world you play in really does reflect the sense of overwhelming odds; you won’t find sunshine and rainbows in the Gears Of War universe. What you will find instead is death, destroyed cities, skies blotted out by Nemacyst and Kryll, and a metric ton of Locust who want to see you very dead. And speaking of the Locust, I haven’t come across many other enemies in games that I have a genuine hatred towards; they are bloodthirsty, ugly as hell and it’s a pleasure to send them packing, especially the bigger nasties you will encounter on your travels. The campaign isn’t the longest you will ever play through, but it’s a taut and very engaging story for its entire duration.
Shooting games aren’t exactly a rare commodity on consoles right now, so what is it that sets Gears Of War apart from everything else? Simple: it has cover mechanics. Most shooting games encourage a run and gun attitude, but if you try and do this here, you will get shredded in seconds. Cover is at the heart of everything that Gears does, and it encourages a different way of playing. Instead of rushing in blindly, you take cover behind bits of scenery (such as walls, destroyed cars, rocks etc.), and then pick of your opponents from the relative safety of your position. The game is played in third person view, so its easy to spot where to take cover, and actually performing the movement is as simple as pressing the A button when you get close (the A button also allows you to climb over cover and perform SWAT turns amongst other things). Shooting also takes place from a third person perspective (similar to Resident Evil 4, although here you can move and shoot at the same time), allowing you to zoom in for better accuracy. There are other gameplay features unique to Gears as well which can be utilised. When reloading a gun, players can press the RB button at the correct time on a small gauge in the top right hand corner of the screen to perform an ‘Active Reload’, giving you a quicker reload with improved damage for a short period of time, with the penalty for missing being that your gun will jam for a small period of time, leaving you vulnerable. It soon becomes second nature to hit the gauge spot on, and you’ll find yourself reloading on instinct alone. Health is also another factor to consider; you do not have a set health bar, instead when you take damage, a crimson omen will appear on the screen – the more the damage, the more full the omen becomes. Fill it completely, and you die. This means you can push the limits with regards to damage, and fire accordingly when in cover.
The best thing by far in Gears Of War however, is the weapons you will be using to fight the Locust. Put simply, this game has some of the most utterly brutal weaponry ever witnessed in a video game – for a kick off, your standard assault rifle, the Lancer, has a chainsaw attached to it. Yes, you can use it. And yes, it makes a horrible mess out of any Locust you manage to hit it with. The Torque Bow fires explosive bolts that can penetrate flesh, the Sniper Rifle delivers some incredibly satisfying headshots (complete with the sound of a Locust head splattering into bits), and the Boltok Pistol is a handgun with firepower to match Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum. In an interesting twist, both sides are able to use each others guns, so there’s always the chance that you could be the one with a chainsaw sticking out of your chest – best to take down the Locust as and when you can.
Away from the campaign (which can be playing in co-op mode if one so wishes) there is also a very competent multiplayer section to be played. Three modes were made available on disc; Warzone (a standard team based deathmatch mode were you have one life between rounds), Execution (which is Warzone but with the added rule that downed players have to be executed rather than death by bullets) and Assassination (where each team has a randomly assigned leader who is the only one that can track the opposition leader), with a fourth mode, Annex (a variation of the classic King Of The Hill gametype), being added via an Xbox Live patch. It was a very welcome addition to the game; indeed from its release to the release of Halo 3, it was the most played game on Xbox Live bar none – displacing the mighty Halo 2 in its wake.
While its unique gameplay features certainly makes Gears Of War stand out from the pack, it was not without its problems. The multiplayer mode was riddled with bugs when it came out, although to their credit Epic Games did do some major housework on sorting out the problems. I just wish they could have neutered the shotgun a bit. My main issue lies with the actual modes on offer – when you look at it, there isn’t really a lot of variety compared to say, Halo. Having only one life per round can put people off as well, especially if they aren’t too skilled with the multiplayer…like me. My major problem with the game though is the terrible difficulty spike that one experiences between Hardcore and Insanity in the campaign. Hardcore is pretty tough at times, but Insanity mode literally had me in fits of blind rage – I honestly can’t remember how many times I tried to storm the Theron Guards at the end of Chapter 3, and having to replay the needlessly long segment before the fighting actually starts nearly made me want to break the disc in frustration. Alas, I managed to complete the game on Insane mode, and now live on to give words of warning to other gamers who want to take the challenge on.
Playing this game again recently for the purpose of this review also made me realise how good this game looks. As far as proving the HD credentials of the Xbox 360 was concerned in its early days, this game was the definitive argument for moving to the next generation. From the shattered interiors of buildings, to the scaly hides of the Locusts and the glow of Immulsion to the rippling muscles of the arms of the Cole Train, it’s a stunning game to look at, and age really hasn’t affected its ability to amaze oneself. Perhaps going back after playing Gears Of War 2 will make you notice little hitches, like Anya’s featureless face, but hindsight is a wonderful thing. Gears Of War also wears its 18-rating very proudly on its sleeve, and provides blood and guts by the bucketload, which does help to make the firefights seem more brutal. Definitely not one to pick up for the kids.
Happily, Epic Games also put plenty of effort in the audio production for the game. Delta Squad have the voices to match the manly exterior, with John DiMaggio (Bender in Futurama) voicing Marcus, and former American Football player Lester Speight earning a whole legion of fans for his excellent portrayal of The Cole Train. I find the soundtrack to be one of those odd ones where the are no particularly defining tracks, but it just fits nicely into the background – which is a good thing, because it allows a solid, and at times very funny script, to shine through in its place.
To conclude then, Gears Of War is a great game, full of action and offering something a bit different to all the FPS’s out there. Best of all, if you haven’t played it yet, its available pretty much anywhere for dirt cheap prices, and with an excellent sequel out and the final game in the trilogy set to be released on September 20th, there has never been a better time to have a go. Welcome to Delta.