Review by BloodGod65

Reviewed: 08/15/11

Remember Children; Duck and Cover!

Realism is not a pervasive element in modern shooters. Single soldiers taking on and defeating entire armies while absorbing enough gunfire to take out an aircraft carrier and showing a complete and total disregard for personal safety – those are just a few of the most common absurd elements found in many of the most popular shooters on the market. Epic Studios – the team behind Unreal Tournament and its proprietary engine - clearly takes issue with at least one of those unrealistic elements because Gears of War is all about getting your ass behind cover before you get it shot off.

The game takes place on the war torn planet Sera, where human civilization has been utterly decimated by an alien force known as the Locust. Making their presence known on Emergence Day, the Locust burrowed up out of the planet’s crust and immediately began a genocidal campaign against humanity. In the intervening years, human kind has been driven to the brink of extinction.

When Gears of War opens, players are introduced to Marcus Fenix. Locked up in an abandoned prison while the monstrous Locust close in on his position, Fenix is clearly in a bad way. Thankfully, his buddy Dom comes to the rescue just before Marcus becomes a tasty meal and the two escape. It doesn’t take long before they inadvertently become part of an ambitious plan meant to wipe out the Locust once and for all.

Despite its interesting premise, the story never really takes off. While I would normally take issue with this, great gunplay, awesome set pieces, and intense action do more than enough to fill the vacuum left by the limp narrative.

Although Epic breaks the usual shooter mold in other areas, the studio clearly has no intent to fix what isn’t broken. Gears of War uses the Resident Evil 4 template for its combat and, as in that game, the camera sits behind the shoulder and zooms in for more accurate fire. The only difference is that you can actually move and shoot in Gears of War. The gunplay itself is very smooth – not surprising given Epic’s background with the notoriously spastic Unreal Tournament. The weapons are also quite fun to use, even if they are mostly science fiction standbys. The reason for this is that they all feel really powerful. You’ll often be rewarded with large sprays of blood, limbs being blasted off, and heads exploding. Of course, I’m sure the fact that the standard assault rifle has a chainsaw attached to it helps with the whole sensation of power.

Since I’m on the topic of chainsaw assault rifles, Gears of War does have a few more unique weapons on hand for bloodthirsty players. The Torque bow is a futuristic bow that shoots an explosive tipped arrow. In order to effectively use it, you must pull back to increase the tension so the arrow actually penetrates and sticks in whatever it hits. Unfortunately, the most hyped weapon in the game is also the most lackluster. The Hammer of Dawn, a satellite guided laser beam, shoots down a ray of golden light that turns whatever it hits into a shower of meaty chunks. Although it sounds cool on paper, to use it you’ve got to have clear skies and an open field of vision to use the laser targeting system. This effectively restricts it to only a few specific scenarios in the game.

But what really makes Gears unique is not its fancy weapons and rifle attachments but its cover system. Unlike other shooters, simply running and gunning is not the path to success – although it is the surest way of becoming the latest casualty in the war on Sera. To survive, you’ve got to duck behind cover and shoot at your enemies as they present themselves. Far from making the game less exciting, this ratchets the intensity of the game up considerably. Trying to get off a shot at enemies that are also hiding behind cover and waiting for you to poke your head out is a test of patience and your ability to make quick decisions in the heat of combat. Maneuvering in cover is easy, as there are many context sensitive actions. You can vault over cover, roll out, or dash between two points.

However, the enemy AI somewhat diminishes the overall intensity of the game, because it makes some unbelievably stupid decisions. Locust soldiers often vault right over cover and charge into hails of fire for no good reason. But more often than not, while you’re taking care of one, two more Locust are flanking to the sides.

The game regularly breaks up the standard action with awesome set pieces and memorable boss battles. In one extended section, Marcus and Dom have to negotiate city streets at night. Because of a carnivorous bat-like creature, they must stay in the light to keep from being eaten. You’re often forced to do battle under a street lamp to keep from dying or else resort to shooting propane tanks to create new paths through the darkness. Seeing over-eager Locust soldiers get eaten after straying out of the light is quite amusing. At the end of this section, you get to pilot a monstrous vehicle with a giant UV light that you can use to kill off these little nuisances. Other memorable sections include a Locust siege on a gas station and an impromptu bout of spelunking in Locust filled caverns.

The game makes good use of boss fights. One of the most intense involves an enemy known as the Berserker, a blind tank that hunts by sound. Running and firing only draw it to you. This ends up being used against it – although I won’t ruin the details. Though the handful of boss fights are pretty good, the final fight is easily one of the worst in gaming history and ends an otherwise outstanding game on a sour note.

Although the game takes a dive in the last five minutes, Gears of War is stunning to look at from beginning to end. This being a game developed by Epic Studios, you can be sure that it uses their proprietary Unreal engine and it looks fantastic, of course. Even several years after its initial release, the game still looks stellar. The character designs are unbelievably detailed (and in the case of the Locust, unbelievably grotesque) and the environments feel realistic and suitably dilapidated for so many years of warfare.

On the other hand, the audio is hit and miss. While the music belongs in a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, the dialog is ripped right out of a crappy eighties action flick. Probably one with Steven Segal in the starring role. Of course that could be justified by the fact that the soldiers are never represented as anything more than dumb grunts, but that still doesn’t make it any easier to hear a character named Augustus Cole yell "You can’t stop the Cole-Train, baby!" every time he makes a kill.

Despite a few missteps, Gears of War earns its place as a premier title in the Xbox 360’s library. Although it doesn’t set out to rewrite the formula for good action games, it manages to raise the bar for what we will expect from action games in the future. The excellent set pieces and overall intensity make this a game everyone with a 360 will want to play.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Product Release: Gears of War (US, 11/07/06)

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