Review by BusterLegacyFF7
Like Fine Wine
This review was written on January 22 for version 1.0.1709.40909 of Gears of War on the Xbox 360.
Despite its status as an Xbox exclusive franchise, the Gears of War name carries quite a bit of weight. Easily capable of standing with other console exclusive industry titans like Halo and Uncharted, Gears of War has done its fair share of growing over the years. The Gears series has it all, from epic war drama to chaotic firefights to valiant last stands, but here in the beginning, Gears of War is essentially an untested and unproven beast, brimming with potential.
Gears of War takes place on the planet Sera in the aftermath of an event called Emergence Day, which marked humanity's first contact with a subterranean species of reptilian creatures known as the Locust. On E-Day, humanity suffered catastrophic losses as the Locust emerged from the ground and swept across the planet's surface, massacring entire populations overnight. Armies were crushed, nations crumbled, and governments went under before most of the world even knew what was happening. Those that survived the opening blows organized and mobilized in an agonizing war of attrition against the new foe and have slowly been battered back to a handful of cities and strongholds.
Gears of War begins in medias res, as Marcus Fenix is rescued from prison by his longtime friend and comrade Dom Santiago in the face of an oncoming Locust assault. At this point in the story, there is a lot going on that isn't explained within the game itself, but explored thoroughly in the series' complementary novels and comics. This will almost certainly leave players confused about the finer details of the characters and their relationships with one another, but those are gaps that are pretty easily filled in through in-game dialogue.
The game immediately erupts into a series of blisteringly intense gunfights that set the pace for the constant-action narrative, but more importantly, the opening firefights serve as a tutorial to the iconic Gears cover system. Compared to other third-person shooters - even by the modern standard - Gears of War has always done cover-switching and shooting correctly. With the press of a button, your character immediately adheres to any wall, corner, or piece of cover in front of them, retaining complete freedom of lateral movement while remaining safe from enemy fire. From a covered position, you can pop out and shoot, blind fire, or break cover to reposition somewhere else.
Gears wasn't the first game to use a cover system, but it became the standard because of how well it implements the minor details into its overall system. Player characters are relegated to a very small portion of the screen, which provides an excellent view of the larger battlefield and assists in making tactically informed decisions concerning movement. Firefights are almost always forward-facing, so the satisfaction of advancing and taking ground from the enemy as you push through gunfire is constantly present. Screen shake while running or being shot at is finely tuned to avoid annoyance yet secure immersion. On top of all this, cover switching is so smooth and handles so well that players have all the freedom to maneuver around the battlefield and explore flanks and choke points, even in the heat of battle.
The cover system lends itself well to the overall firefight experience, where the only thing between you and a terrible foe determined to kill you is a smart piece of cover and an arsenal of weapons that feel fantastic to use. The Active Reload System keeps you on your toes, allowing a quick, methodical finger to reload a bit faster and with an extra kick. If the engagements get too close - and they will - a close quarters chainsaw execution provides a gory and visceral solution. Every single fight feels handcrafted in regards to cover placement and enemy spawn locations to maximize on the Locust theme of using swarm tactics to make an opponent feel helpless.
Over the course of the campaign, Marcus, Dom, and the rest of Delta Squad clash with the Locust horde in what would later become known as the Lightmass Offensive, which emphasizes a narrative disparity that runs through most of the game. Delta is apparently operating within a massive warzone, but significant portions of the story are spent performing small scale squad operations. In only a few instances throughout the game did I feel engaged in an actual battle rather than a series of small skirmishes. The massive, apocalyptic war is always going on, but you never really see it despite being in the thick of it.
Thankfully, Gears handles the quieter portions of its story with tact, and it's easy to see what the game's earliest designs as a horror game eventually developed into. The Locust are terrifying, genocidal monstrosities, but they can bleed and die like anything else. But when the sun goes down and the lights go out, the true horrors of the Locust Horde are allowed out of their underground caves. Voracious Kryll fill the skies, eager to pick the meat off of anything that moves. Packs of Wretches wander streets in search of anything to kill. Even the Locust military itself never ceases on inching its way closer to humanity's last strongholds, above or below ground.
The narrative of Gears - especially developed over the course of the trilogy - is nothing short of phenomenal, but the successes of the saga don't excuse the shortcomings of the first game. The group chemistry between Delta is great most of the time with plenty of jokes and one-liners passed freely between its four members, but the sheer amount of cliche military jargon comes off as forced and annoying. Marcus as a character is very hard to read sometimes and Cole's only character trait is being black, but Baird's snark and Dom's level headedness keep the pace rolling along smoothly. As I mentioned before, the novels go a long way in turning Delta into a cast of extraordinarily well-developed people, but within the confines of the game, there's much to be desired.
On top of that, the game is very gray. I don't mean gray as in gloomy or depressing - apt as that may be - but literally, extremely gray. Ruined civilizations, nighttime suburbia, shattered marble, underground caves; the entire game is spent walking through settings with little color beyond the same flat, earthen tones of gray and brown. It serves its purpose of reflecting the narrative's somber mood fantastically, but by the end of the game it's a chore to look at.
The Gears of War multiplayer mode takes everything great about the game's gunfighting mechanics and applies it to a classic arena-style PvP experience, with carefully designed and symmetrical map layouts, power weapon spawns, and classic game modes like Team Deathmatch and King of the Hill. The heightened time-to-kill that Gears offers places a stricter emphasis on positioning, movement, and teamwork rather than twitch reflexes, but one-shot weapons like shotguns and sniper rifles still retain their high skill-ceilings should you choose to use them. Unfortunately, the game servers are all but dead these days, so the chances of even finding a game is slim.
A central theme of the Gears of War saga is growth, and this first game microcosmically embodies this theme perfectly. Gears of War is by no means a mediocre game. It was excellent when it came out, and it only shows the faintest signs of aging since then. The issues I have with the series' debut game is not because of problems born over time, but the improvements made since. Gears of War is simply made retrospectively mediocre by the standard it would later set for itself, which I hardly think is a bad thing. Everything I dislike about the game - the poorly told story, the tedious artistic direction, the lacking character development - and everything I love - the immersive firefights, the gripping narrative, the overwhelming dread and despair - is simply improved leaps and bounds as the series goes on. Gears of War holds a special place in mine and many others' hearts, and despite its flaws, it's a giant first step towards something far greater.
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Gears of War (US, 11/07/06)
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