Review by magx
These Gears Keep on Turnin'
Gears of War is a third person shooter, developed by Epic Games, of Unreal fame, and published by Microsoft Game Studios. The game was released in November of 2006 for the Xbox 360, and was later ported to the PC (November of 2007). The game is renowned for its high fidelity visuals, powered by the third iteration of the Unreal Engine.
Gears of War details the activities of a band of soldiers known as Delta Squad on the fictional planet Sera. The game follows Delta Squad as they fight to save the human inhabitants of the planet Sera from the Locust Horde, a subterranean, alien enemy. The player assumes the role of Marcus Fenix, a former prisoner and Delta Squad soldier. Gears of War, as mentioned, is a third person shooter, or TPS. The game is commonly referred to as an "over-the-shoulder" third-person shooter, as the camera is positioned in such a way that when firing, the perspective is literally over the shoulder, as opposed to the myriad of alternatives, which all share in common a more panned out camera view. This view is used to enhance the visceral and immersive nature of the combat.
The combat in Gears of War places a heavy emphasis on the the use of cover, which the enemy and friendly AI make liberal use of; the player is expected to follow suit, and in fact, must do so if they desire to survive the onslaught of he relentless Locust Horde.
The game features a number of weapon types, including standard weapons such as shotguns, pistols and grenades. One interesting weapon is the Hammer of Dawn, which is a COG Imulsion-energized satellite weapon. Essentially, it's a laser weapon that uses satellite tracking to locate, and target enemies. Use of the Hammer requires that an orbital satellite first be aligned with the general area of operation, and that it have a line of sight to the targeting unit (thus limiting most uses of the Hammer to the outdoors). Once a visual link between the targeting unit and satellite has been achieved, the user must point the hand-held unit's laser at the intended target, at which point the orbital satellite will lock onto the laser's point of termination and begin a sustained particle energy blast on the site. The Hammer is a very powerful weapon, but limited, by its satellite tracking, to specific environments.
Perhaps the most used, and unique weapon in the game is the Lancer. The Lancer is an otherwise standard assault rifle with a twist: it has on it a mounted chainsaw bayonet that can be used to inflict a gruesome and gory death on the enemy once they are within melee range of the player. This use of this weapon in close range leads to some particularly visceral and exciting kills. Another particularly noteworthy weapon is the Torque Bow, which is a Locust weapon, which the player is eventually able to wield, to great effect, as the Torque Bow is a bow that fires deadly explosive arrows.
The game features an innovative twist on the old reload formula. The so called ''Active Reload'' is a technique that, when used successfully , allows one to reload faster and also achieve a temporary damage boost. The ''active reload'' is performed by initiating a reload, and then, in the middle of the reload animation, hitting the button a second time at the correct time, indicated by an onscreen marker. If the player fails to execute the technique properly, by mistiming the second button press, the gun will jam, extending the original reload time. This feature is more useful in the single player portion of the game than it is in the multiplayer portion, as it is rather easy to execute, which means virtually anyone can do it, basically negating the intended advantage.
Health in Gears of War is regenerative. When the player takes damage, a red mark in the shape of a cog, referred to as the ''Crimson Omen,'' appears, starting out faint but filling in darker and darker with increasing amounts of damage taken. Once the player is hurt, they must seek cover to recover their health. If too much damage is taken before the player can find cover and initiate the regeneration process, the player is killed. If, however, you are playing the campaign with a co-op partner, and they are in the vicinity, they can actually revive you. Rather than immediately dying, in the co-op mode, the downed player enters a bleed out stage. If their partner can get to them in time, they can revive them and they'll be back to full health and ready to fight. Of course, if the partner cannot get to the player, or both are downed, the team must restart from the last checkpoint, as the death of one of the teammates results in punishment for both. This serves to increase the focus on teamwork, which is vital to a successful an fun co-op experience.
The campaign in Gears of War stretches out over five acts, each themselves broken up into various chapters, totalling 36 Chapters in all, which can be beaten in about 10-12 hours or so, depending upon difficulty and familiarity, of course. All in all, it's a decent length, and it can be played both as a solo effort, and in co-operative mode with one other player. The basic template for the game is fairly simple. You engage in one firefight after another, many of which are part of a larger and usually fairly impressive set piece battle. There are some moments that take a sort of survival horror light approach to things, but generally, it's all about the action.
The actual firefights are based around the idea of taking cover, as previously stated. This mechanic works fairly well, but can also start to feel a bit stale by the end of the game, and it also leads to predictable fights both in the sense that you know how they will play out, but also, when, as you'll be walking, and suddenly you'll see a clearing punctuated with, most frequently, slabs of chest high concrete, but also burned-out cars, piles of scrap metal, huge stone columns, fountains, and, stairways, among other things.
Certain sections of the campaign features divergent paths that attempt to add a bit of non linearity to what is a strictly linear game. In the single player campaign, these sections offer little in the way of any real impact. These moments are more interesting in co-op play, however, as you and your partner are separated, and can no longer rely on eachother, save for a few of these moments where the game will have one player covering another from a specific vantage point. One of these moments in particular has one player using the Hammer of Dawn to cover their partners' back, and this moment, along with a couple of others, serve to offer a fresh change of pace in an otherwise great but stagnant co-operative experience.
Also adding to the change of pace offered by these moments is the fact that, as a consequence of being separated, there is no chance to revive your partner. This results in both players needing to play more cautiously, more strategically, and more intelligently to get through a few tough spots present in the game. If they do not, they will be stuck having to repeat the section over and over until they formulate a workable strategy.
The routine combat sections are also broken up by a few boss fights, as well as an interesting vehicle section, which, rather than have you drive a vehicle or shoot a mounted turret, has you using a mounted......something.......which will not be spoiled here, but suffice it to say it's fairly original, and this idea is actually expanded into a bit of a gameplay mechanic as it appears in another particularly memorable sequence. These moments are framed around the appearance of and subsequent battles with a particularly memorable enemy, whom nothing more will be said about to preserve the surprise new players will encounter. It's not a mechanic that is utilized through the whole game, but when it does appear, it changes the tone of the game somewhat, as actually hinted at earlier in this review.
Speaking of enemies, the enemies in Gears of War are not terribly varied, as the majority are humanoid with slight visual differences, but the weapons they utilize and, consequently, the tactics they employ, actually do serve to make them feel somewhat distinct from one another. However, despite the use of varied tactics, the method of dispatching them is almost always always the same: wait behind cover, while they crouch behind theirs, waiting specifically for them to pop their heads out and then engage. As the game progresses, enemies other than the humanoid type prevalent through much of the game do make appearances, including those alluded to, but not detailed, above.
There are a few issues dealing with the cover system that warrant mention, especially given the fact that the cover mechanic is so integral to the Gears experience. If you shoot a part of an exposed enemies body while they are still crouched behind cover, you won't get a reaction. For example, sometimes an enemies' back is just ever so slightly exposed over the lip of the cover he is hiding behind. You can sit there and shoot their exposed backside, clearly making contact, and have it be to no avail, as you get no reaction. This is a rather jarring thing to encounter, and while some may downplay this as not of any particular importance, it seems to be a pretty fundamental problem to have in a game based around hiding behind cover.
A second issue present is related to the controls. The A button has too many features mapped to it, and this cannot be changed. The A button is used for clinging to cover, as you do not automatically take cover by just walking, running, or crouch walking into a piece of cover. You actually have to press the A button to take cover, which results in what is often referred to as a ''sticky'' cover system, and may be an apt description. In addition to the cling function, however, the A button is also used for the so called ''Roadie Run'' which is Epic Games version of an in game sprint. The roadie run differs from a regular sprint in that it's a quick sprint where the camera takes an embedded-journalist perspective, narrowing and focusing the field of view (but taking the camera control away from the player), with the aim of increasing the tension as you try to escape from danger. The problem lies in the fact that you'll often be sprinting, done by holding down the A button, and inadvertently take cover against some piece of the landscape you just brushed as you were running.
One last issue that bears mention is the fact that the story, while derivative, could still have used some fleshing out. As it stands, it does little more than to serve as fodder for driving the action along. There's no real depth, no emotion, and the characters are all flat, one note brutish thugs. Macho bravado is the order of the day. It's like an 80's action movie on steroids with the one liners cranked to the max. This won't be an issue to many gamers, who are only concerned with the action, and in fact, the genre isn't particularly known for engaging narratives, but it bears mention, at least, as there will be a certain subset of the target audience who will be miffed by this.
In terms of extras, there are present throughout the campaign, the cog tags (which are Gears of War's version of dog tags) of fallen comrades, which the player is tasked with collecting, which they can opt to do or not. It's at the player's discretion whether or not they do so. The ones who take this small but not insignificant extra challenge will find themselves rewarded with the pleasure of the hunt, for those to whom collecting items is attractive, and also a set of achievements, which ups the ante in terms of motivation to partake in the search. Unfortunately, there is a missed opportunity here, as Epic games could have used the cog tags as a lunching pad to extra character development. It would have been neat had they given the player a small flashback cutscene, or some text, to provide some information on the specific soldier who's tag was being recovered.
The campaign can be played at three difficulty settings. From easiest to hardest, these are "Casual", "Hardcore" and "Insane". The "Insane" difficulty is unlocked only when the game is beaten on one of the other two difficulties. The difficulties are aptly named, and Insane, while doable alone, is much better suite for co-op play, and it's quite difficult, and exposing oneself for more than a few seconds at a time puts one in grave mortal danger. This really leads to heavy use of the cover mechanic and the amplification of the repetition experienced on the lower difficulties. Co-op offsets some of this, as, and pardon the cliche, two heads (or two guns might be more apt) are better than one.
Graphically, this game is simply astounding, at least on a technical level. There may be contention based upon the art style, which can best be described and drab and gritty (seriously, the colour palette seems to include brown, black and grey, and nothing else) but on a technical level, this game is easily one of the best looking on the console. If the graphics, on a technical level, had to be summed up in one word, that word would be detail. The character models are big, thick, fully detailed, and larger than life. The polygon count looks to be though the roof. Ditto for the environments, which, along with everything else, also feature high resolution textures and no visible jaggies or other flaws.
The art style, as drab as some people may accuse it of being, serves to lend the game a really gritty, realistic look, which, when this game was released, was an absolute benchmark setter for consoles, and even now impresses. One negative aspect of the graphics, other than the distaste some have for the art style, is the fact that they impressed so greatly both before and after the game's release, that some would argue that the issues with the game, such as the control problems and repetitive nature of the combat, were glossed over by people in awe of the visuals.
Also rounding out the impressive presentation is the excellent sound design and musical score. The score changes, depending on the action taking lace onscreen, punctuating the action with punchy, military themed music, and guiding along the slower, more tense moments with sounds that propel you forward, drawing you in deeper, but carrying with it a sense that anything could be lurking around the next corner. The Locusts' voices are sufficiently menacing and alien, really adding to the atmosphere and the feeling that you truly are fighting an alien force. The weapons sound great, and have a decent amount of kick to them. The sounds of heads exploding and chainsaws revving are very intense. All in all, from a presentation perspective, the game is spot on in terms of visuals and sound, but lacking when it comes to story.
So, Gears of War provides a well paced, great looking and sounding, fun, brutal, and visceral campaign experience which can be enjoyed either alone or with a friend. The game has challenge for those who seek it, and apart from the small control related issues, and the strange phenomenon of enemies not responding to being shot when they are crouched behind cover, everything works beautifully on a technical level. The game is pretty well polished. There are some very cool set piece moments present in the campaign, the enemy design is quite cool and sufficiently menacing, and the weapons available for use are well rounded and diverse.
That all being said, the core gameplay mechanic, namely, the cover system, can become tedious and repetitive after a time, and as mentioned earlier, the battles get predictable both in terms of when they happen and how they play out. The combat never ceases to be fun, mind you, and the vehicle section, few boss fights, and few really excellent moments relating to the unnamed enemy type do help to alleviate some of the tedium, but it's still undeniably there. Sure to be experienced differently by different gamers, there does exist some element of repetition and predictability in Gears of War.
Overall Score: 8.5/10
Rating: 4.0 - Great
Product Release: Gears of War (US, 11/07/06)
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