My first exposure to Gears of War was a commercial that aired in late 2006 featuring Gary Jules’ cover of “Mad World”. It was an awkward insertion of a popular song for what appeared to be a grungy, blood spattered action game for emotionally stunted adult males. If I heard that song in, say, a Final Fantasy commercial, that would have been entirely justifiable – predictable even – for the series’ melodramatic tendencies. But watching these juiced-up football players bedecked in pock-marked bulky armor fight off what appeared to be zombies, or insects, or insect-zombies to such a mopey tune was a jarring spectacle. What message was the advertisement sending me? Was I supposed to feel sorry for these battle-weary soldiers pressing on in some city decimated by war to defend the human race? Were these men actually sensitive to the death and destruction around them? My first response was that it was merely a ruse to get me to think this game would be something different. It wouldn’t be about killing endless waves of the faceless alien invader; rather, it would explore the human condition and man’s response to being thrown into a war he didn’t want to fight, but was damn well expected to end.
After about two solid hours of playing the game, I stopped thinking so hard about this. Gears of War is not a statement about the atrocities of war in modern times. The arrangement between Gears of War and its player is much simpler. The game inscribes upon the player the desire to fire a gun – repeatedly and with extreme prejudice. It encourages hooting and hollering and much chest-thumping after each challenging firefight. It revels in the act of shooting a weapon so much that it becomes the only reason you come back to the game. And the game leaves you no other choice but to love it in return.
Gears of War has become a kind of figurehead for the “hardcasual” movement – genres traditionally for the hardcore adapted to be accessible – to the point where anyone who likes it must obviously be a brickheaded cretin and have no taste in video games. It’s always the fate of any successful title, and feels a little more petty every time it happens. But to dwell on that point is to miss the game’s biggest strength: it allows itself to be picked up by almost anyone and have its essence immediately tapped by the Player. That this experience can be enjoyed by the hardcore and casual alike is a feat worth recognizing.
Halo ushered in a new age of shooters that were adapted for the console; Gears of War is the only shooter I have played since that managed to create controls that I feel perfectly comfortable with. Cliff Bleszinski has mentioned that he was inspired by the shooting controls of Resident Evil 4, but Epic has not just improved them as they have perfected them, creating a template that all console shooters should adhere to from this day forward. Playing the PC version allowed the use of Mouse/Keyboard, and I did try it for a short while, but I found myself switching back to my Xbox 360 control pad. They felt jittery and their cold precision took me outside of the game. I felt like I was cheating myself of the experience of playing the original game as it was intended.
Gears of War isn’t just about running into an area and shooting everything in sight. Well, not totally. Yes, the game is on rails as you are coralled through corridors into each new area. But Gears breaks up this motion by employing a duck-and-cover system that slows down the action into bite sized exchanges of gunfire. Working with this mechanic is the Crimson Omen, which is just a fancy name for a damage indicator at the centre of the screen. Take enough damage in a short period of time, the screen turns red and you’re dead. This seems to be a pretty ubiquitous concept in the design of modern shooters, but in the case of Gears of War it’s entirely appropriate. It allows the focus to remain on shooting, because instead of constantly referencing a health bar the primary objective is to survive – instant death could be at any moment. It’s another example of how the game forces you to live in the moment. You’re getting shot at – take cover. Find a good position to return fire. Move on to the next objective. It implies an urgency in the game’s pacing. You don’t want to stop the forward momentum.
Much criticism has been directed at Gears for being unoriginal, and not much of a challenge since taking cover isn’t always required on the lowest difficulty setting. That may be true, but where Gears excels is the delivery. The repetition in the dive-for-cover, crouch, peek, aim, fire, crouch, fire pattern in each encounter makes it second nature, to the point where the game takes on a natural rhythm. I have yet to see a more meticulously crafted refinement of the genre. Every one of the game’s features revolves around shooting a gun, or facilitating the act of shooting a gun. Take cover and aim, or take cover and blind fire to suppress an enemy. It makes reloading an active distraction. Instead of reflexive button pushing, Gears introduces the “Active Reload” where you can reload faster or gain damage bonuses for a perfectly timed reload button press. Mess up the timing, and it’s precious seconds before your gun is usable again. It makes you want to focus on reloading to get it right.
Of course, there’s the Lancer. The Lancer represents a landmark in weapon design. It is a gun that I used for the entire game. Even when it was out of ammo, I used the pistol. I didn’t want to drop it for fear of losing this essential appendage. Never before has a weapon’s melee attack been so incredibly satisfying. In first person shooters, melee is often just using the butt of the gun to push enemies back, to buy some time and get a good shot. It might even work. With the Lancer, there is a genuine feeling of comfort knowing that the chainsaw bayonet is always available for an instant kill. Successfully biting the Lancer’s chainsaw into the flesh of the Locust, their black blood spraying across the screen with Marcus providing the guttural growl and the chainsaw buzzing, always buzzing, until the Locust finally falls. These types of theatrics are simply externalizing something that was felt by every PC gamer since using the chainsaw in Doom, and as such are completely necessary.
The setting of Gears of War might as well be in the Warhammer 40,000 universe; the trivial reasons behind the conflict on the fictional world of Sera and the character design for the Gears are clearly influenced by it. By the end of the game you get the impression that maybe the Locust weren’t invaders, but were always there, awakened by bloodlust to exterminate the encroaching humans. The Gears are just dirtied-up Space Marines sent out to do the heavy lifting – and clearly enjoy it. Having the player portray the anti-hero Marcus Fenix, who makes it clear from the start he has no respect for authority, simply reinforces who this game is aimed at. For co-op, the game introduces Dom: a long time friend of Marcus and his wingman for the entire game. While two more members of Delta Squad are added later – the sarcastic Baird and showboat Cole Train – you spend most of your time in game with Marcus and Dom.
Both the appearance and behaviour of these characters are parody of actual humans, and yet they work because of the game’s subject matter. As a result there’s a certain charm to the way the characters are exposed in the game. Marcus is always grumbling about being the Army’s errand boy. Dom grounds the game with humanity in his quest to search for his missing wife. Baird always has a wisecrack and often saves the day with his mechanical know-how, and Cole Train is either talking smack or cutting loose with a “Whoo!” that would make most pro wrestlers blush. These attributes are instant gratification, and do not require any further investment in the characters. Because Gears of War fully subscribes to the less talk, more action approach. And it does that so very, very well.
Gears of War presents a bleak landscape that has been decimated by war. There are only a few colors on its palette that are all too familiar to those experienced with the id software school of level design. There are plenty of destroyed buildings and burned out cars to create a vast supply of cover, choke points and sniper nests. When the game goes underground into the realm of the Locust, the same drab tones are punctuated by lakes and rivers of bright green imulsion, an apparently valuable substance that was never fully explained. The way Gears of War weaves in and out of these locales is as seamless as the way you duck in and out of cover.
The flow of this game is almost perfect: there is barely time to breathe, but you never feel overwhelmed. The action is brilliantly paced in between the spartan in-game cutscenes that deliver only the bare essentials, so the game gets you back into the action where focus belongs. You get the feeling that it is only you and your squad fighting this war, and this ridiculous situation is made worse by the nature of the missions you are forced to go on. Retrieve this item, repair this structure – as if Delta Squad was really just a gang of intergalactic repairmen. But these are reasons that were thrown into the mix because the player needs an objective in this type of game. Simply taking territory and killing everything on the map isn’t incentive enough for players, according to Epic’s designers. Because they studied video games, and they want to show the player that they understand the needs of the action gamer. They want the player to feel like they have accomplished something, represented by a boss battle or blowing up some random piece of machinery. This dangling carrot – or even the prospect of a payoff – helps drive the action forward.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t always result in the most satisfying encounters. Much has been said about the inclusion of a driving mission that features another appearance of the darkness-loving Kryll, where you are tasked with driving a vehicle that cannot move and use its weapon at the same time. I can see what Epic was trying to do here: create a driving mission that actually has some tension in it, so the need to keep driving is always there to disguise a set of shitty, unresponsive controls. I could shoot a Lancer all day long, performing Active Reloads to the tune of The Presets’ “Let’s Go”. Seriously. The natural flow of the game was broken by a very clumsy sequence that serves only as an irritating obstacle that must be surmounted before the shooting and chainsawing can resume.
The squad in this game is essentially Marcus and Dominic. Cole and Baird show up from time to time for the larger setpiece battles, but you will always be depending on Dom to watch your back. For the most part, Dom’s AI is serviceable. He will defend objectives, take cover when necessary and try not to get himself killed – too much. So when depending on Dom becomes hazardous (or pointless), the use of cover and less brazen tactics will assure survival in the single player campaign. When incapacitated, squad mates resuscitate themselves when all Locust are cleared from the area anyway.
What’s more impressive is the adversarial AI. In fact, it is often shockingly methodical. Just when you think you have the perfect position and start taking pot shots at the Locust, they suddenly see what’s happening to their comrades and come after you. They will suppress and flank – just like your own squad is doing – to get to your position. They will pick up weapons from their fallen brothers, and will often be equipped with the same things your own team is.
This was a brilliant design decision by Epic, because with it they have effectively dispelled all preconceptions about First Person/Third Person shooters as merely exercises in target practice. The Locust are equals on the battlefield and behave as realistically as you would expect in the context of the overall game’s mechanics. They will all at once seem organized and efficient, while brandishing the kind of fearlessness that is frightening in any enemy. With that said, what really bothered me was the Locust’s uncanny ability to sense when I was aiming the Longshot sniper rifle. In well hidden positions, I very rarely could get more than one shot off before they all started ducking or running right towards me, even if members of my squad were the more immediate threats.
This frenetic exchange of tactics results in a new kind of firefight; conflicts that broach new realms of intensity. I could probably stop writing at this point, and simply say that Gears of War is about firing a gun in a series of well-orchestrated firefights that make you feel like thumping your chest or barking like a wild animal after each battle is won. It brings out both the best and the worst in people that play video games. But this game deserves more than that. So I must continue.
Gears of War establishes its formula early on, because it wants to give casual players the most complete representation of the game so they won’t be intimidated by the introduction of new features or a change in pace. All of the tools available in the war against the Locust have been used by the end of the first Act. The player then hands themselves over to the game’s story, where they are exposed to various setpieces, more challenging areas to fight in, bigger monsters to kill and the frat boy banter between the members of Delta Squad.
The extra levels in Act 5 for the PC version of the game lead in to a battle with a Brumak – a creature previously only revealed through the game’s cutscenes. It feels gratuitous in the context of the overall game, but the buildup to this encounter is almost palpable, to the point where there is no other choice but to include the Brumak in a money shot that almost overshadows the endgame sequence (almost). Defeating the Corpser was only pushing it into imulsion; fighting the Brumak was a legitimate contest. It’s a shame that because of the callousness of Microsoft and Epic owners of the Xbox 360 version of the game will never get to experience this. Though the game’s AI is once again the reason for the encounter’s difficulty – Dom would often get himself stomped by the Brumak after running right up to it.
After the fight with the Brumak, the resolution of Gears of War starts with a battle to get onto a freight train carrying the Lightmass bomb that has managed to elude the grasp of the Gears. It’s not a very subtle metaphor for the climax: Marcus and Dom must fight their way through the cars of this speeding frieght train on a collision course with their final objective.
RAAM, a General in the Locust army, is waiting with the bomb. It’s actually a bit of surprise, because the last time this character appeared was in the game’s first Act when he killed off Kim, which made Marcus the leader of Delta Squad. It’s strange plot device, as if Epic was trying to tie the beginning and end of the game together. I never felt I was out to get RAAM in the game; I was always in pursuit of the next objective. But the fight with RAAM is necessary for closure. It is also incredibly hard. Not just because I was constantly worrying about whether Dom was going to get his ass curb stomped again, or trying the avoid the Kryll immediately drawn to any position I took up. This final confrontation is made difficult because you can’t just pull out The Best Weapon (there is none), take cover and chip away at RAAM from a distance. This fight forces you to use every single tactic you learned while playing the game up until this point. Killing RAAM is a fitting end to the game, because it makes you feel you like you have defeated the game itself, and all it has to offer. It is a perfect culmination.
At the very least, Gears of War positioned itself comfortably next to Halo as an original, exclusive and highly bankable IP for Microsoft’s console. But it also brought accessibility to a genre with an unassuming execution of controls, refined game mechanics and deliciously simple objectives. I didn’t realize how much I loved Gears of War until I started explaining the game to others. These wide-eyed, passionate and often one-sided conversations would basically be reduced to the following statement: Gears of War will make you feel like a man.
I have a list of my favorite games of all time always in my mind when I play. It is constantly referenced and compared as I gain new experiences through video games, though it is rarely updated. Gears of War helped me get past my contempt for the trends of video game culture and its influence on modern video game design, and accept the game for the achievement that it is. The shameless machismo and gun pornography may capture a different audience, but the polished production and unwavering focus on its goal assures Gears of War a position in the halls of video game legend.