Gears of War Reader Review
So, one year into the Xbox 360�s lifecycle and we finally get to play the Microsoft poster-boy for the next generation �HD� era of videogames. The last 12 months has seen an almost unashamed pimping of the title on all fronts from Epic and Microsoft, with multiple trailers, hands-on previews, and a steady stream of screenshots, podcasts, and interviews with lead designer Cliffy B appearing with increasing regularity in the build-up to �Emergence Day�. Such an over-saturation of media has built hype and anticipation beyond the scale of most established franchises. However, Xbox fans will have seen this tactic before with 360 launch title Perfect Dark, and it didn�t end well. Has all the attention been well founded?
The answer to the above is a largely resounding yes. Gears of War finally represents the technical marvel that can show the potential of the off-white box sat below your (HD)TV, and will undoubtedly be a successful system-seller on visual quality alone. Thankfully the team at Epic have concentrated on backing up the leap in visual fidelity with a solid and supremely entertaining action game, with a few new additions to the core gameplay of the genre to boot.
Gears� plot casts you as Marcus Fenix, a disgraced soldier in Prison for reasons unknown. The tutorial level sees you being busted out of prison by your best pal Dom, and enrolled back into the COG forces for a last-gasp fight with the rampaging alien-like Locust hordes as they roam the streets of the earth-like planet Sera. The majority of the game then focuses on Marcus� squad of four marines attempting to locate and use a device known as the Resonator, which will allow the COG forces to accurately map the subterranean lair of the Locust', and then blow it up with a suitably evil sounding �Lightmass bomb�. No prizes for originality in the plot then.
Although the story in the game is cookie-cutter sci-fi all the way, it really only serves as an excuse to put the player in a number of different sci-fi themed levels, with plot points barely explained or fleshed out before moving onto the next set piece. Gears is crammed with pop culture sci-fi references throughout, and fans of the genre will be in for a treat. Eagle-eyed players will spot several references to major films such as Aliens, Blade and Pitch Black, whilst the soundtrack is heavily influenced by the score from Predator and Starship Troopers, which lends a suitably menacing tone to the onscreen action. The Level design wrapped around the plot is generally excellent, although with only 5 chapters and roughly 7-8 hours of gameplay, its hard not to think the game could have done with a little more campaign content overall.
The game plays from a third-person perspective, with controls largely the same as most shooters in the same genre. Gears major innovation comes with its judicious use of a cover mechanic, entirely controlled with the �A� button. Pressing �A� near most physical objects will slide Marcus into a cover position, automatically crouching or hiding as appropriate. You can then move behind or around the object, blind fire over the top or around corners, or �pop� out of cover and aim properly with the left trigger. Releasing the trigger puts you back in cover and allows time for health regeneration and sizing up your next target. Once your ready to move on, you can press �A� once again to move out of cover, or point the left analogue stick to another nearby piece of scenery and press the button again to slide over to it. Usage of this mechanic is key to success, particularly on the harder skill levels. You wont last long if you rush head-on into a firefight as your enemies have a keen sense of self-preservation, and will be using the same cover and flanking techniques as you.
For the first hour or so this system can feel unwieldy and unsatisfying. Often you will find yourself stuck behind an object with the enemy advancing on your position, or alternatively running through a level (also triggered with 'A') and sliding into cover by mistake. With time and practice the cover mechanic becomes easier to use, although whether this is a case of the player adapting to a different system or simply getting used to its flaws is debatable. Most dedicated gamers will put in the required time to learn the nuances of the controls, but I can envisage the more casual players becoming slightly dissalusioned with the less than immediate control system.
The AI of the enemy soldiers in the game lends a great sense of achievement from even the most basic of tactical successes. The best way to operate in Gears is to draw fire with one member of your squad, whilst the other circles around in order to flank their position and create a crossfire, or alternatively get close enough to use the brutal chainsaw melee attack. The fact that the enemies are so tough stop lends the game a frenetic pace, and usage of the games other major innovation, the �active reload� system, is a must. When reloading your weapon, a small white line sweeps from left to right under your ammo indicator. Stopping this in a designated zone will allow you to reload twice as fast and gain extra power for the bullets that have been loaded into the gun. Stopping it outside of the zone jams the weapon for a few seconds, allowing your enemy to gain crucial yardage on your position. This can often make or break a firefight in your favour on the harder skill settings.
Whilst the core gameplay in Gears is satisfying and rewarding, questions have to be raised on the squad AI in place. More often than not, your allies are simply useless, often dying with the first wave of an attack, and although they can be revived, getting to their position is usually a hazard in itself. There are some basic squad commands at your disposal, but your allies generally do what they want, which can often involve getting stuck on scenery or throwing a grenade at your feet. Whilst Gears doesn�t do anything that other squad based games haven�t been guilty of before, watching the AI repeatedly roll a character over bench and run into a wall can destroy the next-gen illusion somewhat. Thankfully such extreme cases are fairly rare, and the excellently designed drop-in system link or xbox Live co-op mode gets around this. Indeed the game comes into its own when played with another human compatriot, with the level design accommodating two-player action in a variety of innovative ways. Thankfully enemy squad AI is excellent throughout, and rarely suffers from any of the above issues.
Competitive online modes in Gears are entirely squad-based, and played out across a number of small, well-contained maps with themes from each of the chapters of the single player campaign. Game modes are limited to three variants, Warzone (standard team deathmatch), assassination (protect the leader of your squad), and execution (you can only kill the opposition with a close up curb stomp, chainsaw attack or execution). Play is generally lag-free and has a similar tactical feel to the campaign mode, with a four-man squad split into two player units giving the best tactical advantage. There are some curious decisions here though, such as the ability of the host to start the game regardless as to whether the participants are ready, and allowing unbalanced team numbers. 4 on 3 ranked games are a common occurrence, often leaving an unfair advantage to the host team. The lack of customisation options in multiplayer will also grate with players brought up on Halo 2, and the lack of ability to play ranked matches with a group of friends is criminal considering the entirely squad-based nature of gameplay. However, played between friends the online mode is a blast, and although it doesn�t have enough depth to last as long as some other Live games, it�s a fun diversion.
Overall then, Gears mostly lives up to its billing as the much-needed 360 killer-app. Although players without an Xbox Live subscription or someone to play through the game on splitscreen co-op may feel aggrieved at paying a premium price for only 7-8 hours of campaign gameplay. Luckily the core mechanics of Gears have been nailed so well that the game positively oozes replay value, and completing the game on Insane mode is a good enough challenge for anybody.
For once then, ignore Public Enemy, and believe the hype.
9 / 10