Gears of War Reader Review
It's a bit of a late review but it's not that I've only just finished this game - I completed it before Christmas 2006 - it's just that I couldn't quite find the reasons and words to describe why I liked it. Now I think I'm confident to back up my claim as to why this should be part of your staple diet on the 360, and it's not solely - if at all - about the graphics, splendid as they are. But first...
Gears of War (GoW) has no discernible storyline - I defy anyone trying to twist the 'theme' of wiping Locust alien scum off the face of the planet during which you find there is a tunnel-network for the buggers to pop out anywhere and any time as a storyline that you might even vaguely care about. No, just think of GoW as a precursor to GoW2 - that is, you should be expecting more of the same but with a bit more meaning to it. I don't remember thinking that I would be buying into GoW for the storyline in the first place, I think it was all the hype surrounding it and the fact that it had co-op and looked like fun. And just to help it along are the lovely graphics that you'll have to endure throughout.
Epic Games have set a pretty good standard; the lighting effects from guns and water/rain shimmers, the dust flying off the ground from footsteps, bullet-holes in walls and shaking buildings, the 'ruined beauty' of the dilapidated streets, buildings and environments that you fight through. It all comes together nicely without anything being slightly out of place. From level to level it flows nicely in terms of level design and scenery, creating a believable adventure without the jarring occurrences of 'how the hell did we get here?'. Sure, you'll wonder why the hell you're there but that's the fault of the storyline (or lack of). I played and finished GoW on split-screen co-op before even having a teasing look at its full-screen glory. I was mildly impressed, what with all the action that can occur at any one time, that there was practically no slowdown on split-screen. But what I found to be the most impressive graphical effect was during the night-time level in the downpour; the way that the grooves in the tree bark were highlighted by the running, shimmering rain water was astounding, followed by more rain water surface effects on other objects like storage tanks and covers. I was equally impressed by the dripping water splashing (proper-like) on the game characters and not just stopping/disappearing like it was going straight through them. Okay, simple things and maybe it's been done before. But how often and how well, is the key question. I've played enough games where their rainy sections just don't present as broody an atmosphere as GoW does (or at least with as much ease).
And finally, a third-person shooter where blind-firing is possible. Fair enough, to me it doesn't seem to quite work as I expected (in that the enemy should hide or blind-fire back, and not stand out in the open and shoot) but at least the options there and you can actually kill enemies with blind-fire - it just takes longer. But even though it doesn't work well in single player (probably because of poor AI), it does work for multiplayer over Live - more on that later. As an aside, 1up's Luke Smith described GoW as "stop and pop" and that's quite true. You run, slam into a hiding space, pop up (or out from the side) and shoot. Repeat and rinse with Bungie's philosophy of 30-seconds of fun (as acknowledged by Epic) and that more or less makes up GoW for 8-hours. Actually, there is one aspect of blind-firing that does work and that is its use of distraction. Co-op is were you'll find this with one blind-firing and tying up the enemy in a fire-fight, whilst the co-op buddy goes round the side for the kill. It works well and with communication you'll see it often.
And this is the point that I want to highlight as my reason for liking GoW - the partnership that can be achieved by just two players in wiping out the opposition. In some ways, there's a step-by-step approach to the kills with one player being slightly ahead of the other or going around for the pincer manoeuvre. It makes the entire exercise of killing the Locust good and rewarding fun, something that is quite lacking from the single-player side. With the latter, you really wish that the AI controlled partner would just do something vaguely sensible or in line with what you commanded (you can set them to attack, defend or regroup - the difference in outcome is negligible between the three) but instead you see them run ahead and get killed. Pointless and unhelpful, especially when you are being attacked by multiple enemies and they are just standing around - quite close by I should add - and not do anything to help. Stupid fuck.
The partnership is further enhanced and brought to the forefront with Live play. I'm not one for talking on Live but I do sometimes have my headset on just to listen to what the others are saying, and in the case of GoW it's actually quite useful. If you have a load of friends then Live is fantastic as the communications work wonderfully well for tactical fire-fights. Otherwise, you might end up with a team of single-player that don't quite understand the meaning of winning by teamwork. It's infrequent to come across these people as the majority of players will stick together, be it two teams of two or all four of you trundling along - there's nothing quite like killing the killer of your team-mate, followed by being killed yourself. It's nasty out there, yet when such instances occur I found it pretty humorous because four of us have died in about 10-seconds - seems like we're all just waiting in line to be killed.
I ploughed through co-op and single player on Normal, going through both again on Hardcore - I'm at the last boss but it's stupidly unfair in my opinion and haven't gone back to it for a long while. But Live is where it's at, especially with the recent release of two new multiplayer maps (I've yet to try them out) and the map designs are well accomplished, ranging from small (being able to see from one side to the other) to large arenas (much traversing and likelihood of running round in circles or past each other). I won't talk much about the weapons (the standard machine gun, shotgun, pistol and sniper rifles available, as well as rocket launcher, laser-targeting satellite deathray, and an explosive crossbow - my favourite of all) which are open to pickups in the multiplayer games - you'll need to play a few rounds with the intention of not winning and search around the maps to know their locations by heart - and are gradually introduced through the single-player mode.
Gears of War is broken up nicely into sections allowing bit-by-bit play for you to savour the experience in short-bursts. That's the way it was designed and that's the best way to play it. Intersperse the breaks with Live and you'll have a neat little package of gaming pleasure. Just don't overdo it or you might find it'll numb you completely.