Version tested: Xbox 360
You can read what we made of the single-player campaign elsewhere on the site.
Gears of War's multiplayer could and should be one of the best online multiplayer gaming experiences around. Right now - when all the stars are aligned - it can be one of the most unique and entertaining, but also one of the most infuriating.
The raw material for you to go online and have a lot of fun is there in abundance. Key to this is the fact that the 10 multiplayer maps are so well designed and pleasantly varied. Based around various key environments that you'll be familiar with from the main campaign, there's genuinely not a bad one among them. Even if you're well versed with the story mode, the first time you play each one gives you that same feeling of wide-eyed awe that reminds us about that next generation we keep hearing so much about (but seeing so little of). But it's not just impressive in terms of stand-out graphical opulence (which is a given), it's the realisation of how well balanced most (if not all) the map are too, without ever resorting to lazy symmetrical designs.
Every map has a start point at opposing sides of the map, with the simple goal of taking out your opposite numbers. After every round you swap to the opposite side of the map, presumably to even out any possible advantage there might conceivably be, and so the match goes on until you reach the first to five - or however many rounds the host dictates. With just eight players supported, it's no surprise to find such tight, confined maps designed around columns and cover points. Encounters with the enemy usually take place within a matter of 10 or 20 seconds, so it's normal to find your opponents all rushing to take up the best spots to pick you off. Anticipation of that tends to be key, so the turnover of rounds can happen in a matter of a few minutes, and as a result you get a really good appreciation of the entire map in no time at all. By design, Gears of War's multiplayer experience is an instantly accessible experience, and yet tough to master.
Part of the reason it's tough to master is working out the best use of which weapon at the right time. Weapon loadout is the same for both the Locusts and the Cog troops, and no side has an real advantage in terms of better weapons or superior health or speed and so on. You all start with a single smoke grenade, the Snub pistol, the Lancer assault rifle (complete with chainsaw bayonet for super-satisfying melee kills), and the short-range Gnasher, and whether you choose to grab any of the other more powerful specialist weapons lying around the map is up to you, but definitely helps. Different maps offer specific weapons, such as the Boomer grenade launcher, the Longshot sniper rifle, or (most commonly) frag grenades, while others might allow you to wield the satellite-enabled Hammer of Dawn (that shoots down a particle beam from the sky) as well as others featured in the campaign mode. But, generally, every weapon has its own set of massive disadvantages. For example, the sniper rifle might be deadly enough to kill a player in one shot, but its load time leaves a player exposed for a dangerous amount of time. Similarly, the shotgun's useless at long range, but absolutely deadly from three metres away, and while the assault rifle is useful at long range, its chainsaw bayonet can catch a player off guard in grisly fashion.
One thing you'll also notice early on is how some maps are more suited to certain weapons than others. For example, the long, narrow Canal map with its various bridges makes it a popular choice for snipers, while others (like the one with the central decaying mansion) favour a more condensed multi-layered approach with doorways offering excellent choke point opportunities for you to lay in wait for the unsuspecting foe with the Boomer primed and ready.
Perhaps the thing that takes the most adjusting to is the fact that there's a much greater emphasis on close quarters combat in multiplayer - which simply wasn't such a big deal in the campaign mode where most enemies tended to sit patiently behind cover and pop out obligingly. For a while you might assume the same tactics will work online, where you could zoom in on targets and kill them with a few well-placed shots from your Lancer - but you'll come completely unstuck if you do. Suddenly you'll start to make much better use of blind firing that you ever did before, and appreciate the usefulness of the melee grenade attack, or how essential the Gnasher really is.
Because of the game's rather limited AI scope in campaign mode (even in Hardcore mode), none of these techniques were ever really called for that often (if ever), but playing it in multiplayer really starts to reveal how finely balanced the weapons are, and how using the environment properly is essential. In fact, the entire control system seems much more tailored to the demands of multiplayer conflict, where evasion techniques are paramount. In conjunction with the same recharging health mechanic, a skilful player can roll away from an attack, and perform cover slips and SWAT turns to their advantage. A beginner may make good use of cover, but in these desperate situations a good knowledge of the right weapons to use and how to get yourself out of trouble makes for an interesting battle.
It's perhaps here that Gears of War can truly start to assert its differentials over the online shooting herd, with a style of multiplayer gaming that does feel somewhat fresh in comparison to a lot of the done-to-death first-person shooters that have been trawled out endlessly. And even against more serious squad games like GRAW, it bothers to make use-of-cover an essential part of the gameplay - something Ubisoft bizarrely stripped out of the multiplayer after basing the entire single-player gameplay on exactly that. At least there's a real consistency in GoW, in that the multiplayer game doesn't feel annexed in any way from the campaign.
The controls, while by no means perfect and easy to get tangled in knots with, at least attempt new things that have a major impact on how multiplayer games play out. The active reload system, for example, is an excellent idea that gives players the chance to reload much quicker by mastering a very simple and effective technique of double-tapping the reload button at precisely the right time. Being able to do this in the heat of battle can make the difference between life and death, as can being able to exit cover and mount low walls in one fluid motion. Put these small things together and you have a game which offers something a little different in many areas. Other shooters have never really nailed that sense of physical interaction with the environment, resorting to crouch and lean options that never really felt right. I wouldn't quite go as far to say Gears of War feels right either, because Epic has introduced enough annoying quirks of its own, to be fair (such as how clunky the whole running mechanic is, for a start), but at least CliffyB and co have tried to offer a different approach.
Just a shot away
Where Gears of War's multiplayer comes into its own is the realisation that even intimate knowledge of the maps isn't enough. Death is always one mis-step away. It may well be a game that's all about cover, but there's always a weakness to wherever you position yourself. As a result, there's a tension to the gameplay that absolutely requires co-operation and teamwork, and knowing which weapons work in given positions. Getting people to watch your back while you lie in wait next to the doorway makes for a compelling game when it all goes to plan. Revving the chainsaw just at the right time and sawing an unwary opponent in half just as they stride through a door - well, Freud would have a field day.
Co-operation is, without question, absolute paramount to getting any enjoyment out of Gears of War. The four-on-four team-based dynamic can work a charm as long as you all have your microphones switched on and can be bothered to communicate with one another. Having people on your side who all know the map's weaknesses and can inform you where the enemy is likely to appear can make a huge difference when you're an unfortunate n00b.
And even then, death itself is a lesson, with a great spectator mode that gives you a chance to observe the tactics of your more experienced team-mates, noting the way that certain players whip out the Gnasher shotgun at close quarters to deal with those chainsaw-bayonet-wielding sods that try and go for the g(l)ory kill. Or the clinical efficiency that certain players pull off a melee grenade kill by ramming it into the body of a shocked opponent, or the sniper specialists who manage to pull off headshots seemingly at will. All the while, you and the other dead players are busy shouting in joy or utter despair as the often-thrilling spectacle plays out in front of you. In the dead space, no-one can hear you scream - which is probably just as well, given the amount of smack talking going on.
Team deathmatch to the power of three
As you get into the game and start learning the various maps, you start to appreciate the differences between the three multiplayer modes - however subtle they might appear in the first place. In particular, Warzone and Execution feel like the same team deathmatch mode to begin with, but the ability to revive yourself in Execution mode (by hammering the A button) after being injured actually makes a big difference to how the match tends to play out. Whereas Warzone gives you the chance to kill foes from a safe distance, Execution essentially forces players to go for the close quarters kill in most instances, putting the aggressors at risk of being ambushed by opposition laying in wait - possibly using their own team-mate as bait. As such, you have to rely on your team-mates a lot more - not only in the hope that they'll be kind enough to run over to you and revive you in the first place (a risky business in itself in the heat of battle), but that they can help finish off downed opponents before they manage to revive themselves. Assassination differentiates itself from the other two by assigning a leader to each team (one's Hoffman, the other RAAM). The winner of the round is the one who kills the other team's leader, which often leads to quite short rounds if you end up with a gung-ho leader who wades in and gets shot early on. In a sense, it's the most team-focused of the three modes, but it's also by far the least popular for that very reason. Which leads me to my next, and most important beef with Gears of War's multiplayer shenanigans.
The problem with Gears of War right now is that it's only a team game in theory. It sounds great talking about the fun that you can have when you've got a good team with you, but in practice the servers are currently populated with an alarming number of selfish players (notably in ranked matches) that are merely obsessed with getting their TrueSkill rank up and going for as many kills as possible. In one astonishing incident, I was actually booted out of a match for supposedly 'stealing' the host's kills, when in fact I thought I was doing the decent thing of being clinical and finishing opponents off before they were revived. I pointed out incredulously that it was a team game, and that surely all that mattered was that our team won, but sadly, such incidents are not rare in the realm of Gears of War's evidently younger audience. In short, the ranked games are a mess, full of whining kids with nothing better to do than bitch, swear, boast and talk absolute non-stop gibberish. It's a scary glimpse into the void of where we're at right now if people really are this demented.
It could have so easily been avoided, though.
Why on Earth didn't Epic put clan options in the game? Sure, you can host your own match with private slots and get your own buddies together in an unofficial clan, but the whole process of actually finding good team-mates isn't made any easier when the end of a ranked match results in everyone disappearing and having to start afresh - before you've even had time to make a note of who the guy was on your team that wasn't a moron. And so it goes on. You're then left with the lottery of playing with another random selection of people who may or may not end up being a bunch of idiots who have no desire to communicate or play as a team. When that happens - which is with alarming frequency - the game goes to pot. My advice? If you find someone good and not a jerk and evidently knows the game well, definitely make a note of their gamertag.
The other thing that doesn't aid the enjoyment process of playing Gears of War online is that the actual process of getting into an online game is not far short of a joke for some players. From my own experiences (and from scouting the dreaded forums to check it wasn't just me), it can be a lottery as to whether the game lets you join matches or not, with the 'connection lost' error message repeatedly delivered when you try to hook up to matches. The problem seems to be this: the server reports might state that a match has two spare slots, but in the second or so between giving you that information and you clicking on it, those places will have already been allocated to other people and the game reports that the connection is lost - presumably a consequence of the game's overwhelming online popularity at the moment. The workaround seems to be to immediately pick a game that - at the time of the search - has four or less players in it - any delay on your part will almost certainly see the game also fill up and be lost. But this is completely daft of Epic - the whole point of Xbox Live's quickmatch facility is to be able to hop into the nearest available game without the faff, not to have to select from a list of games the instant they appear. It's messy, and something that ought to be patched as soon as possible.
And if you're not put off by the connection issues or relentless, demented, selfish, smack-talking teenage Americans that seem to accompany every single match without fail (in my tortured experience, at least), you'll encounter idiotic hosts that quit out if it looks like their team is about to lose the match (and therefore the stats don't get uploaded). Just as annoying is the regular occurrence of players who drop out of matches and leave your team high and dry for no apparent reason, or people who just plain refuse to even entertain the notion of team play. The game is so wide open to abuse in so many ways at the moment, it's plain unbelievable that Epic has left the multiplayer in such a basic state for what is the most important Live game on the 360 so far. It's just as confusing why cheats who quit matches aren't punished in some way - some sort of points deduction for those who deliberately quit would soon clear this sort of nonsense up. At least some sort of ability to avoid players with a certain percentage of unfinished matches would help, however hard it would be to monitor in reality.
Another thing that struck me as odd is why there aren't any solo multiplayer modes, such as an all-against-all deathmatch set in more expansive maps. Clearly the behaviour of most of the players online at the moment suggests this is what they'd prefer. At least then there would be a chance for the team players to actually be free to enjoy the concept of co-operation. Admittedly, the unranked Player matches are a lot less affected by the problems mentioned above, so perhaps your best bet is to avoid the TrueSkill mob and just have some fun. But when so many of the game's achievement points are directly connected to your performance in ranked games, it seems unfair of Epic to penalise those who go online and choose not to play ranked matches. Also, as a team game that relies so heavily on communication, it would have been nice to be able to filter out players who don't have the voice communicator, as matches are often spoiled as a direct result of people who don't and won't talk. It goes without saying that a lot of these issues just mentioned are hardly unique to Gears of War, but other games have solved them in numerous ways, so why didn't Epic - the developer with more online shooter experience than just about anyone?
Alone again, or...
All that remains is to talk about the rather lovely online co-op mode. Having played it offline in split-screen for a few hours, there's no question that playing it online is where it's at. Split-screen is a bit confusing, not least because of Epic's decision to go for a horizontal rather than vertical split. On a widescreen TV, you're playing in a very narrow field, and it never feels quite right. Online (or system link, of course) it's a different story, and you can hop into any number of ongoing online campaign games at various difficulty settings, regardless of whether you've unlocked them yourself. Of course, there is the issue of finding a good companion, and some might find it frustrating to have to constantly retread certain sections because of someone else's mistake. For example, when you're both on the same section you can revive one another - which is fine - but on the branching paths you end up having to effectively go solo for a while, and if your partner goes down, it results in an instant return to the start of the checkpoint. Not only is this a bit irritating, it can take an age before they get it right - and on balance you might feel that playing it on your own is more fun after all. Having said that, you'll probably stand a greater chance of getting through the harder difficulty levels with a partner - not necessarily because of being able to revive one another, but because the AI squad members constantly get killed on Hardcore or Insane.
So, where were we? Ah yes, Gears of War's multiplayer has the potential to be great, and Epic had the means to make sure it was great. If anything, the multiplayer shows some of the game's core components - the controls, use of cover and weapons - in a much more sympathetic light. But then came up with a team-based multiplayer game where you can't create an official team, and failed to cater to the crowd that are just here for their own personal glory. And it's essentially these points that make it almost impossible to score - how do you rate something on its potential, if the reality is so wildly varying and the developer doesn't make it easy for it to live up to its potential? In a vacuum I'd have no hesitation scoring the multiplayer a nailed-down 9/10 (which is the very reason I waited to play it on real-life Live instead of dishing out pre-emptive hyperbole), but with all the niggles and issues surrounding the game right now, it's solid enough to still be great, but it still only worth an 8.
8 / 10