Gears of War
This is normally where I’d make a witty comment about the video game that is being reviewed. These witty remarks normally rely on the weaker aspects of said game. However, since this is a special occasion, I’ll get right to the point: Gears of War has raised the bar for action games. It doesn’t blow any video game conventions out of the door; and it doesn’t bring anything really new to the table. Rather, Gears of War is a standard third-person shooter that does things we’ve already seen, but does them right, and makes it all extremely fun. And really, when it comes to gaming, isn’t that all that matters?
Does my bum look big in this?
The plot in Gears of War is fairly strandard sci-fi fare. A race of aliens known as Locust rose out of the ground on the human planet Sera, smack in the middle of humanity’s golden age. Marcus Fenix, attempted to rescue his father, breaking military laws and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. However, things change, and as the Locust horde advances, everyone becomes a valuable resource. This includes the imprisoned Fenix. You’re busted out by a former squadmate, and after a hasty escape, you are wizzed off to the battlefield. However, your first op goes a bit screwy, which leaves you and your ragtag team stranded in the middle of enemy territory with nowhere to go. Your goal is to find a viable means of extraction, and maybe to stick a wrench in the Locust war machine along the way. While it isn’t exactly Shakespeare, the story itself isn’t what is so intriguing about Gears of War- it’s the storytelling. The story is told entirely through dialogue between you, your squad, and your advisor. The voice acting is excellent and really conveys a sense of urgency. While on the surface your team may appear to be a bunch of meatheaded badasses, there are some small moments that really lend a human touch to them. There are offhand comments about dead friends, life before war, and lighter things like sports, money, and food. Marcus especially becomes a pretty complex character, due to his past and his distaste for COG, (Coalition of Governments) the political group that placed Sera under martial law after the Locust attacked who he now works for.
You can use pretty much anything as cover
But on to the game! Gears is an intense tactical shooter. Running out into the open with your gun blazing will get you killed in an instant. Instead, GOW forces you to find cover, popping out only when you know you have a bead on your foe. While hidden you can blindly fire away, meaning your accuracy will be about zero but you’ll stay snug behind your shield. Pressing L zooms your view in, and places a crosshair on the screen so you have a better idea of where your shots will go. This exposes your head, which means you better be quickly back behind something unless you enjoy staring at the “GAME OVER” screen. There are lots of moves you can perform while in cover, such as vaulting over it, rolling out of it, or quickly turning to an adjacent place to hide. When you’re out in the open, holding the A button sends Marcus into a mad dash known as a roadie run. The action is extremely tense and loud, and a sense of danger permeates the experience, something a lot of shooters fail at creating. While out in the open you can still go into your aiming view and fire blindly, but this of course means your exposed to all the beasties trying to blow you into bits. Speaking of bits, your default gun has a chainsaw on it that doubles as a bayonet. While the chances of you using this are pretty rare, when you do it sends pieces of Locust and purply-red blood everywhere. While it may sound a little over the top, it actually fits in with the gritty atmosphere.
The atmosphere is what makes the game so fantastic. You will dread wide open spaces and tight corridors. Any time when you aren’t fighting something, the risk of a surprise attack will have your heart pounding as you carefully progress through seemingly-deserted areas. After the first encounter with the Wretches, speedy little monsters that pop out of nowhere and rush you, you’ll never want to go into the hallway again. The genius of all this is that while you’ll constantly be on edge, the actual occurrence of these surprise attacks is pretty small. The first time is enough to make you nervous for the rest of the game, which is no small feat. Of course, some subtle elements help- creepy bumps, rattles, and ominous rumbling are pretty much a constant. The game takes places almost entirely in bombed-out city streets, which have a very Greek look to them. The amount of detail is astounding, with rubble and grime pretty much everywhere. There are some cool things like graffiti and WWII-style propaganda posters that really lend the environments a recently-lived in look.
The Horde just doesn’t appreciate such fine architecture
The singleplayer campaign is pretty short, but it’s an intense ride. However, there’s plenty to do after you’ve beaten it- there are three difficulty modes, plus a slew of multiplayer levels. The versus modes are very team oriented, with the same emphasis on tactics as the campaign mode. Unlike many multiplayer shooters, when you die you stay out of the match until the next round. However, if you go down, all is not lost as a teammate can revive you if they manage to get to you within twenty seconds- that is, if your wounds aren’t too major. You can also invite a second player into the singleplayer mode for some great cooperative action.
The graphics are, as I’m sure you already know, the best in any video game on this planet. Running on the brand-new Unreal 3 engine, Gears of War looks good enough to be a CG movie- not just the insane attention to detail, but also in the way the camera bobs around and slips in and out of focus. Still, the first time you see rain will probably have you gobsmacked, as will pretty much every effect seen in the game. All of the characters have faces that animate even in the heat of battle, cursing or barking orders while they run for cover. When they sound happy, they look happy, when they sound sad, they’re sad, which may sound obvious but it’s a refreshing break from the stony faced warriors from previous action. The Locust are also well designed, looking a bit like orcs on steroids. Pretty much everything except the ground itself is tied into the physics engine, which means combat is visceral to say the least. However, to squeeze the most out of Gears of War, you’ll need an HD setup. While it looks amazing on a standard television, playing in HD is like staring into the face of God. Only with more aliens.
All in all, Gears is just the thing the Xbox 360 needs right now. While it suffers from some minor problems- the single-player campaign is woefully short- it’s just too damn good to miss. The dark storyline isn’t fantastic, but the way it’s presented certainly is. Gritty characters with a rare touch of humanity, intense combat that will leave you breathless, and some great multiplayer modes are sure to keep you hooked until the inevitable sequel comes along. If you can handle a bit language and blood, GOW is the best thing you can play on the 360, by yourself or with friends. Oh, and did I mention it looks absolutely incredible?