Reviewed: December 4, 2006
Released: November 7, 2006
There are very few defining moments in the lifespan of any videogame console and they almost never occur within the first year of the system’s life, but Epic Games and Microsoft have joined forces to bring us an action title that not only redefines the genre, it single-handedly thrusts the 360 into a gaping lead in the system wars being waged this holiday season. The PS3 might have 1080p and Blu-ray, and the Wii might have a cool controller, but the Xbox 360 has Gears of War.
This is one of those games that reached legendary status long before it released a few weeks ago. Originally announced last year when the Xbox 360 released, Gears of War is one of those games we only dare to dream it will be just a fraction of what is promised. I remember seeing jerky video footage at the 2005 E3 and wasn’t impressed. I also remember playing 8-player multiplayer at this year’s E3 and was totally blown away, and Gears of War subsequently earned our Best Xbox 360 Game of E3 2006 award.
Well, that 20 minutes sitting at the round table blasting and chain-sawing my fellow members of the press could in no way possibly prepare me for sitting down to play the finished product. Even watching the opening prison level get played for me on the big screen at the Chinese Theater was no substitute for playing that same level six months later. Gears of War must be "experienced" to be fully appreciated.
Much of the appeal of this action-shooter lies in its simplistic, yet eloquent design. Gears of War doesn’t burden you with backstory or plot development. You start off in the combat boots of Marcus Fenix, freshly sprung from a military prison and thrust into duty to defend the planet from the Locust.
Gears of War offers several new concepts that put a fresh spin on the third-person action genre, and all of these are covered in detail in the opening (and optional) tutorial. But unlike most games where decisions like these are prompted in the menu, Gears of War integrates them right into the gameplay. In one of several branching level paths, you get to pick the route through the prison, either brushing up on your combat tactics, or jumping right into the fray.
One of the first things you learn in Gears of War is cover. I was instantly reminded of games like Kill Switch and Full Spectrum Warrior, only this game integrates cover tactics so seamlessly sometimes it's hard just to walk through a level without sticking to something. Simply tapping the A button will have Marcus snap to any wall, rock, box, or any other object that can be used as cover. Some objects, like furniture will eventually blast away, so you need to pick your cover carefully.
Once you have taken cover you can then move the stick to get additional cover prompts like performing a SWAT turn across a door or doing a diving roll across the room. You can also vault over objects, which is the two-step process for jumping in this game. While taking cover you can aim your crosshair then pop-up and unload a few rounds or an entire clip, but you will be exposed while firing unless you choose the blind-fire tactic where you simply stick the gun above your head and fire in the general direction of the enemy.
The rest of the interface is exquisitely simple. The D-pad accesses your weapon inventory with four slots capable of carrying grenades, a pistol, your Lancer Assault Rifle, and another weapon of your choosing like the Torque Bow or shotgun. Of course the weapon of choice has to be the assault rifle with its chainsaw bayonet capable of slicing and dicing enemies with a satisfying and quite grisly display of blood and meaty chunks.
But using the chainsaw is not as easy as it sounds, as it requires a bit of “spin-up” time. If you get ambushed you simply can’t mash the B button to chop your way out of danger. You need to have the saw revved up and waiting for that Locust to come around the corner, and then it’s cheering time. Whether you are killing the Locust in the solo game or another player online, you will never ever get tired of using the chainsaw. It is perhaps the most satisfying method of carnal destruction in video gaming history.
Gears of War comes with its own set of challenges and “rules”. You don’t want to simply rush through the levels or you will die…repeatedly. You almost need to take a Rainbow Six approach to the missions, plotting your way, making strategic use of available cover, prioritizing enemies, and working with your teammates whenever possible.
Usually, Marcus is fighting alongside a cool group of soldiers including Dom, Cole, and several others. The computer does an admirable job of controlling these guys and keeping them alive while not stealing the game. There will be plenty of Locust for Marcus to kill and you’ll need to play “medic” for your men who will periodically get beat down to the point where they can no longer function until you run up to them and tap X to provide emotional support (“fight through the pain”) or possibly medical assistance, although there are no med kits in Gears of War.
The health system is much like Call of Duty where your targeting circle slowly fills in with a blood red hue the more damage you take. To heal, simply take cover until the circle empties. Unfortunately, if you die, your men won’t return the favor and heal you, so you’ll get to start from the most recent checkpoint. The good news is that in cooperative two-player mode you can heal each other so unless you both die at the same time, or die while separated, it’s pretty hard to actually die to the point where you have to restart.
There is a bit of squad tactics offered in the later levels where you can command your men to attack, defend, or regroup on your position. It’s nowhere near as functional as Full Spectrum Warrior, but it works well for an action game. Usually, you just use your men to provide cover fire or create a distraction so you can flank the enemy and do most of the work yourself.
Gears of War throws in a few surprises, the first of which is the Emergence Hole. These holes will spring up as you progress through the level, usually accompanied by a deep rumbling sound hinting that you should ready a frag grenade. The quicker you find and seal these holes the quicker you stem the flow of incoming monsters - just like the generators in Gauntlet. If you get really good you can time the grenade just as the hole opens and not have to fight anybody.
The game offers a limited yet creative selection of enemies. You’ll kill more generic Locust drones than I care to count but every now and then they throw in a blind Berserker who hunts by sound and smell, or my favorite, the Boomer, who actually bellows, “BOOM” before he fires his rocket launcher at you. You also have snipers, wall-crawling wretches, and the flying Nemacyst, which look just like sentinels from the Matrix movies. Seeders are giant insects that look like they came from Starship Troopers and the Kryll are deadly swarms of creatures that only come out at night and are repelled by any light. This leads to a thrilling nighttime level that will have you reliving your favorite moments from the movie Pitch Black, right up to the point where you step into a shadow and get dismembered.
Your weapon selection is also limited but no less creative than the monsters you get to use them on. We’ve already covered the dual-purpose assault rifle, but how about that torque bow, which is basically a one-shot kill weapon on just about any creature you can hit. Of course this works both ways, and there is nothing more distressing than running around for about 2.6 seconds with a fizzling explosive stuck in your back. The Hammer of Dawn is a targeting device synched with a satellite weapon that allows you to point a laser at any target and lock in for an orbital strike, as long as you are outside and the satellite is online.
One of the most inventive aspects of weapons combat in Gears of War is the new ‘active reload” system which should become a part of every other game from this day forth. Basically, you can run out of ammo and the game will reload your weapon for you automatically, but this takes a great deal of time. At any time before you run out of ammo you can tap RB to initiate a manual reload. This starts a golf-swing-style meter moving from left to right under your ammo counter. If you can tap RB within the gray shaded area you can reload in about half the time. If you can nail the small white sliver at the left edge of this gray area you will get a “perfect reload” and all the bullets you add will receive a damage boost. Of course this is not without risk, and if you miss the gray area your gun will jam and it will take twice as long to reload as normal. It’s definitely an acquired skill that will make the solo game go smoother, but it’s invaluable in online competition.
The level design, while visually breathtaking, can get a bit stale by the end of the game. Don’t get me wrong – this is easily one of the best (if not the best) looking games on the 360, but you can only take so much of those earth tone colors and nuclear pink skies before you just get sick of it. Even the blood is brown or some weird pink. Everything has that post-apocalyptic haze, and it all looks cold and dead. Very depressing…which is probably what the designers were going for.
Color pallet not withstanding, Gears of War features some impressive architecture that blends gothic structures, pillars, columns, arches, statues, with an overall state of war-torn destruction mixed with futuristic sci-fi flavor. Later on you will get to go underground for some awesome cavern levels, tour a foundry and even explore an historic mansion of sorts before the adventure culminates on a speeding train level.
There is great use of lighting and shadows, especially on the nighttime level where one step out of the light will have your body sliced into sushi by the Kryll lurking overhead. You’ll even get to manipulate light in this level to reach your objectives by moving spotlights and igniting propane tanks along the way.
The character design, detail, and animation are outstanding. Marcus moves realistically and all his gear animates and rattles independent of his body. He sticks to walls, rolls, tumbles, and does a roadie run like nobody’s business. In fact, the sprint move is easily one of the best visual effects in the entire game, and you’ll think you are watching an episode of COPS, complete with shaking camera and blurred visuals.
The cutscenes are all generated with game-engine graphics for seamless blending. There is also a cool interactive element where you can hold the Y button down during special moments and the camera will focus on some important person, object, or event. It’s a great way to find a downed man or other items of interest like a door or switch.
The soundtrack for Gears of War is, in a word, majestic. Rooted with heavy military themes you definitely get that adrenaline rush for combat but then the spooky music sets in and those chilling sound effects start to creep in from all of those surround speakers and the sub-woofer starts shaking the house as Emergence Holes open up and you find yourself quite literally IN the game.
The throaty rumble of the chainsaw is almost therapeutic until you rev it up and it whines as you slice and chop your way through Locust flesh and the screen sprays in brownish blood and body chunks fly in all directions with a sickly wet thud. The enemies make their own unique set of creepy noises and you can often identify the type of enemy by their telltale sound. The only thing more ominous than the BOOM of the Boomers is the unsettling flapping of the Kryll flying overhead in the night sky.
The dialogue is witty and fun with some great lines between the various soldiers, especially after you meet up with Cole. The voice acting is exceptional and the entire presentation is most impressive. There is plenty of random com chatter as well as mid-mission updates to keep you very involved in the missions and the overall story.
Gears of War is spread across 30 chapters divided into five acts of varying lengths. The entire game is relatively short and can be finished in 8-10 hours, but don’t worry, you’ll be coming back for more…I promise. At first you can choose between Casual and Hardcore modes but once you finish the game the first time you unlock Insane mode. I’ve only tried this mode once and by yourself it can best be compared to Veteran level on Call of Duty 3 – which means nearly impossible.
Then again, this game was designed to be played cooperatively, as made quite apparent by the ease in which you can invite and have somebody jump into the solo campaign at any time without any special setup. The invitee will assume the role of Dom, who is otherwise controlled by the computer. You now have the added value of an intelligent teammate (hopefully) and the ability to heal each other, making it much easier to get through some of the rougher spots in the game.
Gears of War manages to stick in a set of collectibles in the form of Cog Tags, 30 in all that are stashed around the levels. To help you out, their locations are hinted at with a spray-painted red Gear symbol near the tags, so find the red gear then look around a bit closer. There are special achievement points for each group of ten tags you find as well as finding them all. And what's really nice is that if you find them in co-op mode both players get credit for them.
There are some pretty innovative achievement points to be earned with Gears of War. Naturally, you get points for finishing the game on the various skill levels but there is also a whole set of points awarded for playing as Dom, for one chapter, ten chapters, an entire act, and the entire game. What a great way to encourage cooperative play. There are also some trickier achievements like killing three Locust with one frag, and plenty of achievements specific to the massively fun multiplayer modes.
Warzone is a team-based deathmatch where everyone starts off equal with access to all the same weapons. Assassination required each team to assign a leader and everyone tries to kill the enemy leader, but the trick here is that the team can only use weapons the team leader has unlocked by picking up at least once. Execution is the third mode and requires you to finish off wounded enemies before they respawn back into the game. This forces you to leave cover to finish off your enemy either with a curb stomp, chainsaw, or headshot.
For those who want to invest an extra $10, you can get the Limited Collector’s Edition which comes in a metal case (a good one – not the crap that Prey came in), with a very nice book of art and a second DVD featuring behind the scenes on the making of Gears of War…and if I ever stop playing the game I might just watch it someday.
If you own an Xbox 360 then you, your life, and your system will not be complete until you own this game. Gears of War is a milestone, a legendary achievement in gaming that only comes along once in a very long time. With game quality visuals, and sound design increasing with just about every new title that ships, the fact that Gears of War manages to make such a huge leap forward only emphasizes just how innovative this game truly is.
Forget about the PS3 and the Wii. Epic has shown us that the 360 is still the best system on the block and Gears of War drives every last ounce of quality from that system. It’s a fantastic solo ride that only gets better when you share the adventure in co-op mode, and while a bit light in content, the multiplayer modes will provide countless hours of online fun for months to come. And there is always the hope of future downloadable content and the inevitable sequel.
So oil up that chainsaw and grab a fresh clip. There are Locust that need to die and a planet that needs to be saved.