Let’s face it, right now it's Cliffy B's world and we are just fragging in it. Gears of War is proof of that and if you have any questions about that you probably haven't played the game yet. Since the game premiered at E3 two years ago the hype machine has been slowly ramping up to a near deafening roar. The real question was if the folks at Epic could live up to the hype and deliver on all of the promises made since development began.
The short answer is yes they have.
Gears of War is the best action game out for the Xbox 360 right now bar none. It's got great flow, near constant action, and very little "filler". Gears also features some of the best co-op and multi-player action ever pressed to plastic. The game isn't perfect but the flaws are more academics than game play related, but we'll get to that in a bit.
The game takes place on the Earth like planet of Sera where after years of peace the inhabitants have come to blows over Emulsion, a next generation power source. While the humans on the planet (Serans?) are busy fighting amongst themselves they don't realize that trouble is brewing beneath their feet and are taken completely by surprise when the Locust Horde emerges from underneath their feet and begin to wipe out humanity in droves. The humans band together and form the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) but find that they still can't beat back the Locust horde. Having just seen the Matrix the humans retreat to one small area of the planet where the Locusts can't reach them and then take out the rest of the planet from orbit. Unfortunately this doesn't really solve the problem and the Serans are now looking for another way to wipe out the Locusts and reclaim their planet.
This is of course where you step in. You control Marcus Fenrix (voiced by the same guy who provided the voice for Bender in the Futurama show), a COG soldier who was imprisoned for leaving his unit to defend his familys home during Emergence Day. With the government running out of troops Marcus is "re-enlisted" and it's up to you to chew bubble gum and kick Locust ass and you're all out of bubble gum.
Herein lies the big problem with Gears of War. The folks at Epic have created a solid back story for the game but they don't flesh it out at all during the game. There's no reason given as to why the Locust horde is attacking, there's no background on Marcus Fenrik or his family except that we know his father is a scientist, and there's no interaction with spooky female who narrates some of the cut scenes. I'm assuming she's the Locust Chief but her role in things isn't really fleshed out much (I'm guessing we'll fight her in one of the near certain sequels). Instead the game leads you by the nose through a linear set of missions as you try and to locate and set off a device which will destory all of the Locust tunnels and save the planet.
Half-Life 2 took a similar tact of having your progress through a fairly linear storyline with a loose plot framework but Valve put supplemental plot information into the game, you just had to look for it. All through out the game there were details about the seven hour war and details about how the aliens were suppressing the human reproductive cycle but those details like those are no where to be found in Gears of War. Does it really matter? Well to some it might matter but for me these questions really didn't arise until after I had completed the game as I was too busy finding cover and shutting down emergence holes.
Gears is a shooter with a bit of a twist in that if you try to run and gun through the game you're probably not going to make it through the second level. Instead you have to use the games cover system and work your way through the levels by locating cover and finding ways to flank the enemies. The game gives you plenty of cover and you'll need it as the AI in the game is very good. I played through the game on the casual difficulty level the first time and found that to be somewhat challenging. I'm now on my way back through the game on the hardcore and the jump in difficulty is significant as I'm still having problems getting through the second level of the game.
While you can play through the single player by yourself the best way to do it is with a friend as Gears of War has co-operative play baked in. All it takes to bring in a buddy is starting a game and then pulling up the Xbox Live friends list and then sending an Invite to whoever you want to frag with. While the AI for your teammates is good, it's not nearly as good as what you get with another person. I had a few times when the AI would do something incredibly stupid causing me to have to reload a level. The only downer of the co-op experience is that if someone leaves the game ends and you have to re-start from your last checkpoint. This sounds a lot worse than it is as the checkpoints are fairly well spaced out so you really don't loose much progress if your friend has to leave the game.
While you can pick apart any game there area few nits I had with the single player plot. Besides the Locust you battle another race of bat-like creatures that hate the dark. The characters know about this so you would thing they would have figured out the “let’s attach a light to our guns or maybe even mount one to our battle armor. I mean you’ve got a bow that shoots explosive bolts and you can’t attach a light to a gun or a suit of armor? OK, nit picking over.
Controlling Marcus is a fairly straight forward affair and what you would expect from a shooter. The left thumbstick moves while the right thumbstick aims. Firing and zooming the scope on your weapon are done with the right and left triggers respectively. Reloading your weapon is done by pressing the right bumper. There is a nice reloading mini-game where you can get a quick reload by pushing the bumper again during the re-loading. Of course if you miss the sweet spot your gun jams and it takes longer to reload so there’s a nice risk-reward element to the mini-game. The A button is responsible for running, diving behind cover, and mantling over cover. Yes that’s a lot for one button and it does take some getting used to. Even after you get used to it this overloading does present some problems as you will occasionally take cover on a wall that you are running next to. The X button is used to interact with the environment as well as reviving teammates with the B button controlling melee attacks and the Y button being used to focus your attention on special objects. Wrapping things up the D-pad allows you to switch between the four weapons you carry in your inventory.
The weapon selection in Gears of War is solid but not overwhelming. You have the standard weapon collection of pistols, rifles, shotgun, and a few items. The Torque bow which shoots explosive shells Rambo II style takes some getting used to as the bow has to be pulled back before you can get a straight shot off. Another fun weapon is the Hammer of Dawn, a weapon that allows you to bring down a satellite strike down on enemies. It’s a great weapon but can only hit enemies that are out in the open. The weapon is also mobile so you can actually hunt people down as they move across the map.
The weapons are near perfectly balanced for both single and multiplayer action. The Sniper rifle is once again the king of the hill but the lone camper will not last long with all the other great weapons on the map.
Multiplayer is great when it works. It’s is very difficult to get into a ranked match, and the few times I tried to get online it took me over 10 minutes just to get into one match. This is a bit of a downer as a lot of the achievements require you to log some serious time in ranked match play. Hopefully Epic will fix this soon as it is a bit of a bummer to have to wait so long to get into a game. Playing with friends though is a lot of fun as there are enough multiplayer options to keep everyone entertained.
What’s great about the multiplayer is that you can feel the Epic touch in the game and you can tell this was developed by a game that gets multiplayer gaming. From the mostly symmetrical design of the maps to the juicy head shots and curb stomping fun there are a lot of fun touches in the game. There is a bit of pure gaming joy when you’re able to get close to a buddy and cut him in half with the chainsaw bayonet.
Level design is solid and the art folks at epic have done a great job of crafting a believable world. The atmosphere created by the game is amazing and the art designers have done a good job of delivering on Cliffy's vision of "destroyed beauty". The environments are certainly breathtaking and do force you to wonder what they would have looked liked before the war and emergence day. For example, there's a nice sequence outside a factory about half-way through the game. It's raining and the realism was so overwhelming that I almost felt wet and I certainly felt the need to get Marcus indoors as quickly as possible as the game gave you that great feeling of being cold and wet outside.
Gears of War is hands down the best looking game out on any platform as of December 2006. I was showing the game off to to someone and the first words out of his mouth were "Holy S**t" when I loaded up a level. The attention to detail is amazing and the game really shows off the power of the Unreal 3 engine and what next generation graphics are capable of. Sure the game is painted in primary grey but the level of detail that’s available and all of the little graphical touches like the heat coming off the guns when you reload, just make the game unique.
Gears of War is the game of 2006. There are a few flaws in some of the story telling and a few bugs here and there but the game is very entertaining experience from start to finish. The game has raised the bar for what we should expect from games in terms of graphics and game play. I just hope we don’t have to wait too long for Gears of War 2.