What could possibly be said about Gears of War, a six-year old Xbox 360 game that has received endless praise and general support for supposedly revolutionizing third person shooters as we know them? Every video game journalist and their grandparents have given their perspectives on it. The only distinction with my opinion is with the overriding theme: it’s not as great as people say, and it misses the mark set by the hype.
Before Gamer Codex becomes a breeding ground for flame wars and hateful comments, allow me to elaborate. While the appeal of Epic Games’ most famed title is understandable, it comes with certain limitations based on its design. Clearly, it was designed to be a violence-centric action game that caters to an apparently simplistic audience, and any traces of depth are either filler material or underdeveloped.
First on the chopping block is the narrative, which stands out as one of the laziest and most generic a gamer can experience. Set in the distant future on a war-torn, Earth-esque world called Sera, Gears of War tasks the player with taking on the role of Marcus Fenix, a dishonoured soldier who is released from prison to combat the Locust, a subterranean race of war-mongering aliens, as well as recovering a top-secret device known only as the resonator. This device, although not clearly stated by the cast, will allow the remaining human forces to map out the catacombs of Sera, enabling them to wipe out the Locust.
Where to begin with the issues? Setting aside the story’s derivative nature, nothing is clearly explained, like the reason for Marcus’ imprisonment or what exactly the magic MacGuffin aka “the resonator” does! The characters are all one-dimensional, dreadfully uninteresting and virtually undeveloped as the story goes along. The writing ranges from mediocre to slightly cringe-worthy, and the pacing of the game’s five-act plot is sluggish at best. The tone of the story is unclear – profanity-spewing soldiers and gratuitous violence don’t mix well – and the action lacks any emotional value, even feeling disconnected from the player at times.
The only truly good things that the story can lay claim to are small and rather insignificant. Marcus, though carrying the personality of a brick wall, does adequately convey in-game concerns shared by the player, such as during intense gunfights or when failing to reload properly. The other characters also have the advantage of being generally harmless to the player’s self-esteem or self-respect, aside from the aforementioned profanity and lack of personality. Last, though there are few sensibilities in its long-term and short-term goals, understanding of the story does not take precedence over enjoyment of the game, so players will be able to generally follow the flow of events.
If storytelling is not this game’s focus, then logically gameplay would be the next suspect. While that certainly seems to be the case, that fact does not make the end result any less flawed. Gears of War plays out as a traditional no-frills third-person shooter: large, muscle-bound, gun-toting marines take on wave upon wave of creatures, wielding a standard armament of up to two grenades, two main weapons and a smaller sidearm.
In terms of innovation to the standards of modern shooters, the most noticeable one is the addition of a cover mechanic. This feature, allowing Marcus and company to stick to objects with flat surfaces, is actually helpful and even believable when the controls and enemy A.I are being reasonable. Marcus walks sluggishly and runs like a linear tank – unstoppable and focused on one direction. As well, the act of aiming down sights is somewhat stiff and the impact of shots, even those taken at the head, seems lacking. Reloading takes the form of a light quick-time event during battles, where the player must watch a bar representing the ammo meter and hit the reload button at a certain point – an interesting, tension-inspiring idea, but its inclusion may have just been to pad out the time spent on the game.
The weapon variety is passable and some guns have noticeable recoil, but their usefulness is questionable – some (like the Lancer) are more akin to peashooters than powerful rifles. The melee attacks seem to lack force, as well, with only the aforementioned Lancer’s chainsaw bayonet being instantly lethal (though it takes a second to charge up, and it’s a case of gruesome style over substance). Luckily, with the number of weapon drops and ammo containers scattered about, resorting to close-quarters combat is rarer than you would think.
The enemy Locust seem to hail from the Zerg School of Artificial Intelligence Programming, since their tactics consist of charging into gunfire, hiding briefly in cover and hopping over to melee attack the player. Some variety in their ranks exists, with fairly clear distinctions in size and weapons, but the truly outstanding battles with large, dynamic foes instead of generic alien cannon fodder are few and far between. This is a shame, since it might help to break up the tedium of moving from linear location to linear location, hiding behind pieces of rubble to avoid risking brutal, merciless death on all difficulties.
Ally A.I does not fair better; in fact, it is less impressive. Your party almost always consists of four marines, including the player character. These teammates of yours, whom you can give basic commands to, constantly run into gunfire and fall to the ground, requiring constant revivals, and they vary in their ability to actually kill the large waves of enemies. Granted, this may inspire players to stick to the co-op campaign options – allowing for offline or online friends to take on the role of Marcus’ teammate Dominic – but answer this: does wanting to appeal to co-op players warrant kicking solo gamers in the shin?
The previously mentioned “linear locations” also have the disadvantage of being repetitive and uninteresting. Yes, there are stairs, interactive doors and plentiful amounts of cover for strategic purposes, but the layout feels consistently generic, as though little care about the atmosphere or setting was present in the game’s development. Even outside, the environments feel barren and lifeless, which may have been the goal but does not make for entertaining gameplay.
A few key additions may draw back Achievement hounds, but they are not enough to truly guarantee a second journey to Sera. First and foremost, the game features collectable COG tags scattered about, which link to a specific set of Achievements when claimed. Second, the game sports three difficulties, – Casual, Hardcore, Insane – the third of which is only unlocked after completing the campaign once on the lower difficulties, though the distinctions between all of them seems to be the amount of damage required to kill enemies.
When discussing such a publicly-beloved icon, one must mention its multiplayer. For those graced with the resources to afford an Xbox Live account, Gears of War‘s multiplayer suite appears to cater to the standard online crowd; nothing spectacular or innovative, save for the core gameplay, is included here. Interesting variations on the typical Deathmatch and King of the Hill modes are on display (labelled as Warzone, Execution, Assassination and Annex), with the matches pitting two teams of four against one another, but it’s all expected from a modern shooter.
As with the rest of this game, the presentation leaves something to be desired, though elements of it are well-designed. Take, for instance, the graphical quality of the game: bleak, detailed ruins of a once-great city and complicated yet consistent characters models. The art design, meanwhile, is lackluster, with all of the environments featuring shades of grey and all of the characters blending into the scenery, enemies included. The animation is quite good, capturing the motion and believability of oversized soldiers, but the lighting will force some players to change the contrast on their screens.
Sound quality is more adequate, but has little of its own merits. The soundtrack and sound effects are very downplayed, with a brooding tune that seemingly appears only in the opening and clear audio cues to various scenes (such as the appearance of Locust soldiers from underground). The voice acting is definitely high-quality, with John Dimaggio at least making Marcus a bearable knucklehead, but the limits caused by the writing will keep the average gamer uninvested in the characters’ plights.
Given the hype surrounding this game when I finally purchased it, it doesn’t surprise me that the final product is lackluster at best. There are some pockets of gold in this merely average title, some moments of true creativity, but the final conclusion that can be made is that gamers should expect more than just standard action fare. I apologize to you, Cliff Bleszinski and your dear Epic Games, but this is not the Xbox 360’s killer app – it is, quite simply, just an adequate product.
-Kurt Hvorup, Founder and Administrator