Gears of War (Xbox 360)
…Time to put the gears in motion
So I’ve finally ranked up at least 12 hours in Gears of War and I’d say it’s about time I let you all know just how good this game is and if it’s worth all the acclaim it has received. After going through the story mode and playing a good amount of hours online, I’m fairly confident in saying that Gears of War is probably one of the top 3 games on the 360 and certainly one of the most enjoyable shooters of all time. Of course, it all comes down to the amazing technical standpoint at which the game delivers from and of course a fantastic gameplay mechanic that has up until now been rather neglected or mistreated by game designers up until now. So feel free to read on if you’re interested on just why and how Gears of War has become one of the best reasons to own an Xbox 360 this Christmas.
… Let the war begin
Gears of War is your typical action game really, all brawn, hardly any brain necessary, whether that be the story or the gameplay is up to you but for now I’m referring to the plotline. Essentially Gears of War is set in a post-apocalyptic fictional world named Sera, where for centuries man had fought wars against each other, rather ignorantly minded of their planet and fuelled by corrupt selfish desire no doubt. However, on one particular day everything changed. On this day the crust of desolate Sera began to crack, eventually leaving holes from which creatures of the term ‘Locusts’ would emerge to wreak havoc on Mankind. From that day onward, the events that took place on that fateful day would come to be known only as ‘Emergence Day’.
It’s about now that we come to our present situation at the beginning of the game. We meet Marcus Fenix, in a jail cell who turns out to be one of the finest soldiers on Sera, serving time for a supposed trial that was full of lies regarding an order he disobeyed. As it turns out however, the army is in need of such a warrior in fighting back the Locusts, and that’s where Fenix comes into play, and of course, you the player. From here on in it’s basically you as Fenix and your three comrades that eventually fall under your command at your side as you try to bring down the ‘evil that has plagued Sera’. (Although it’s quite obvious that the story is set up to offer some sort of irony in that it’s probably the humans who are the virus, and the Locusts may be the vaccine)
As a general rule, I hate brain-dead stories like these (see PDZ) but there was something inviting about Gears of War that felt simple yet very involving. About half way through the game I realised that it wasn’t just by luck that GoW had interested me throughout but was due to the degree of character development that is used throughout the game’s story that really helps to flesh out a kind of inner-plot running alongside the greater storyline. Now don’t get me wrong, this isn’t anything major, but you certainly do get a real sense of character, normality and personality from each of the men you become familiar with over the course of the rather bleak and shallow plotline. This of course is a great help with a game like this.
I did feel the story as a whole could have been milked a little bit more for what it was worth because it was a very interesting concept and really could have added a whole lot more to the game. However, for what is there, it’s not all bad. In fact, it’s pretty well done and interesting enough to keep you playing through the game a few times around.
… Gather up some ammo and get behind that wall!
When it comes to gameplay, Gears of War still has quite a few of the typical and clichéd shooter restraints in place. What is essential to note however is that quite a few weights have actually been lifted from the game’s specific genre, which have been replaced by some very original and most importantly, significant gameplay mechanics seen in action video games to date.
First of all, if you are looking for an intense shoot ‘em up full of explosions, blood, clips flying through the air with every reload and horrible demon-like creatures to take it all out on then you can’t go wrong with GoW. Simply equip your favourite machine gun, hold down the trigger and watch the action unfold. Of course if you don’t particularly enjoy machine guns all the time you could also use a shotgun, crossbow, grenades, sniper rifles, rocket launchers and of course that giant chainsaw that’s on the end of your primary automatic. Now you can probably imagine just what all those weapons do to your enemies but what you will maybe underestimate at first is the power that can be wielded with that beloved chainsaw you’re carrying. With your gun equipped, simply press down B, sit back and watch the blades spin furiously, carving your enemy in half, splattering blood in all directions -even on the in-game camera itself-. What more could I say other than (what Felix himself would say) 'sweet'.
What adds even more to such visceral gameplay and graphical onslaught are the game’s realistic and vast array of superb sound effects. Whether it’s the sound of a shotgun blasting out shells through your opponents head or the chainsaw tearing through flesh before the splat of blood hits the screen. The sound effects are just as sure to get you feeling like your really turning things upside down for the Locusts as the actual representation on screen does.
A very original (albeit rather contrived) weapon in GoW is the Hammer of Dawn of which when used outside and when a certain satellite is switched on, projects co-ordinates and in turn some sort of huge energy ray is projected down onto the enemy, burning them to a crisp. It’s a nice addition to somewhat lacking arsenal of weaponry but in all honesty, it doesn’t get used all that much and you’re probably better off with the other selections for most occasions.
One of the best features of gunplay in GoW comes from a nice reloading mechanic which gives you extra damage capabilities with your gun if you nail a ‘perfect reload’ (which requires a timing strategy to stop a bar moving along a line in the right place, think golf games) and opens up a whole new area of expertise and advantage to be mastered in the game.
Now onto what makes GoW so special, at least in terms of original gameplay. Gears of War, even though it boasts non-stop action and guns blazing throughout, relies heavily on a new cover mechanic which for the most part works fantastically. You see with all these bad-guys running around touting all sorts of weaponry in your face, it would be pretty difficult to overcome it all without some sort of defence, and that’s when the cover comes into play. Place yourself next to a wall or even run then by simply pressing down the A button you will go into cover behind whatever wall is in front of you. From here you can choose to do a whole variety of things depending on where you are in relation to the wall’s edges and height. Among the actions is the ability to further sneak down your course, automatically using further walls as cover should you intercept with them; diving out from cover to either side; blind fire (holding your gun out and firing without aiming); and of course the regular peaking up and firing your gun. There are many more things you can do from such a simple position that you can experiment with but it's the variety of manoeuvres that makes the game very personalised and full of tactical possibilities to undertake for each fight you engage in.
Furthermore, there are a few more great ideas tossed in to keep you interested and give you a break from all the shooting and covering. You have to solve simple puzzles throughout and ride out through a pitch black city in a massive armoured jeep, taking down bat-like creatures that hunt in the dark, which inevitably try to eat you as you try to escape. On their own, they would be rather bland and not that interesting but sandwiched in between such different gameplay styles, it works pretty well, and is refreshing when it eventually comes round.
… Extra bullets
What really helps the game out when it comes to overall lifeline and variety in gameplay is the amount of different modes and features you can play around with. First of all there is the story mode which you can play alone, with a friend locally or with someone on Live, co-operatively, as one of you plays a separate member of the squad. In addition to this you can also play co-op multiplayer, and what I mean by that is that if you have a friend over, you both can join in on a Live match and play at the same time which is a fantastic feature to have in your game and one that I praise very highly when I see because so much fun can be had from either of the co-op modes.
Speaking of multiplayer, GoW has a fairly decent one and certainly entertain for quite some time. Now, fans of such games Halo and Half-Life 2 probably won’t be as amused by the small selection of online game modes, lack of customisation and weapon array but for those who want something original, highly balanced with a nice blend of tactics and all out action, GoW will certainly not disappoint. There are 3 game modes on offer based around basic 4v4 Cogs vs. Locust matches. One of which is more or less a simple team-deathmatch, the other a one-life team elimination and the final being ‘Assassination’ where each team has a leader and must assassinate the other team’s leader to win. There isn’t that much on offer in terms of quantity but in accordance to quality, you’ll most certainly get your money’s worth and will keep you occupied for hours on end and is certainly one of the most original online shooter games out there at the moment.
… Fully working gears
I’m now going to go over the rather disputable game balance and artificial intelligence. First of all, the AI in the game is borderline brilliant. Enemies will duck for cover, duck, dive, fire at unpredictable rates and sequences, all while remaining challenging and very realistic at the same time. Enemies will also know when what they are doing isn’t to their best advantage, for example: If a Locust happens to be behind a wall shooting at one of your team-mates, he generally won’t respond if you sneak up behind him until you shoot (unlike Call of Duty), and once you do attack, he will then run off, finding a nice balance between you and your team-mate if possible and get into position again. The only problem I had with the AI was your team-mates, who at certain points seem almost suicidal and will more often than not, end up getting knocked down, leaving you to go help them. For the most part however, your squad will help you out considerably, always finding a middle ground between too much help, and not too much (again, showing a lot more promise than Call of Duty).
Overall difficulty balance within the single player campaign is near enough done perfectly with the only problem being quite a vast jump between the default difficulty setting and the one above it. In fact, the problem hardly lies in the jump between settings but in a jump made somewhere near the second third of the game, where things really start to fall on top of you, but really this doesn’t show it’s true face unless you do have it on one of the harder difficulty settings. Other than this slight miscalculation however, things progress nicely, and you will feel yourself getting more and more comfortable with the controls and gameplay on all difficulty settings as you progress. The enemy AI also seems to get smarter as you go along, becoming more aggressive, and tactical in their squad placements and attacks.
… Got atmosphere?
If there’s one thing that GoW is undoubtedly supreme at, it’s immersing you in a world that looks, feels and sounds like your actually there and I’ll be honest with you here, this is probably one of the most amazing games I have ever seen running on a console to date. Forget Oblivion and Call of Duty, they may have had fantastic visuals and design but Gears of War straight knocks them out of the stratosphere. Everything about the main characters including your enemies looks absolutely brilliant. Textures are highly detailed, skin displacements down to the tiniest cracks and scars are visible on cut-scenes, and character animation itself is top-notch. All the weapons in the game look equally impressive, with particle effects from shotgun blasts and chainsaw scraping in all their glory.
Environments too look amazing and are all wonderfully designed to such high detail. At times you will be drawn back by all the action on screen, in front of beautiful city landscapes, tense dark corridor alleyways and buildings or ancient sculptured cities full of artefacts, ruins and monuments. Furthermore, a decent amount of things in the game are also destructible, many of which you may also be using for cover only to have it blown by too many bullets, but as a result, it of course creates a whole new dimension of visual realism inside a world that has an almost constantly smooth frame-rate.
Along with the conventional video game visuals there is also some fantastic direction in play during the cut-scenes (the ending scene in particular is something to behold) and a great shaking camera technique that is employed when you ‘sneak run’. What this does is that when you crouch and run, the camera will more or less bob around as if there is actually a camera man behind your player, crouching and mimicking his moves, as to remain unseen. For such a simple effect, it really does add a whole lot of extra depth to the pacing and feel of the game and is a wonderful design idea. Cut scenes as a whole are all very well animated and delivered, all of which look even more impressive in their pre-rendered state and employ the running theme of an epic story unfolding at your hands throughout to a such a highly successful degree.
As I have mentioned previously, the sound effects in the game also add a lot to the experience, whether it be a chainsaw revving up to slaughter Locusts or a simple gun reloading, everything sounds fantastic and is really aesthetically pleasing to the ear. Not only this however but the cast for the game also do a great job in delivering their lines, creating very memorable characters and implementing some unique personalities to quite interesting and likeable roles. Alongside these elements are the scripted crashes, screams, lights flickering on and off expected when playing such a game, but the real great thing about GoW is that is doesn’t over-do them, and knows when to stop in order to make that next time, seem just as surprising and sometimes frightening as the first. Finally, the music in Gears of War will have you gunning away relentlessly, as it times in almost perfectly every time to pump you up, ready for yet another blood-bath. Nice.
… Short but sweet
Ultimately, GoW will take around 8 hours to run through on the default difficulty, which to be honest, is pretty bad and is quite possibly the only real downfall of the game. However judging by how fun the game is to play through and the overall impression I have from the game plus all the different modes that offer replay value over and over again, things aren’t looking too bleak. I’d say you could expect anywhere from around 40-80 hours average lifeline with Gears, relying on the fact that you can connect to Xbox Live for quite a few hours of multiplayer or co-op action. Not bad, but only for the hardcore.
Okay well I’m running out of things to say now but I’ve just about covered it. So if you’ve managed to read through this report, you can probably see just why this game has been getting such critical acclaim, and quite evidently, this critic isn’t much different. Featuring some of the best graphics seen to date on any console, fantastic sound and unique gameplay elements much needed to the genre, Gears of War isn’t just another instalment of uninspired gunplay: it’s quite simply one of the best games of the year. So what are you waiting for? Emergence Day awaits you.
Story & Game Modes… 8
Gameplay & Control… 10
Graphics & Design… 10
AVERAGE SCORE… 8.9/10