Insanely overrated. Great presentation with meh gameplay
"Gears of War" arrived on the PC in 2007 after making quite a splash on the Xbox 360. In addition to widespread critical acclaim and numerous Game of the Year awards, the game also enjoyed huge sales numbers as one of the most popular games of 2006. After playing the it, I don't quite understand why. This is one of those games whose popularity has got me completely baffled. When I first played it, I was shocked by how mediocre it is. It's a fantastic-looking game and an impressive showcase for the Unreal 3 engine, but underneath the incredible presentation lie some big problems. Chief among them are an annoying control scheme and a weak weapon selection. It can be fun, and it's worth playing, but Gears of War is still an insanely overrated game that takes second place to the other great PC games of this era.
First impressions are important, and Gears of War certainly hits a home run in this department. The graphics are beautiful – almost perfect. Were it not for Crysis, Gears of War would have been the finest looking PC game of 2007. The visuals are a breathtaking marriage of art direction, technology, and animation. The Delta squad members are intricately detailed and move convincingly taking cover, aiming, running, crouching, and using a chainsaw to slice enemies into a bloody mess. The lighting is truly superb – some of the most convincing to date. The environments are awe-inspiring and they beautifully convey a picture of a bombed-out, war-torn world. The game excels not only in its technical qualities, but in its cinematic qualities as well. Everything in the game is presented like an over-the-top action movie. You don't just open doors. You rear back and kick them in. When you chainsaw an enemy, dark blood splatters all over the screen. When you sprint from cover to cover, the camera follows you up close, as if you were the subject of a History Channel documentary. One thing that you cannot say about "Gears of War" is that the presentation isn't fantastic.
The great presentation carries over into the audio as well. The voice acting for the game is great. All of the Delta squad members have deep gravelly voices that perfectly match their bald, meathead, space marine looks. The banter between them is highly entertaining and the music is great. The soundtrack perfectly fits the game's "Summer Blockbuster action movie" vibe. The only part of the audio that doesn't excel is the weapon sounds, many of which sound weak or underpowered -- more on the weapons later.
"Gears of War" offers a third person version of the "stop and pop", cover-and-shoot gameplay mechanics that are rapidly becoming popular in the shooter world. You quickly run from cover point to cover point, popping out to aim and shoot quickly and then taking cover again. When you shoot, the camera zooms in so that it is almost first person. If you take some damage, you avoid taking any more for a few seconds, and it goes away. These are fun mechanics around which to design a game, but Gears of War botches it in a few major ways.
The worst problem with this game is that it has one of the dumbest control schemes ever implemented on the PC. Specifically, the run, cover, and evade functions are all mapped to one context-sensitive key. This may have been a great idea on the Xbox 360, but it's downright idiotic on the PC, which can easily accommodate more keys. "Gears of War" will have you fighting with the controls almost as much as the enemies on the screen. A simple task like getting out from behind cover and running to another cover point is way harder than it should be. Sometimes, you will try to dive out of the way of danger and you will end up hugging a nearby wall instead. Sometimes, you will try to sprint forward but get stuck to a nearby cover point instead. The game is pretty unforgiving once you get halfway through, so these common mistakes can easily get you killed. This awful control setup will have you pulling your hair out during the game's tougher moments, unless you put the game on the easiest difficulty level. How hard would it have been to map just one function to another key? Too hard, apparently, for Epic.
"Gears of War" also half-heartedly attempts to implement squad mechanics by giving you some simple "attack" and "regroup" commands. This part of the game is completely worthless, since you can't direct your squad anywhere or give them any specific instructions. During tough battles, your squad mates are usually down on the ground within about 5-10 seconds, since they do a lousy job of staying out of the line of fire.
The weapons in "Gears of War" also leave a lot to be desired. The pistols are pretty much worthless. Grenades take a long time to throw, exposing you to a lot of risk. There is a three-shot burst rifle that you will probably never use because it does almost no damage. The shotgun has no range beyond about six feet, and since it's not a one shot kill, you probably won't use that one much either. That leaves the automatic rifle/chainsaw combo that you will probably use for 75% of the game. Even the automatic rifle is a weak weapon that apparently shoots Tic-Tacs instead of bullets. It takes an entire clip of head shots to bring down an enemy grunt on Hardcore difficulty. Enemies will exploit this constantly by bum rushing you when you are behind cover, and there is little that you can do about this since emptying half a clip into a guy's face doesn't kill him. You can also pick up rocket launchers occasionally, but you won't find much ammunition for them.
Your enemies, on the other hand, once you get halfway through the game, have all kinds of one-shot kill weapons such as rockets and exploding bolts. These weapons will kill you if you leave your head outside of cover for about a second too long on Hardcore difficulty. Combine these problems with Gears of War's console-inspired checkpoint save system, and you have a game that can be irritating and not fun for long periods of time.
The graphics in this game are top-notch, but some other aspects of the technology aren't. Level sizes are small and usually pretty cramped, with generally just one path through each level, maybe two at the most. With a few exceptions, environments are mostly static and devoid of Havok physics or destructible elements. Heavy use of physics has become standard fare in PC shooters nowadays. In this game, you can have a ten minute fight in an environment and it will leave little or no evidence that it ever happened.
"Gears of War" should take you the standard 8-10 hours to complete the single player campaign. A few piss poor, uninspired boss battles don't add much value to the game. The level design is fairly repetitive and enemy variety is pretty low, so you will probably have had enough by the time that you finish it. That's if you can put up with the annoying "Games for Windows Live", which makes you sign in every time you play, even if you just want to play the single player game. GFW Live doesn't appear to be very popular for multiplayer either, as there is hardly anyone playing on-line.
"Gears of War" is still a moderately fun game, but it is overrated, and it is not as good as some of the great games that have shown up on the PC within the past year. Rainbow Six: Vegas is but one of many games that did "stop and pop" tactical shooting better. Even though its graphics are not as good, it has better controls, better squad tactics, and creative level design that allows you to approach tough situations in a number of ways. Games like Crysis and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. raised the bar for what qualifies as a superb shooter nowadays. This game falls short. Way short. The "stop-and-pop" gameplay combined and the fantastic, cinematic presentation make the game okay when it works. The game's awful control scheme keeps rearing its ugly head though, and when you combine that problem with a few other nagging issues, "Gears of War" is not a very good game.