If there was one game which had generated a lot of interest around the Xbox 360 launch last year, despite not being available for some time (almost a year) it would have to have been Gears of War which is developed by Epic and published by Microsoft. Early screenshots portrayed a game which looked absolutely stunning and perhaps looked better than any other game on the platform. With few movies and details released, many came to gather information from the game’s lead designer Cliffy B who had propelled himself not only as the man of spin for the game but also some sort of gaming celebrity as kudos was granted towards him and the rest of the team for showcasing the new Unreal Engine 3 which powers the game. The question remained until people actually got to play the game, was could the team pull off what was shown in screenshots and early demonstrations and could Unreal Engine 3 really deliver especially in terms of the high quality graphics and dreaded frame-rate issues that could potentially plague it? Well after playing the game it is perhaps safe to say that Gears of War does in fact deliver on the graphics front and will no doubt please the graphics junkies amongst us; which lets face it, is probably most people considering the cost of buying into a next generation machine. The hype surrounding the game has been huge in relation to the game’s graphics but it is perhaps the gameplay that presented many questions on gamers lips; as for one, the game isn’t a first person shooter, and two the cover shooter style gameplay has been done many times before with games like Time Crisis, Killswitch, Winback and Dead to Rights, to name but a few.
Although the much billed Emergence Day is still a few days away, the lucky Americans were able to purchase the game prior to the official launch on November the 17th 2006 whilst the majority of Europeans are having to wait almost 10 days more. Whilst this may seem unfair it does allow Europeans the chance to gauge opinion on the game before purchasing. Does, Gears of War live up to the hype or is it another game regarded as a “could have been” in a similar way to how the infamous Brute Force on Xbox was received?
In Gears of War the stage is set firmly in an alternate universe similar to life on our own planet and with a story co- written by Eric Nylund who also penned the stories for the Halo games there’s certainly a lot of history to take on board. The civilisation of Sera had seen much beauty and peaceful tranquillity, yet with a desire for conquest this peace was short lived as a global diminishing of resources led to wars which became known as the Pendulum wars. A scientist discovered a new energy resource known as Imulsion and this restored the world somewhat, although again highlighted mankind’s greed as more wars broke out as countries tried to gain control of the Imulsion rich areas on the planet. During this time of destruction, a new threat to all warring nations reared its ugly head, not from the skies but from below the planet’s surface and thus a full scale attack on the people of Sera was initiated by a new underground living breed known only as the Locusts. Emergence Day was declared and after much debate by the disorganised world leaders the order was given to cleanse the planets surface to rid the world of the Locust scum. Millions were killed as a result but victory was given to the remaining survivors of Emergence Day. The war was not over as the Locusts merely retreated to their underground network of caverns and thus humanity was in for the long haul of wartime again. With numbers dwindling over the years the COG (Coalition of Governments) decided to gather resources from the dregs of society as all were needed to fight the Locusts.
Throughout the game, players assume the role of chisel jawed ex solider Marcus Fenix who had been thrown into Jail for insubordination and cowardice during his stint in one of Sera’s previous wars. Marcus was an exemplary soldier and narrowly avoided the death penalty for this reason alone. Gears of War begins some 14 years after Emergence day and starts with the reinstating of Marcus as a soldier of excellence as he is pardoned and released from jail by friend and comrade during the Pendulum wars, Dominic. That’s the story and to be honest the game itself does very little if anything to explain any of it which is shame as it starts the game on a negative in my opinion. That said, Gears does thrust players right into the action from the offset and I suppose if players are looking for a deep enriching story then I suggest they go play an RPG.
It must be hard for developers to come up with new and refreshing ideas in the games industry as lets face it most game types have been done already. With the arrival of the Xbox 360 and a new generation of games, it’s obvious that developers need to play it safe in many respects as tried and trusted formulas are what sell at the end of the day. In this respect it’s probably safe to say that Gears of War adds nothing new in particular to the third person action genre; however innovation aside, what Gears does offer is a game that is extremely fun, polished and engaging to play.
The beginning of the game offers gamers the choice of either a training mission or getting stuck into battle and with two out of three levels of difficulty to try from the offset means that casual and hardcore gamers are catered for, a wise choice indeed. Gears of War offers a third person perspective, which means that Marcus is in view at all times. The general flavour of the game is to simply survive by eliminating Locust invaders which cross your path as you try and accomplish the overall objective of winning the war. A plan is hatched which sees Marcus and his squad of three others track down a resonator that will map out the entire Locust underground network of caverns and thus it’s your job to retrieve this device and place it underground so that guided bombs will be able to strike the Locusts at their source.
I think the main pull of the game is the whole cover shooter aspect which offers a slightly different approach to combat compared to first person shooters. It is what you will be doing most throughout the game and seems that the team have poured a lot of love into its execution. The levels which portray a world filled with destruction and danger are filled with debris and such like from years of war and of course the satellite cleansing of the planet’s surface 14 years earlier. In game play terms this presents many opportunities to use said debris as cover when attacking and under fire from Locusts. With a tap of the A button when close to an object players will automatically put their back up against the surface and from there will be able to move and peer out to shoot; the onus being on remaining safe from incoming fire when protected by whatever inanimate object you are using. For the most part this works very well although in some instances can be a pain, especially if you are trying to perform an evasive roll or a quick dash which are also controlled by using the same A button. What can happen at times is when you are wishing to perform one of these evasive moves, your player will auto seek cover to the nearest object which can be frustrating and somewhat disorientating at times.
Whilst in cover by pulling and holding the Left Trigger players are able to peek out and shoot at enemies with a certain degree of accuracy, however become vulnerable to incoming fire and so need to time their moments in accordance to incoming volleys of attack. Players are also able to blind fire which allows them to shoot whilst remaining in cover but with an obvious loss of accuracy. Cover also extends to objects that can be destroyed but offer protection until then. This is an aspect that the team spoke about prior to the game’s release, although in my opinion is something underused as there always seems to be enough non destructible cover spots amongst these. It’s a shame and perhaps something we can see more of in Gears of War 2. The cover aspect in general works really well and what is more is the Locust are able to do the same thing which means plenty of intense shootouts that ditch the run and gun formula gamers are perhaps used to in action orientated games.
I think a lot of gamers have perhaps overstated their concerns over the cover aspect of the gameplay prior to release and whilst it is something that becomes second nature after twenty minutes play, there is simply more to the combat than just ducking in and out of cover for X amount of minutes before moving on to the next gunfight. For starters, the level design offers areas which are tight and enclosed but also areas which are more expansive. These open areas offer players the chance to use some tactics and with 3 AI controlled team mates at most times throughout the game at your side means that Marcus is able to perform flanking manoeuvres and such like during these moments. What one has to take note here is that it is the player who decides what method to use and things like flanking or getting behind the enemy is a decision which rests firmly with the player. The team at Epic have done a grand job of tweaking the Locust AI to act in an unpredictable and determined manner. This in itself means that no two gunfights will be the same as the AI reacts according to the situation at hand. In some instances the Locusts will dig themselves in and keep a distance from you and your squad whereas at other times will charge and try to overwhelm you with sheer force and numbers. What is good for the combat is the use of emergence holes which can pop up from time to time. These holes spew more Locusts and whilst not infinite encourage players to try and destroy these with well placed grenades to lessen the number of attacking enemies. Again the destruction of these is a tactical option for players and whilst getting a good position to take them out is somewhat risky at the best of times it highlights that destroying them is an option rather than something players are forced to do.
Looking at the squad members for a moment it is clear that some decent AI programming has been employed as these guys act in a similar way to your own character; although these guys seem to be more gung ho at times. Maybe this is due to the fact that they simply cannot die and when beaten, rather than being destroyed are simply placed in a state of being out of action until you are able to move to their position to revive them. This in itself poses more tactics as players are given the choice of risking their own lives to bring them back into the fight or leaving them until the current gun fight has been won of which they are magically restored to full health and ready for action once more.
During the story players are given the choice to issue simple commands to these guys in the form of attack, form up and cease fire. Although in my experience this doesn’t seem to work very well as they react to the enemy rather than your commands. I guess this eliminates the age old issue of AI team mates getting themselves killed for stupid reasons and of course falling all over each other and more importantly getting in your way during intense gun fights. For all intents and purposes I think the team at Epic were simply paying vast quantities of lip service to gamers by including the squad commands, as in my opinion I think they could have made it a lot more tactical by making the AI behave a little less independently when the player dictated.
Still looking at the combat, Gears of War offers not so many weapons to dish out punishment and whilst they are very satisfying to use they all follow the usual weapons that players come to expect from an action game. Weapons include a shotgun, pistols, machine guns, sniper rifle, rocket launcher and assault rifle as well as the aforementioned grenades. The guns all work as you would expect them to and feel powerful enough for players to remain confident throughout the game. As expected, players who can perform well placed shots from weapons which give off a semi- realistic level of recoil will do better than those who cannot. As always concentrated burst fire is also a preferred approach rather than getting all excited and going full auto. One unique weapon is a gun called the “Hammer” which allows players the opportunity to pin point a location for an orbital attack from a satellite. This weapon is mostly used during outdoors sections and against specific bosses and is a welcome inclusion and also intuitive that it is not available most of the time as it is perhaps too powerful versus regular Locusts. The grenades are also very powerful but also tricky to use and perhaps some players might struggle. Sure, these can be thrown from behind cover, but for more accurate lobbing requires the player to come out of cover and line up a throwing arc which is represented on screen. The arc tends to take into account the final resting place of the grenade which also is reactive to the terrain. This poses problems as it becomes rather fiddly at times to line up the arc before getting shot to pieces. Also the throwing animation seems to take forever once you have successfully lined up the shot and on harder game play difficulties means that using this method is more hazardous than useful. One neat feature for all weapons bar the grenades is the active reload which requires players to re-press the reload button with the correct timing (lining up two lines on the HUD). If successful then players receive a temporary attack bonus or faster reload if they were slightly late with their key presses. It’s a small feature but one that certainly adds some participation to something that would normally be an automatic process; what’s more is the bonus of faster reloads and extra damage is certainly very useful in the heat of battle.
As you might expect Gears of War offers some differing game play moments aside from the usual running around and seeking cover. These range from using mounted gun emplacements, on rails sections and actually driving a vehicle through deserted and battle scarred streets. They certainly help in adding more flavour to the game and what is more there are also moments where players can choose to take one route or another which helps replay-ability somewhat. In general the game play is a culmination of various game play styles and as mentioned in the introduction is perhaps not necessarily to innovate but more to include a polished version of game play moments we’ve been used to for years of gaming.
The team at Epic have done a wondrous job utilising their in house Unreal Engine 3 in Gears of War, as the graphics certainly look very crisp and convincing whether that be the character models to the environments. Credit has to be given to the level designers and artists who have created a war torn and ruined Sera perfectly. Panning the camera around at any time in the game showcases ruins and distant buildings and a general level of scale that is most welcome and certainly impressive. What is more appealing is the fact that the environments are diverse enough throughout to not become repetitive as missions take place at varying times of day in different locales. To say that Gears of War is the best looking game on Xbox 360 thus far is perhaps subjective but it is safe to say that for anyone viewing the game; especially in high definition will not be disappointed.
Several Xbox 360 games have encountered problems with shifting vast numbers of objects and displaying high resolution textures namely with problems arising with frame-rates and screen tearing. Gears of War suffers none of these issues during game play with only momentary skipping occurring during the in game cut scenes which are rendered using the game engine. This is great for gamers and certainly means that players can remain focused on enjoying the game rather than being disappointed that these issues have not been addressed.
In the graphics department there are obvious concessions that have been made to keep things running smoothly at all times. What is very noticeable is the distinct lack of dynamic shadows. I suppose we have come to expect these in most action games on the Xbox 360 and when games such as Saints Row or FEAR pull them off rather well it boggles the mind as to what Gears could have looked like if these were included. For the most part one has to ask are shadows something that is paramount to the success of game play or an added feature that aid the immersion factor of game? Well to be honest it seems Epic have pulled it off and during play shadows are not something players will be focusing on.
Another element that perhaps a concession has been made is the use of physics and the general interactivity within the world. There are some objects that can be shot and moved but with the large potential of objects that litter the levels, these have been scaled down tremendously outside of in game cut sequences. Even things like shooting out lights are absent which again aren’t necessarily paramount to the success of game play but are more and aid to immersion. In general Gears of War offers a vast level of immersion anyways with its art direction and level design and so the inclusion of shadows and interactive objects are something that will probably not be missed by the majority of gamers.
Looking at the level design for a moment there is one glaring problem which I’m sure will annoy a number of gamers. With such diverse environments there is very little room for manoeuvre at most times and so we are given the classic invisible walls and such like. What is probably most annoying is not the lack of a Jump button per se, but more not being able to mantle certain objects or drop down from low heights which the level clearly looks like you could have done. Again this doesn’t really affect the overall game play experience but somewhat creates a more restrictive environment for players unnecessarily.
Gears of War features some excellent sound and with a blistering orchestral sound track which does a grand job of conveying the urgency of the game play means that players should remain aurally absorbed throughout. The voice acting is extremely cliché and with banter between Marcus and his team as well as communication with command does a grand job at being so. I guess us gamers wouldn’t have it any other way and whilst the dialogue is corny it is still executed with a high level of panache. You don’t really get enough feel for Marcus and company despite them all having their own distinct personalities and with various sound bites that occur during the game there really isn’t that much depth to them all other than these are hardened soldiers.
The Locusts are also voiced and speak in human tongues which are welcome and at times even these guys display some personality traits such as the psychotic Boomer locusts that come across more sadistic and lower intelligence than the regular Drones. The Locusts are voiced very well and as you would expect from a human killing force. Other sound effects are of a high standard and with things like gunfire and ambient sounds provide an aural experience that like music keeps you gripped throughout.
Gears of War offers a gripping single player campaign spread over five acts and with several seamless missions in each. For the most part players could probably beat the game on the easiest setting in a weekend of solid play. For the hardcore gamer, starting on medium difficulty is probably better and whilst prolonging the experience is still easily beaten in a weekend of solid play. An unlock-able insane difficulty is available once the single player had been beaten once and offers a tougher and perhaps more rewarding experience. As mentioned earlier there are points in the game which allow choices for the player and I guess these will help replay value as gamers try out an alternate route. During play gamers are also encouraged to search for dog tags of fallen comrades and whilst the collection of these doesn’t add anything to the game it is nice to be able to hunt them down amongst all of the killing. What is cool is the option to play any act or mission within them at any time and so gamers will be able to replay their favourite sections at will.
What saves Gears of War in the longevity department is the inclusion of co-op play for two players through the entire single player game which can be played online or via split screen (something both Halo games have not included). The inclusion of a solid multiplayer mode is also very welcome despite their being very limited number of game modes available here. From what I have played there are some great moments for co-ordinated team work within the graphically impressive maps and with a limited four versus 4 set up makes online games very intimate. My only real other gripe with the multiplayer again rests with the level design as players are not able to drop down from certain ledges or mantle others which can be frustrating. The cover switching with the A button also can prove costly here and as you know careless mistakes in competitive multiplayer games often mean death. I’m not sure about the balancing of weapons yet although the sniper rifle seems to be a favourite for annoying one shot kills sometimes even when you are behind cover it seems. What was great was being able to single handedly take out three of an opposing team simply using the melee chainsaw attack from one of the weapons after my three team mates had been eliminated; although with a one on one situation that was a result highlighted a problem of not being able to find the other player either he was deliberately hiding to go for a draw or we were running circles around each other. I suspect it was the former and a cheap tactic that I’m sure many teams will abuse at some point.
Gears of War offers a great gaming experience all round and when you look at all the various options such as an excellent single player campaign, solid multiplayer for on and offline play and of course co-op means that there’s something for everyone. It’s great that Epic have catered for offline split-screen play of all modes which is something which is becoming more of a rarity with the huge rise in online play. In this day and age of internet voicing of opinions it’s easy to become overly cynical or critical of games nowadays and what I believe is as gamers we really need to focus more on what is in games rather than what isn’t. Sure, Gears of War doesn’t really offer much that is new to the shooter genre but in the same token provides an experience that is extremely well polished and more importantly, fun to play. Gears of War is a must have game in my opinion and in terms of living up to the hype I would have to say yes it does especially as most of the hype was surrounding the look of the game rather than specific innovations in game play. That’s not to say that Gears is a perfect game as it certainly isn’t especially when the story and character development is practically non existent which is a shame although it’s obvious that the game really caters to those who simply wish to get stuck into the action with little regard for plot and characters. The flaws and annoyances aside presents a game that pushes all the right buttons and I think it is this factor that the game should be revered. It’s fast, furious and very much challenging and these are the things that as gamers we expect from action games. If you like shooters and are an action fan and perhaps even if you don’t then Gears of War is certainly a game worthy of being in your collection. At the end of the day there are fewer great games on any system than mediocre ones and so when a great game does come around it is imperative that gamers get involved. No doubt there will be a Gears of War 2 at some point in the distant future and so this first game in the series should well establish itself as a very popular one indeed.