Cocked, locked and ready to rock...
Anticipation is a fickle mistress. How many times have you spent weeks, months and even years eagerly and impatiently waiting for the second coming of the electronic entertainment messiah only to have all your hopes dashed come release day? Too many, because the higher the preconceptual pedestal, the further the fall.
I’ve had to force this thought into my mind time and time again recently, as the pre-release hype for Gears reached fever pitch. Forums, blogs, gaming news sites and even mainstream news outfits were getting caught up, whipping up a storm of expectation that surely nothing could ever match up to. After all, nothing can ever be perfect.
Bear that in mind, please.
Gears of War is not perfect. There, that’s my attempt at expectation management. If you enter into this expecting perfection, you will be disappointed, and your disappointment will only be amplified by that expectation.
waist deep in chunks of Locust, trying desperately to find the grub hole and a grenade to plug it
What Gears of War is however, is one of the best shooters I’ve played in recent years. It may not do anything particularly new (one of the most prominent criticisms levelled at it) but it does what it does so incredibly well that you won’t mind. You will have played games that have elements of Gears years ago and taken individually, you’ll probably be able to find examples of each that are executed as well as or better elsewhere, but taken as a whole, Gears surpasses pretty much everything that has come before.
The cover mechanic, for example, is something that is becoming more and more popular in action games now, most notably in the latest iterations of the Tom Clancy series’, and truth be told the system of pulling the left trigger in Rainbow Six: Vegas is better than that on show here.
But that doesn’t matter. When you’re waist deep in chunks of Locust, trying desperately to find the grub hole and a grenade to plug it, utilising cover is simple, intuitive and effective enough for it to quickly become a reflex action.
That reflex would be useless however, without the level design to back it up, which incidentally, isn’t a problem. In fact, the design and aesthetic of the environment is practically impeccable. The areas that you fight through, aside from being absolutely beautiful, feel so natural that you don’t think about it while you’re playing. In the middle of a fire fight, you won’t have to actively hunt for cover; you’ll instinctively know it’s there.
While essentially it’s a very linear game, with the player being funnelled towards each encounter with little opportunity for deviation, you’re moving between environments so rich in detail, character and variation that the linearity is certainly not your primary concern, if a concern at all.
This is in no small part thanks to the power of Unreal Engine 3 (UE3), the beast of a graphics engine that powers everything you’ll see on screen. There’s no denying that graphically Gears is truly stunning. I’ve played a lot of games here in the office, and I’ve had a lot of people walk past and have a quick glance at the screen, but I’ve never had so many people stop, watch for a few minutes and then walk away in awe.
jaw-droppingly, tongue-lollingly beautiful
It’s jaw-droppingly, tongue-lollingly beautiful. And not just because of the unprecedented level of detail that is achievable with UE3 and the previously untapped power of the hardware. A large part of it is thanks to the design and style of the architecture, which manages to be alien enough to be fascinating, but familiar enough to give you a real hook into the world. You’re not fighting through shiny, cliché sci-fi facilities or some nameless generic alien landscape; you’re clawing through the ruined streets of a once flourishing, prosperous civilisation that is in a very real way, recognisable. You can feel a connection with the world, and that draws you even further into the action.
Ah, the action. Only really touched on so far, but really, it’s why you’re here.
Something else entirely
I’ve been hunting for other ways of putting this, as it simply does not do it justice, but there’s only really one word to describe what goes on inside the beautifully constructed world of Sera. Intense. But it’s not the kind of everyday, bog-standard intensity that a lesser shooter might try and deal out to you. This is something else entirely. This is the kind that will leave you with a thousand-yard stare. This is emotional. This is desperate. This is fierce. This is tooth and nail. This is Sparta.
I don’t think I’ve ever sworn with such genuine anger, fear and desperation on hearing the dead mans click that indicates an empty clip (I really did swear too, people looked around disapprovingly and everything.) It really does pay to keep an eye on your ammunition no matter how hectic the firefight. It’ll also pay to practice your reload technique, as a well timed second press of the button will result in an “active reload”, which is much faster and if done at exactly the right moment will give your weapon an additional damage boost. Time it badly however, and it’ll mean a longer reload than if you hadn’t tried to be flash in the first place. And like finding cover, this will quickly become second nature.
A brilliant, brutal and bloody last resort
And the chainsaw bayonet! What a brilliant, brutal and bloody last resort that is. You almost have to let out a war cry every time you fire it up and charge headlong into the Locust horde. Actually, screw the “almost”, you have to. It’s your duty.
But I said it wasn’t perfect.
Like everything, Gears is not without its problems. While the back story of Sera, and how it came to be the desolate, uninhabitable waste that it is now is well constructed and convincing (it’s well worth reading up on), the actual plot of the game itself is weak, and while it does a reasonable job of leading you through it does fall into the category of sci-fi generica. Hand in hand with this goes the dialogue, which just cannot get any more ridiculously macho; it’s basically testosterone in the written form. It’s hilarious in places, but it really shouldn’t be.
The AI as well, while generally quite good erring on the side of basic it can sometimes be a bit…”special”. For example, on more than one occasion I’ve seen a Locust Drone walking calmly away from me while I carefully placed the best part of a whole magazine into the back of his head, no retaliation, no sign of intelligence at all.
These are the kind of minor issues that can quite easily be blown up into huge problems by unrealistic expectation, but it’s important to remember that they are but a couple of very small spanners in the cogs of a machine that otherwise works extremely well. Yes, it’s disappointing that they rear their ugly heads in a game as exceptionally polished as this, but there is so much on offer here that the few flaws that it does have are almost negligible.
Gears of War. So much more than the sum of its parts.
- Undeniably beautiful.
- Some of the best fire fights I've ever had in a game.
- Genuinely intimidating and convincing enemy.
- Story has an air of style over substance.
- AI, while generally decent, has issues.
- Little connection with the character and history of Marcus Fenix.
You can also check out the Gears of War Multiplayer Review!
Review by: Iain Thomas
Version Tested: Xbox 360
Review Published: 17.11.06