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Gears of War (Xbox 360) artwork

Gears of War (Xbox 360) review

"In a post-Halo gaming world that lives, breathes and runs on futuristic shooters, you can tell Gears of War has entirely different plans the moment you take first control of main character Marcus Fenix and realize that, in addition to the rare third-person perspective, the game has no aiming reticle. "

In a post-Halo gaming world that lives, breathes and runs on futuristic shooters, you can tell Gears of War has entirely different plans the moment you take first control of main character Marcus Fenix and realize that, in addition to the rare third-person perspective, the game has no aiming reticle.

Well, it does, but you have to hold the left trigger to bring it up, at which point the camera zooms in over the shoulder and Marcus slows almost to a standstill. It’s a mechanic that kind of reminds me of Resident Evil 4, and while it worked great for a survival horror game, such a control setup seems questionable in the shooter genre, where players are often thrown into complete mayhem and must act quickly on their feet. But that’s exactly the point. Even on the lowest difficulty setting, even in the most harmless of situations, you can’t abide by standard shooter rules and expect to come out in one piece. Gears isn’t a standard shooter. It’s something far better.

The setting is the planet Sera, fourteen years after the freaky Locust Horde emerged without warning from the surface and wiped out most of the human population in the blink of an eye. They’ve reduced the humans to a lone city on a single plateau, where said humans are so desperate for support that they’ve actually begun recruiting prisoners. Among them is Marcus, who… did something bad that isn’t specified. He and his band of big, meaty men – seriously, their arms are as thick as tree trunks – have a plan to wipe out the bug-lizards once and for all. The plan involves the network of Locust caves and one really, really big bomb. Fill in the details yourself.

Marcus and his companions look and talk tough, but their enormous armor provides a startlingly false sense of security. Dying in Gears only really takes a few well-placed bullets, and the hideous Locust troops are smart enough to direct all of their gunfire towards the big, bulky dude lumbering across the battlefield in a wide-open space. Approach Gears like you would any other generic shooter and you will get torn to pieces. Guaranteed.

That’s where the unique control scheme comes in. Gears “introduces” the cover system, which allows Marcus to take defensive action behind nearly any object found in the environment. This may not seem too revolutionary a mechanic to you, and in truth it is not. The brilliance is in how Epic Games incorporated this system into Gears as an integral aspect of every single encounter. Levels are packed with barricades, low walls, fallen pillars, wrecked cars – all kinds of objects that exist only to be used for cover. Hanging out in the open, or even sticking your head out for too long, will send a buffet of brains and cartilage out of Marcus’s skull. Using your environment to your advantage and knowing when to back off when you’re taking too much damage are as vital to winning as actually aiming the gun and firing.

I’d like to say that the cover system works flawlessly, that I never experienced any problems with Marcus’s various context-specific commands, but I can’t, as every once in a while Marcus would fail to respond properly to a button press or pop his head out at the wrong moment. But when it works as it should – and that is most of the time – it makes for the most thought-provoking shooter I’ve ever played. It’s as much a game of strategy as it is about, you know, shooting, as you have to use your surroundings and your teammates to gradually push forward the enemy and overwhelm them. Because they’ll do the same to you. If you spend too much time focusing on a few out-of-reach Locust goons, you may overlook the one smart adversary who took a side route, snuck around behind you, and delivered an instant kill with a chainsaw bayonet to the neck. Your objective is flank them and hopefully break out your own chainsaw, resulting in one of the most satisfying and deliciously gruesome kills in recent memory.

The weapons you’ll find in Gears are generally the same standard stuff you’d expect to see in a game like this, as are the enemies, right down to the animalistic, low-intelligence beings that merely bum rush you with no cautiousness to speak of. (By the third chapter, such enemies start to blow up. Charming.) Where Gears differentiates itself from so many other sci-fi shooters is in situational design. Every encounter is different because its location is different, and thus each battle must be handled in different ways through the careful examination of your environment. Whenever I thought the game was too hard, it was always because I was missing something, overlooking some vital tactic that would bring about my victory. Needless to say, anytime a new battle came up, I was excited.

Gears is so full of big, incredible moments that I’d be at a loss to name them all, even if I had to. I’m forced to think back to the game’s “big” encounters, such as finale of the first chapter. I was in what appeared to be a tomb, being hunted by a Berserker – a horrific, blind freak that could hear and smell me. My current weapon set would do nothing, and in fact would only attract it to me. In a sequence that left me sweaty and trembling, I had to lure the creature out of the tomb without winding up on the receiving end of a one-hit kill. Once outside, I was able to call upon the game’s coolest weapon, the Hammer of Dawn – a pinpoint device that doesn’t actually do any damage itself, but rather calls upon intense laserfire from a satellite hovering miles over Sera’s surface. Watching the Berserker scream in the heat of the enormous stream of light would have been a “defining moment” in nearly any other game. Yet Gears is loaded with great scenarios such as this.

It also looks fantastic, particularly in the disturbingly lifelike character models and spectacular environmental effects, from the amazing rainstorm in the third chapter to the eerie pink glow of the exhilarating finale, set on a speeding train. But what’s more impressive is the level to which Sera is brought to life as a completely believable sci-fi world. Epic Games combined the basic layout of any modern Earth city with Greek architecture, delicately walking the line between very old and very new. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and you get the feeling that Gears just barely taps into the near-limitless potential of the game world Epic has crafted. I want to see a Gears sequel, not just to experience more great gameplay, but to delve even deeper into this fascinating world. Sera is that beautifully realized.

I sadly cannot say the same about the plot, which feels more or less like a missed opportunity. Despite its very interesting setup, the bulk of the story just has a bunch of big, trigger-happy dudes swearing and engaging in various one-liners and mind-numbing macho talk. The story just doesn’t go anywhere, and more or less feels like an excuse to offer a full campaign’s worth of shooting – which is a good excuse, I admit, but an excuse nonetheless. Marcus is a one-dimensional character, and the conflict at hand certainly doesn’t spark a whole lot of interest.

There’s this one part where Marcus says, “Ah shit.” And then he yells, “Damn it!” This was one of the many highlights.

This problem is remedied in the multiplayer mode, which the strategic, squad-based gameplay of Gears seems made for. There’s no story, no dialog. There are no pointless cutscenes, no caveman exchanges, no missed opportunities. Just four friends, sitting around, enjoying a great game for all it’s worth.

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (December 16, 2007)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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