The Good: Interesting and innovative combat system. Gritty, realistic graphics. The Bad: Single player campaign gets repetitive. Highly unpopular multiplayer gaming. The Ugly: Microsoft Live - $50/yr for multiplayer.
I have, for many years now, believed that Xbox consoles must ship with some powerful hallucinogen included in the packaging. I came to this belief when a friend of mine, a pretty normal guy in most respects, told me that I just HAD to play Halo – that it was the BEST FPS game in the HISTORY of gaming. Unwilling to go out and buy an Xbox simply to play Halo (much to Microsoft’s chagrin I’m sure), I waited until 2003 when the PC version came out to try it. I found it to be, while certainly not the worst FPS I’ve ever played, because we always have the likes of Diakatana to figure into the mix, definitely among the most boring. The single player maps were completely dreary and repetitive, and the multiplayer gaming crawled in comparison to the likes of UT2K4. Even allowing for the fact that the PC version was two years later, back in 2001 Halo was being held in comparison to Max Payne and Half-Life and it, at least in my mind, compared poorly. Halo 2, which I actually transitioned my PC to the craptacular Vista to play (and then promptly transitioned back to XP when I was done three days later), is also, again IMHO, very lackluster compared to the likes of FPS games available on the PC today (Bioshock, CoD4). So, if not under the influence of some power hallucinogen, I think somehow console gamers have come to expect less of their games – less interactivity, fewer thrills, exchanging the meat of gaming for the starchy potatoes and green beans of mindless shoot’em ups and a vicious case of carpel tunnel syndrome (how do people play with those frigging console controllers?). And now Gears of War has landed on my desk with a thud, a port of the immensely popular and multi-award-winning FPS released for Xbox360 back in 2006. Many undeniably great games (such as Orange Box and Bioshock) come out for both the PC and the consoles alike now, so perhaps console gamers have finally seen the light (though Halo 3 sold something like 5 million copies in its first few days after release, so perhaps not). How does GoW compare to PC offerings?
In the distant future (some distant future in which steroid use is apparently not particularly frowned upon because your character is huge!) on a planet called Sera, humans are attacked from below by a race known as the Locust Hoard. Surprised by the attack, the humans quickly retreat to a large granite plateau (the hoard can’t come up through the stone, kind of like in Tremors), and from there use orbital lasers to roast the rest of the planet surface. The resulting war between the remaining humans and the hoard has continued for 14 years. That’s where you come in as a member of the Delta Squad of the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG, Gears, get it?) named Marcus Fenix. You’ve been in prison, but have been released for a special mission. There’s some back story there, but I’m not going to go into that in this review. Buy the game if you’re curious, or you can wait for the movie that I understand they’re making (which, together with the upcoming Hitman movie, makes it official – Hollywood it entirely out of new ideas). The coming-up-from-underground thing works really well in the scheme of a shooter, because there’s a rumbling sound, and a hole opens up, and the enemy comes boiling out of it. It’s creepy and believable, and if you can lob a grenade into the hole you can close the hole and shut off the flow of enemies.
At its core, beyond some clever tweaks, GoW is a one trick pony. Like Max Payne essentially took a very stock shooter and added bullet time to give a new gaming experience, GoW brings in the concept of shooting from cover which, paired with an exceptional physics model, does make for some jazzy and entertaining gameplay. Controlled using mouse and keyboard like most PC FPS games (though you can use the console-style controller if you have one and miss the achy tingling of imminent carpel tunnel collapse), the space bar puts you into cover behind a box, or a car, or a piece of concrete – anything that happens to be handy. The landscape is littered with things that you can hide behind. You can, from behind cover, left click to blind fire in the direction of the enemy. This is wildly inaccurate, but can serve to keep their heads down. If you click and hold the right mouse button you get a targeting reticle – the equivalent of peaking over or leaning around your cover to take aim – at which time the left mouse button will fire. Doing this leaves some part of your body exposed, but far less than if you were just standing out in the open. With some other keystrokes you can roll from cover to cover or vault over your cover and advance. This leads to some frenetic gun battles, as everyone pokes their heads up, rattles off a few shots, and ducks back down, or moves to try and flank. And that’s Gears of War in a nutshell. The single player campaign hammers the concept of shooting from behind cover into the mission tree mercilessly, well past the point of diminishing returns. Multiplayer is much the same, but has the advantage of real live people shooting at you to keep things fresh.
There are some other smaller changes as well. Hitting the reload button on your weapon starts a progress bar that tells you how much more time to go until the weapon reload is complete. There are some narrow marks on this bar, and if you hit reload again when the progress is between those marks you have accomplished a rapid reload. If you hit reload again outside of those marks, you have jammed your weapon, and then it takes even longer than usual to reload. If you develop the touch, you can reload your weapon far more quickly than people who don’t have the touch or don’t bother to try. I really liked that. You also don’t have a health bar. Instead as you take damage an insignia in the center of your screen becomes more filled with red. When it’s full red, you’re dead, but if you can get out of fire, the damage will bleed out of it restoring your health. That’s not unique to GoW (CoD2 did it for example), but it works far better than the typical slamming of health packs every thirty seconds. Injured teammates (in both the single and some multiplayer variants) can be revived by standing next to them and offering some unspecified support.
GoW provides you with the collection of weapons you find in most military FPS games – handgun, shotgun, rocket launcher, machinegun, etc. There is also some kind of crossbow thingy which seemed to take a long time to shoot and reload that I didn’t play much with. For the most part I stuck with the machinegun. It has a good-sized clip, does nice damage, and has a chainsaw built into it for melee combat (though melee combat was rare for me). Finally, there is a designator for an orbital defense laser. It can only be used outside on clear days and even then only when the satellite is overhead. It takes several moments to designate, and has the further difficulty of maybe catching you in the blast radius as well. In the single player campaign is used mostly as a plot scripting device. You cannot, incidentally, carry all the weapons at once, so you have to pick your loadout.
Being a console port it saves automatically at specified checkpoints. This sort of breaks the flow of the tension in that the game typically saves right before a big battle – you can see the game hitch and the hard drive spin – so you know when you hit a save point that something big might be coming. Then after each battle the soundtrack would have like this electric guitar riff, like a cue to let you know that you’re finished. So you’re playing along, and you hit a save, the music ramps up, the enemies rush at you, you kill them, and get the guitar riff. It delivers excitement to you in very well-defined packets, and I think that hurts both the tension level and the surprise impact throughout the entire game. Trust me, as you play through the campaign it is very obvious.
Multiplayer has the typical deathmatch kind of thing, but the ability to revive injured teammates adds a small spin to the old formula. One multiplayer variant requires you to deliver massive damage to your opponents to kill them – the chainsaw on your machinegun works, as does grenades – or one of their teammates can just come along and heal them. Another variant sets one member of each team as leader, the object being to kill the opposing team’s leader while protecting your own. There is also a ‘king of the hill’ variant which plays much like Headquarters in CoD2, only you’re trying to protect an area and not an item. This makes for some heated gunbattles between the entrenched and advancing teams. My biggest complaint with the multiplayer is twofold. One, access to many of the multiplayer games and all of the multiplayer ranking features requires joining a service called Microsoft Live at the gold level for $50/yr. The silver level of Microsoft live is free, but gives you access to a much smaller subset of available games. That sort of pricing scheme might work for the hallucinogen-addicted Xbox zombies, but as a PC gamer I object to a model that sells me a game and then charges me to play it. And before someone gets all uppity about WoW, that’s entirely different. There’s far more work involved in maintaining the WoW universe than there is in letting me go online to shoot ‘em up on a few multiplayer maps. My second objection is that no one seems to be playing the multiplayer game, at least not at the silver level. Online as I write this, 7PM EST on a Saturday night, and I’m looking at a grand total of 5 online games containing 28 players. On Sunday at 10AM EST I’m literally looking at one game with 6 players in it. I can find more people online playing Halo 1 for Pete’s sake.
The scenery is for the most part dark, but the textures are detailed enough to keep it interesting. The maps are well laid out, though littered with covering debris to an extent that is heavy-handed. The flow of the game is well designed, with a little action, then some slower parts, a little driving, then a piece where you have to move from patch of light to patch of light or be devoured by these batlike things (it reminded me of the movie Pitch Black with Vin Diesel). Weapon sounds are OK. Some of the monsters scream out in a way that my wife found really annoying, which I consider a good thing. Voice acting is above par almost universally. One of the voices is clearly Bender from Futurama.
GoW lacks the sort of awe that I found in Bioshock, and it doesn’t really immerse you in the plot the way that Half-Life did, and it’s not so completely out-of-the-box like Portal, but it has a certain visceral Doom-ish quality that many of the more intellectual FPS games don’t. The single player campaign is about 10 hours long and a little repetitive near the end, but is entertaining nonetheless. The multiplayer is highly unpopular. I remain convinced that Xbox players somehow wouldn’t know a great FPS if it gave them a shotgun blast to the face.