At its release, Gears of War was considered one of the greatest games to grace the new generation of consoles. With stunning visuals, an intuitive cover system, and a ground-breaking co-op mode, it was atop nearly all game of the year lists and is still widely regarded as sheer brilliance. But how does Gears hold up a couple years down the road? Now that we’ve seen what else is out there, is this still one of the best games ever?
The first thing that has to be said about Gears is that it was in no way built with single-player in mind. Even on the Casual difficulty, enemies will rip you to shreds quickly if you get caught out in the open, and your squad mates are just as useless as any other shooter. Crank the difficulty up to Hardcore or Insane and you might as well just turn off your Xbox; you won’t be making it through alive. On top of the extreme difficulty, the story is paper thin and the characters are the personifications of every tough guy, meat head stereotype there is, so you won’t get sucked in by enthralling narrative or compelling plot twists.
All that is fine though, as even though the development team won’t admit it, this game was made for co-op. Sure, they threw a single-player campaign in there to keep the purists happy, but the whole point of Gears is to grab a buddy either locally or online and go out there and kick some Locust hide. Laying down suppressing fire for a buddy as he flanks a heavily fortified enemy position is just as fun today as it was in 2006, and making it through the game with a friend by your side is one of gaming’s true accomplishments. It’s clear even now with games that focus exclusively on teamwork (Army of Two, [/i]Rainbow Six[/i]) that nearly all of them owe their ideals and mechanics to the system hatched in Gears, and none of them come even remotely close to doing it as well.
Continuing the innovation was Gears’ cover system. At the time, the idea of tapping a button and sticking to cover was still fresh and novel, which is surprising given how long we’ve been holding a gun and shooting baddies. However, Gears was one of the first to dedicate a large chunk of gameplay to finding and sticking to cover, and the system is beginning to show its age. First off, everything is handled by the A button, and I do mean everything. Tapping it brings you in and out of cover, holding it goes into the now infamous “roadie run,” and using it in conjunction with the control stick governs SWAT turns and diving rolls. Strangely, it also handles jumping down from raised platforms and hurdling over obstructions. It can be somewhat irritating and immensely counter-intuitive to force your character to press up into cover against an object just so you can vault over it and continue with your objective. Even when the game was first released many reviewers harped on these items as issues, and now as we look back and see just how many nuances you can put into a cover system, we’d be remiss if we didn’t call out Gears seminal gameplay mechanic as overly-simplified and somewhat wonky.
Another aspect of the game that received praise was the creative weapon design, and even I have to admit that the Lancer is, to this day, still one of the most badass guns out there. However, beyond the chainsaw bayoneted assault rifle, what other innovation was there? We’ve seen shotguns, sniper rifles, pistols and grenades before, and even the exploding arrow shot from the torque bow has been done. In fact, the weapons have proven to be a weak point in the game, as anyone who engages in a multiplayer match knows that everyone first zips toward the immensely overpowered shotgun, and then once that is gone, to the equally unbalanced Longshot sniper rifle. Ok, I’ll grant you the Hammer of Dawn was a great weapon, but its limitations always made it more of a tool of opportunity, and when you weren’t trying to take down a Berserker, there really wasn’t much reason to keep it in your inventory. While the Lancer was cool and the Hammer of Dawn was killer, they were really the one-trick ponies in weapon innovation, and everything else just serves to fill out your usual stable of rifle, shotgun, pistol, etc.
The final gameplay element that deserves attention is the multiplayer, which never quite managed to get off the ground. While Execution and Assassination provided some minor derivations from the standard team deathmatch, they really weren’t new modes, just the same old thing with a bit of extra spice. Also, as anyone who has tried the multiplayer knows, if you don’t have a shotgun, it’s like bringing a knife to a gunfight, and no weapons system should be that unbalanced. The multiplayer in Gears wasn’t that impressive back when it launched, and now with the sheer variety of modes in games like Halo 3 and the intricate ranking systems of titles like Call of Duty 4, time hasn’t done it any favors.
So when looking at the gameplay elements we see a mixed bag of success. The co-op system continues to be sheer brilliance, and the cover system, while rudimentary, fundamentally altered the way we play shooters. The single-player never was a strong point, and the multiplayer pales in comparison to what is in place now, meaning that while Gears will always be a game you reach for when you want to work with a buddy to take on the forces of evil, you aren’t quite as likely to give it a spin when you’re looking to play alone or with a large group of friends (or strangers).
So the question then turns to the technical specs, the question of how well a two-year-old title (ancient in gaming years) looks, sounds, and handles when pitted against modern competition. Surprisingly, there aren’t many games in general, or 360 titles in particular, that can surpass this technical marvel.
Graphically, Gears was the first time we saw the Unreal Engine on the new consoles, and it performed beautifully. The insane amount of detail that went into everything from the scars on the characters faces to the architecture of the buildings is a testament to what the engine can do. In the interceding years, we’ve seen a number of games use the same engine, but few of them have been able to match what Gears managed back in 2006. Also, with Epic utilizing the next generation of Unreal for Gears 2, we all stand ready to be blown away yet again by what we’re looking at.
The sound design also stands the test of time, with the sounds of a Theron Guard hissing orders or a Boomer preparing to launch his payload still making your skin crawl. Also, even though the dialog was awful and the script absolute garbage, the voice actors still delivered their lines with so much panache that you got the feeling that they just might believe what they’re saying. From Marcus’ cool, sarcastic demeanor to the over-the-top machismo of the “Cole Train,” all the members of Delta Squad managed to deliver a memorable performance. Now, let’s just hope the team actually hires a few real writers for the sequel.
Aside from rampant overuse of the A button, Gears managed to create an intuitive, fluid system that made you feel like you were in complete control of the situation at all times. The inclusion of active reload spiced up the traditionally boring act of putting a new clip in your gun by introducing an element of risk and reward. Time your button press right, and not only did the clip get loaded faster, but you put out more damage to boot; time it wrong however, and you were left with a weapon jam that would cause you to sweat bullets as enemies pressed in and Marcus fought to get the weapon ready for battle. Oh sure, firing from the hip was awkward, but if an enemy ever managed to get that close that was what the chainsaw bayonet was for. Of course you’re not supposed to shoot enemies from point-blank range, that realm is made for melee.
When it’s all said and done, Gears of War stands as a technical marvel and a genuinely fun game even to this day. While many games can’t entertain so long after their launch, there are still few game experiences more satisfying than grabbing a buddy and suiting up with Marcus and Dom to blast some Locust back into their holes. While the single-player has been outdone by Metal Gear Solid 4, and even though the multiplayer isn’t much when put up against Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4, Gears still proves one of gaming’s simplest axioms; there’s nothing more fun than you and a buddy grabbing a gun with a chainsaw strapped to it and mowing down crowds of bad guys.