Gears of War is Microsoft’s bread and butter for 2006, the game it hopes will persuade people to buy an Xbox 360 rather than a PlayStation 3 or Nintendo Wii. That’s a lot of pressure for a single game, but Gears is largely up to the challenge. Its story definitely doesn’t carry the load (read our commentary here), but what Gears provides in terms of gameplay and graphics is more than adequate. In fact, it’s about time the third-person shooter genre had some variety injected into it, and that’s exactly what Gears of War does.
For the most part, Gears of War is a straightforward third-person shooter. Each COG soldier (humanity’s last hope against the subterranean Locust Horde) gets two heavy guns, a pistol and up to two grenades, and uses those weapons while plowing through waves of otherworldly albinos. Sounds like Humans vs. Aliens 101, right? On the whole it is. But after five minutes it’s clear that Gears also brings something new to the genre, and after 30 more minutes the variety gets even better.
Unlike most shooters, Gears of War absolutely crucifies players who “run and gun.” Anyone foolish enough to stroll out into the open with enemies nearby will revisit the last checkpoint sooner rather than later. What Gears trains players to do is actually use cover like they would playing real-life paintball, strategically choosing when to pop their head out and open fire. Like Kill.Switch, Gears of War lets players blindly shoot from behind cover, but it’s only when you pull the left trigger to take aim that you can expect to do significant damage. Of course, that means you’re likewise exposed to enemy fire, so watching your health is just as important as watching gelatinous blood splatter off an enemy’s body.
Since Gears of War has such an emphasis on taking cover, each of the game’s five levels (divided into checkpoint-happy chapters) provides plenty of coverage opportunities. Indoor levels rely primarily on doorways and fallen armoires, while outdoor levels use pillars, cars and blocks of concrete. An armoire and sofa aren’t as durable as a block of concrete, so choosing cover wisely is vital if you want to avoid impersonating Swiss cheese. Fortunately, moving from one element of cover to the next is simply a matter of pressing the context-sensitive A button. When we played Gears of War at E3 the context-sensitivity was far too finicky, and we often found ourselves accidentally taking cover. That issue has almost universally been resolved, although first-time players may still inadvertently take cover rather than run, and it’s still possible to dive rather than detach from cover if you’re holding the thumbstick in any direction while pressing A.
There was a serious risk that this single-button mechanic would make the game too simple, but it actually strikes a good balance for trigger-happy gamers and strategic players alike. On the one hand, taking cover will be unnatural for some players, so making it as simple as possible will appease the Halo and Quake fans out there. On the other hand, Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon players love to take cover, so while they still have a cover mechanic in Gears of War, it’s kept simple so they can focus more on dishing out the pain than sneaking around a la Sam Fisher.
Gears of War also introduces a reloading mini-game that adds some variety to the mundane act of reloading. In practice, it works much like an old-school golf game and its swing mechanic. At any point, players can press the right bumper to start reloading. If the bumper is pressed a second time in what amounts to a “green zone,” the gun is reloaded slightly faster than normal. If the bumper is pressed when the meter is right on target, players get a “perfect” reload, which makes the reloading process almost instantaneous and gives the reloaded rounds a damage modifier. However, if the bumper is pressed at the wrong time, the gun jams and takes longer than normal to reload. For the first two-thirds of the game, reloading is a take-your-time activity, but as more enemies come at you later in the campaign, you’ll have to keep your wits about you to avoid jamming the gun at the worst possible time.
As new as cover and reloading might be, though, the most pleasant addition in Gears of War is its multiple paths. Make no mistake: Gears of War is not an open-ended, emergent gameplay experience. As we said, it’s largely a straightforward shooter. But, in several parts of the campaign, players can choose whether they want to take the left or right path toward an objective. The experience is slightly different depending on the path chosen, and although the paths aren’t hours-long experiences, the variety definitely encourages a replay to see what the other path holds.
The multiple paths also play a role in the game’s co-op aspects, as each player can take a different path. Whether on split-screen or Xbox Live, Gears of War lets players go through the entire campaign cooperatively with a friend. In fact, if a player is playing the single-player campaign and sees a friend log onto Xbox Live, a simple invitation to play will put that friend right into the campaign, without the need for a restart.
The replayability this brings cannot be understated. Epic has set the standard for online co-op from this point forward. This praise comes with a caveat, however: the co-op replayability is crucial, because Gears of War is only about 8-10 hours long. The game does have Hardcore and Insane settings, the latter of which is unlocked once you beat the campaign, but at its base difficulty, Gears of War is shorter than Halo 2. We recommend loading the game on Hardcore, especially since players can change the difficulty when restarting at the latest checkpoint. Sure, the Hardcore Achievement won’t be unlocked for that Act, but switching to Casual is a great crutch when certain swarms of Locusts are just too challenging.
Being able to play through the campaign with a friend is also an effective way to compensate for the sometimes-sketchy squad AI. Sure, they take cover, but they also pop their heads out too soon or go in with guns blazing — and meet their demise. The game does include basic squad commands, but to be perfectly honest, they’re both pointless and often ignored altogether. Not that it matters much; fallen comrades can be revived by running up to them and pressing X, or they revive automatically when players reach the next checkpoint.
Reviving does play a role, however, when doing battle on the game’s 10 multiplayer maps, all of which are based on or identical to campaign locations. When a player hits the ground and is left for dead, there’s a user-defined period of time during which a teammate can revive him as long as an enemy hasn’t delivered an execution or riddled the soon-to-be-corpse with even more bullets. This means that traveling with a teammate is important in multiplayer matches, and that players need to be sure to finish the job once they think an enemy is down.
One of the multiplayer game modes, in fact, requires players to deliver an execution blow. This mode, called Execution, earns players a kill only if they execute an enemy via a curb stomp, chainsaw bayonet or other close-range attack (cram a grenade up their rear, for instance). The second mode, Warzone, is basically team deathmatch. But it’s the third mode, Assassination, that’s probably the most fun. In this mode, opposing squads try to take out the other team’s leader, which leads to some great firefights as you try to protect your alpha male. The player who kills the leader of the opposing team becomes his or her team’s leader for the next match, while the highest-scoring member of the losing team becomes his or her team’s leader. In some respects, Assassination feels like capture the flag, only the flag moves. For players who pick their favorite map and mode and stick to them, the 10 maps and three modes in Gears of War will be more than enough. Others, though, will find these options insufficient.
Yet if there’s one part of Gears of War that’s sufficient for everyone, it’s the graphics. This is what next-gen gaming should look like. If you’ve recently purchased an HDTV and want to show it off to friends, Gears of War is the game you’ll use to do so. If you read our hands-on preview of Rainbow Six Vegas, you’ll recall we were pumped about that game’s graphics. Then we played Gears of War. Quite literally, when we went back to Rainbow Six Vegas we thought we were playing an Xbox game. Gears of War has such amazing textures, architecture and environmental detail that certain small aspects are almost photorealistic. That’s a phrase DailyGame has never before used when describing a game. In split-screen co-op there are some instances of clipping, and the constantly gray environments can make it tough to track gray enemies at times, but aside from those snafus, you will not see a better-looking game this year.
With this package of graphics and gameplay nuances, Gears of War should have no trouble carrying the Xbox 360’s load for the holiday season. Its campaign is both short and unsatisfying from a storytelling perspective, but the actual mechanics of the game and the overall experience are fantastic. It even does a good job of mixing-up its gameplay, not just with the multiple paths, but by including vehicle sections, on-rails segments and turret sequences. Gears of War doesn’t break any barriers or push any envelopes totally off the edge, but it does enough to make for an addictive, memorable experience. And for a third-person shooter, that’s quite an achievement.
- Overall: 9 (Editor’s Choice)
- It’s not nearly as epic as we would have liked, but the gameplay provides some fantastic moments and introduces some new aspects to a mainstream shooter. The graphics and online co-op are simply phenomenal.
— Jonas Allen