- Title: Gears of War
- Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
- Developer: Epic Systems
- System: Xbox 360
When we pick up the story, Marcus is just being retrieved from rotting in a jail cell by his long time friend Dom. He was imprisoned for some unknown transgression (we're told nothing more than 'cowardice'), but what with the war on everyone has gotten a 'get out of jail free' card. Dom and Marcus flee the jailhouse, and hook back up with members of the tough-as-nails members of the 'Gears'. The squad Marcus hooks up with is on a mission: take the fight to the enemy. They do so, again and again, in some incredibly varied and rich locales. Act 1's broken city-scape turns deadly at night in Act 2, and is followed in Act 3 by a haunting factory and mining complex. The only real dissapointment is the somehow more brief Act 5, which takes place very quickly on a speeding train. The story that follows those acts raises far more questions than it does answers, with a sequel obviously in mind at the game's conclusion. What's surprising is that, even with this bare-bones story and somewhat stereotypical heroes on screen, Gears of War is actually a fairly grippy tale. A combination of looks, cinematography, and genuinely likable characters accomplishes what less technically advanced titles have failed to do; for once, shiny tech actually does somewhat compensate for weak storytelling.
The likable characters are probably the weightiest of those three elements. As much as George Lucas would like you to believe otherwise, a good camera angle won't make a boring character interesting. Aside from some swear-laiden and utterly predictable dialogue, they've almost always got some interesting commentary on a given situation. Strong vocal performances give you a clear sense of who these guys are. While we don't get to know any of them well, we are given at least some sense of what they did before the war. As much as your average nerd may dislike a ropy-armed ex-football player on principle, it's hard to feel that way for long when he jokingly refers to himself as 'The Cole Train' ... and then proceeds to pepper the next ten hours or so of gameplay with references to his nickname. It's all weirdly endearing, and Epic's ability to make you care about these guys is a big selling point for future chapters in the series.
What's not endearing is how profoundly and utterly stupid these likable fellows are during actual gameplay. It is almost impossible to get across how totally unhelpful your AI assistants are during most of the game. The game's unique and highly enjoyable 'cover' system makes for high survivability in firefights. This trait is almost entirely negated if you take cover on the side facing your assailants. By the same token, mindlessly mantling back and forth over a wall while people shoot at you is not helpful. Wandering aimlessly back the way you've come while skittering horrors assail the human player is not helpful. Running straight into the fire-line of a blazing mounted weapon so that you can engage in melee combat with a grunt ... well, it's a wonder you make it to the end of the game with any AI helpers at all.
In fact, most other elements of the game allow a level of tactics that has been sorely missing from the genre. The reload mini-game was questioned as a waste of time by several people I've spoken to, but extended play shows the damage boost and time savings you get from playing accurately to make a huge difference. Essentially, when you hit the reload button a slider moves along a horizontal bar. If you hit the button again in a small window along the bar, you'll reload faster. Hit it in the exact right spot, and your reloaded bullets do extra damage. In tight situations, this extra damage can mean the difference between taking on several enemies at once (almost always a losing proposition in this game), and going one-on-one. It's a small element in the overall gameplay, but a good example of how the designers have managed to make the game more thought-intensive without being clumsy.
The game's multiplayer modes allow these strategic elements to come to the fore. I've had the most experience with co-op mode, which is available both in split-screen and via Xbox Live. As the enemy AI suffers none of the abject stupidity your squad mates are cursed with, pitting yourself and another human against the might of the Locust is an incredibly satisfying experience. Flanking enemy groups, planning out routes through a given map, and discussing which weapons to use in a given encounter makes the final piece of the puzzle fall into place. Co-op multiplayer over Xbox Live in hardcore mode may just be the finest experience the Xbox 360 has to offer. It's challenging, seamless, and deeply engaging. This is the best way to play Gears of War, and has to be tried at least once by everyone who owns the disc.
More combative multiplayer is something of a mixed bag. It's quite a bit of fun ... when you can get a good group together. The problem is that, unlike the extremely robust multiplayer system offered by Halo 2, Gears of War has an almost primitive matchmaking system. Consistent teams are not allowed by the current setup. There are also currently only three gameplay types, meaning that you're going to be playing a lot of team vs. team deathmatch and not much else. Given the game's overwhelming reception there are sure to be improvements and additions to the multiplayer component, and despite the lack of variety Gears' multiplayer is already very popular. Last week Gears finally dethroned Halo 2 as the most-played title via Xbox Live. Just the same, it's frustrating that what could have been another slam-dunk element of the game is so comparatively weak.
So, again, we're back to the concept of perfection. The synthetic beauty on display in Gears of War is as close to perfect we've yet seen from this no-longer-next generation of consoles. With elements like innovative movement controls, subtle tactical elements, and an extraordinarily gripping co-op offering, it's hard to fault outlets that have given this game a 10 out of 10. Just the same, it's impossible to overlook the controller-tossing frustration of the AI or the lack of modernity in the game's multiplayer component. If you haven't bought the game yet, probably the best thing you can do is find out if you have a friend that already has it. If you do, you've got the recipe in place for co-op, which is the way this game really should be played. And, after all, there are sequels on the way. If nothing else, Gears of War makes you feel confident in owning a 360, and hopeful for the future of the system.