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There’s little doubt that Gears of War has been the most anticipated game to launch on the Xbox 360. Obviously every serious Xbox gamer is still waiting with baited breath for Halo 3, but pretty much everyone who saw the screenshots of GoW prior to the Xbox 360’s launch was blown away. Even though there wasn’t much information on the gameplay at the time, I was already desperate to get my paws on this game. Then when I saw Gears of War demonstrated at E3, I was completely hooked and started counting down the days.
Let’s get the obvious stuff out of the way first. Gears of War looks absolutely stunning! There simply isn’t another console based game that can even come close to the visuals offered by GoW. To be honest, even on the PC I can’t think of anything that looks better than Gears, although Crysis and Alan Wake are set to redefine PC gaming visuals in the not too distant future, so that glory is potentially short lived. But as things stand, Gears of War hasn’t so much raised the graphics bar for console gaming, it has sent it into the stratosphere.
Never before on a console have I seen such rich textures, such atmospheric lighting and such immersive environmental effects. Graphically Gears of War gets everything just about perfect. There are dark and dingy buildings, debris filled streets, underground caverns and even the odd moving train to fight your way through. The locations are varied enough not to feel like you’re trudging over the same ground over and over – something that spoiled the otherwise excellent F.E.A.R. when I played it through.
Despite the fact that much of the game is played in semi-darkness, Epic has thrown in some of the best lighting I’ve ever seen in a game. Whereas many games these days go overboard with HDR lighting effects just to throw eye candy into the equation, GoW is far more restrained. Although some of the lighting is breathtaking, it’s not “in your face”, just like in the real world. Instead it just adds atmosphere to the proceedings and makes the locations look that bit more convincing. Yes there are some bloom effects thrown in here and there, but they’re not overdone, and when they are used it’s because the locale calls for it.
The character models are also first rate, no scratch that, they’re better than first rate. And I don’t just mean the way they look, although the detail in each and every character in the game is staggering, but more about how they move. You’ll be blown away once you’ve got the hang of the controls and you make Marcus Fenix duck from one area of cover to the next, taking the odd pot shot as he goes, while all the time the rest of the squad are negotiating the same environment and also engaging the enemy. I’ve never seen such fluid movement in a game. But for me one of the best effect is the sprint option. Hold the A button and Marcus will run – when running the camera angle drops down low and the environment takes on a slight motion blur effect. The result is a real feeling of urgency that adds to the already unparalleled atmosphere.
The superb character movement brings me onto one of the most important features in Gears of War, cover. Unlike many action games, GoW doesn’t lend itself to players who like to steam into the action with guns blazing – of course you can try this technique, but you probably won’t last very long. Instead you’re encouraged to take cover behind concrete blocks, doorways, burned out cars or even sofas. Then from the relative safety of your cover position you can lean out and take shots at the evil locusts, then duck back behind your cover. Of course many other games have implemented a cover feature, but none have pulled it off as well as Gears – cover isn’t an afterthought, it’s imperative to progressing in the game.
But the real beauty of cover is that you can make your way across a map jumping, ducking and diving from one area of cover to the next. Once behind cover you have a number of options on how you wish to proceed. If it’s a concrete block you can leap over it or dive to the left or right. If you’re behind a doorway, you can spin around it into the room, switch to the other side to get a clearer shot at the other side of the room, or just dive into a forward roll. Once you get the hang of cover you can advance on enemies while taking only minimal damage – something that’s pretty important if you’re trying to flank a locust stronghold.
There are no health packs in Gears of War. The damage system works in a similar manner to Call of Duty 2 – if you take some damage, duck behind some cover and in a few seconds you’ll be good as new. OK, so it’s not particularly realistic, but then neither is patching up multiple gunshot wounds with a first aid kit. It’s this method of damage/healing that makes a more strategic approach the key to succeeding in Gears.
The one downside to the superb cover feature in GoW is that the environments sometimes feel very contrived. No matter where you go, there will always be concrete blocks, furniture, burned out cars or sand bags strewn around. However, even in the real world there is generally always something to hide behind – this is urban warfare after all, rather than a pitched battle in a field. According to the story, the war against the locusts has been raging for 14 years, so it’s not surprising that there is no shortage of shattered buildings and wrecked cars to dive behind. The cars are particularly cool, since you can push them along while hiding behind them. Don’t get too comfy when you’re behind cover though, since it’s only a matter of time before a locust lobs a grenade in and blows you to bits.
You’re never alone in your fight against the locust horde. Throughout the campaign mode you’ve always got at least one squad member with you – usually your buddy Dom, who kindly breaks you out of prison at the beginning of the game. Why was Marcus in prison? I’m afraid you never find out! But I’m sure that Epic will expand on this storyline in the inevitable sequel. Like the random grunts in Halo and Halo 2, your squad members can occasionally be useful, but on the whole they’re just good for drawing enemy fire while you flank the strongholds. If any of your squad get “downed” you can revive them ad infinitum – unfortunately none of them seem able to do the same for you though.
One thing that I did find incredibly frustrating is the fact that on certain chapters you fail your objective if a colleague dies. The first time you encounter a berserker is such an instance. Just when I was getting ready to take the berserker down, Dom would go and get himself killed and I’d have to start the whole chapter all over again. To be fair, this isn’t a problem that’s isolated to GoW, and anyone who’s played Halo will remember the unbearable frustration of the level where you have to keep Captain Keys alive. It’s one thing keeping yourself in one piece, but when you have to protect an NPC with a complete lack of self preservation instinct, things don’t just get difficult, they get downright annoying. Thankfully these instances are very few and far between in GoW, and as soon as you move onto the next spectacular environment, they’re easily forgiven.
At its essence, Gears of War is a third person shooter, and as such it brings with it the usual problems of weapon selection. You have four weapon slots at your disposal, but two of those are reserved for a pistol and grenades, leaving you two full size slots to balance up. Your main weapon is an assault rifle called a Lancer – this is a solid bit of kit and you’re probably going to hang onto it for the whole game. As well as a high rate of fire, the Lancer is also powerful enough to knock most locusts down after a few well placed hits. But the Lancer’s trump card is the chainsaw bayonet! Melee combat has never been so gruesome or satisfying – there’s nothing quite like getting up close and personal with a bug before you turn him into a mass of entrails. Just remember that the chainsaw needs a bit of revving up before it’s ready for some killing.
Most of the other weapons are pretty standard fare. There’s a shotgun, an SMG, a sniper rifle and a grenade launcher on the menu. There are a couple of more interesting additions though. The Torque Bow is a fearsome beast that fires exploding arrows that attach themselves to walls, cars, sandbags or even enemies. But the coolest weapon at your disposal is the Hammer of Dawn. Unlike most weapons, the Hammer of Dawn doesn’t do damage itself, instead it targets an enemy so that satellites orbiting the earth can send down a massive beam of energy to decimate the target on the surface. Someone at Epic is obviously a fan of the Anime classic Akira, since the Hammer of Dawn is a near exact copy of the Satellite Orbital Laser (SOL) that’s used against Tetsuo during the film’s climax. There are certain locusts that can only be destroyed with the Hammer of Dawn, but you need to have a clear line of sight to the sky for it to function. Luckily you don’t need to worry about using up an inventory slot for the Hammer of Dawn, since whenever you need it, you’ll conveniently find it lying around on the ground.
One nice touch in GoW is the reload function. Rather than just hitting a reload button, you can expediate the process by manually timing your reload. When you hit the reload button you can either wait for your next round to hit the chamber, or you can press the reload button again as the reload marker hits a set point. If you get this right, not only will you get back in the fight faster, but your new rounds will also have a damage bonus. If however you mis-time the active reload your gun will jam and you’ll have to wait even longer for your next magazine to slot into place. The art of the perfect reload is actually an important part of the game – getting the next round into the chamber as quickly as possible could be the difference between life and death! The importance of the active reload is reflected in the fact that you can unlock achievements for pulling off a number of concurrent perfect reloads.
The pacing in the campaign mode is more or less perfect. You encounter new environments and new enemies as you push on through the game and the level of difficulty scales well. The campaign mode is long enough to feel satisfying when you finish it, and there isn’t any pointless padding thrown in to increase longevity. If there’s one criticism of the campaign mode, it’s that it doesn’t really tell enough of the story. There are hints and references thrown in here and there, but important questions never seem to be asked, let alone answered. The ending leaves you in no doubt that a sequel is coming, so hopefully we’ll get a few more answers in the second instalment. That said, if Halo 2 is anything to go by, we could just end up with more questions.
I played all the way through the campaign mode in a couple of sittings and never got bored, but I can imagine that some gamers may find the gameplay somewhat repetitive after a while. To be fair though, that could be said for almost any shooter game, whether first or third person – you either like this type of gameplay or you don’t, and GoW does it so very well. However, Epic is keen to keep players interested and to keep coming back for more, so there are some very good multiplayer co-op options. Obviously there’s split screen, so you and a mate can play Marcus and Dom on the same screen, but you can also do the same over system link, if you happen to have two consoles and two TVs handy. But the best bit is that you can play through the entire campaign in co-op mode over Xbox Live! This adds a whole new twist to the game, allowing you to work as a team. It makes a big difference when Dom is actually taking out locusts and flanking entrenched defensive points rather than just being canon fodder.
The multiplayer goodness doesn’t stop with co-op play either, there’s an awesome team based multiplayer experience to be explored. There’s simply no doubt that Gears of War offers the best console based online multiplayer experience out there. Of course there will be lots of hardcore PC gamers that will whinge and moan about the fact that there have been great online gaming options on the PC for years, and they’re right, but they’re also missing the point. There are masses of console gamers that don’t play PC games, and for them the GoW multiplayer experience is earth shatteringly good.
As is always the case with Xbox Live, finding a game to join is as simple as pie – something that can’t always be said for PC gaming. You can filter the type of game you want to play, the type of map and whether you want to join a ranked or unranked server. I found the online experience to be smooth as silk, without the slightest hint of lag. The best part about GoW online is that it encourages team play even on a public server – again something that’s woefully rare on PC games. Because of the excellent cover system, and the fact that your damage regenerates with a few seconds of hiding, you can’t win a round by taking a position and trying to take out the enemy when they pop their head up – basically, as soon as they get hit a few times they will duck back and regenerate, as will you. So the key is getting some of your team to pin down the enemy while you flank them and take them out from behind. Of course, while you’re attempting to flank the enemy you’ll find yourself out in the open and vulnerable – just like in real urban warfare. Just like your squad members in the campaign mode, players can be downed with a few shots – they can then be revived by a comrade, or stomped to death by an enemy
There’s no doubt that Gears of War has been hyped up beyond belief, but in so many ways it lives up to, and even surpasses that hype. No matter what I tell you about the visuals in this game, nothing will prepare you for the spectacle that you’ll be treated to when you fire it up on a decent high definition TV. The sound effects don’t let the party down either and having a decent sound system adds to the already immersive environment. If I worked for Sony, Gears of War would have me worried, because I’ve seen nothing on the PS3 that can match the impact of Epic’s, err, epic.
Gears of War has changed the face of console gaming. If you were wondering if it was worth buying a high definition TV to go with your Xbox 360, take a look at GoW running on a decent screen and you’ll be digging your credit card out in no time. Not only is this the best looking console game I have ever seen, the control method, the gameplay, the animation, the sound effects and the atmosphere are all straight out of the top drawer. I’m sure that some people will find the fire/cover routine dull after a while, but if you really get into the fluid movement, the swift reloads and the general carnage that’s constantly surrounding you, I guarantee that hours will fly by before you know it.
Throw in a superb multiplayer experience, both in co-op or team battle modes, and it’s clear that Epic has got all the right boxes ticked. Some dodgy AI, an absence of a coherent storyline and a few other niggles stop Gears of War from being perfect, but what you do have is stunning example of what next generation console gaming should be. Epic has pushed the envelope with Gears of War, and I doubt if we’ll see a better looking or more immersive game hit the 360 until Halo 3 rears its head.
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