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Gears of War series: ****(four stars)

November 11, 2008

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One could certainly make the case that Gears of War sold purely for its violent content, or its innovative and exciting shooter/cover mechanics, or its story (I assume that less people think of that when they think Gears of War), or its excellent presentation and blockbuster Hollywood film feel.

However, the real reason Gears of War succeeds is – well, it’s Space Invaders in 3D.

Seriously.

Just think of any scenario in Gears of War, or its excellent sequel from a top-down, 2d perspective, and you will begin to see why Gears of War works. Of course, the concept has been expanded into cover that exists in various spots, many of it indestructible, and there is a greater variety of enemies and challenges to face, but the content remains the same – shoot aliens, make it to next level. To play the game with a similar experience of one hit deaths would probably require Insane difficulty to render it proper. It would not surprise me to see that these levels were designed with such a perspective in mind, as it seems like the easiest way to lay out the levels. Much like Space Invaders, cover is essential to Gears of War – there’s lots more of it than there ever was in the arcades, though. If you are not in cover, you die. If you are in cover, pop out and shoot enemies. The elements of 3D are simply applied to an already established formula – height, distance, aim, and weapons variety are added to freshen the concept. Plagiarism? Well, probably. The improvements to the formula just happen to outweigh the fact that Gears is not truly an original game in any way. It is an amalgamation of classic gaming concepts smashed together, and yet it works – the addictive nature and simplicity of arcade games and the intense experience of FPS games.

Gears takes the concept many steps beyond its inspiration with its enemies, weapons, and set pieces. Let’s say that there are multiple solutions to every problem, and many tools with which to solve those problems. Those problems come with a multitude of variety, yet none of them seem like insurmountable goals. There is no set way to approach these battles other than “shoot, shoot, shoot”, but the process is streamlined. Weapons are limited to three carried (two large and one pistol) at a time, and grenades up to 4.  Each category has enough variety to give players reason to replay eacn situation. The Lancer, the assault rifle with a chainsaw as a futuristic bayonet, mostly crystalizes the design philosophy, but other weapons do not dissapoint. A crossbow with explosive warheads, a mortar cannon, and others add to the standard weapon roster, each with its own unique application. No weapon fires quite the same, so preferences develop over time and allow both experimentation and variety within the context of the battle. Exploration is a no-no, and Gears keeps you focused throughout on its single objectives.

Even continuing feels as if you are playing a coin-op game. Let us say that there are more than a few circumstances in the game that basically amount to multiple cheap deaths, mostly in vehicle sections. These break up the flow of both games, and hopefully provide an interesting diversion for the player, rendering the “blockbuster Michael Bay explosion-fest” aesthetic appeal of the game. These tend to be trial and error affairs and sometimes have unclear objectives, but they are awesome all in all. They excite the player’s expectations for the war at hand, and make the coming cover/shoot segments thereafter seem fresh again. Let us say that Epic Games has an excellent handle on pacing – the use of these segments come at JUST the right time to steel the player towards the inevitable conclusion.

One could say that Gears is extremely repetitive, lacking in variety and ultimately amounts to eradicating hordes of idiotic AI creatures who do not always put up a good fight, and they would definitely be right. Again, it is Space Invaders in 3D – it has all of these characteristics. What puts it to the next level is its presentation. I’m sure most gamers were attracted to the exploits of Marcus Fenix through the extremely violent content of the game, and they would not be to blame. Each and every kill, gory as they may be, is satisfying to the core. Unlike Space Invaders, each enemy has a face and specific gear with which to identify them with, and each brings their own specific strategies to the field as well. They mostly have the same abilities you do, which is certainly a departure from the arcades – they force you to find good cover and flank them, to draw them out of their holes and make mistakes. Thus, when you discover the strategy to defeat a particular enemy, endorphins just light up and give you a sense of satisfaction. It might be something about the way the enemies die, but their death is sweet and fulfilling. You are responsible for their destruction; there’s no real control flukes to get in your way either, with a context sensitive button that responds well to your command most of the time. Thus, every death comes with a desire to understand error, and every victory a fist-pumping of extraordinary vigor.

The story also is part of this fulfilling feeling. It’s a last stand sort of situation, and thus each one you kill is a further accomplishment for the human endeavor to free us from the Locust horde. Most would not consider the story to be particularily interesting, but it give context – Space Invaders has none to give to the player other than score. We are the supposed saviors of the human race; each kill is a part of our effort to stop those who would eliminate humanity from the face of Sera. This human character reveals itself in the somewhat hilarious dialogue of the protagonists as well – suffice to say, you will laugh when playing Gears 1 or 2, simply because the characters are likable. They seem like everymen caught up in an impossible situation, and learning more about them you cannot help but feel that their involvement in the conflict has weight and purpose beyond survival for themselves. Gears 2 probably displays this more prominently, but the first also has traces of this as well.

All of this, and I have not even touched upon the multiplayer. Regular multiplayer takes the experience and puts real humans as your opponents, far more crafty than any AI could hope to be. Thus, I imagine this mode will mostly be for those who can “take the heat” – online play is a tough cookie, and a baptism by fire. Once you get used to the ultra-competitive nature, it can be an excellent experience that tests reflexes as well as minds. As far as strategy goes, co-op is simply a delight whether it be the campaigns or the Horde mode in Gear of War 2. Strategy with two people allows an even greater depth to the proceedings; each player will bring their strengths and complement each other’s weaknesses to slay the Locust together. Higher difficulties make teamwork paramount, and enjoyable. Gears may be best played in co-op, as some might say. The Horde mode specifically allows for tons of different strategies, and the number of multiplayer maps with which to fight the Horde will be simply endless. It is here that the Space Invaders influence is most apparent – Gears would work easily as an arcade game, and for that the Gears of War series succeeds so easily where others have failed. It is accessible, and yet it can be as hardcore as you like it, but the core game remains a satisfying experience however you want to play.

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From → Video Games

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