Gentlemen, start your chainsaws.
This is Joe Dodson reporting to you with breaking news in the ongoing War on Consoles. After months of heated rhetoric, angry posturing, and threatened launches, Microsoft has unleashed their doomsday weapon in a war without borders, and seemingly without end. Codenamed Gears of War, Microsoft’s missile represents a powerful first strike against both Sony’s elite but cumbersome war machine as well as Nintendo’s low-tech console of attrition. Reached for comment, Microsoft’s J Allard paused thoughtfully, cleared his throat and said “Lalalalalalalalaa!”
Okay, so we didn’t really call up J Allard, but to be fair, the console war isn’t really a war and Gears of War isn’t really a doomsday weapon. Isn’t it ironic, though, that the terms we use to describe video games are the same ones that make reality worth escaping? Well, add three more to the list, Gears of War.
Behind the veneer of a killer app is the latest in a long line of shooters from Epic Games, makers of the Unreal
franchise. Gears of War
inherits the family jewels: stunning graphics and inventive gameplay, plus it breaks the family curse: terrible offline play. That’s major, like Shaq learning to shoot free throws; Epic just became a major player in the industry.
That’s not to say they shoot one hundred percent, though. Gears of War tells the macho story of four buff, no-neck studs trekking through the bowels of alien hell to drop a bomb on the invaders’ central nervous system. It’s not Shakespeare, or even much of a story, but the dialog is gritty and witty, the scripting keeps you on your toes, and the ambient sounds of nearby Locusts (alien scum) tearing things to pieces completes the illusion. Epic needs to work on their smoke and mirrors act, though; their spell breaks every time you die, and you die all the time.
When you aren’t dead, you’ll be humping through ruins, shelled buildings, sewers and caves fighting alien troopers, little screeching things, flesh eating bats, huge goliaths that say “Boom” and, of course, that big, ugly spider from the commercials. You’ll want to hide, and that’s the idea, because Gears of War uses a context sensitive cover button, along with a normal first person shooter control scheme.
Pressing the cover button near any piece of debris will make your guy hide behind it. From there you can jump over it, leap away from it, whip around it, or scurry to a nearby obstacle, all at the push of a button. You can also press it when you aren’t near cover for a leap and roll, or hold it down to tuck and run.
In a normal, horrifyingly violent Gears of War battle, it’s you and your mates against a squad of aliens. You fight through caves, ruins and bombed out structures, so there’s cover everywhere. What the cover system allows you to do is sneak from bombed out car to bombed out car, without being seen, to flank the aliens and nullify their hiding spot. Once you light ‘em up and get their attention, your mates will rush in and finish the job, with chainsaws.
Instead of everyone circle strafing in a great big fuster cluck, the cover system brings tactical positioning to the forefront of every battle, which in turn leads to one on one duels for position, especially in the online versus matches. These are complicated, because cover won’t save you from a foe who dashes in and sticks a running chainsaw through your sternum. Then again, if you anticipate a rush, you can leap back at the last second and burst the guy like a microwaved Twinkie with your shotgun.
Those are the two main tactical dynamics introduced with Gears of Wars’ cover button, but they’re just the tip of the chainsaw. Speaking of which, your standard assault rifle comes with one attached to its barrel, like a gasoline powered bayonet. If you’re near an enemy and rev it up, you’ll be treated to a ghastly cinematic where you saw them from collar bone to kidneys, as they scream and erupt in glorious geysers of gore. It’s also fun to hide in cover until an enemy runs up, then stick a grenade on them and leap away as they’re blown into chunky cat food. Do I even need to mention this game is rated M?
Probably not, but I do need to tell you about Gears of War’s short bus A.I., and your shocking fragility, both of which are demonstrated by the fact that your troops are covered in extravagant body armor, yet don’t wear helmets. You play a guy named Marcus Fenix, who probably has a thirty two inch neck. He talks tough, walks tough, and is immediately killed by half the weapons in the game. Admittedly, that’s on hardcore difficulty, but when the alternative is called Casual difficulty, there is no alternative.
Every battle in the game is helpfully book ended by a checkpoint, so when you inevitably croak, you won’t be forced to schlep through half a level. In fact, if you play carefully and stick to cover, you won’t die much at all until later in the game. That’s the theory, anyway. I wouldn’t know. When I’m cradling a machine gun with a chainsaw on it, I’m as discreet as poop in an elevator.
So is your best friend, Dom. Dom is dumb, and if he dies, it’s Game Over. Now, in most cases he’ll just get knocked out and you can revive him after single-handedly winning the battle. But you can’t resuscitate him if he steps in front of a charging berserker (like a brick through a window), or into the shark-bat filled shadows (like piranha through a chicken) without committing the same disastrous mistake as Dom, and he seems to do both of those as often as possible.
Cue the awesome co-options. You can either play cooperatively in split screen mode, or invite a friend on Xbox Live! into your single player campaign, at any time
, to take over for Dom the dumb. That’s smart. You can also go online to compete in Gears of War
’s four-on-four versus matches. These are fun, small scale matches that benefit from the tactical cover system and awesome gameplay, yet suffer from a dearth of match types and a couple connection issues.
The game claims there are three match types, but they’re all team death match. There are ten solid maps, but compared to what we’re used to from Epic, they’re surprisingly low key, with few customizable options aside from weapon spawns. The matchmaking is also shoddy. As you know, Microsoft’s new policy is not to allow groups to enter ranked matches together. That’s Dom dumb, and really throws a monkey wrench into the Gears of War.
The graphics are gut-wrenching and smooth running. Like pistons in a well oiled machine, they’ll drive this game’s sales through the roof. The animations are silky, the environmental textures are rough, wet, and gritty, and the draw distance is devastating. The nuclear lava cave looks so sweet it’ll spoil your dinner.
The sound effects are equally breathtaking, because the designers use them to screw with your mind. You’ll be in an area infested with aliens, and a steam pipe will burst with an ominous hiss, causing you to turn around and fire at something not there. I caught myself thinking the music sounded a little silly for such a gritty setting, but the voice acting fits perfectly. Many dollars were harmed in the making of this game.
At least, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Whatever else it is, a bomb, a killer app, or the death of Sony, Gears of War is a terrific video game from one of the best studios in the industry. It’s a little easy to die and a little hard to get into a good online match, but the eye polishing graphics and brawny gameplay form a powerful polymer, gluing your hands to the controller, getting you hopelessly caught in the Gears of War.