Gears of War Grinds Through a Shell-Shocked Future

Halo saved the Xbox. Prior to its arrival, the gaming console was an also-ran; afterwards it was the definitive reason to buy Microsoft’s PlayStation competitor. Gears of War may be the Xbox 360’s Halo.

Like Halo, Gears of War features humanity fighting a desperate, last-ditch war against alien destroyers. As the game opens, the far-off human colony world of Sera has been decimated by the Locust, bipedal horrors that emerged from deep underground 15 years ago and sacked most of mankind’s cities and nations. As humanity’s last city teeters near collapse, an elite group of soldiers known as “Gears of War” show up at a maximum security prison to break out one Marcus Fenix, a former soldier imprisoned years earlier for going against orders and attempting to save his father from the Locust. Now it turns out that his father may have had the key to defeating the alien menace … and Fenix has to help find it.

The game is played from the over-the-shoulder, third-person perspective, mixing in squad-level tactics familiar to games like Rainbow Six with strategic movement that forces players to hunt and duck for cover behind everything from crumbling rock walls to burned out cars. Players usually work along side a computer-controlled cohort who can receive (and occasionally listens to) human orders.

The game’s single player mode is augmented by offline and online co-opt modes that allow a second player to fight along side the first. Multiplayer is available locally through split-screen views or system link (multiple Xboxes linked together via network cables) and online via Xbox Live. There are three multiplayer modes: warzone (a traditional team deathmatch), assassination (in which each team is assigned a leader, who must be killed by the other team) and execution (like warzone, but players have a chance to revive themselves after being shot).

As with all Xbox 360 games, Gears of War has numerous achievements that can be unlocked by completing tasks like finishing each of the game’s five chapters, killing a certain number of opponents with the sniper rifle in online play, or collecting some or all of the hidden dog tags scattered through the game’s levels.

Next Generation Destruction

I’ve been joking since I got my Xbox 360 that it’s less a game platform and more a down payment on Halo 3. And since I bought it in July, that’s largely been true – the first game I got for it, the first person shooter Perfect Dark Zero, was a colossal, almost unplayable disappointment. The second, the Mechwarrior-inspired Chromehounds, had better visuals and online play that attracted a significant percentage of my clan, but ultimately it was too complicated and too slow to hold my attention in the long run.

Gears of War is one of the first of the 360 games that truly feels next generation. From the visuals to the game play, the game rocks the player. Fire-fights are pitched, tactical affairs, especially at the more difficult levels. The run-and-gun techniques mastered in Halo and similar shooters are useless here, as is simply slugging it out with your opponents. Cover is an integral part of game play, and if you aren’t ducking behind crumbled walls, burned-out cars and what other debris you can find, then you’re dead. You need to be careful as you move around the board, keeping in mind where you’ll run to next, and then shooting when the opportunity presents itself.

The visuals knocked me back in the same way that Gran Turismo 3 or Halo did on the previous platforms — there are times where the enemy will destroy you simply because you paused to wonder at the far off vistas, the gothic modern architecture, or the softly-glowing wonders of the underground.

It’s that good.

The campaign’s story is straight forward, and easily played through in a few days at the easiest setting. It’s not great drama, nor is its aliens-push-humanity-to-the-brink storyline particularly original. We’ve been here before, we’ve done this before but Gears of War makes it feel familiar rather than tired. The quips between soldiers, the gruff anti-hero, and the marvelous guns all serve to keep the player engaged in what’s happening on screen.

Amazing Co-Op, Frustrating Multiplayer

The Xbox 360’s greatest strength may be the emergence of online co-operative play. We’ve seen this before on the original Xbox, as people battled through an abbreviated two-player campaign in Doom 3, but with Gears of War the game was built from the ground up to support co-op. The solo campaign was based on a four-person squad that often split up into two person teams; this format works perfectly in co-op, with the second player simply taken over the role of one of the NPCs.

Playing through co-opt with my longtime friend Dave (aka Alien Grey) was one of the best online experiences I’ve had since Halo 2. Dave and I spent years playing cooperative games in arcades in high school and college, but with our free time being consumed by jobs and family, we haven’t had many opportunities for that style of play over the last few years. Gears of War brought it all back, allowing us to relive the old days for a few hours as we battled our way past the Locust hordes on the game’s hard and hardest difficulty levels.

We encountered only one problem along the way: timing. While lag was almost never an issue in the game, the ever-so-slight delay between the host machine and the guest machine made getting past some areas of the game almost impossible. Our solution in those cases was to play through them in person at Dave’s house, which brings up another point in the gam’s favor: you can start a co-opt campaign online, continue it offline in two-player mode, and then finish it online. Some companies wouldn’t have offered that kind of support; I’m glad Epic did.

Multiplayer is another story. Though the rest of the game is heavily influenced by team and squad tactics, this doesn’t carry over into the multiplayer game nearly as well as it should have.

The game offers private and public games, both of which are limited to a handful of mostly-vanilla game types such as death match and assasination (in which one person becomes the squad’s commander, whom the other team tries to kill). A game like this demands objective based play — at the very least I want capture the flag, but something like the multi-objective assault modes in Unreal Tournament would be even better.

Players can form private rooms for online matchups with friends, but the rooms are basic in the extreme, to the point that if you want to change any of the room’s settings you have to end the room and create a new one. Anyone who’s played online knows how hard it can be to gather everyone back together after breaking up a room, so this limitation ends up being a real pain.

It’s tolerable though; what isn’t is the Xbox Live implementation that prevents you from creating teams comprised of your friends. In a recent interview on 1UP.com, developer Cliff Bleszinski claimed they didn’t include team match making because Microsoft told them to because such teams could easily dominate the online rankings.

1UP turns around and says that Microsoft told them that’s not so, which makes sense: team matchmaking was part of what made Halo 2 so damn good. Maybe it’s just the capitalist geek in me coming out, but damn it I want to take my team out and fight against similar, well-organized teams (heck, is that that the whole point behind ranking people?) To have a game as squad-focused as Gears of War and to not support team matchmaking, well, it’s almost a crime. I can only hope they’ll fix it in the sequel.

Final Analysis

Gears of War is the best game available for the 360 right now, beating every other title with its first-class visuals and excellent game play. The multiplayer is lacking, especially in comparison to Halo 2 (which remains the gold standard for online play on any platform), but it’s still good for a few online fragfests with your friends.

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