Gears of War was the reason I purchased an Xbox 360. It delivered brilliant graphics the likes of which we hadn't really seen at that point, but addictive gameplay, along with an intriguing blockbuster story meant Gears of War was the complete package. Oh yeah, the machine guns have chainsaws on them...
Gears of War takes place on the planet Sera. But one fateful day, known as "Emergence Day" to those who survived, a race of hostile, subterranean creatures erupt from underneath the ground. The Locust, a fitting moniker if I may say so, commence a brutal and decisive offensive against humanity. Caught completely unawares, the humans suffer massive casualties and soon resort to sub-space aerial bombardments, decimating their own cities in the process. Naturally the Locust simply disappeared back underground. Now the last remnants of humanity face a desperate fight for survival against the encroaching Locust hordes...
You play as Marcus Fenix, a steely veteran who is currently rotting away in a military prison due do his propensity for ignoring orders. But as things go from bad to worse in the ongoing war against the Locust, his friend Dominic Santiago shows up to rescue him. The two head off to join up with Delta Squad. Under the overall command of General Hoffman, who incidentally is not in the Marcus Fenix fan club, Delta is tasked with finding Alpha Squad. They were placed in charge of the 'Resonator,' basically a sonar-bomb that would map the underground Locust tunnels. The intel would be invaluable, but now Alpha has gone dark.
Now, I don't want to spoil to much, but they do find Alpha Squad... what's left of them. After the leader of Delta Squad, Lieutenant Kim, is brutally killed by the heinous General Raam, the leader of the Locust attack forces, Marcus takes over the squad. Marcus and Dom join with Cole (a former thrash-ball superstar and all around badass) and Baird (a wise-cracking, sarcastic, slightly annoying soldier), reforming Delta Squad to continue the mission. The story ain't bad, but it ain't great either... definitely summer blockbuster type stuff.
The over-the-shoulder third person gunplay is excellent with the emphasis being on unloading a crapload of lead into the Locust. Apparently they have an annoying physiology that allows them to act like bullet sponges. It takes a fair number of even the most well placed shots with your standard 'Lancer' (that's the one with the chainsaw;^) to bring them down. Soldiers with heavy trigger fingers will find themselves running out of ammo if they aren't careful!
But what makes Gears of War so addictive and fun is it's brilliant cover system. A quick press of the 'A' button and Marcus will slide into cover. From there you can blindfire around or over that cover, or by aiming, target specific enemies. Release the aim button and you go back into relative safety. You can also move while in cover, say along a wall, to give yourself a better angle. Then, if you want to move to a piece of cover nearby, from one pillar to another for example, the game will prompt you. And if you want to move up and get out of cover, it's just another press of the 'A' button and you're off!
I have to say this... I honestly find it astonishing that more games out there haven't stolen the cover mechanic from Gears of War as it is easily the best, not to mention the most functional, version available. Popping in and out of cover is smooth. You don't get "glued" to cover (at least not very often), a complaint all too common in other games.
The 'Lancer' is your standard weapon, and that means the now famous chainsaw bayonet. As you might surmise, this adds a new dimension to melee combat. By holding down 'B,' Marcus and company can "rev up" their chainsaws. Get close to your victim and then let the chainsaw do what chainsaws do:^) Fair warning, increased graphical fidelity doesn't pull any punches... so you get to see the results of a good chainsawing in all its bloody HD glory. But caution is necessary when attempting this maneuver because if you are spotted and shot, the chainsaw will fall silent and need to be revved up again. It takes a mere moment to get it ready, but by that time it may be too late. Of course, to some players (*raises hand*), the reward far outweighs the risk. Chainsawing a Locust to pieces is one of the great joys of modern gaming as far as I am concerned. I'm smiling sadistically just writing about it. What? Don't look at me like that?!?
Then there is the 'Active Reload,' another novel idea that is unique to the Gears franchise. By pressing the 'Right Button' above the trigger you start a slide meter. Let the meter go all the way to the end, and Marcus will take his time reloading. But there is a small section where, if you time a second click of RB, he will reload much more quickly. But there is risk involved: mistime that reload and the gun will jam, leaving you stuck for a moment as Marcus curses futilely!
For me, the real joys of Gears of War come from sharing the fight with a friend. Co-op, either local or online, is definitely the way to go. Plus, in local co-op Epic chose to split the screen horizontally, giving you top and bottom screens instead of left and right. This allows for more peripheral vision. I swear, I'll never understand why other games split the screen vertically, this way is obviously superior. Sorry had to get that out! Plus, co-oping expands the experience. Whenever you encounter a split path in the game you can choose one path while your partner takes the other. Now you'll be able to cover each other. It's clever level design. And, should your character be wounded you can slowly crawl through the surrounding chaos towards your teammates. If they can get to you in time you can be healed and get back into the fight!
As I said initially, Gears of War boasts excellent graphics. At the time of it's release they were second to none. It was one of the first popular examples of what was possible with the new generation of consoles... and it wowed everyone. The Unreal Engine 3, also developed by Epic, allowed stunning lighting and water effects, not to mention bucket loads of blood. Hell, I still think they look good!
Gears of War has decent sound to boot, but don't be surprised if you find yourself caught halfway between wincing and chuckling at some of the hammy, hyper-cliched dialogue these walking steroid poster-boys spout. But then there are the Locust... can you honestly tell me you won't remember the howl of the Wretches or the hiss of a Theron Guard? I thought not.
While Gears of War is an excellent shooter, and a loads of fun to play with a friend, it's not without some problems. The enemy AI can be a bit perplexing at times. Sure, they make good use of the cover mechanic but will still leave bits of themselves exposed. The 'Boss' battles, which I won't spoil for you, while cleverly designed, can be frustrating. Oh, and the vehicle section was rubbish and really should have been left out entirely.
I never played Gears online multiplayer because I don't have an XBLA. If I do ever get one I hope there are still people playing Gears online. As fun and addictive as the campaign can be I can only imagine how cool the online chaos is... I'd really love to be able to chainsaw someone else, or curb stomp them while laughing into a Bluetooth.
For many years my best friend would come into town during summer and Christmas breaks and we would play Gears of War over and over (how many times have I beaten this game? 7 or 8 at least...). Good times... Some of the innovations Epic made with this title laid the framework for not only this franchise, but for the genre as well. It's must play title for Xbox 360 owners, and I'm not hesitant to suggest that it's a good reason to purchase the system in the first place. It really is that good, and that fun. Gears of War is truly an epic title from Epic games.
Score = 9.3 / 10