Gears of War Review - 16/02/07

Microsoft’s relentless PR machine has been telling us all about Gears of War for the better part of a year now. The heavily promoted Emergence Day came, and went, and it’s safe to say that most Xbox 360 owners will have now had a taste of what this game has to offer.

We’d heard that Gears boasted an impressive array of features and sublime third person shooting mechanics. We’d also heard that Unreal Tournament developer Epic Games have been pouring their heart and soul into what was easily the Xbox 360’s flagship game for the Christmas season. And yes, we’re aware that gamers from across the globe are hailing Gears as a revolutionary shooter that is setting the bar for other games in the genre. Despite the ludicrous nature of the above statements, they are ironically (for the most part) not that far from the truth. Gears of War is a well rounded and immaculately polished game. What it lacks in complexity it makes up for in sheer accessibility, and more importantly, fun.

There’s no denying that Epic (under the watchful eye of their Microsoft Game Studio partners) have created a memorable and thoroughly immersive universe for Gears of War. They have realised that the limitations of past consoles are no longer a factor in the conceptual design and eventual development of next-gen software. The fact that they have managed to push the Xbox 360’s hardware capabilities to the edge in order to achieve what they have is a testament to their dedication to this product.

Planet Sera is an eerily beautiful place, forever scarred by the apocalyptic advance of the deadly Locust hoard. The war ravaged landscape is littered with the remains of ruined buildings and scorched earth. As a result, there are more than a few places in this game that deserve to be admired for their textures, lighting, and sense of scale. Combine that with frame rates and draw distances that are equally as impressive and you’ll have some idea of just how phenomenal Gears of War is from a graphical standpoint. There is just enough variety in the environments to keep things fresh, but thankfully, the darker visual style is well maintained throughout. The finer details that make up the overall look of the game are also of an outstanding quality. Atmospheric lighting effects make the small spaces of a warehouse interior as much a sight to behold as the maze like tunnels of an underground mining complex. Gears of War also boasts a well implemented physics system and some nice deformable scenery, both of which are welcome additions to an already impressive array of visual features. On top of that, the much appreciated lack of in-game loading times ensures that you are always immersed in the action. This creates a seamless single player experience that is simply a joy to play, and made even more impressive by Epic’s graphical handiwork.

Of course, Gears of War needs to cover all the bases, as it is one of the most important titles for Microsoft and their second console effort. Therefore, upon reviewing the audio aspects of the game (something which is often overlooked in ‘action’ titles of this type) we can safely say that Gears of War does not disappoint.

Extremely unnecessary character clichés notwithstanding, Marcus and Dom come across as suitably tough characters. Despite some rather monosyllabic dialogue, they are voiced in a manner that suits the world they inhabit and the situation they face. There are also plenty of other characters who dip in and out of the single player narrative, occasionally teaming up with you in moments of extreme duress. On the whole, their voice acting is clear and serves its intended purpose. In terms of the script itself, there are some moments of levity, mostly in the form of banter between Marcus and his squad, but they tend to get lost in amongst fighting hoards of Locust every step of the way.

The weapon effects and background music are two areas where Gears of War really begins to shine. The ominous sound of a Torque Bow arrow and the threatening discharge from a Hammer of Dawn are among the most memorable of these superb, if slightly unusual, audio offerings. Thanks to the well implemented use of these effects, every weapon appears balanced and unique. The chainsaw, in particular, sounds as gruesome as you would expect. The powerful orchestral score brings an air of sophistication to this otherwise gritty and brutal shooter. It is reminiscent of modern war films, and although at times quite generic, the more frantic action sequences do benefit greatly from the presence of a strong musical score.

As powerful an experience as Gears of War may be from a visual and auditory standpoint, in the end, it has got to be fun to play. Being as it is a third person shooter, the controls have to be intuitive enough to do what is asked of them, but also offer flexibility to account for situations that demand faster reactions. The cover system, which is mapped only to the A button, is one of the major features in the game. Thankfully, Epic have tailored the system so well that we can safely say it represents yet another aspect of Gears of War that is a resounding success.

Even on the lower difficulty settings, running out into the open and shooting wildly is a sure fire way to get yourself a one way ticket to the red screen of death. Therefore, when faced with a potentially lethal situation, the game encourages you to take cover behind various different objects (many of them destructible) with a swift tap of the A button. This will slam your character against that object, creating one of several tactical options designed to help you determine how best to advance. From this position, you can lean out and take aim, blind fire, roll across to nearby cover, climb over the object, or exit cover to once again move about freely. These actions are all performed using the A-button and the left thumbstick. Although there were times when we found ourselves diving the wrong way or moving out of cover prematurely, the system does works well. The concept of mapping this many actions to a single button is indeed an interesting one, but it should be noted that it does feel very alien to begin with. Considerable time is therefore required to get used to the way it works, but thankfully it doesn’t detract too greatly from the overall experience.

All of the above should have given you the impression that Gears of War has a superb single player campaign that is engaging, frantic, beautiful to look at, and easy to play. If it weren’t for its slightly unoriginal story, then we’d go as far as saying it’s as close to perfection that a 360 shooter has come since the console’s release just over a year ago. With that all done and dusted, it would have been easy for Epic to treat the multiplayer portion of Gears of War as something of a tacked on afterthought. In reality, the Xbox Live side of the game is as polished and as enjoyable as its single player counterpart.

Whilst some people may view the 8 player limit of the multiplayer modes as something of a disappointment, we feel that the game actually benefits a great deal from it. With two teams of four and no respawns, the action is always fast and intense. A tactical approach to combat is therefore advisable, as rushing towards someone with your chainsaw bayonet revved and ready is unlikely to end in the result you were hoping for. Communication also plays a crucial part in the multiplayer side of the game, and we’ve had no issues with Xbox Live voice chat so far (for both wired and wireless headsets). Having experienced only a handful of games with lag (which in every case lasted for no more than 30 seconds), the overall stability of the online experience deserves praise. Jumping in and out of games is quick and hassle free, and the simplicity of the modes on offer makes the Gears multiplayer that much more accessible. Although some of the more overconfident players don’t feel the need to use it, the cover system works just as well online as it does in the single player. And it should be noted that those players who decide not to bother with it are usually the ones that die nice and early. The ability to revive yourself when injured, stamp on peoples heads when they’re on the floor and trying to revive themselves, revive teammates attempting to recover, stick people with grenades, and stick people with smoke grenades are other nice additions that improve the overall experience further. Therefore, Epic has once again come up trumps in yet another area of the game, by delivering a multiplayer that is slick, challenging, and really fun to play.

Gears of War is a game that, to be honest, isn’t going to win any awards for innovation. Having said that, the cover system has been implemented well and, for the most part, works efficiently. The post apocalyptic storyline may have been ‘influenced’ by films and television shows of a similar type, but it remains engaging throughout. It certainly makes you want to complete all five acts of the short but immensely fun single player campaign. The challenging multiplayer, and the much appreciated drop in drop out co-op mode (which incidentally works much better online than it does in split screen), represent two of the strongest aspects of the game. We might not be able to give the game good marks for originality, but the fact is, Gears of War is simply in a class of its own, and is a must have for Xbox 360 owners.


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