Cut off the head of the snake, and the body dies. We will win this war. It’s only a matter of time.
One of the things I wanted to do when Kevin and I started Pegboard was to incorporate video game reviews into our content. Not necessarily because I am an expert on the subject and am out to enlighten people, but rather that I just really admire games these days and think they are worth talking about. When I approached Kevin about the idea, I was convinced that he would share my enthusiasm for the project. “Yeah, you should take that,” he said. “It’s not really my thing.” Well then. So much for that.
However, you shouldn’t judge him based on that one exchange. The dude is halfway around the world right now, living the celebrity life and handing out his autograph everywhere he goes (no, I’m serious, ask him). He has more pressing matters at hand than to embrace his inner geek for the enjoyment of our beloved followers. I, on the other hand, have far more free time than a 24-year old man should and am happy to fill in the gap while Kevin is away. And now that the Xbox One, Playstation 4 and Wii U are fully entrenched as the current-gen consoles, I think it’s an opportune time to look back at some of my favorite games from the previous cycle and cherish the hundreds upon thousands of hours I spent playing them by myself while dating absolutely no one.
So here we go, come join me on this digital trip down memory lane. First up: Gears of War.
Gears of War takes place on the fictional planet of Sera, which has been colonized by various nations of humanity. Unsurprisingly, the nations can’t get along and wind up going to war over a precious natural resource called Imulsion. Then everything really goes to hell when the Locust Horde (a bunch of ugly, pissed off aliens) enter the fray in an effort to annihilate humanity, which comes to be known as Emergence Day. Fast forward to the present and the only human nation left is the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG), who uses its soldiers known as “Gears” to hold off the Locust while hope rapidly evaporates. The game assumes that you already know all of this and by the time you start your campaign as Marcus Phoenix, there is practically no time spent on exposition. Your ally Dom Santiago busts you out of prison and it’s straight into the fight.
The first thing I noticed about Gears was the wonky camera. Instead of taking the usual dead center third-person approach, the camera puts you off-center a little and it was rather disjointing. I felt like Marcus was going to go flying off the screen whenever I rolled or dodged. After playing for a while it was no big deal, but it did take some getting used to. The second thing I noticed was the degree of difficulty. I started off treating this game like Halo and attempted to storm at my enemies with guns blazing. To the surprise of no one who has ever played Gears, I died. Whenever I played like I was The Terminator, my game was over in three seconds or less. That’s because your survival depends on the game’s very strict cover system, which has you moving from cover-to-cover and slowly picking off the Locust forces.
And in a nutshell, THAT’S pretty much the game. Sure, there are a bunch of COG Tags to be collected, occasional switches to pull and minecarts and junkers to ride around in, but Gears is practically devoid of side quests or minigames. The only thing you have to look forward to is your assault against the relentless Locust Horde, who snarl and laugh at your progress as they pin you down and flank you with their overwhelming numbers. It’s a hell of a rush and Gears is undoubtedly as entertaining as it is violent. When you aren’t navigating dungeons or long corridors littered with maimed corpses, you’re adding to the body count yourself thanks to the powerful weapons that are provided for you. There’s the typical entries in your arsenal (shotguns and sniper rifles are always useful as hell), but then there’s the Lancer, Hammer of Dawn and Torque Bow. You can only carry two of these at a time in addition to a sidearm, so how you mix and match the weapons is one of the more strategic aspects of Gears.
Don’t forget, Gears was one of the original titles released for the Xbox 360, so the fact that it combined intense gameplay with single and multi-player options was crucial. What really impressed me though is the fact that the game still looks gorgeous despite being over eight years old. The once civilized world of Sera has been reduced to a wasteland of ash and rubble, which helps establish a grim tone right off the bat. When you use the Lancer to chainsaw an enemy, chunks of flesh and guts go flying everywhere. Hit a Berserker with the Hammer of Dawn and she’ll start to smoke and pop right before your eyes. The graphics enhance both the beauty and brutality of the game, which is one of the highest compliments I can give.
As for the characters, they are more or less the ultimate soldiers. They are big, skilled in battle and don’t spend a lot of time talking about their feelings. The game’s frantic pace keeps you moving from objective to objective, and Marcus and co. don’t mince words; they just want to get the job done. Sure, some of the banter between Baird and Cole (your other two teammates) is good for a laugh here and there, but beyond a few details about Marcus’ father or Dom’s wife, you never really learn what makes any of these guys tick. That’s not really a detriment to Gears because it doesn’t pretend to be a multi-faceted RPG or anything, but a more character-driven story would have been welcome. That’s an area that received a lot of focus in the sequels (don’t worry, we’ll get there).
Probably the biggest issue I have with Gears is that it’s really meant to be played cooperatively with a friend. Most of my friends weren’t all that enthralled with this game (it’s not for everybody), so for me that was a problem. Depending on your A.I. squadmates to have your back and take care of themselves is an exercise in futility. Time after time, Dom would go and get himself killed in a spot that was impossible for me to reach, meaning I couldn’t revive him and all the Locust forces just focused on me. This will shock you, but I died whenever I found myself in that scenario. It’s hard to appreciate Gears as a truly great single-player game when I find myself constantly wishing I had anyone but the CPU going to war with me. And yeah, I don’t often play online, so in this case I was pretty much SOL.
Oh, and Gears’ normal difficulty is fucking insane. Whoever designed the difficulty levels in this game are either A) Overachieving assholes or B) People who hate fun. Did I get so God damn frustrated that I had to change the difficulty to easy? Yes I did. If most of your friends hated this game and you were stuck trying to survive with the incredibly stupid CPU allies, you might have done the same. And yes, I have been lucky enough to play through it cooperatively at least once, and the difference is jarring.
Still, when you combine everything that Gears does well and compare it to a couple of issues here and there, you still have a kick ass shooter that left an impression on me and was the first truly great Xbox 360 exclusive. It’s not my favorite 360 game, nor is it even the best of the series, but it was a total blast and provided me with hours of sadistic, barbaric fun.
Jesse’s Rating: 8.5 out of 10