Review by grasu

"Solid shooter all around - lacking innovation"

As light merges with darkness and the screeching sound of fire on metal punishment pollutes its immediate area it becomes only a matter of seconds before the start of something great. Is it time to ready the controller? Close the door or lock away the kids? Not quite yet it isn't; it's just time for Gears of War. Epic's major Xbox360 title is a game set in an apocalyptic world of which little is know, dressed in pretty graphics and chock-full of gratuitous gore. It's an action game that borrows many elements from others but manages to strike a few pleasure inducing synapses thanks to its great source material and its use.

Gears of War (from here on GoW) is about Marcus Fenix, a traitor, whose rescue becomes paramount in an effort to turn the tide of battle on the planet Sara. The Locust, an alien race, dwelling underground has all but wiped out the Sarains and manpower is in short supply. Enter Marcus as savior - cue epic music. That's the gist of GoW's story, but you wouldn't know that after popping the disk into the 360. Most of the background information on what's actually happening on planet Sara, the reason for Marcus' imprisonment or for his rescue are left up to debate on the Internet or quickly explained in the manual. Gamers expecting a sweeping, epic story from GoW will be sorely disappointed. Presentation isn't lacking, despite GoW's over-reliance on in-engine cutscenes or the preposterous dialogue or voice acting. The story suffers from a general “What the hell is going on?”-feel throughout most of the game. You'll be trudging along from point A to point B with little to no incentive. Marcus' motivation for joining the ones who no later than a few months ago cast him out as a traitor borders on nonsensical. Other characters, such as Dom, are pretty much there just for the sake of co-op as they bring nothing new to the table.

Damn, is it a pretty table though! GoW is one of the most stunning games on this generation of consoles. Even several years after its release not much compares to it. Spotting a bad texture, slow-down or some poorly animated frames is next to impossible. Some effects, such as fire and some lighting, could have benefitted from a bit more work but considering the scale, detail and general texturing of everything even those mis-steps are fairly passible. The color palette is composed mostly of shades of brown, grey or black and even if this does get repetitive it certainly endows GoW with a visual style of its own. Furthermore the use of these dark and dreary colors instills a sort of visual decay which pulls gamers into the experience and so far stands unsurpassed in the genre.

As GoW is a fairly linear experience graphical bugs, such as texture pop-in, draw in or slowdown are all but inexistent. That being said some of the indoor environments are sparsely detailed, and it seems as if the residents of planet Sara took their furniture into hiding with them! Monster designs are slightly repetitive but extremely well done with brimming detail for even the lowliest grunt. Marcus, Dom and co. are extremely corpulent, wearing thick armor and exerting inertia while in motion. It definitely gives Gears a feel all of its own. Gore is gratuitous but well done and tends to border on the ridiculous, emphasizing its role as comic relief rather than realistically portraying the horrors of war.

Sound on the other hand is not nearly as exquisite as the graphics. Voice acting is poor, in no small part due to the 1980s-action-flick script and dialogue. All of the main characters drop F-bombs and S-bombs with an alarming frequency making the impact of maximum verbal frustration muted. Weapons are the biggest offender however - they're all underpowered and are more akin to pea-shooters rather than future instruments of destruction. Music, growls and screams are top-notch however even if a few of the monsters have an annoyingly high pitched and repetitive scream. Technically the sound design is impeccable, no channel drowning and well mixed surround sound tracks put players right into the midst of battle.

Gears can hardly be called an original entry into the 3rd person shooter genre but it takes many different elements from other games and mixes them perfectly. The game's main draw is the cover system. GoW emphasizes the use of cover, be it behind furniture, walls or concrete slabs but whatever the situation demands it certainly beats being out in the open. Marcus and his friends are frail when out of cover and can be taken down with a few well placed shots, so carefully judging your surroundings is crucial. It is here that the biggest strategic conundrum emerges: take a risk and try outflanking opponents or wait in relative safety behind cover? Successfully making use of cover and flanking tactics is the difference between life and death. Outside of cover not only does health recover slower but there's no aiming crosshair. The cover system is however refined to perfection and is far more balanced than in other games that use it. Blind firing is perfectly safe, as no enemies can hit you, but is extremely inaccurate. Peeking out has its disadvantages, as it can get Marcus killed, but it allows players to properly aim. By comparison to other games, such as Kill Switch or GTA IV, where blind firing is extremely accurate Gears carefully balances both options.

Too bad that the controls are atrocious, especially when it comes to taking cover! The A button, which allows players to take cover is also bound to the signature roadie run and the rolling maneuver. Way too many actions bound to one button leads to frustration and this is the case with Gears. Often, attempting to run will get Marcus “sticking” to walls while rolling will get him running. Especially in situations where cover is plentiful, such as when on a train, “sticking” to cover when all you want to do is run like hell becomes downright frustrating. It's a shame that Epic overlooked this aspect as the controls are generally tight and everything else is pretty much spot on.

Pacing in a game such as Gears, where players basically run from cover to cover is crucial and Epic has really nailed it. GoW is neither too long, nor too short. At 8-10 hours it clocks in at the right length without dragging out long after the fun was had. The spacing of weapons, monsters and locales is also very well done. Even by the late game new Locusts will try to send Marcus to his ancestors. Weapons are spread out evenly throughout the game and you'll be finding new ones even when it seems that the game is nearing its end. Truly one of the most commendable features of a game now-a-days is to surprise players even within the last hour or so of gaming and Gears delivers.

Not all is perfect in Paradise though. Shooters need to have great weapons in order to please. The kind of weapons that can be classified as “great” make players fell badass but, sadly, GoW tends to disagree. In a move that's virtually becoming an industry standard weapons in Gears are weak, underpowered and unimpressive. The go-to weapon for the whole game is the Lancer assault rifle. The Lancer is the most powerful, accurate and useful weapon throughout the game. As an added bonus it also comes with the massively cool chainsaw bayonet which splatters the screen with blood and guts as soon as it hits flesh. Other weapons though fare much, much worse. Some weapons, such as shotguns or sniper rifles hold so little ammo that usage is limited to one battle, maybe two. The Hammer of Dawn, the only original weapon in the game, has an extremely limited scope. Finally none of the weapons in Gears could qualify as anything but mundane, most people have seen them before in other games.

Monsters are slightly more fleshed out, but they follow a trend already set by the Halo series, sans the brilliant AI. You'll get your average assortment of grunts, more powerful grunts, better equipped grunts and a few unique monsters which act as bosses. All of these monsters are virtually stripped from other games though. The small but agile Wretches are the Gears equivalent of Lickers and the blind yet extremely perceptive Berserkers are ripped right out of Resident Evil 4. Both ally and foe alike suffer from a bigger problem than just design though: brain dead AI. Monsters will randomly break cover for no discernible purpose whatsoever and your allies will charge forward mindlessly into a barrage of bullets without covering fire or any support what-so-ever. While monsters usually outnumber players by quite a margin, it's inexcusable that the sparse number of friends are so expandable. The only reason why these buddies even fight by your side seems to be an excuse for the co-op mode for those so inclined to play with friends. Regardless, during the singleplayer portion of the game Marcus will be doing most of the killing.

One truly unique feature sets Gears of War apart from other clones though, the setting. Not only is the decrepit, desolate planet upon which Gears is set believable, but the ominous feeling of foreboding and desperation permeates from start to finish. Humor is basically inexistent and is mostly provided by some squad mates, the game takes itself very seriously but without feeling stiff or exaggerated. The cities-turned-battlefields are amazing to look at and fight through - small details such as wrecked cars, botanical gardens or the Industrial Age architecture make the game world come alive and strongly contrast with the destruction much like a bittersweet dance of death. The monotony of cityscapes is broken by a number of levels set in factories or underground. Of particular highlight is one level set into the streets at night. Epic made this level one of the most unique and tense experiences in gaming through the intelligent use of lighting, fear factor and level design.

A few irksome issues can turn a great experience sour though. For a game on next generation consoles GoW uses an inordinate amount of one-hit-kill scenarios throughout the game. As gaming has evolved since the days of Shinobi the over reliance on these sort of monsters/techniques is quite disappointing. Gears could've also used an aiming reticule outside of cover however as one level in particular basically makes it impossible for players to use cover, especially when assaulted by Wretches (faster, more agile adversaries). Finally, both the difficulty settings and the checkpoint systems could be refined. Some checkpoints are distant from one another or badly placed forcing players to trace back a good few minutes to the point where they died. The difficulty settings, of which there are two to begin with, are well balanced but the normal difficulty could've used some tweaking.

Gears of War also sports full Xbox Live connectivity. While this feature wasn't tested, the offline multiplayer can be interesting. Two players can go through the game cooperatively in split-screen mode. Co-op is serviceable, if not fun, but it wont hold anyone's interest for too long. Clearly offline multiplayer wasn't the focus here as Epic poured all of their efforts into making a strong online component. For those readers interested the game features four online modes, including some standard ones such as deathmatch and allows up to eight players to butcher each other over the Internet. Hardly innovative, but it'll scratch an itchy trigger finger.

Gears of War concludes in an overly familiar fashion to those who've seen their fare share of aline movies. Even though story is clearly not the main attraction here it's not worth spoiling the ending for those so inclined to see the game through, but suffice to see it will leave all but the most skeptical of gamers wanting more. Much like the game itself.

Gameplay: 8/10
Graphics: 9/10
Sound: 7/10
Multiplayer: Not rated
Overall: 8/10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.0 - Great

Originally Posted: 08/11/10

Game Release: Gears of War (Platinum Hits) (US, 12/31/09)

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