Review: Gears of War (***** stars)

May as well review them all at once. As each one basically does the same thing with the stakes raised, no point in wasting time!

One could certainly make the case that the Gears of War series sold purely for its violent content (not my favorite way to describe it, but…), or its innovative and exciting shooter/cover mechanics, or its story (I assume that less people think of that when they think Gears of War), or its excellent presentation and blockbuster Hollywood film feel.

However, the real reason Gears of War succeeds is – well, it’s Space Invaders in 3D.


Just think of any scenario in Gears of War, or its excellent sequels from a top-down, 2d perspective, and you will begin to see why Gears of War works. Of course, the concept has been expanded into a simplistic cover system for defense in various spots, many of it indestructible, and there is a greater variety of enemies and challenges to face, but the content remains the same – shoot aliens, make it to next level. To play the game with a similar experience of one hit deaths would probably require Insane difficulty to render it proper, but the similarities are uncanny. Whether from a bout of pure inspiration or blatant plagiarism of an already proven mechanic, it’s genius how they expand and improve on one simple idea so elegantly.

It would not surprise me to see that these levels were designed with such a perspective in mind, as it seems like the easiest way to lay out the levels. Much like Space Invaders, you must take cover in Gears of War – there’s lots more of it than there ever was in the arcades, though. If you stay outside of said cover, you die. If you are in cover, pop out and shoot enemies without getting shot yourself. The elements of 3D are simply applied to an already established formula – Epic adds height, distance, aim, and weapons variety to freshen the concept. Plagiarism? Well, probably. The improvements to the formula just happen to outweigh the fact that Gears is not truly an original game in any way. It is an amalgamation of classic gaming concepts smashed together, and yet it works – the addictive nature and simplicity of arcade games and the intense experience of FPS games. It doesn’t always presents a major challenge – multiple difficulty levels always rub me the wrong way because they usually just adjust enemy and player health pools or damage, rather than a true balancing – but it can provide as much as you desire.

Gears takes the concept many steps beyond its inspiration with its enemies, weapons, and set pieces. Within the confines of its systems, multiple solutions to every problem aren’t rare, and there’s no shortage of tools with which to solve those problems. Those problems come with a sometimes overwhelming array of enemies, yet none of them seem like insurmountable goals. Set ways to approach these battles other than “shoot, shoot, shoot” rarely become an issue, but the process of determining good tactics always rears its head. The game limits your weapon array to three carried (two large and one pistol) at a time, and grenades up to 4.  Each category presents enough variety to give players reason to replay eacn situation.

The Lancer, the assault rifle with a chainsaw as a futuristic bayonet, crystalizes the design philosophy, but other weapons do not dissapoint. A crossbow with explosive warheads, a mortar cannon, and others add to the standard weapon roster, each with its own unique application (or grotesque pleasure, give or take). No weapon fires quite the same, so preferences develop over time and allow both experimentation and variety within the context of the battle. Exploration is a no-no, and Gears keeps you focused throughout on its singular objective.

Even continuing feels as if you are playing a coin-op game. Let us say that more than a few circumstances in the game  amount to multiple cheap deaths, mostly in vehicle sections. These break up the flow of both games, and hopefully provide an interesting diversion for the player, rendering clearly the “blockbuster Michael Bay explosion-fest” aesthetic appeal of the game. These tend to be trial and error affairs and sometimes have unclear objectives, but they are awesome all in all. They excite the player’s expectations for the war at hand, and make the coming cover/shoot segments thereafter seem fresh again. Epic Games (or Cliff Blezinski, probably both) has an excellent handle on pacing – the use of these segments come at JUST the right time to steel the player towards the inevitable conclusion.

Gears, though, is extremely repetitive. I will admit as such. To be entirely reductionist, it ultimately amounts to eradicating hordes of idiotic AI creatures who do not always put up a good fight; anyone saying as such would definitely be right. Again, it is Space Invaders in 3D – that game required good reflexes, steady nerves, and good strategy as well with hints of memorization. What puts it to the next level is its presentation. I’m sure most gamers were attracted to the exploits of Marcus Fenix through the extremely violent content of the game, and they would not be to blame. Each and every kill, gory as they may be, is satisfying to the core because of how it’s presented, quite honestly. Not that you’re killing human beings or anything (unless you play multiplayer, you sicko).

Unlike Space Invaders, each enemy identifies itself with a specific appearance and gear, and each brings their own specific strategies to the field as well. They mostly have the same abilities you do, which is certainly a departure from the arcades – they force you to find good cover and flank them, to draw them out of their holes and make mistakes. Thus, when you discover the strategy to defeat a particular enemy, endorphins just light up and give you a sense of satisfaction that only comes from overcoming obstacles. You are responsible for their destruction; there’s no real control flukes to get in your way either, with a context sensitive button that responds well to your command most of the time. Thus, every death comes with a desire to understand error, and every victory a fist-pumping of extraordinary vigor. To put it in a crass way, it’s totally macho in a fratboy way. If you don’t identify with the American male stereotype, this might be your game to start.

What better way to capture that fratboy essence than with multiplayer? Regular multiplayer takes the experience and puts real humans as your opponents, far more crafty than any AI could hope (at this point in human history, anyway). Thus, I imagine this mode will mostly be for those who can “take the heat” – online play is a tough cookie, and a baptism by fire. Once you get used to the ultra-competitive nature, it tests your reflexes as well as minds. As far as strategy goes, co-op delights whether it be the campaigns or the Horde mode in Gear of War 2. Strategy with two people allows an even greater depth to the proceedings; each player will bring their strengths and complement each other’s weaknesses to slay the Locust together. Higher difficulties make teamwork paramount, and enjoyable. Actually, I’d go as far to say Gears’ design lends itself to co-op as the default game mode. The Horde mode, specifically, allows for tons of different strategies, and the number of multiplayer maps with which to fight the Horde will be simply endless. It is here that the Space Invaders influence is most apparent – Gears would work easily as an arcade game, and for that the Gears of War series succeeds so easily where others have failed. It is accessible, and yet it can be as hardcore as you like it, but the core game remains a satisfying experience however you want to play.

The story also does part of the work here. It’s a last stand sort of situation, and thus each one you kill is a further accomplishment for the human endeavor to free everyone from the Locust horde. Most would not consider the story to be particularily interesting, but it gives context – Space Invaders has none to give to the player other than score. We are the supposed saviors of the human race; each kill is a part of our effort to stop those who would eliminate humanity from the face of Sera. This human character reveals itself in the somewhat hilarious dialogue of the protagonists as well – suffice to say, you will laugh when playing any of the games, simply because the characters are likable. They seem like everymen caught up in an impossible situation, and learning more about them you cannot help but feel that their involvement in the conflict has weight and purpose beyond survival for themselves. Gears 2 and 3 probably displays this more prominently, but the first also has traces of this as well.

If Space Invaders showed the lone spaceship fighting against the alien hordes, then Gears of War makes camaraderie its central element. War is hell, it says, and taking causalities isn’t an option. As much as it glorifies violence, it also shows the necessity of human cooperation in the face of overwhelming odds. No matter what mode you play (other than deathmatch, I suppose), you can’t play on a team by yourself; you need your team mates as much as they need you. Even the AI of your teammates does some of the work for you; they aren’t completely useless, and you’ll need to keep them alive as much as you keep them alive. In a world of games so focused on rampant individualism, Gears strikes a distinct chord by making the characters real, if a bit too “masculine” for some. It’s incomplete without other people! That’s a notable trait in itself, as 1 Corinthians 12 notes:

12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

I’ve had more than one circumstances where acting “gung-ho” got me killed. Acting as the all-important action hero will certainly get you killed in Gears of War, especially on Hardcore difficulty and above. You can’t flank an enemy unless someone else pins them down, now can you? Nor can you replace the skills of your teammates or friends; some may be more aggressive, and others more passive, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t necessary to your progress. I imagine this is true of all co-op games, but Gears of War places this in sharp relief – fail to trust and respect each other, and failure to fulfill your role in the group, will leads to your death. If games were empowerment fantasies, I doubt this would be the case!

Gears has its own flaws, however – it’s still too easy. You may find yourself replaying sections, unsurprisingly, but no obstacle should hook you for too long. Higher difficulties frustrate, rather than work as genuinely difficult. Gears 3, in particular, is almost impossible to finish on Insane due to its insistence on being balanced for four expert players (lending it to a co-op environment, but also limiting its appeal). Furthermore, collision detection can always work a little better than it does; sometimes you’ll miss melee attacks or even headshots. Being used to PC/mouse controls for shooters makes the Xbox 360 feel insufficient to the task at times. Jaggies and weird ragdoll animations for dead bodies abound, distracting the player from the intensity of the situations. Lastly, the context-sensitive nature of cover controls means you might find yourself doing the wrong thing at the wrong time, dying for little reason other than faulty control. These instances are rare if you’re paying attention, but even then it will occur from time to time.

These flaws detract enough that I can’t call it exemplary, but the entire Gears series shouldn’t be ignored. Rather, the cooperative nature of the game’s systems and its unique cover system make it a game series that one can savor and enjoy by one’s self or with friends. Heck, you might even play well with others, but that’s the whole point.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.