Developed by Epic Games, the makers of the very popular UNREAL TOURNAMENT online multiplayer games, GEARS OF WAR has quite a pedigree: It was designed by game prodigy Cliff Bleszinski (a.k.a. CliffyB), co-creator of the UNREAL franchise, and was built using Epic’s new UNREAL 3 graphics engine, which has become one of the driving forces of next-gen game development. GEARS (exclusively for the Xbox 360) is published by Microsoft itself, and they have been hyping the hell out of it, in part to counter the hype around the launch of Sony’s PlayStation 3 console. So is it worthy of the hype? To read the almost universally glowing reviews of the game, one would think so; but the game has some serious flaws that most reviewers neglect to mention. Because the game has been out for a few weeks now, and has been reviewed by scores of publications, it would be redundant to simply cover what it does well. I’m going to skip all the fanboy adulation and get to the juicy bits — the stuff they screwed up.
GEARS is a third-person action game, meaning that you do not look through the eyes of your character but actually see him on screen most of the time, the one exception being when you zoom into an over-the-shoulder view when aiming your weapon. Bleszinski calls GEARS a “stop-and-pop” game, as opposed to the more traditional “run-and-gun” first-person action games like HALF-LIFE and HALO. Success in GEARS requires that you be more methodical in gunfights. If you just go running into an area and try to Rambo your way through, you will be put down quickly and brutally. Your enemies use cover to avoid your attack and are smart enough to flank you if you stay in one spot for too long. The artificial intelligence is pretty good, but it does have its limitations. For instance, if you find an angle on an enemy who is behind cover, he will not react when you start shooting him, he’ll just stay crouched behind cover until you’ve killed him. You can also sometimes approach an enemy with your chainsaw out and he won’t try to evade you, apparently assuming that you’re just offering to carve the Thanksgiving turkey. Overall, though, GEARS has decent AI and most skirmishes are extremely tense and satisfying.
In the single-player campaign, you will usually have one to three computer-controlled teammates to back you up, but don’t expect much from them other than some amusing banter. For the most part they will keep out of trouble and even occasionally kill an enemy or two. There are a few basic commands you can issue to them, but they really just amount to attack, defend, and regroup. You will rarely, if ever, use these commands. Considering that you’re almost always fighting in a squad and that using squad tactics is very useful in this type of combat, it’s too bad there isn’t at least a basic positioning system like in the GHOST RECON games, by which you can command individual soldiers to take positions on a map to establish cross-fire zones and enable flanking maneuvers. But to the extent that your teammates rarely get in your way or make mistakes that cost you a life, they work well enough.
The control scheme is almost elegant in its simplicity, but it is not perfect. Most special moves are controlled by the A button. If you are near cover and hit A, you will slide up to the structure and crouch behind it to avoid incoming fire. However, there are objects here and there that look like cover, but pressing A just puts you into a roll instead, which can have fatal consequences if you were counting on that cover in the midst of a heated fight. This happens because if you hit A when you are not near enough to cover, you will dive in whichever direction you were moving. There is a slight dead zone where you are too far from cover to slide into it, but close enough that diving forward will bash your head against the wall and then have to hit A again to take cover. For the most part, though, the cover mechanic is implemented so smoothly that it won’t take long before you’re moving like a seasoned veteran. Indeed, the natural flow of your character’s movement and the very solid, connected feel of the controls is one of the best aspects of GEARS OF WAR.
Although the graphics are very impressive, much of the level design feels contrived in order to work with the cover mechanic. You have never seen so many waist-high walls in your life! Granted, the environments you fight in are mostly in ruined cities, so the fact that there is a lot of debris strewn around is not necessarily out of place. However, the way the debris is distributed around each area looks deliberate rather than organic, and this detracts from how good the game looks otherwise.
The physics engine also leaves something to be desired. Common objects found throughout the game are interactive, so you can kick bottles and vases around when you’re bored (not that you ever will be). The physics of their movement are pretty dicey, though, as objects will often go flying off in a direction and at a velocity inconsistent with the action that set them in motion. This is really just a nitpick, to be honest, since it doesn’t affect gameplay at all. The worst aspect of the physics engine is what happens to enemies after they die. Their bodies can be interacted with somewhat by shooting at or walking over them. The problem is that they have absolutely no weight or stiffness to them, which often causes them to pile up into ridiculous contortions. This is especially disappointing after killing one of the more difficult and impressive creatures in the game, the Berserker. These blind creatures hunt by scent, and their thick skin makes your weapons useless against them. A couple of the game’s most exciting sequences involve you trying to lure a Berserker outside so you can use the Hammer of Dawn on it. But after killing this incredibly nasty and tough character, you can walk over to him and his body will bounce around like an empty rubber suit. Needless to say, this is rather anticlimactic after working your butt off to kill such an impressive monster.
Easily the weakest aspect of GEARS OF WAR is the storytelling. It is not unusual for action games to scrimp on story. Ironically, GEARS has an interesting story behind it, the only problem being that the developers don’t actually tell that story. And it’s not for lack of trying — GEARS has some of the longest cutscenes I’ve ever seen in an action game. Unfortunately, these cutscenes are so poorly directed that they end up just wasting your time and disrupting the rhythm of the game. Some of these scenes go so far as to show a few minutes of you and your squad fighting waves of enemies, which is pure torture because the whole time you’re wondering why they won’t just let you do the fighting. This is a game, right, not a movie?
There is a fairly long scene that you can access by leaving the game on the menu screen for a few minutes before loading a game. This scene explains some of the backstory of who these monsters are that are emerging from the ground and destroying human civilization; but you have to wonder, Why wasn’t this the opening scene of the game? Even worse, there are hints at a fairly complex backstory for the lead character, Marcus Fenix, but by the end of the game you have very little understanding of who he is. This isn’t all that surprising — the mysterious hero is fairly common in action games. Whereas many games keep their heroes mysterious because the developers were too lazy to create an interesting main character, it’s obvious that the developers of GEARS have created a compelling lead character but have simply forgotten to tell us who he is. This is the most frustrating thing about GEARS OF WAR — they clearly spent the time and effort to craft a decent storyline with a solid lead character, but in the end opted to tell so little of that narrative that it ends up feeling like your typical bargain-basement action story meant for nothing more than to take you from point A to point B with very little context. It is a huge disappointment and keeps GEARS OF WAR from being a truly outstanding game experience.
Where GEARS will find its most lasting value is likely in the multiplayer options. You can play the entire single-player campaign in co-op mode, either split-screen on the same console or over Xbox Live. As much fun as the campaign is on your own, it is much more fun when played with a friend. You are finally able to pull off some of the tactical moves that the limited squad commands prevent you from doing with the computer-controller teammates. The only serious problem with co-op is that you can have only one checkpoint saved between single-player and co-op. Clearly the developers don’t understand how people play co-op. For instance, I was playing the game solo for a few days before a friend bought it. In order for us to play co-op, I had to give up all of the progress I had made in the game in order to start at the beginning with him. This is a terrible save function that makes playing co-op much more limiting than it should be. You should be able to save several different solo and co-op campaigns so you can pick up where you left off with any of your friends without it impacting your own solo campaign. There is also the problem of multiple players on the same console — with only one checkpoint save per game, how do you manage more than one player per console?
Finally, there is the “Versus” mode, which pits two four-player teams against each other in deathmatch-style games. These matches are organized by rounds, and the first team to win a certain number of rounds (determined by the host) wins the match. This sets up a nice dynamic whereby the first couple of rounds see both teams testing each other’s strategies to find their enemy’s weaknesses. Matches tend to be fast, bloody, and extremely tense. This is undoubtedly one of the very best online games around, but it, too, has some serious problems. The server browser is very clunky and sometimes buggy. Servers fill up so quickly that by the time the server list is loaded, many of the games in the list are actually full. Some people have also encountered a glitch that prevents them from getting into any online matches. I encountered this problem and was told by Microsoft that it is an issue they are aware of and to just keep trying. (I eventually found a trick posted in the Xbox Live forums that usually circumvents this problem, so at least I can play now.) Obviously this isn’t a widespread problem, though, because Microsoft recently announced that GEARS is now the most popular game on Xbox Live.
The problems don’t stop at the server browser. Once you’re in a match, if someone drops out for whatever reason, that team is now undermanned. There is no way to let another player into the match to even the teams. This can be extremely annoying if, as has happened to me, you’ve been playing a match for 15 to 20 minutes, the score is tied, you’re in the match-winning game, and you lose a player. With teams of only 4 players, losing even one can be devastating. There is also no way to create a party so you can stay with friends from match to match. This is especially surprising because GEARS is published by Microsoft, which also published HALO 2, the undisputed champion of online console games. HALO 2 uses a party system that allows you to stay with the same group of people as you move from match to match. Considering that HALO 2 is two years old, it seems unforgivable to release a major new Xbox Live game without that basic functionality.
GEARS OF WAR is certainly one of the best action games on any console, but it does not quite live up to the hype of its being one of the most innovative action games ever. The cover mechanic is very well implemented and breathes life into a genre that has been getting a bit tired in recent years. The sights and sounds are beyond compare, and the solid co-op and multiplayer components will keep this at the top of gamers’ playlists for many months to come. However, given that it does those things so well only makes the botched storytelling and buggy online interface that much more frustrating and perplexing. We can only hope that the inevitable GEARS OF WAR 2 will see the developers focus more on the story to give us some emotional context for all that gloriously gory death.