While advertising is one thing, the gaming community is more in tune with hype. You know, that little voice that gets everyone telling you that you need to buy a certain game because it's the next big thing. That wave of unjustified awe that gets newsgroups buzzing and fan boys coming out of the woodwork proclaiming the second coming. We all hate hype. We all try to ignore it. Deep down everyone knows that tomorrow's next big game is really next month's discount bin resident. And yet, time and again we give in to it and are generally disappointed. And now, for the past year, we've only heard one game mentioned in the same breath as the vaunted Halo 3; Epic Games' Gears of War. Proclaimed a killer app by many, a system seller by most and a title that could easily eclipse the launch of two competitive consoles, a lot was riding on the Microsoft produced title. Oddly, and even uncharacteristically, Gears of War manages the Herculean task of not only living up to its own hype but impressing anyone who may have become jaded from it. Yes, Gears is like nothing you've ever played before and yes, you're going to hearing about it for a long time to come.
Long before most of us even had a clue of what it really meant, we knew the phrase; Emergence Day. To the unknowing it lived as a phrase with "judgment day" connotations and even without further explanation, we knew Gears of War took place after an apocalypse of some kind and we were almost certain that this was a struggle for humanity against impossible odds. Imagine all that from two words. Emergence Day. While the cynic in me thinks this was impossibly well engineered, planned and delivered, Gears of Wars wipes that smug smirk from my face and leaves me in the humble realization that this game is bigger than any catch-phrase. I've rarely seen a game breath with its own quasi-existence, but Gears does. From the now-trademark death-head wrapped in a gear to the face of its anti-hero, Marcus Fenix, GoW resonates with a human presence that it truly bigger than any console, company or hype. Gears has veritably established itself as a living thing without reign or control. Epic Games has truly created a monster here and anyone able to levy an attack against it simply has never had the pleasure of experiencing it from beginning to end.
While some may be disappointed to note that Gears of War doesn't truly tell the story of Emergence Day itself (you'll need to read the game manual for the description) it does deal with its repercussions. In a nutshell, an enemy known as the Locust Horde launched a surprise attack against humanity on Emergence Day. Rather than leave the Horde the cities and prisoners it had taken, humanity used its own weapons against itself, destroying all the spoils of war. Human survivors then took refuge in a fortified bunker and as the Horde levied an attack against it, our hero, bad-ass soldier Marcus Fenix defies orders and leaves to save his father. Arriving too late, Marcus not only loses his dad but is also imprisoned for dereliction of duty and sentenced to forty years in a god awful penitentiary. When we first meet Marcus, he's being busted out of jail by an old friend, given a gun and begrudgingly asked to help stave off the Horde from what is left of mankind. Gears isn't about a story though and rarely falls into a narrative of any kind. It prefers to simply let you see events as they unfold through the eyes of Marcus Fenix. And while there is character exposition and funny, though crude, dialog throughout, Gears is more about non-stop Black Hawk Down-situational action than a story driven adventure. There is rarely a moment of calm not punctuated by the cacophony of violence and events (and teammates) seems to only exists in a second by second basis.
While many will expect Gears to be a first person shooter, the action actually takes place from a third person perspective with the camera generally positioned slightly over Marcus' shoulder. This gives the player great peripheral vision which is highly needed in certain instances as well as a means to observes the amazing details in the environments. GoW does maintain an FPS pedigree however in that in seems to control move like first person shooter than a third person adventure. The left thumbstick controls your movements while the right thumbstick controls the camera. The true beauty of the control scheme though, comes in the way of its contextual use of the "A" button which, depending on positioning, allows you to find cover, jump walls, evade and roll, swat turn in doorways, slip from cover to cover and perform the impressive Roadie Run.
The "A" button is referred to as the "movement" button and it generally holds to its namesake with painstaking accuracy. The "B" button is used for all melee-type attacks (brain bashing, grenade-pinning and chainsaw wielding) while the "X" is the all-purpose interaction button, used for ammo pick-ups, climbing, switch pushing (very few of these), turret manning, teammate revival (AI controlled teammates can be brought back to life instantly with a encouraging word from Marcus) as well as the always-cool door kicking maneuvers. Gears also features a clever, though optional, reload system that allows you to reload magazines faster (or miss completely) with the timed press of the right bumper. To round things off, the "Y" button always swings the camera around to points of interest (something sorely lacking in next-gen games) while the left bumper displays current objectives as well as teammate status and position.
Even if the only thing Gears had going for it was its control scheme, it would still shine with its elegant simplicity. The fact that it also strays from the typical "run, shoot, kill" mentality for a more mature and strategic "find cover, shoot, duck, shoot, kill" mentality is a refreshing one. And while you will do this from the first minute of GoW until the last, it's a concept that doesn't get old due to the ever-changing situations in which it is used as well as the game's AI which is surprisingly human in turns. The only nitpick against the gameplay really is the fact that Marcus is unable to jump. While I understand the constraint and why jumping would ruin the premise of "taking cover" (and also wreak havoc in multiplayer matches), I dislike having to take cover (when no enemies are present) only to have to hit the "A" button again so I can leap over a foot-high bunker.
As an aside on the gameplay, Gears of War can easily be accused of being a one-trick pony. From your first fire-fight to your last, the gameplay rarely changes. In fact, during the first Act of the game (of which there are five in total), when you're suppose to be getting used to the controls and gameplay, you may start wondering if "this is all there is to it". Take my word for it; by the end of act one, you will be completely hooked on the gameplay and in for more surprises than you can imagine. In the end, Gears doesn't change its established mechanics (except for a short driving interlude and the occasional turret use) very much from start to finish, but it does manage to feel like a brilliant cross between Ghost Recon Advance Warfighter, Resident Evil 4 and a first person shooter, peppered with a few nods to movies like Pitch Black in the doing. What Gears does, and does better than almost any game imaginable, is create a believable environment in which plausible situations occur and are dealt with rationally. That last sentence may sound odd since we are talking about a post-apocalyptic game in which hulking men using chainsaw-endowed machine guns are taking out hordes of bizarre-looking creatures and fighting bosses straight out of a Resident Evil game, but for some reason, it feels so real you'd hardly notice the far-fetchedness of it all.
One of the big pluses for Gears of War is its wonderful AI system. Your teammates (usually one to three depending on the situation) feel like human counterparts sometimes, and while they will sometimes get in your line of sight, I've seen human friends do that to. The enemy AI is just as good, always adhering to the "take cover, take a shot" mentality. And while some events may feel a little scripted at first because they seem so cool to see (an AI teammate using the chainsaw bayonet to literally cut a Horde open), dying and reloading proves that each event is actually unique and never repeated. Now that's clever programming. And while the AI is smart and will generally support you, you have to be up to the task as well. This is easily done with the clever use of checkpoints that seem to be placed after, or before, any important event. Reloading a checkpoint takes very little time and for whatever reason, dying in GoW, regardless of the difficulty you're playing on (three difficulties total), never seems like an annoyance. In the words of Goose, yes from Top Gun: "The defense department regrets to inform you that your sons are dead because they were stupid." Meaning, regardless of the AI on either side, when you die, it's generally because you yourself weren't up to a certain task.
So GoW has the incredible AI, the slick gameplay going for it, but what really ties it all together is the atmosphere. From the characters to the environments and levels, Gears of War is quite possibly the most amazingly crafted game. Look as I might, I never saw a repeated texture anywhere. Steel frames for defunct bunk-beds were unique, buildings in the distance, pictures on walls, chairs, floor tiles, you will not find lazy designing in here. Even though Gears takes places after massive destruction, it remains one of the greatest locations to explore. The architecture of buildings has a faux-Gothic/Roman feel to it with large pillars and cornices adorning most buildings and divans straight out of the early 1900's featured in most rooms. And top all these little details off with simply the best graphics available on console (if not anywhere) and it's easy to lay waste to an area only to stand around and admire it for minutes afterwards (plus you're more likely to find COG tags hidden in the levels). From the quick loading of the levels, the quick camera movement, the level of detail absolutely everywhere, the use of light and shading, the rock solid frame rate, Gears unquestionably sets the benchmark for next-generation graphics. Using the Unreal 3 engine, it's astonishing to imagine what further games we'll be witness to once this engine starts flexing its muscle. Graphically mind-numbing!
In the audio department, Gears features a perfect soundtrack with the appropriate sound effects in all the right places. What really raises the quality of the title even more though - if that were even needed - is the stunning voice-work. Let's be honest, Gears of War is a game about big, brutish men not likely to give soliloquies at the drop of a hat. Their sentences are curt, their meaning pointed and their relevance rarely in contention. Not much is said, but how things are said is enough to establish each character, situation and event for what it is. Nuances in the different voices tell you right away that these are men well-past feeling any emotion. Each event is compartmentalized, joked about and treated matter-of-factly. These are men stuck in a war they know is hopeless and yet, with each jab and quip, we know what each is willing to lose to see the others through. And believe me; we know it more because of perfect intonation than actual lines being delivered. That is how powerful the voice-work is.
While Gears will keep you entertained in its single player mode, which is more fun even playing co-op (an effortless affair), it's the multiplayer modes that will keep this title on Xbox Live for years to come. The multiplayer only features three game types, but it's not impossible for Epic and Microsoft to release more as the game seems predisposed to online growth. As it is, we have Warzone, Assassination and Execution. In Warzone, a human team takes on a Horde team. The team left with a player standing wins. In Execution, which plays similarly to Warzone, a downed player must be killed at close-range after being felled. The catch is that pressing the "A" button revives you so attacking players must chose when to move in for the kill. Assassination on the other hand feels the most like a "team" event. Each team has a leader that must remain alive. You'll therefore need to protect him from your enemy, but you'll also have to seek out the enemy leader and kill him to win. As it is, Gears is very "team" oriented in its multiplayer modes. A good team will generally make the experience amazing, while a team that doesn't know the maps, the game modes or the concept of cooperation will usually lose quickly. The online portion is lag free for the most part, but unfortunately, doesn't feature a great online hub menu. It'd be nice to have the online interface scrapped and replaced with something more akin to, dare I say it, Halo 2's.
In the end, it's almost too easy to talk almost anyone but the most jaded (or fuddy-duddy) of gamers into trying, and loving, Gears of War. As a game, it's slick, atmospheric, fun, memorable and easily replayed over and over. As a product of a hype campaign, it is one of the few productions to not only live up to it (a feat in itself) but actually surpass it. As much as we all expected to love Gears of War, it was hard to really know what to truly expect from it. A new twist on the shooter genre, amazing graphics and a top-notch presentation are only the starting points for a game that stands, bar-none, as the next-gen title to beat in the future. GoW also marks the first time I've re-read the back of a display box and felt like there wasn't a word of a lie therein. Believe the hype; Gears of War makes good on everything it set out to do and then some.