Gears of War

Friday 04.02.2011 - completed Gears of War 1

Having just completed my first game of 2011, I thought I'd write about what made it worthwhile and, ultimately, fun.

The Challenge

Gears of War, played on Hardcore the whole way through struck the right balance between story & game progression and challenge. Several sections of the game, most notably in and around the Fenix estate required multiple attempts to complete but at no point did I feel overwhelmed with anger at the game. Well, that's in part a lie - my lunatic AI time mate did cause me to swear as he went belly first into a load of bad guys fire without so much of a thought for me. What can you do?

Other than the idiotic AI, generally speaking the balance between uphill battle and progression was superb. Even the on-rails gunning sections were short enough not to provoke too much anger. I loved the fact that the game was confident enough in its controls, concept and ultimately, gameplay to just let you get on with it and grind through some of the tougher sections - you always felt that failure was because you hadn't found that sweet spot of cover, been patient enough or been too gung-ho. In short, I never blamed the game for failure, and those games that either seem to arbitrarily change the rules or gameplay in an attempt to spike the difficulty always feel like they are cheating you.

One more thing on challenge - for me, what made the game so good was that, at its heart it is an action game, obviously, but if it has the heart of an action game (and brain), it has the soul of a puzzle game.

Gears is a great puzzle game, not just a great action game

This may seem a little bit strange, especially for a game that bases so much of its core gameplay on running, gunning and hiding. However, when played on hardcore, many of the sections that did have to be played through multiple times were played through like a puzzle game - trial and error. Often, what at first glance looked like the best place for cover turned out to be nothing more than a starting point. You were often encouraged to look to go gung-ho, but actually, working out where to hide to deal with the different types of enemies at different times had more in common with Tetris than, say , Call of Duty.

I've played both and the COD games rely on you blasting your way relentlessly through faceless bad guys. Gears of War allows you to do this, but you have to think where / when to hide, when to pop out of cover, which side of cover gives you the best shot and, ultimately, whether or not your cover is going to cover you in 30 seconds time when the next enemies come pouring in. Think about the section where you are defending the petrol station and APC from locusts - in that one section alone you have to use multiple different pieces of scenery / locations for cover and, depending on what weapon you are using, they have different strenghts and weakness's. When I say its more like Tetris it is because during the bigger & more intense / challenging battles you need to think 2, 3, 4 steps into the future.  Sitting still is an option, butyou're better off trialing different combinations of weapons / positions / movements to try to get the best balance of attack / defence / preservation. This, ultimately is what makes it more than just a simple shooter -  the cover mechanic adds a richness to spawning and killing of enemies that few other games have.

Story - it could have beengreat

If there was one thing about GOW that could have been fantastic but is sort of a let down it's the story. I suppose that GOW doesn't really need a story to make it great and sure, it was probably the least important bit of the game design, but after 10 minutes of the game I was thinking it could have been epic. In the end, the scenery & character design tell the story as much as the dialogue. The crumbling cities, the beautiful organic caverns and distinctive armour of each of the gears all add up to create a living and breathing Sera. You can tell that this is where much of the effort was spent in design - visually ( and i dont just mean the killer graphics) it is both beautiful and terrible.

Half-way through the campaign you realise that the occasional cut scenes and comments from the characters is all you're going to get, which is a shame. The back story and legacy of the mistakes man kind have made is all hinted at in the short intro sequence, but that is all you get - hints at the characters, the bigger picture and the beauty of Sera. Ultimately it feels as if the story was built around the game. Compare this to Metal Gear Solid : Guns of the Patriots, where on occasions it feels as if the game was designed to fit a sweeping and epic story. Of course, endless cut scenes would have ruined the fast paced GOW, but some sort of middle ground, I cant help but feel, would have added to the overall experience.

Guns - lots of guns.

I grew up playing Doom, Quake, Unreal and other games where the main objective was often "get a bigger and better gun". GOW has the confidence to give you all the weapons (bar one) very early on and, your workhorse gun, is one that you use for the majority of the game. This, initially felt a bit strange but ultimately benefits the game. Generally, the main question is not "where is the next bigger / better gun" but "what is the right gun for this situation".  By removing the need to focus on weapon progression (or indeed any other kind of false character XP progression), the game allows you to focus purely on the fantastic gameplay and set pieces.

This works well for me - in fact, I typically only used the sniper rifle and Lancer for the whole game and not once did I feel bored of them or want more.

The Baddies & bosses

The locusts are pretty cool all things considered. They look distinctive, they're fun to chainsaw and you're generally aware of the bigger / tougher ones presence (Boomers shout BOOM just to let you know they're on their way) when they do enter the fray. As I said, I think the story could have been developed and this would have benefitted the locusts (why are they fighting? who is the female voice?), but they do the job well - they are fun to kill countless times.

One bad chap I wanted to give particular mention to, was the final boss - Raam. Now, typically boss fights rely on you working out the weakness / attack pattern / critical weapon to use and there are a few instances of this in the game, but the end boss is, basically a bigger soldier than usual. It was great to be able to basically kill the bad guy and finish the game by just repeatedly shooting him. No grand attack strategy, no ridiculous having to do multiple QTE's to win - just a simple blow the cr@p out of a huge soldier - it was very in line with the rest of the game.

Final thoughts

With Gears 2 already in my Xbox, you can tell I'm a fan. It was a great game, I enjoyed every minute of the soldiering / running / gunning and covering and there are few games that felt as natural to play and fun to play over and over again. One of the best games I've played, and I'll likely go back to try insane mode once I've finished GOW 2.

Best moment : either the first time you pop into cover or the assault on the Fenix Steps - it just felt fantastic and like a turning point a huge battle.

Worst moment : inside the fenix house, Dom running off every 5 seconds to attack on his own and getting slaughtered over and over again

Most fun thing : Chainsawing a locust in half - it will never get dull

Favourite thing? : I loved the lancer, but, my favourite thing in the whole game is the ability to swap cover from left to right in the blink of an eye. It could have been so awkward, but it always feels smooth and tight