Gears of War
Just don't think about it too much
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- One of the great things about this game is that it is simple. From the beginning, your primary solution to pretty much every problem you come across will be to shoot everything you see, move forward, and do it all again. The game is strictly linear - you go from point A to point B, and the only time points C, D, and E exist is when they are directly in-between A and B. There's no need to overthink anything, you don't need to devote any time to planning a strategy or figuring out how solve puzzles; the most complex decision you'll ever come across will be whether you want to carry this gun, or that one. Please don't misunderstand me - there is a time and a place for more robust gameplay mechanics, and countless fantastic games use them. But Gears of War just wants to watch stuff blow up, and every once in a while that's the kind of game I need.
- Luckily, Gears of War knows this about itself and consequently does not overstay its welcome. Shallow games are fun. That, in fact, is all they're meant to be. But they can get tedious - and, subsequently, not fun. Gears of War can be finished in a few sittings - the campaign is no more than 7-8 hours from start to finish. Finishing this game was satisfying not only because of the intrinsic satisfaction one gets from finishing a game, but because I felt like it needed to finish exactly when it did. The designers recognized the game's inherent faults and didn't try to cover them up and milk the gamer for every last second of play; rather, the game bows out humbly when it's right at the peak of its entertainment value. It's the difference between going to a buffet, eating just enough and walking away from a meal with a full stomach, and overeating and feeling like the restaurant not only overcharged you, but robbed you of being comfortable for the next couple hours.
- The gameplay mechanics are, like much of the rest of the game, simple but effective. Unlike other military shooters, you need to spend a lot of time in cover, taking care to pop out only at opportune times. Enemies too use this tactic, and because you are fragile and can't take too much damage, gunfights in Gears of War tend to be much more methodical and delicate affairs than in other games. Even though the overall pace of the game tends to be fast, there will be several battles that require you to slow down, take your time, and be patient. It's an interesting dynamic that works well to balance out the flow of the game and keep it interesting.
- The controls are, mostly, excellent. Running, moving to cover, moving out of cover, and jumping-and-rolling all are done with the same button. The gunplay is similar to most other third- (and first-) person shooters. The only minor complaint (which I might as well mention here as long as I'm on the topic) is that sometimes actually getting your character into cover can be tricky in the more intense situations, since you have to be facing the object you want to hide behind. If you're running parallel to a low barrier on your right, for example, it's all too easy to jump-and-roll forward instead of getting down and hidden behind the barrier. There were a few instances where this kind of thing happened and resulted in my death, but they were too infrequent to complain too loudly about and for the most part the controls are very fluid and responsive.
- The voice-acting is especially great - protagonist Marcus Fenix's voice just fits his character so well and really helps to define his personality. Given the almost complete lack of any kind of backstory or other character development (see below), this is a welcome and noteworthy feature. All the other main characters are also memorably voiced. There are several instances of dialogue that is humorous not only because of the writing, but because of the convincing way it is actually spoken. The voice acting rarely sounds scripted or forced, and this goes a long way towards immersing the gamer, which unfortunately the components like storytelling or character development (the components that should be carrying this weight) largely fail to do.
- At least on the Hardcore difficulty setting (which is equivalent to "Hard" in any other game), the game provides a healthy challenge. I feel that this is a very important factor - I don't like to feel like I'm dominating the game with little effort, nor do I like being relentlessly destroyed over and over. I died many times, but I never felt like it was unfair. In pretty much every circumstance I knew that I had died because of my own stupidity or lack of foresight, not because the AI was simply overpowered. This resulted in a very low level of frustration throughout the game, even when I had to retry segments again and again. There's something delicately psychological about that, and striking that balance can make all the difference between feeling like (a) you won the game because the computer didn't try, (b) you won the game because you chipped away at it until there was nothing left to chip away at, and (c) you won the game because you learned how to adapt to it and outsmart it. I much prefer (c), and I felt like this game definitely gave me that particular satisfaction I crave.
- The game's graphics are gorgeous. Although the settings don't vary too much, they look fantastic - the crumbling buildings, the overcast skies, the rocky terrain...it looks very much like you are in the middle of a dilapidated war zone and the gritty world lends itself to the overall feel of the game very well. Similarly, the cinematics can be breathtaking - although better things were to come in this series' future, several of the cinematic breaks feel like scenes from an A-list blockbuster movie. Take that how you will, but I mean it as a compliment.
- This game did a lot of things right; it also did a couple things wrong, or, at least, there were things it could have done better. Take, for instance, the story and characterization, or lack thereof. The game starts with the main character Marcus being broken out of a prison cell, given a soldier's uniform and gun, after which the basic training begins. This is fine; no explanation is given as to why he was there, or where he is, or who he is, but as modern gamers I think we've come to expect this. It'll all be filled in later, we say, let's just learn how to play for now and expect story afterwards. Flash forward eight hours: you've just beat the game, watched the closing cinematic, and you still don't really know anything about Marcus's history, the history of the war you are apparently engaged in, and man, if you're still wondering about why Marcus was in prison eight hours ago, well, you'll just have to look it up on Wikipedia. This, unfortunately, is not an exaggeration. You are shuttled from one objective to the next with either no or very minimal explanation. The game seems to expect the gamer to infer just about every major story detail; this can be a compelling way to flesh out a story, but when the primary vehicle for communicating the story to the gamer is through inference, this is a problem, and you're going to have a lot of very lost gamers.
The sad thing about this is that the story, quite frankly, seems awesome. At least, by the end of the game, I thought it seemed awesome, but didn't really have enough information to tell. There's so much going on, so much that the designers could have done with this. For example, a common storytelling device in recent years has been to reveal backstory by having the player pick up objects scattered around the environment, like recordings or writings in journal pages, which help explain exactly what is going on (see: BioShock, Dead Space). It's a cliche mechanic but it works great. Although this game's successor did catch on and add this kind of thing into the gameplay, it's a shame it wasn't implemented in this game as well, because this is the one that really needed it. There's so much I want to know, and so much that the game should have revealed to me, but didn't.
- On a more technical note, the game's AI is not particularly smart. Enemies tend to duck behind cover, pop out, duck, pop out, run across to another piece of cover even though you are shooting at them, repeat. To be fair, as the player I did pretty much exactly the same thing, but I still felt that the enemies were really lacking in creativity. Very few, for example, used grenades, and when they did their aim was horrible. If the AI had known how to use them properly, they could have thrown the grenades behind wherever I was hiding to flush me out and then started shooting at me as I ran to find more cover. As it stands, sitting in the same place for an entire gunfight and picking off enemies as they pop out of cover is a pretty effective strategy, and although there are times when this doesn't always work, this was my main tactic and it tended to get me from one objective to the next without much hassle.
The Bottom Line
It is, when all is said and done, one of those quick-fix action games that will come in handy to have when you're between the Skyrims, the Fallout 3s, the Final Fantasys of the gaming world. It's not deep, it has very little actual substance, but holy crap is it fun. While I wouldn't go so far as to call it mindless, it's easy to just kind of halfway tune out when you play this and have that transient fun that these kinds of games are all about. Sometimes, as gamers, we needs breaks like this, and if you're ever in need of one, Gears of War is one of the best options you have.