Gears: it’s pretty good
For the first hour, I actually despised Gears of War. It was too hard, the controls were stiff and demanded too many button presses, it was obnoxiously loud (still is, in fact) and the shoulder pads are /ridiculous/.
But I’ve been playing practically all weekend. And now I think it’s terrific. Here are some random thoughts why.
1) It’s astonishingly, hilariously violent.
Rather than a bayonet, the basic COG marine rifle has a hedge-trimmer clipped to the end allowing you to slice enemies from forehead to groin. That in itself is quite funny. But it’s just the start. In a game this afternoon, I pulled out from cover to ambush an enemy with the shotgun. In a single blast I blew away his entire top half. I swear his legs carried on running for two steps. The game is full of this absurd viscera – sniper headshots are met with the top of the victims skull popping off, post-chainsaw you’re left with two chunks of floppy ragdoll meat, you can attach grenades to bad’s backs, and run away giggling…
Worst/Best of all, you can ‘down’ a player or enemy leaving him panting on the floor. To finish him off, just press X to curb stomp’ his head, American History X style.
2) Guns are fun
My favourite weapon is the Torque Bow – it’s a futuristic longbow that fires explosive rounds. Once they’re embedded in flesh they take two seconds to cook off, before popping in a fountain of gore. Key to why it’s so fun is that hysterical two second timer. Online, you can giggle as the victim realises his fate. In the campaign, it’s a time to wait and wonder – did it hit? Clearly, someone at Epic spent months toying with this stuff until they got them perfect. Good job.
3) The cover system actually worksAfter the first act, you’re soon comfortable with sliding from column to column to column, SWAT-turning to find a better shot, flanking suppressed Locusts, or just hiding while you recover a bit of health. In one firefight this evening, I caught one half of my brain watching the other respond to the fight. It was one of those moments of gaming detachment where you can’t quite believe what your fingers are doing. On-screen, these pitched street battles looked incredible – a teenage boys fantasy.
4) It gets pacing and emotional hooks.
My favourite scene isn’t a combat sequence – it’s when you enter a tin-shack ‘stranded’ settlement – they’re the humans left behind by the Locust attacks. As you walk through the town, shutters slam down, a father sends his daughter back into the house, and a street-chef takes a break from cooking rats to heft a pick-axe. Just in case.
The basic story is kept ultra-simple: plot device could save the human race, find a deliver McGuffin to cause Locust genocide but there’s quite a few allusions to the wider world and conflict – the Stranded view you as a fascistic police force, most of the lead characters are given decent backstories and sub-plots (I really liked Cole in all this), and there’s a whole section in an underground emulsion mine – a natural fuel -something the Locusts appear to value highly. Is that why this war began… ? Gears isn’t Thomas Hardy, but it’s just enough to lose yourself in.
Is brilliant, and both split-screen and online. It comes alive when two of you take on a well defended position, offering covering fire and sightings. If you have a friend who likes teh g4mes, play this with them.
It’s nowhere near perfect, though. There are a few AI bugs, where friendly soldiers will just stand and be shot at (particularly in the hardcore mode, exactly when you need them) which for a high profile Christmas blockbuster feels unacceptable. The first hour is uncomfortable as you learn the new control system. The indoor levels are tight, perhaps too tight for those shoulderpads – your way is often blocked by a hulking man with a rifle.
Most of all though, I wish it was just slightly smarter. It has a really annoying tendency to shoot itself in the foot with obviously scripted battle sequences, and disregard for emotional connections the game has made in the past levels. It drives me mad when a particular enemy demands a certain weapon to kill, two of which just so happen to have been left by a window that provides the perfect firing spot. Hammer of Dawn? Hammer of Yawn, more like.
And for all the hard work Epic put into the Stranded Settlement, it’s undone with the later defense of the same town. I can cope with lots of Locusts attacking from the street, trying to scale the walls – I’ve got a reason to fight for this. What I can’t cope with is when four of the ‘Boomers’ (big chaps carrying rocket launchers) spawn behind the walls, as a cheap climax to a brutal siege. Why didn’t they just do that in the first place, and spare us the trouble. And surely this means the settlement is uninhabitable, now, so shouldn’t we evacuate these people?
And the vehicle sections are shit. And I wish less racist teenagers were playing online. Still.