Sunday, January 21, 2007
Gears of War: Limited Collector's Edition Review
Every so often, the gaming world will see a hugely hyped title finally ship, and people crowd around the stores and sell their own mother for a copy. Gears of War is the most anticipated title for the Xbox 360 aside from Halo 3, and it's Microsoft's retail counter to Sony's disaster, the PlayStation 3.
Many gamers have been drooling over Gears of War since its announcement, and the game is already a massive success: Selling over 3 million copies, breaking the Xbox Live player record set by Halo 2, and generally getting reviews with scores ranging in the mid-90's. A lot of hype and everyone seems to agree that it's all lived up to it.
Myself, however, I'm just your average Joe. I didn't follow the hype and didn't have any expectations going in, so like anything else, I call 'em as I see 'em, and this is what Gears of War is: Gears of War is one of the most beautiful games I have ever played with some fierce and intense gameplay, but some annoying design decisions often leave a good bit of the game an exercise in frustration.
Gears of War is a third person shooter with tactical elements. The game is all about taking and using cover and popping off shots with your squad, and this style of gameplay kicks. Epic Games has done a very good job with the controls, streamlining so much into the "A" button, and to a lesser extent, the "X" button. As you're running around the beautiful game world, you can use "A" to evade, Roadie Run, take cover and quickly move from cover to cover. The gameplay has so much more of a realistic feel to it over a conventional shooter that it really helps to immerse you in the action, and battles can be very, very intense.
Which is another plus for the controls, that so much remains so responsive in such a frantic environment. After briefly going back to Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, which came with my Xbox 360 Holiday Bundle (and vowing never to touch that drivel again), I can say that Epic Games has really put forth a simple, intuitive control scheme. My only major gripes with the controls are as follows: 1) I've often found when leaving cover turning around can be way too slow if an enemy gets behind you, usually resulting in your death, and 2) Roadie Running near cover will often have you latch onto that cover, resulting in you dieing from what you were attempting to flee from.
That aside, battles are easy to get into and fast and fun with a good bit of variety. The game's AI is good, but not the best I've ever seen. Your squad will generally hold their own and help out well enough, and even though you can give them a basic offensive or defensive command, you'll likely only need to do so once or twice. If a squad member is killed, you can revive him by pressing "X" once you get near him; the process is near instant. The enemy AI functions much the same as your squad, with Locust Drones taking and using cover, blind firing, etc. One thing they don't do, which really is too bad, is adjust their cover if you get a bead on them. In Halo 2, for example, if I saw an Elite under cover and attacked him, he'd move around that crate or whatever to cut off the angle, however in Gears of War (and most shooters, for that matter), your enemy will sit there and take it, though he will likely shoot back.
So about the Locusts and the story in general. Gears of War takes place on the war torn world of Sera. While Earth is never mentioned, humans have built up a vast civilization here but have suffered through a great civil war, which left us divided for Emergence Day, the day the Locust Horde tore through the ground under every major city on Sera and left a quarter of the human population dead. The human forces quickly set aside their feud and rallied under the Coalition of Ordered Governments to try an repel the invaders. Humanity has basically taken a stand on a plateau where the Locust can not dig through, but after a decade plus of war, the Locust are penetrating those defences.
You play as Marcus Fenix a convict re-instated into the military as the COG are desperate for soldiers. Your main objective is to find a device that will map out the Locust underground tunnel networks so command can unleash a mass light boom and blow the Locust all to hell. Overall, the game's back story is very cool, which is why it's very unfortunate that the story presented in-game is so bloody vague. Most of the characters are never really fleshed out and I found that I couldn't really care for any of them, even Fenix's best buddy Dom who's almost always with you, and though I always knew my immediate objective, I quickly forgot what the overall goal of the game was. Once I got there, the Light Mass Bomb was a story bit that I thought popped out of no where. This is not the case, as it's mentioned in the very begging briefly, but I do feel more time should have been spent on the narrative, especially a bit more on Fenix's past and father. You'll understand when you play through the Campaign.
Graphically, as I mentioned, the game is absolutely gorgeous. Textures are rich and crisp, and the game world, it's just so beautifully designed! You truly feel like you're battling through war-torn cities, that you were once in a place filled with life before disaster struck. I love how everything goes into soft focus when you move quickly, and I love how much detail you can see on the character models. The only texture gripe I have is with human skin, which still looks very rubbery to me. Half-Life 2 still holds the best skin textures I've ever seen in a game. There is a bit of texture pop-in after loading your game (and sometimes a checkpoint), and the pre-rendered cinematics tend to have frame rate jumps, but these are all minor things in the grand scheme and are quite forgivable.
Audio wise, the voice acting is all very well done and believable for the world in which you're immersed, and the militaristic sound track simply kicks ass. It always picks up just right in whatever section you're in and really helps flesh out the mood. Weapons and enemies sound great as well. The Wretch's screech still freaks me out, and I love hearing bullets whiz by.
The weapons themselves are mostly standard shooter fair, but the cover and fire gameplay brings a new dynamic to many of them, always keeping battles fresh. By far the most noteworthy weapon is the COG Lancer with its Chainsaw bayonet. No doubt you've read or experienced this all over the place, including the lovely graphical gore that follows, so I won't ramble on about it. Suffice to say, Chainsaw kills are so very, very satisfying.
Now we come to my biggest problem with the game, my fundamental design flaw with Gears of War. The checkpoint save system. Checkpoints alone are not an adequate save system period, and it's a constant annoyance to me that so many console developers seem to rely on it exclusively. Gears of War, however seems to have made a poorer use of it than most.
In Halo 2, for example, the game is checkpointing you constantly; after every major battle, after every few feet. While it still mystifies me why developers can not simply but a quick save on the never used Back button (quick saving being an ultra modern advancement in gaming technology as new as Doom), Gears of War does not checkpoint anywhere near this frequently. Gears of War also features a lot of one-hit kill enemies. Which means it's not uncommon for you to be playing the battle before you died, or the battle before the battle that you died in, over again and again and again. And this. Kills. Momentum. It kills pacing, it kills immersion, and generally turns those great, fast paced battles into a tedious exercise of frustration that left me wanting to through my Controller at my lovely new TV.
When it's all said and done, games are about gameplay, games are about fun. The disaster of a checkpoint system in Gears of War so often killed that fun for me, that the game gets docked major points right there. After doing so much right, after putting together such a beautiful and intuitive package, I can not for the life of me begin to understand how Epic Games dropped the ball so hard. To me, this is huge. The lack of smooth gameplay is the defining bit that has me pulling Gears of War out of my Xbox 360 and popping another title in there.
It's also bloody annoying how they like to checkpoint right before a cut scene, or right before Fenix gets into a radio communication with Anya when you're forced to walk slowly. While you can skip all but the beginning of a cut scene by pressing "X" several times, you can _not_ skip the radio sequences with Anya and you're forced to move... so... slowly... back to the battle that you're trying to master. This kills it, it really, really kills it.
Ironically, the fix is so bloody simple. Aside from adding in a real save system, or aside from having the game checkpoint on a more frequent interval, they could have placed in the option for your squad to revive you. Think about it. This worked wonders in Star Wars: Republic Commando, and I don't see why it can't be used here. You can revive your squad after they get gibbed by anything, so why are you unique in instant death? Doesn't make a lot of sense to me.
The Limited Collector's Edition comes with some cool extras. First, it's package is an over sized tin with plastic sleeve that's quite useful for smacking your best bud over the head with. The first thing you see when you open up the tin is the little art book, "Destroyed Beauty," which actually does a good job of fleshing out the world's back story, so much better than the game does itself. Next you'll find the manual, then a free 2 day trial Xbox Live Gold Membership, and finally a little case containing the Gears of War game disc as well as the bonus disc.
With the exception of that off-beat Christmas '05 kiddie doc, all the contents on the bonus DVD are great. You get more concept art, all the trailers up to E3 '06, and a bunch of really cool development docs, and unlike the Bungie doc from Halo 2, it actually looks like Epic Games is working instead of slacking off. The contents of the Collector's Edition are well worth the extra $10.00.
So there you have it, the biggest release on the Xbox 360 to date. Gears of War delivers a beautiful world and fast paced, intense battles all the way. The only thing really holding it back is that damned inferior checkpoint system, which really, really is a shame. So as an average consumer, should you invest in Gears of War. My answer is yes, unless you don't like shooters that is. Gears of War is certainly the best title I've played on my Xbox 360 to date, just be prepared for a whole heap of frustration as well as fun. Play it in spurts to minimize this.