Gears of War
5th Nov 2007 | 11:17
Let's pretend, for the first half of the review, that no-one here has played Gears of War. We'll put our fingers in our ears, count backwards from 10 and allow the hype and hoop-la to drift from our ears like a beautiful smoke effect. And... you're under.
So, Gears of War in one word: meaty. Even the sneering lips of the heroes manage to be muscular, and the dialogue stinks of five-day sweat. The weaponry is tactile, and the sound effects are like someone slapping rashers of bacon over your ears.
The gibs are stupid and make up for the desolate colour schemes of the planet. Not forgetting the stylised eruption of black blood - especially when you score a chainsaw kill - no game makes you feel like you're relentlessly punching a carcass quite as much as Gears of War.
If you want to shoot shit and not get your tear ducts misty over some feminine emphasis on plot and characters, hello.
But shooting stuff, as wonderful as that always is, is exactly half of what Gears' single-player game is about. The rest is about taking cover. Cover isn't just a useful bonus here, it's a constant fundamental - it's bound by default to the biggest button on the keyboard for a reason.
You'll spend more than half the game in cover, and once you get used to the way the controls reflect that, it simply becomes the way you work.
When your teammates get injured - one of the most irritating parts of the game - you're forced to break cover and heal them. As a device to vary the action, it's perfectly acceptable, perhaps even clever.
But as a human being I resent doing most of the killing, then getting told that if I don't heal some guy who had an AI failure and ran around beckoning bullets, it'll be game over.
On the subject of small gameplay devices, the active reload is another small but canny move. Take that bayonet gun - the last bullets make a warning click, and once it empties, a reload slider begins. Ignoring this will allow a moderate reload speed. Tapping reload at the right time can boost the speed, and hitting it spot-on will even give you a damage bonus. Try it and miss, and your weapon will briefly jam.
It's simple, but when the Locust forces are advancing, it's a real pain - melee combat can kill you very quickly, especially if you don't have your chainsaw revved. When you're sniping, the damage boost can cause a headshot to take down a rocket-launching boomer in one.
Squad AI can always be a worry. But in Gears, it's good enough to make it feel like you're fighting on a team against another team. Both sides flank and charge, and you're free to take a leading role or hang around at the back.
But if you do that, bear in mind that your squad will probably get hurt, forcing you forward to heal them. There's the odd gaffe - the teammate spinning around on the spot, caught between two see-sawing priorities, and the Locust who took cover from my squadmate then hid from him while staring directly through me.
But I'm only saying this to show off how observant I am. They're very much the exception to the excellent rule. The squad commands you gain in Act 2, on the other hand, are fairly redundant and easily ignored. Suzy finished the game on the Xbox without even noticing them.
If you choose to try out the co-op mode (and you definitely should) a lot of the game design decisions that seem frivolous suddenly make perfect sense. Take the times when you decide on a certain path - they seem needless in single-player, but with
an online mate, they're a great way to break up the team and work together in different ways.
Between this and the large menu of competitive multiplayer game styles and maps, you've got a huge amount of added value.
Now, let's accept the truth that you probably do know a bit about Gears of War. You want to know whether it's a shoddy Resident Evil 4 rush job. You want to know about those new bits that fill the confusing gap left behind on the 360. You want me to stop saying "Have you heard of videogames? I hear some of them can be quite fun."
The biggest fear for GOW was being forced, by sloppy interpretation, on to a
360 controller. Not only doesn't this happen, but the ease of control and the sheer, stupid boost of enjoyment I got from the game, having previously been saddled with the 360 controller, is a slap in the face for everyone who's ever got it wrong.
Everyone knows that the mouse and keyboard is the best combination for shooters, and although GOW came from a console, Epic's PC heritage has done the platform proud.
The PC version is just plain better. Even the camera - the bane of the third-person shooter genre - doesn't cause any problems. I'm going to repeat myself and say that the squad control is rubbish again, just for the sake of saying something unpleasant.
If you finished the game on the 360, you'll have noticed a bit of a plot change at the end; that's because most of the fifth act was missing. This has been restored for the PC, and these levels are bigger, more punishing, with more distance and Locusts between checkpoints than the console version. You'll also get to hunt the 30ft tall Brumak.
The worst thing that can be said about GOW is simply that it takes an engaging, well-developed combat system and works it to death. And, yes, the core gameplay is repetitive enough to occasionally break the immersion. But the loop of cover-kill-advance is broken up by just enough diversions - the blind Berserkers, the light-fearing Kryll, vehicles and bosses - to keep you engaged.
Sadly, with these distractions, the game's instinct is to patronise you with deflatingly obvious clues. It would have been nice to have been trusted - if only for a couple of minutes - before being told what to do. But like I said, if you pansy intellectuals want to walk around thinking, go read a book.
The PC version of Gears of War is a welcome reminder of how much better PC gaming can be, and that it can do big, stupid action way better than the consoles that took stupid to the masses.
And the extra levels that won't be released on Xbox because it can't handle them? Well, that's just f****ing funny.