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Game: Gears of War
Developer: Epic Games
Publisher: Microsoft
Year: 2007
Reviewed: 2009
Platform: PC
Genre: Third Person Shooter
Game Version: Whatever the crappy Games for Windows service might have decided to patch it to.
Reviewer: ValkyrDeath

I have to admit to not being too optimistic about this game. I’m getting really sick of all these dark grey environments that seem to be the setting for just about every modern shooter, and it made the game look thoroughly generic. And the last time there was a console shooter people had been raving about so much, it turned out to be the rather mediocre Halo. So, without expecting too much, I loaded the game.

Gears of War Creature
That creature has to be around here somewhere…

“You cannot run the game with modified executable code” is the message I was confronted with. So I had to go searching the internet, only to discover that there was some expired security certificate on it or something, making the game unplayable until I downloaded a patch for the problem. I guess I should have been expecting this. It’s running on the bloody awful Microsoft Games for Windows Live system, which seems to be purposefully designed to cause problems, since I can’t find a single use for it that’s actually worthwhile. We’ve had multiplayer games on the PC for the last couple of decades, and they’ve never had to have Microsoft’s permission for it before. So I installed the patch, and then spent an hour getting round all the login issues with Games for Windows before I could finally actually play the game.

Gears of War is strongly story driven. The story is that there’s a bunch of aliens, so you have to kill them. Sorry, I guess I should have posted a spoiler warning there since I’ve given the entire plot. You take control of one of the four members of Delta Squad. They have names, but I can’t remember them, since they’re all just generic muscled clichés. The only distinguishing feature is that one of them seems to have had Tim Russ’s head grafted onto his huge body. Despite their stereotypical tough guy natures, the dialogue is occasionally amusing. One particular segment I liked was when the squad split into two groups and the other group had to go through the sewer, with the characters joking about how awful it must be for them. It’s like it’s purposefully commenting on the fact that it isn’t including a sewer level. Fantastic. (Although thinking about it, if there’s four players in co-operative play, does this mean that two of them will have to go through a sewer level? Whatever.)

Gears of War Team
Tuvok put on some weight after Voyager got home.

The gameplay is similar to most other third person shooters, with the exception of the cover system. The one that the manual tries to pretend they invented even though they copied the idea from Kill.switch. At first, I wasn’t sure of the value of the cover system. In the early parts of the game, when you’re just crouched behind a low wall picking off enemies over the top of it, it makes the game feel more like a glorified shooting gallery and seems to remove the dynamic nature of most action games. It soon starts to become more helpful as you start having to defeat aliens over wider areas and find yourself dashing from one piece of cover to another trying to advance, or to defend the area you’re in. While behind cover, you can use the aim button to peer round the corner or over the top to take shots at the enemy, which is obviously very useful. You can also just fire blindly, which isn’t. The cover system is actually very well implemented and does change the feel of the game considerably. The only minor problem with it is that the sprint button is the same as the cover button, and occasionally I’d try to run and instead find myself sticking to the nearest wall.

There are some fun weapons to keep the action interesting too. The gun you’ll probably use for the majority of the game is the default assault rifle with a built in chainsaw. Putting aside the fact that this would make it probably more dangerous to the user than to the enemy in reality, it’s handy for the occasions when the Locust troops get a bit too close. Other than this there’s the usual pistols, shotgun and sniper rifle that you’d expect to find in any shooter, but there’s a couple of weapons amongst them that stand out. Firstly, there’s the Hammer of Dawn, which isn’t a gun, but rather a way of targeting an enemy to be lasered from an orbital satellite. It can only be used in certain areas, mostly to take out a couple of large bosses, but it’s great while it lasts. The other unusual weapon is the Torque Bow, which resembles a crossbow, but with exploding bolts. Hold down the fire button a few seconds before releasing the shot, and it’ll stick to the enemy, before blowing him up a few seconds later. You also get the obligatory grenades, but they’re quite useful here. They can be used to seal up emergence holes that the enemy spawns from, and when you hold down the fire button before releasing the grenade, you can actually see the projected path, giving you a chance to aim it properly.

Gears of War Colour?!
ARGH! WHAT’S THAT?! Oh… it can’t be… Colour!

Gears also makes a game mechanic out of reloading your weapon. Reloading can be quite slow, but as it is being done, a slider moves along a bar under your weapon icon in the corner of the screen. If you hit the button again while it passes over a small highlighted section then it speeds up the reloading process, and if you hit it in the tiny part that’s completely white, then you also get a damage bonus to your next few shots. This doesn’t really detract from the game, but I’m not sure it really adds anything to the experience either. Given that when you get the active reload right, the speed of the reload is only about the same as it would be anyway in most games, it can just get annoying when you forget about it and have to wait ages for the gun to be reloaded.

The game does manage to get a surprising amount of variety into the gameplay. To break up the normal combat there’s several brilliant set piece boss battles that require varying tactics. There’s also a vehicle section and even a level where you ride around in a mine cart. There’s some diversity of the levels too, with one particularly atmospheric level taking place in the pouring rain with flashes of lightning occasionally illuminating the surroundings. Then there’s the final level, which is probably the best level taking place on and in a moving train that I’ve played. All the effects are very well done. In fact, the graphics in general are of a very high quality. It’s just that after a while, I start to wish the architects of the buildings I was exploring the ruins of didn’t have such an insane fondness for grey.

Great as the game mechanics are most of the time, there are some questionable decisions. For example, it’s a squad based game, and as usual, if one of your squad members is taken down, you can run over and revive him. Not usual is the fact that if you die, that’s it. You can revive your team mates, but they won’t do the same for you. I can understand them doing it if that’s how they want the game to play, but it makes no sense at all. There should at least be some explanation. But no, if you die, it’s straight back to the last checkpoint. Which is another questionable decision. The checkpoints actually aren’t too bad in Gears of War, and you never have to redo too much of the game. They’re similar to games like Call of Duty most of the time, in that they’re very regular. There are some occasions where you might defeat one group of enemies, get killed on the next group and find you have to go back to the first again. It’s not too often, but it is a bit annoying when it happens. So mostly the checkpoints are reasonably well done, but it’s still a checkpoint system and if it causes annoyance even once then it’s a reason for including a quicksave.

Gears of War Prancing in a field
Delta Squad take some time out from shooting monsters to prance through a field. Daisy picking scene not included.

In regards to the healing of your squad mates: it’s not really worth it. They’ll just stand up then be killed again within about 5 seconds, since the AI is hopeless, and you’ll have to get out in the open and most likely get yourself killed in order to do it. Most of the battles you’ll have to do yourself, since your allies will have got themselves killed pretty quickly. Fortunately, the game’s difficulty is just about right, giving a challenge without ever becoming unmanageable, so it’s no real problem when you have to do things on your own. Until the final boss that is.

Gears of War is another of the long line of games that decides that the final boss battle has to be ridiculously hard. I lost count of the number of times I had to reload to try and defeat the end of game boss. It doesn’t help that it’s probably the least interesting boss fight in the entire game. As usual, your team mate is usually dead within seconds, at the one point where he’d actually be useful, since it seems nothing less than 500 nuclear bombs directly on the boss's head would take him out. Games need to stop doing this. It’s not the fact that the boss battle is hard that infuriates, but rather that it’s hard out of all proportion with the rest of the game. The difficulty should be a steady upwards curve throughout the game, not a curve ending in a sudden spike the size of Mount Everest. It spoils the finale of what was otherwise a thoroughly enjoyable game. Eventually I did kill the final boss, and it was satisfying to finally defeat him, but it wasn’t enough to make up for the frustration of how many attempts it took, and it seemed to be pretty much sheer chance that he took his time advancing and didn’t reach me as quickly as he did in all of the earlier attempts.

Gears of War Final boss
This final boss is enough to drive anyone batty.

(Then after the final cutscene, you get one of the characters rapping over the end credits. I’m being generous and not deducting any marks for this.)

There were occasional bugs in the game too. For example, one of the cutscenes in the middle of the game played out with no sound at all for some reason, and I had to rely on the subtitles for the conversation. I got stuck in place unable to move near a gun turret near the end of the game, and at another point my AI team mates stood around firing at a patch of wall for no apparent reason. (I think an enemy was somewhere behind it and they were firing at it despite not being able to see it.) And simply using Games for Windows Live might as well count as a bug, for how useless it is.

The PC version of Gears of War does add five new chapters to the game and they were so well integrated into the campaign that I didn’t know which levels were the new ones. I was quite surprised to learn just how much of the game was new. The five chapters add up to around an hour of extra gameplay, and it’s actually one of the best sections in the game, ending in probably the climactic battle. (Much better than the bloody bat covered final boss.) I’m not really sure how I feel about this. On the one hand I’m very glad to have the additional content, and it definitely improved the game. It just seems unfair to have additional content on one version of the game over the other, and seems like a marketing gimmick to try and get people to buy multiple versions of the same game. Still, as mentioned, the new content is fantastic, mostly revolving around trying to restore power to a bridge while being chased by and ultimately fighting a Brumak, i.e. a giant monster.

So Gears of War is a very good game, despite its flaws. Most of the flaws are minor but combined with the ridiculously awful final boss battle they do harm the game slightly. And please let’s have less grey in future.

Save System Review: Checkpoint save system. Mostly well spaced but occasionally causes annoyance.
Graphics: Very good graphics and brilliant effects, only let down by some rather bland environments through much of the game.
Sound: Very good voice acting, and the sound effects and score all work brilliantly.
Bugs: As mentioned in the main article.
Gameplay: Intense combat and a well implemented cover system which leads to slightly more tactical battles later in the game. The weapons all feel powerful and have the right amount of recoil to make the combat work very well.
Storyline: Aliens bad! Kill aliens! It gets by with a cinematic quality to the cutscenes and occasionally amusing dialogue to prevent it being a total failure.

Arbitrary Final Score: 3.5 stars

If you like this, you might also like: Gears of War 2, Kill.switch, Rogue Trooper

Does the thought of playing the game send you diving for cover? Does Epic Games need to step things up a gear to get your attention? Shoot on over to our forums and let us know!