Gears of War at times seems like a soulless game. The mechanics are competent but uninspired, while the environments are totally lacking in diversity and imagination, characterized solely by bland, muted browns and greys; the color palette is uninviting, with very little emphasis upon the creative. The majority of the game is spent roaming through narrow corridors, whether those corridors be located in a sprawling manor or some derelict mine shaft; the game is highly linear and claustrophobic environmentally. True, there are some deceptively large environments, with their artificial, undelivered promise of exploration. Even in these seemingly open areas, invisible walls abound, frustration rising accordingly. The third act of the game is especially egregious on this front, representing missed potential. The antagonistic Locus homeland – a sprawling system of tunnels located just below the surface of the earth – is visited. These environments are massive, and yet the player merely proceeds through narrow corridors, not unlike those explored aboveground. In these environments, there are tentative efforts at creativity. The color palette changes and warms, the greys and browns indeed tossed aside – the replacement, though, is a mere muted yellow, very unappealing. The linearity and focused level design overall keep the game focused and moving at a brisk pace, but side diversions would have benefitted the game greatly – any break from the primary action – incredibly bombastic and exhausting – would be a welcome reprieve. But there is no reprieve, the cutscenes short and unremarkable, though they seem longer, given the dull, half-hearted nature of the narrative. Even simple environmental storytelling would bolster the genuineness of the world; a scattered, partially devoured corpse would communicate some deeper message, causing ponderance on the part of the player. Instead of this, there are collectible dog tags, which serve no functional purpose, other than the unlocking of achievements. It is very disappointing, and moving from level to level, progressing through terribly similar environments, makes the game almost tedious and even directionless, despite this narrow, calculated focus.
The player character is a high-ranking soldier – Marcus Fenix – arrested and imprisoned for some unexplained or underdeveloped reason. The opening act sees a return to form, Marcus liberated from his imprisonment to contribute his immense strength to the destruction of mankind’s greatest enemies – the Locust. It starts out well enough, with an optional tutorial acclimating the player to the controls, initially quite clunky, though as the game progresses, they morph into something intuitive, though movement failures persist in spurts as the game goes on. This tutorial concluded, the game rapidly leaps into combat, the game’s main focus. Storytelling is tossed aside for a while, the only developments being the scant, uninteresting dialogue between the unlikable Fenix and an old comrade, Dom. They have a nice rapport, and Dom’s voice acting is fine, but everything seems forced and generic. Marcus is totally devoid of any personality, while his character design and voice-acting are overwhelmingly generic and gruff. It is difficult to enjoy a narrative if there is no connectedness between protagonist and player, and given this, the game sets itself up for failure almost immediately. Things do not improve in the slightest, even as more and more characters are introduced. There is the voice in the sky, some woman who relays comms to Marcus and his companions, but having no real face or endearing voice acting, she is also unremarkable. The nature of the dialogue is also disappointing, with a lot of bland military jargon. The game alternately tries to inject humor, but it mostly fails here, too. Beyond Dom, there are a pair of allies who assist Fenix in his struggle – Baird and Cole. The former is a whiny, totally unlikable man, with a bizarre, almost feminine facial design, despite his external bulkiness. Every word he utters seems some kind of complaint, and the inclusion of such a figure seems almost bizarre – one would expect a solider to be discipled and battle-hardened, but Baird is none of these things. Cole, similarly, is unremarkable. With his character, the developers’ interest in humor is made evident. Loud and overly enthusiastic, he is also unlikable, a terrible exaggeration. Of these soldiers, then, two are unlikable, while two seem merely to exist, evoking no real emotional response within the player. The storytelling falters.
Beyond the characters, there are the enemies. The mentioned Locust are admittedly horrifying in terms of design, looking almost reptilian, like terribly distorted humans, drained of a soul, totally beastly. The sound design here is excellent, and given their aesthetics and their utterances, they seem compelling and intriguing characters, far more than Marcus and his emotional non-entities. There is a decent variety here, too, from the basic armed grunts through to more inventive enemies, which serve often as bosses or mini-bosses. In these encounters, the game excels, Marcus confronted by blind, hulking foes, in one instance, who must be defeated by the clever manipulation of sound. Emitting haunting wails, these beasts, Berserkers, are fun foes, even more fun to fight considering they are not over-used, appearing only a handful of times as the game progresses. In the Locust homeland, there is a giant, armored spider, with cliched, telegraphed weak points, though it is nevertheless fun to fight. There are rocket-launcher wielding Boomers, and violent, rushing Locusts called Wretches, and this incredible diversity contributes to an unexploited lore. All of these creatures exist, every one of them specifically named, and there is the appearance of largeness to the conflict, as if mankind has been fighting these damning Locusts for centuries. The final boss, a formidable beast shielded by ravens and possessive of an unfairly large health bar, is perhaps the most intimidating foe of them all, with an almost guttural, otherworldly delivery. Despite these compelling, intriguing foes, actually engaging with them again marks the game as generic – the gameplay, like the storytelling, falters. This is best exemplified by the mentioned final boss fight. Brutally difficult, the engagement is more rage-inducing than exciting or enthralling, and after repeated failures, I looked at the ending credits in a state of total apathy.
The game may have been noteworthy and pioneering in its day, but now it seems almost like a relic. Every facet of the gameplay revolves around the exploitation of cover. Being exposed while in a gunfight, for even the briefest of moments, oftentimes results in instant death. Even peeking out of cover for a scant seconds to line up the trajectory for a grenade sees Marcus struck by a barrage of lethal gunfire. From the first, then, its punishing nature is made evident. Defensiveness emerges – find a position of solid cover, with good sight lines on the enemy, and hunker down. Spray the enemy with bullets, winning the engagement; or lose and die, forced to reload a checkpoint and do it all over again. These checkpoints, too, are fairly infrequent when considering the magnanimity of the tasks expected by the player, the largeness of combat encounters. Essentially, the game boils down to popping out of cover and waiting until the targeted enemy shows itself. True, some enemies require different tactics, like the Wretches, frustrating enemies who blindly rush the player, dealing significant damage. In these scenarios, there are few options available, and the game becomes incredibly finnicky in close-combat engagements. There is the series’ signature chainsaw bayonet, which can deftly and violently cleave an enemy in two. But there seems some vulnerability during the animation, and the enemies continue to move while the action plays out. This oftentimes means more enemies will congregate around Marcus, the threat level escalating rapidly and massively; it is unfair, and with no crosshair when not looking down sights, countless cheap deaths rise up here. Given a variant of this enemy introduced later in the campaign, combat becomes even more frustrating, as they detonate on death. Other enemies also have unique tactics to best, like the terribly powerful Boomers, who can destroy the exposed Marcus in one shot. Rather fair to fight, considering they telegraph their attacks, they still somehow remain unenjoyable to engage. Everything seems basic, and with Marcus’s fragility, the campaign feels like a slog to get through – the narrative is unimpressive, while the gameplay is merely serviceable.
Part of this comes down to the guns themselves. The arsenal is not large by any means, and while some are inventive in design and function, others are more traditional, boring. The Lancer, with its death-dealing, bladed bayonet, is functionally an assault rifle, decent at many ranges, and likely a staple in Marcus’s inventory, once the novelty is passed over. Really hampering the gameplay, though, is the limitation on carriable weaponry, with but two slots available to the player, a third being exclusive to the useless pistol or revolver. Sound effects are tinny, and there seems no real weight or impactfulness behind the guns. The grunts of fallen foes, heads literally shattered by a sniper rifle, contribute somewhat to making the combat engaging, but things are overwhelmingly repetitive, and part of this repetition arises from the mentioned dearth of environmental diversity. Admittedly, there is one stellar, novel component to the gameplay, which really deserves a wider adoption. Rather than simply pressing a button to reload and watching the animation play out with no player input, here there is a meter; time a button press correctly, and the gun does increased damage; choose incorrectly, and the gun will jam, prolonging the length of the reload considerably. The system quickly becomes intuitive, though there is a visible meter on the top of the screen, to assist with timing. It is a fascinating system, something to micromanage, and something which can have a massive impact on success or failure against the cheap, punishing enemies. Another flaw is related to Dom, and Marcus’s other banal companions. Ostensibly, their actions can be controlled or directed, with various commands such as “cease fire,” or “attack.” These commands are broken and ineffective; they are, thusly, pointless, as the friendly AI acts on its own, and quite often acts terribly. Essentially, they are cannon-fodder, existing merely to draw aggro away from Marcus. Falling swiftly in battle, more often than not they will be dead or dying, bleeding out on the ground, waiting for a revive. Oftentimes, advancing upon them for a resurrection is too risky, so they stay dead for a considerable portion of the game. Periodically, there will be reminders of their existence, like with the revving of a chainsaw bayonet, helpless Locust cleaved in two. But for the most part, their presence is pointless, considering the poor AI.
The game stands out the most when it is original, though sadly originality here is kind of an oddity. The entire second act, rather long in length, takes place entirely at night, Marcus and friends moving through cold, oppressive city streets, scarcely populated. The objective is the acquisition of a vehicle, to proceed onwards to the Locust’s homeland. As a mission, it is actually abounding in creativity, this centered largely around a new enemy type, the Kryll. Resembling ravens aesthetically, they are deathly sensitive to light, literally melting away in its presence. Advancing through the streets, then, adopts a puzzle-like component, seeing the destruction of propane tanks to create protective sanctuaries of light. It is a brilliant, and the act culminates in a vehicle section. Rather than fighting grunts, though, the enraged Kryll are adversaries. And rather than using conventional weaponry, the only item of defense is a UV light, mounted atop the roof like a traditional turret. Casting a beam upon these aggressive birds, only to see them literally disintegrate – it is extremely satisfying. But moments such as these are rare. Manipulating the blind, hulking enemies, drawing their attention to an open area, where they are exposed to the heavens – this is also excellent, and really conveys the weakness of Marcus and friends in the face of these ravenous hostiles. Completely invulnerable to conventional weapons, an advanced firearm known as the Hammer of Dawn must be used. Requiring open air and active satellites, a large laser descends from above, destroying all in its wake. Again creativity emerges, and then the course will turn again, the same bland corridors navigated though. There is incredible missed potential here, which characterizes much of the game, I feel.
Basically, I did not enjoy my time with Gears of War. There were a few brief spurts of the pleasurable, but for every exciting moment, there seemed two or three which were frustrating or bland and unremarkable. As a game centered totally around effective exploitation of cover, those systems must work 100 percent of the time. Not so here, with occasional (if rare) failings within these systems. The brutal enemies and sparse checkpoints further this sense of the frustrating, and success feels not so much like a triumph, but more like a feeling of relief and bliss at a section completed. It is a terrible war of attrition, and I almost regret playing the game at a higher difficulty level. With unlikable characters and an uninteresting narrative, the game really seems to go nowhere, eliciting no real emotional response – or even investment on a fundamental level. There is a massive cliffhanger, and I known the game has spawned an entire franchise – but I am far from compelled to play them. The mechanics have likely been smoothed out and improved with the passage of time, while the lore has no doubt been expanded upon. The framework for something great is present here, but as its own object, the game seems for me like a failure, totally lacking any real charm. Gameplay is prioritized, certainly. But a bit more emphasis upon its characters and their backstories would take the game in a better direction, as would be greater development of the fierce, violent Locust. A war is going on, seemingly with the fate of humanity at stake. A grounded, more human narrative, focusing on the plight of these oppressed people, preyed upon by the insatiable Locust – that would be compelling. Instead, we have hulking men, mere masses of flesh, engaging in pointless dialogue, moving from location to location; even as the gravity of their actions is swiftly made apparent, no player engagement emerges.