November 12th, 2006. Emergence Day. With the Xbox 360’s launch almost a year behind us already, many criticisms have been heard about the next-generation games not making a huge difference compared to the more recent offerings for the older platforms. Sure, we were getting some more physics and some extra pixel shaders, but where were the games that could really shock you? The real revolutions? The wait was mainly on for Gears of War, the 360-exclusive flagship game for the all-new Unreal Engine 3, from industry veterans Epic Games. Can it live up to a year of ever higher mounting hype or does it turn out to be just another next-gen game with slightly more polished graphics?
Apart from a great marketing instrument to keep millions of gamers looking out towards November 12th 2006, Emergence Day or E-Day was also the day that the peaceful lives of those living on the planet Sera was severely disturbed. As the ground burst open spontaneously in every major city, soldiers of the subterranean Locust Horde poured out slaughtering everything in their way. Humanity scrambled for defense, and eventually the few survivors found themselves cornered on Jacinto plateau, on solid granite that the Locust couldn’t tunnel. Marcus Fenix, once a famous war hero, was imprisoned after defying orders in a vain attempt to save his own father. His 40 year sentence is suddenly cut short though as the Horde overruns the Jacinto Maximum Security Penitentiary, and former squad mate Dominic Santiago rescues Marcus from certain death.
As you take control of Marcus after Dominic has given him his uniform and equipment, you follow your buddy outside into the prison. And I’ll be very honest, this is where my jaw started dropping, and it didn’t show any intention of return to its regular position again until an awful lot of drool had dripped from it quite some time later. Forget publishers and developers spicing up their press release screenshots with some quick Photoshop sessions, everything you ever saw on Xboxic or other websites from Gears is real, and will be rendered real time on your very own 360. Without a single framedrop, even more shockingly. I tried more or less everything to convince the game to drop a frame, including bringing as much geometry on screen as possible combined with explosions and multiple enemies, but I failed miserably. Surprisingly the only times you wonder whether you just missed a frame are in the engine-rendered cutscenes, but on deeper inspection I think even those were just my imagination hoping to find a flaw.
As you progress through the game’s five Acts, prepare to get some painful jaws as Epic didn’t just make the first few scenes pretty for the shock effect, and the stunned impression will be a familiar sight to the rest of the household for a while. Whether it’s the dynamic lighting in the dusk, crazy realistic night time rain in the woods, the beautifully detailed Roman/Greek architecture or hellish looking abandoned landscapes: this game redefines the meaning of “good graphics” permanently, and makes sure it includes a near total lack of popup and ridiculously detailed textures for every single part of the game.
Now we all know that good graphics are just one thing, and that the most beautiful looking game can still suck. Thankfully, Epic also knows that, and made sure that all of the game’s atmosphere is supported by masterfully composed interactive orchestra music, dynamically adapting to changes in storyline and combat situations. The sound effects and voice acting are of the same high quality, and made my neighbors incredibly happy as I saw no reason at all to mute my surround set during nightly sessions. Visitors had no objection to just sitting down and watch the show as a non-stop action movie that just fits together like a jigsaw. To which I might add that there are indeed no noticeable loading times, except relatively short ones when reloading a checkpoint.
With graphics and sound being of the highest possible quality, what could still spoil the game was if it sucked in the gameplay department. Epic went for a relatively risky single-button control system, in which the green A handles most of your character’s moves. From taking cover to running, from SWAT turns to jumping over obstacles, it’s all one button. Initially, it felt kind of awkward, and especially the running sometimes ended up with me taking cover behind a wall I certainly didn’t want to take cover at. These frustrations were of short duration though, and it quickly became an intuitive solution to many problems. The reloading also takes some practice. The right bumper triggers a reload, but it’s quite slow normally. By timing a second bumper press correctly you can perform an active reload, possibly up to twice as fast as normally. Fail the attempt, and it will be slower as before. Time it perfectly though, and your bullets will do extra damage. Although I had my doubts about this system beforehand, it does actually help you feel more in control of the gunning as you become “mechanically involved” with the reloading procedure, and your character feels less of a robot capable of perfect moves all the time. Even though some elements take some getting used to, the game will be totally in your control before long.
So after all these paragraphs of praise, one might be getting the impression that this game is perfect. Well, sorry to be the one to break it: it’s not. Graphically and musically impressive, check. Incredibly playable, check. Finished the campaign on regular difficulty in 10 hours including lots of mucking around and cigarettes, check. Whoops? Yes, an average gamer could finish the single player campaign in about 8 hours I’d say. He’d also restart it immediately on hardcore difficulty, and then on insane, because the game is so damn good. So yes, the campaign is relatively short, but rather that than a 16-hour game of which half the game wasn’t finished or up to the same quality. The amount of details and sheer superiority crammed in that 8 hour game is stellar, and provides ample replayability in coop and harder modes. Speaking of harder modes, the difficulty level of the game is far from consistent all the way through. While most sections were a breeze on casual, some just seemed unproportionally difficult. Similarly, a hardcore coop session with a fellow reviewer this afternoon had us trying the same section over 25 times before we decided we sucked. The rest of the act so far had been a walk in the park for the two of us.
Continuing on the downsides, the game definitely has some glitches that could use some ironing. During my review sessions I’ve had to reload a checkpoint twice because a scripted event didn’t occur, blocking further progress because a door didn’t open. Notably both were during coop sessions, which could indicate that Dominic being at unexpected locations, or even the other end of the building in one extreme case, potentially wasn’t calculated in all situations. My 360 also froze once during the game, but I’m more than willing to attribute that to the Fall Update since, like most of the rest of the world, I’ve been experiencing the occasional freezing myself in random games.
After all the mentions of coop gaming above, I do have to emphasize that the coop is one of the really cool elements of the game. All the time you have at least your buddy Dom around, and you can just invite a friend in whenever you want, who will then seamlessly take over his role from the CPU. Truly great, and a feature I hope to see in more games in the future. Not that you really need the human assistance, because the Artificial Intelligence in the game is usually fine for both your squad mates and the Locust attackers, who rarely just sit and take damage but perform flanking maneuvers and actually change positions tactically when they discover you’ve got a clear shot at them. Just do mind that CPU Dom does like to die a lot, especially on harder difficulty levels. It’s also possible to play split-screen on the same 360, and unlike many other games it seems no sacrifices were made in making sure both halves get impressed with the game’s presentation.
Speaking of sacrifices in the graphical department, for Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter it was known that it used a toned-down engine in the multiplayer modes because the developer claimed it helped them improve the framerate. Mental note to Ubi developers: call Epic’s programmers. Playing the 4 vs. 4 modes in Gears of War I noticed no slowdowns or cut down elements, the action just seems to have all the detail in there you know and love from the single player campaign. The 10 maps are also varied and detailed, which kind of makes up for the fact that only 3 multiplayer modes were included. Luckily, they’re well executed, with heaps of replayability, and Epic is working on DLC for the game already, and perhaps even a team ranking system. I did have regular problems getting into online games, but I’m fairly sure this had more to do with me being one of the few European players at the time than the game actually having problems. When I did get into games I didn’t have problems with lag or anything, despite my WiFi connection playing with American hosts.
In the end, Gears is great and there’s no doubting it. Despite me dedicating two extensive paragraphs to the less-than-superior stuff, without even mentioning the occasional cheesy dialogue and the quite predictable story, the single impression that I’ve consistently had about this game since I put the disc in my 360 was one of total and absolute awe and shock. Gears of War doesn’t just raise the bar for what we expect from next-gen games, it doubles its height. And for that quantum leap I can only award our highest grade.
Final Score: 10 out of 10 - Excellent (how do we rank games?)