tiistai 28. kesäkuuta 2011

REVIEW - Gears of War (2006)

GENRE(S): Action
RELEASED: November 2006
DEVELOPER(S): People Can Fly (PC), Epic Games (X360)
PUBLISHER(S): Microsoft Game Studios

Gears of War is yet another video game franchise that was originally promoted as an Xbox 360 exclusive, but eventually made its way to the PC. The first game in the series, derived from Unreal but mainly influenced by Capcom's masterpiece Resident Evil 4 and Namco's lesser known Kill Switch, was a very straightforward action game with two prominent gimmicks to make it stand out from the rest; realistic military tactics and a somewhat revolutionary multiplayer system, with several different deathmatch types for players to engage in, as well as a solid co-op campaign that preceded Resident Evil 5's similar and almost equally praised campaign by nearly three years. Gears of War is indeed some very entertaining co-op sci-fi action, but how much can a single player get out of the experience? That's what I'm looking to find out.

No man left behind 

John DiMaggio : Pvt. Marcus Fenix / Franklin Tsoko / KR-64 Pilot
Carlos Ferro : Pvt. Dominic Santiago / KR-61 Pilot / Agitated Stranded / Victim #1 Stranded / Drunk #2 Stranded
Lester Speight : Pvt. Augustus Cole
Fred Tatasciore : Pvt. Damon Baird / Locust Drone B / Victim #2 Stranded / Berserker
Robin Atkin Downes : Lt. Minh Young Kim / Old Man Stranded / KR-25 Pilot / Factory Stranded / Johnson
Jamie Alcroft : Col. Victor S. Hoffman
Nan McNamara : Lt. Anya Stroud / KR-25 Pilot
Carolyn Seymour : Queen Myrrah
Michael Gough : Pvt. Anthony Carmine / Drunk #1 Stranded
Dee Bradley Baker : General RAAM / Locust Drone A / Theron Guard / Berserker

Decades ago on Sera, a planet with strong resemblance to Earth as we know it, a scientist discovered that a moderately rare liquid substance known as Imulsion could be used as a source of energy. Several nations fought in a war over a monopoly of Imulsion. 14 years ago, an alien race known as the Locust attacked the already war-torn and vulnerable humans in an event people remember as the "Emergence Day". COG (the Coalition of Ordered Governments) is the only human government left, and they're losing people fast in the still ongoing war. COG Private Dominic Santiago goes rogue and frees his best friend Marcus Fenix from prison after a four-year long incarceration, believing the hardened soldier and natural-born leader would be the salvation of the struggling humanity.

I went into Gears of War with great expectations, having more than decent memories of a brief co-op session between me and my friend a couple of years back. Only under an hour into the game, I figured co-op is the only way to go in this game. It just didn't stick, plain and simple, and before I knew it, the game was already over. The story has some nice points to it, such as your main character being a misunderstood ex-con and all that, but it never picks up. They tease us with the possibility of the story going somewhere at a few opportune gaps, but it never does. In the end, you're left wondering if there even was a story. In a more positive turn, the characters are great. I don't get the graphical style of the game, the characters being huge guys with chins the size of Texas and all, but the banter between the four main characters is awesome. Marcus is one of the most bad-ass protagonists there have ever been, he's kind of like Duke Nukem with social skills and some faint sense of humility. Dom is his quite neutral sidekick, Baird's the cocky asshole of the game, a self-proclaimed God's gift to the COG, and Cole is a surprisingly stereotypical, humorous black dude - all four character types are some of which you'd expect to see in any decent sci-fi action movie or war flick.

I do not like the formal term "third-person shooter", but that is exactly what Gears of War is. Aside from punching a few switches from time to time, this game is all about navigating maze-like urban and forested areas, and shooting the shit out of possibly thousands of aliens, and a few bosses that require some strategy aside from just taking proper cover. The game has a few tricks of its own standing in for puzzles and conversing with NPC's, but they're all related to all-guns-blazing type of combat in the end. Those expecting for some additional thrills to go with the smell of gunpowder and blood are better off elsewhere. Those looking for some tense, occasionally extremely hectic action with as few stops as possible, have got the right game here... but only if they brought a friend to the party. Gears of War is a good game even as a single-player experience, but it's far from special.

Our two heroes are ready for your co-op session.
Technically, the game outshines many of its peers especially on the Xbox when it comes to graphics, but like I said, the style of the game fails to impress me. I'm more into realistic humanoid characters than these bulky marines that look like they could eat their meals off their chins and use trucks as weights for working out. Somehow, I'm not surprised at all that there is only one female working for the good guys in this game, and we only see a glimpse of her throughout the ordeal.

Sound is the game's forte. For starters, the sound effects are great. For the most part, the game has awesome voiceover work on its side, especially when it comes to the main characters. John DiMaggio totally owns as Fenix; the last time he was cast as a main character, I pretty much critically butchered him and his characters (Wakka and Kimahri in Final Fantasy X). I didn't know who the hell Lester "The Mighty Rasta" Speight was before I read about him in Wikipedia and IMDB, and I still don't remember him even from the shows and movies I've seen, but he does one hell of a job as Augustus Cole. Black characters usually stand out for me, especially in video games as sadly, there are still moderately few prolific black characters in video games. I'm revolted of the slightest chance they are removed because they could affect sales - look at Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and reconsider that statement, all of ya. Fred Tatasciore does yet another "normal" role, and this time, as one of the lead protagonists instead of a villain. Finally, Carlos Ferro does a smooth job as Dominic "Player Two" Santiago, but he's also the least standout guy from the fatal four. I believe I read somewhere that the developers acknowledged this and gave him a whole lot more personality in the sequel. I'll have to wait and see.

The music, well... the in-game music is downright excellent. However, I'm personally very dismayed at whoever was in charge of sound design. There's this little band I like, called Megadeth. Dave Mustaine reportedly heard that a game called Gears of War was in the making, and he was so inspired by the title alone that he wrote a song called "Gears of War". Upon hearing this, Epic Games contacted him and asked him to contribute the song for the game's soundtrack. Dave agreed, but due to conflicted schedules, they could only work an instrumental demo version of the song for the game. The question remains: where is it? The song starts off the official soundtrack CD of Gears of War, but I don't remember hearing it once in the whole game. I was expecting it to explode into motion during the final credits and leave me with a good aftertaste and all pumped up for Gears of War 2, but all I got was some damn repetitive hip-hop drivel. Blech. Well, at least the original music works - it's written by Kevin Riepl, a relative newcomer who previously worked on the Unreal series - which actually gave birth to the Gears of War franchise.

Like all modern games, Gears of War has an intro mission which works as a tutorial for most of its duration. That's why I'm going to skip the whole bulk of it, you're not in charge of your squad yet. What's funny, though, is that the brief tutorial and Act 1 combined is the longest mission in the whole game. There are five proper Acts in all, and the game really isn't very lengthy. Act 1 might seem like it goes on forever and ever, but after that, it's smooth sailing to a very abrupt end; I played the game one act at a time (including the tutorial), took breaks that ranged from 15 minutes to whole hours, and still, I managed to begin and finish the game within 12 hours of one day.

A rare occasion of ganging up on a potentially
volatile enemy.
From the very beginning, Gears of War promotes itself as some serious co-op madness, and just a decent, one-time single-player experience. For the most part, Marcus and Dom work together as a team. However, when two additional members are inducted into the squad, things get a little more complicated and interesting than just pushing back swarms of armed aliens and melee space bugs. The game has path choices, which are partially scripted, in other words it's up to the game to decide how the group splits up. At some times when the whole group is located in the exact same place, they just need to find their own routes to the destination, whoever controls Marcus leads group number one, and whoever might control Dom, leads group number two, in two totally different environments - the groups cannot come to each other's aid. This is the coolest part of the co-op system in my view. However, usually Marcus sticks with Dom, and vice versa, with Baird and Cole on a whole different mission. It's you two fighting the biggest fights, including the one against the final boss; which is a nerve wrecking experience from a single player's view - all thanks to the A.I..

It's funny that I just reviewed Mass Effect (the first one) and some of the biggest flaws of the combat system in that game emerge in Gears of War as well, as if its own bumps weren't enough. Sometimes, I can't figure out my squad at all - it looks like they're even trying to cover me. Seriously, one time I was in an open area with the full squad; every other alien was down, but there was this one persistent Locust coming straight at me around a corner, and I couldn't do shit about him. My last visual before my inevitable fall, was of my squad. They were standing in a circle around me, just staring as the bastard cut me in pieces with a chainsaw, kind of like silently applauding the abomination. These idiots also tend to steal all the best covers and get in your way on a regular basis, usually to eat up all the bullets aimed at you - which might sound good, but keep in mind that if a member of your squad dies in Gears of War, it's game over. Also, it's up to you to ensure their survival. That means, whenever a squad member falls down on his knees out of pain, becoming an easy target for the larger enemies that are able to finish him off, you pretty much must leave your cover and run out to pep him up. Your guess is correct: in the more strategic boss fights, your partner is more of a nuisance than a true help. He won't listen to your orders, he goes straight at some armoured enemies that point blank shots simply cannot harm, and ends up getting his ass served on a plate - I just pretty much described that final boss fight I mentioned a spell back. There's more to it, though - a whole swarm of the most annoying enemies in the world buffing the boss. I nearly needed duct tape for the controller.

Taking cover is the most essential part of all combat in this game, and unfortunately, you can take cover behind each wall of most obstructions in the game. If you're being too urgent about it - which you need to be from time to time - you're most likely going to make a roadie run to the wrong side on more than a dozen occasions, since roadie running and taking cover are both mapped to the same button. This might not seem like a big deal, but it is. You can't imagine how rapidly your health drains in this game just by playing the intro mission. One hit from an enemy chainsaw or a shot placed well enough will kill you instantly. The final boss' buffs are these bats that will swarm up on you and downright eat through your flesh in nanoseconds if you happen to take cover in a dark or shadowy corner, even by accident; the game doesn't give two shits about these accidents of yours. If you kill an enemy at close range, the screen is splattered with blood and it totally obscures your vision. It's a cool effect, but a very unpractical one. If you turn it off, you also have to say goodbye to all the gore and bad language in the game, so it's a no-go. Just stay focused, it's a war out there...?! Suck my COG.

It's really hard to review a game that is this short and simple without spoiling it. There is one vehicle mission that also deals with those damn bats. It's far from my favourite mission in the game, naturally, and mostly due to its clumsy single-player mechanics, but it offers up some slight diversity to the gameplay which, again, consists of shooting, taking cover, pushing switches and opening doors.

This little thing is called a buzzkiller. It buzzes,
it kills.
Switching weapons is easy enough to handle. You can carry four grenades, two different rifle-sized weapons and one pistol at a time. Grenades are mostly used to cave in the aliens' emergence holes to end the swarms quicker, but they can also prove to be your one and only salvation in a lot of different sticky situations. Each time you pick up a new weapon, you must take good care of what kind of a boomstick you have equipped at the moment, since your equipped weapon is replaced with the one you pick up. Don't be surprised if you often find yourself without one decent weapon in your inventory, if you don't keep your eyes open. The weapons' effectiveness is very case-specific. Weapons like the Torque Bow and the almighty Hammer of Dawn (a satellite gun) are extremely effective against bosses and single, large, slow enemies, but not against active swarms. As it tends to be nowadays, unfortunately, a shotgun's quite useless since if you want to stay healthy, you will not take the fight to a range close enough to use it efficiently.

There's one very cool, unique combat feature in the game called active reload. Reloading's automatic, of course, but you can also manually reload your weapons with the right bumper. If you can hit the right bumper at the exact right moment for a second time (also during automatic reload), you can reload your weapon in under a second and get back into action with a damage bonus on your side. If you don't attempt the active reload, you reload at a normal pace. If you do attempt it and fail, the reload takes forever, especially in the case of heavy weapons, and that can sometimes be your downfall. Another cool thing about all the weapons in the game is that you can melee with them, as long as you don't have the aforementioned failed active reload in progress. You can use the bayonet on the assault rifle (the most recommended weapon in the game) as a chainsaw clearly influenced by Resident Evil 4; it's very slow to use, but it kills your enemies instantly in killer animation. Yeowza.

One more thing I absolutely have to note about this game, is one that I usually don't, but it's about time. SHITTY CHECKPOINTS. During the beginning of the game - the easiest part of the whole damn thing - you're lucky to take two steps without seeing "Checkpoint" flashing in the corner of the screen. Near the end of the game, you might have to pull the plug on three or four waves of enemies before reaching the checkpoint. I don't mind that at all - the more killing, the better! What I do mind is that you have to do all sorts of tedious crap; listen to the same damn bits of dialogue, wait through the realistic but tiring waiting sequences of the game, collect decent weapons and ammo, and simply move across long stretches of plain playfields with no enemies in sight. All these completely non-challenging errands, over and over again, if you happen to get run over by a surprise OHK out of nowhere, or take cover in the wrong corner by pure accident. Or both.

After all this criticism, it's probably hard to imagine, but I like it all, I really do. However, due to the lacking A.I., I just can't get any special kicks out of the single-player campaign, especially since the game is so straightforward. If I can get someone to sit down with me and bear my occasional incompetence (and admit their own mistakes from time to time!), I might go at the game again, and I'd probably enjoy the whole ordeal a whole lot more. As a single-player game, Gears of War is almost utterly non-replayable.

That's "almost". If you absolutely don't have any friends and you're an explorer eager to raise your Gamerscore, you might want to replay the game for the sake of COG Tags. There are 30 of these war trinkets scattered all over the game, and many of them are hidden damn well. I've got to admit that even I, the explorer I am, didn't find more than nine of them on my first and only single-player run. No, they don't have any practical use - they are purely there to grant you Achievements, one for each tenth Tag found. Of course, harder difficulty levels (and Achievements for conquering them), and different path choices are there to raise the replay value for hardcore fans of the game, which I am not.

Blind fire is naturally an option. Not the most
practical method, but the safest one.
The batch of Achievements for this game has got to be one of the most boring batches of retail Trophies or Achievements I've ever seen. Let's start with a fact: I beat the game and got 9 out of the 49 retail Achievements. I had earned two of them a long time ago during me and my friend's co-op session, so that leaves only 7. In other words, it's perfectly possible to finish the game one time with an extremely lousy amount of Achievements. How is that possible, you ask? Well, only 28 Achievements are available for single players; all the others are either co-op or online Achievements. Hmm, convinced of the alleged importance of multiplayer yet? There are a few Achievements related to flashier combat than usual, but most of the single-player Achievements consist of conquering a chapter, a boss or the whole game on a certain difficulty level. "Completed Act 1 on Casual", "Completed Act 1 on Hardcore", "Completed Act 1 on Insane", etc. etc. Boring. I think I'll settle with what I have. It's not likely I'll have an active LIVE account for too long, anyway. Some of the multiplayer Achievements are just "batshit insane" (thanks for the metaphor, Fenix!), like having to frag an accumulative total of 10,000 players.

I myself have grown tired of saying this, but Gears of War is an outstanding co-op game. However, I'm here mostly to defend the honour of games with equally entertaining single-player campaigns. In my honest opinion, all video games are supposed to offer at least as much fine in-game hours to a single, unemployed bachelor as they have to offer small groups of dedicated players. I've read many reviews of Gears of War, and even the lowest scores have closed in on a niner. If this review was based solely on co-op, I believe I would rate the game similarly, but it isn't. I'm putting my head in the meat mincing machine here: Gears of War is severely overrated.

SOUND : 9.3


a.k.a. Unreal Warfare (working title)

GameRankings: 87.29% (PC), 93.89% (X360)

Epic Games began developing the game as an Unreal spin-off focused on vehicular combat.

November 7th was Emergence Day, and also the game's North American release date.

"Sera" is "Ares" - the Greek god of war - spelled backwards.

Many of the Achievements are namely references to miscellaneous popular culture. One of them requires you to kill a Berserker on the Hardcore difficulty, and it's called "My Love for You Is Like a Truck". This is a reference to one of yours truly's favourite movies, Clerks, in which a fledgling Russian metal vocalist sings "My love for you is like a truck, berserker!".

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