First Time Playing: Gears of War

I play the original Gears of War for the first time as I begin to discover the Xbox exclusives I've missed out on as a PlayStation gamer.

I’ve always been a PlayStation gamer. I remember my sister getting a PS2 for Christmas one year and, when she would let me, I would play The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers game over and over again. Soon after, my dad bought me an old PS1 from a friend along with a copy of Spyro 2Gateway to Glimmer, none of this Ripto’s Rage nonsense – and I’ve stuck with PlayStation almost exclusively ever since. Now that I’m working and have some disposable income, I bought myself my first Xbox console to go alongside my predominant PS4 Pro, but I’ve only ever played it for its backwards compatibility to revisit some of my old favourite games. Deep down I’m just a nostalgia hog who wants to play the same 5 or 6 games over and over again but, with an almighty mental push, I’ve decided to change this habit. For the first time in my PlayStation-loving existence, I have the ability to play all the Xbox exclusives that I’ve missed out on for years. So that’s exactly what I’m planning to do and I’m starting with a franchise I’ve heard great things about for over a decade. I’ll be picking up a chainsaw gun and attacking some Locusts as I play through the first Gears of War game for the very first time. And I’m not cheating either. I’m playing the original version of the game – 13 years later – instead of the more recent remastered version of the Xbox classic.

Is Gears of War from the era where the story and character information came in a little booklet with the game and not in the game itself? Because that’s what it feels like. We learn little about the characters during the game or the world they inhabit. I didn’t realise it wasn’t set on Earth in the future until after I finished the game. Apparently, it’s set on a planet called Sera but the game never tells you that.  Why was the protagonist Marcus Fenix in prison at the start of the game? I don’t know. How did Baird get his hands on the map of the tunnels? Not a clue. What’s going on with Marcus’s dad? He was a scientist mapping the tunnels created and used by the villainous Locusts but his house is empty. Is he dead? It’s bizarre that Marcus makes no mention of his father while going through the house. Why make the unseen and undiscussed character his father in the first place instead of a random scientist if you’re not going to explore it at all? My mind was buzzing with all these questions and more while playing but then I realised, they don’t matter. That’s just not what the game is concerned with.

The thing is that I can forgive this absence of any real plot or character because of, well, how good everything else is. There may not be subtle exploration of themes but instead there’s a squad of huge men with enormous armour, ludicrously deep voices and guns with chainsaws attached to the barrel. It’s pretty damn epic. 13 years after release it feels fantastic to run into cover, bombard the enemy forces with a deluge of bullets and then leave one remaining to charge at and cut them into meaty chunks and endless viscera with a chainsaw while Marcus screams euphorically. I can only imagine how good and fresh this felt when the game was first released and ushered in a new era of shooter. All concerns of plot and character left immediately and I was completely engaged by a simple objective and the knowledge that a horde of Locusts to vaporise, behead and slice from head to toe were around the next corner.

I was concerned with how the gameplay might feel compared to modern games but it holds up incredibly well, with just a small number of issues. You feel the weight and power of Marcus as you run towards huggable cover, so much so that it feels like you might run through and destroy the cover you are aiming for. Maybe it was just that my sensitivity level was a tad too high but it felt as if Marcus would have toppled over if I turned too fast because of how mobile yet weighty everything felt. Once I had gotten used to it, I loved how the game felt. Although, it did give me a little bit of motion sickness every time the shaky cam started when I ran into cover. The cover system works well and I knew that was a feature the game was known for going in. Having a wall against your back is when you feel most powerful and confident but in no way are you bulletproof, and poking your head out for a risky tactical headshot was always a risk. Issues I found with the cover system were that you can’t vault over something without first taking cover behind it which got a little annoying and, while apparently you can, I was never able to revive squad members while I was in cover.

I have a love/hate relationship with the active reload system. When you press the button at the right time it feels great, allowing you to skip the wait of a lengthy reload and assault your enemy with more powerful projectiles. The problem is that most of the time I don’t get the timing right but I just can’t stop myself from trying every damn time, meaning I have to watch Marcus curse as he tries to un-jam the weapon for what feels like a minute, occasionally dying in the process. My reaction times are not what they used to be when I was dominating first-person shooters in my teenage years. I guess 23 is close to 53 in ‘gamer years’ and my skills are rapidly depleting.

An issue I had with the game that was most definitely not my fault were the poorly-placed checkpoints. It’s wise to place checkpoints after unskippable dialogue rather than before and I hope this was a complaint from players 13 years ago and that this changes in future Gears games because I can’t take much more of it.  I’d often try and rush some Locusts or accidently throw a grenade at my feet – often both at the same time – die in an incredibly gory fashion and return to the last checkpoint. The issue is that before I could retry the encounter, I’d be forced to slow walk for 20 seconds while Marcus talked to Anya (a complete non-character by the way) by sticking one of his fat fingers in his ear. It was incredibly frustrating to have to sit through the same dialogue scene several times before finally returning to battle only to wind up dead again a few seconds later.

Even though the game isn’t concerned with such things, I guess I should mention the plot and the characters. The four squad members have names but little else, each having a personality that’s teased but never truly appears. They do their jobs, shout military jargon and shoot the bad guys because that’s all that’s required of them, and every spare polygon seems to have been used to make their necks even thicker. Despite the game largely being about muscular bro dudes shouting orders and committing genocide, there are a few good lines that get across some exposition in a natural way. For example, “I used to have nightmares about those things when I was a kid”. That tells us early on in the game that the Locusts emerged quite some years ago because Dom (or was it Kim or red shirt Carmine that said it?) was aware, and scared, of them as a child.

The plot is basic but works for the game and as an introduction to the series. The Locusts are waging war with humans for no discernible reason and as a last-ditch effort the squad needs to map the underground tunnels and detonate a bomb that will wipe out every Locust within them. I have little else to say about the characters and plot but I hope that changes when I play and write about the other games in the series; hopefully I can focus on the narrative just as much as gameplay for the latter games. I don’t know what’s coming but a quick glance at the Gears of War wiki tells me this series has a lot of lore. Hopefully some of it will find its way into the games and not just the accompanying novels.

It’s odd but fun seeing regular vehicles in the world of Gears of War. There’s some advanced technology but most of the game is down and dirty and, I admit, seeing wrecked white transit vans dotted around among drones and futuristic drop ships was a little bizarre. I think I like it though. Science fiction can often feel aloof and disconnected from anything we can relate to and these little details make Sera feel realistic and lived in. It feels more like an alternate present than a straight-up futuristic world. It reminded me of Battlestar Galactica when characters return to Caprica and it’s clearly just a street in Vancouver, which is offset with the fact that the rest of the series is set on a ginormous space ship.

Grey. Grey, grey, grey. It’s all grey. If they ever make a Gears of War film then they should try and get David Fincher to direct it because in the game absolutely everything is a shade of grey. From the city to the sky, the COG soldiers to the villainous Locust forces. There’s not a bright colour in sight except for the odd glimpse of Imulsion, a vital and volatile fuel found under the planet’s surface. I’m not necessarily complaining. Everything being grey is certainly one way to get across that everything is old and destroyed, and I think – 13 years on – it has actually helped the game age better. Graphical infidelities are somehow lessened and muted because of the drab colour scheme. It doesn’t look good because it’s set in a dilapidated city during a war. It’s almost like there’s a story reason the game doesn’t look so great anymore; the graphics somehow fit the setting.

One of the biggest surprises of playing a game released in 2006 is that the AI is surprisingly good. Until it isn’t. Squad mates can hold their own, racking up kills, destroying Emergence Holes and even occasionally completing encounters for me. The biggest problem is when they charge a legion of Locusts and get downed 50 metres away and you have to get over there and try and save them without being slaughtered. This was a particularly annoying issue in Act 2 when Dom would run into a dark area and get downed by a swarm of Kryll and it would be impossible to get him up because dark areas mean guaranteed and immediate death. I had to continue on without him and wait for him to essentially respawn when I got far enough away or kill all the enemies myself. Although to be honest, these issues still exist in games released recently so Gears of War feels ahead of its time in that regard.

The game gives you the ability to give your squad mates orders but as far as I can tell it’s completely useless. You can order the squad to attack but they automatically attack enemies when they spot them anyway so there’s no point in doing so. You can also tell them to stop firing but that’s even more useless. I tried it out a few times when I was first given the ability but forgot about it until, well, just now. Speaking of useless, Jack the drone. Jack is a drone that flies around with you, ready to open locked doors and remains cloaked when he’s not doing so. Which is most of the time. Despite apparently being with you for the entirety of the game, you see Jack about 3 times throughout and he does nothing to aid you. If Gears was made today then I’m sure Jack would be sentient and have an annoyingly witty relationship with Marcus which is going too far in the other direction for my taste, but I still would have liked Jack to serve a purpose greater than that of a lockpick.

The near constant formula of seeing Locusts approaching, diving for cover and picking them off one by one while trying to push back the enemy line in order to seal the Emergence Hole and end the wave could have gotten boring fast, but happily that’s not the case. The game is very short so that definitely helps in that regard but it also throws enough variety at the player to keep you invested and engaged. Every act of the story – 5 in total – has at least one cool set piece or unique feature. From having to light your way using explosions and commanding an APC with a UV light to kill swarms of Kryll in Act 2 to navigating collapsible walkways and having an Indiana Jones-esque adventure in a mining cart in Act 3. Act 5 is set entirely on a moving train (a classic location for games, although Uncharted 2 will never be topped) but my favourite might be the fourth act which concludes with a lengthy sequence inside a house. It’s a cool change of pace and atmosphere to swap an apocalyptic cityscape for a more claustrophobic location; the wide city streets swapped for narrow corridors and the type of cover changing from huge concrete blocks to easily destructible armchairs.

I’m so glad that I finally decided to use my Xbox for what it was made for: play 13-year-old games. Gears of War was short and – in terms of story and character – limited in its scope and focus, but that only made what it did focus on all the better. It was a lot of fun to play and I only wish I had done so sooner. It’s made me want to play the following 4 games in the series, starting with Gears of War 2 which I’ll play and write about in the near future. And then, who knows? Maybe I’ll finally get around to playing Halo. Are you a Gears of War fan? What did you think of my opinion of the game? Let me know in the comments and geek out with me about TV, movies and video-games on Twitter @kylebrrtt.

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