Reviews: Lots of brawn, with a little bit of brains
Generally speaking, the shooter road runs from PC to console, not the other way around. FPS franchises like Call of Duty, Medal of Honor, and Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six all got their start on the desktop and then made their way to the couch. But with games like Epic's Gears of War
, the tide has turned and die-hard PC gamers are eager to get their hands on the console cast-offs. Epic made the package even more enticing with their promise that Gears was an ?accessible? tactical shooter, one that wasn't all run-and-gun. There's no denying that the formula was successful on the 360?sales in the multiple millions express gamers' collective approval. The only remaining question is how the game weathered the transition from the little box to the big box.
First, a bit about the story for anyone not familiar with the 360 version. Gears takes place far into the future, in a time when an alien race called the Locust Horde has tunneled under human cities in an attempt to give mankind the boot and run the joint. It's not clear exactly what the Locust are up to or why?maybe it has something to do with something called ?imulsion,? which is apparently valuable and completely unexplained by the game. Never fear, however, since men with names like Santiago, Cole and Baird have spiked their hair and spent hours in the gym until their necks were thick enough to combat the Locust threat. Marcus Fenix, the player character, is sprung from jail in the first scene, Johnnie Rambo style, so he can join the fight. Apparently, the COG army has had Fenix on ice for maybe four years, for something he did to try and save his father's life in some way that broke some rule or other. If this sounds unclear, that's only because the game doesn't seem to care much about its own plot. Most of this detail doesn't appear in the game (they come from various press releases), and a collector's edition includes materials that claim to fill in backstory. The fact that the PC version adds five chapters that actually clear up some plot holes doesn't say anything good about the plot on the 360 version. The game's objectives are generally wrapped in some plot device, but like Hitchcock's Macguffin, they don't actually matter and tend to be forgotten as soon as the shooting starts. At one point Fenix and the crew are searching for a guy named Alpha, at another point it's something called a resonator, and finally, there's that lightbomb that's supposed to save the world. All are interchangeable aside for their names. Like a lot of shooters, Gears' plot is simple: clear an area of enemies, pick up discarded weapons and ammo, and repeat.
Still, Gears of War delivers a cinematic experience on a grand scale. The outdoor environments are stunning, and render cities that have suffered fourteen years of war in extreme detail. Broken walls, collapsed overpasses, shantytown shacks?it all looks great, assuming your computer is up to the challenge. The game includes plenty of graphics options, though, and still looks good with the options lowered towards the minimums. The game includes plenty of impressive cutscenes that are a whole lot like The Girls Next Door
: pointless but nice to look at. It's no surprise that the game packs in all the next-gen goodness that the Unreal 3 engine offers, like motion blur, depth of field, haze and all sorts of funky glow effects. It's all cool, but feels really familiar, like a grittier Unreal Tournament?Fenix even resembles the UT3 main character.
Also like the Girls Next Door, everything in Gears is larger-than-life. The COG and Locust soldiers would dwarf Schwarzenegger in his Commando
days. Everything in the landscape is likewise big and burly, and nothing is ever just a little bit destroyed?it's all piles of rubble and burned-out shells of buildings and vehicles. Likewise, the gun battles are over-the-top intense with bullets, grenades, and bodies flying everywhere. The sound ups the intensity with a rich set of ear-blasting explosion and gunfire sound effects. Without a doubt, Gears of War delivers the pure-adrenaline shootout. On top of that, the designers have built in an extensive cover system that lets you shoot around corners, fire blind over the top of barricades, dive from one cover point to the next, and generally do all that cool stuff Arnie pulled off back in the day. One of the high points of Gears is a minigame that has you using all these slick moves to dodge an extremely strong but blind berserker beast that can kill you with one swat of her fist. It's a break from the gunplay and a blast to lure her into an area where you can bring a heavier weapon to bear, since your little assault rifles and shotguns don't pack the punch to put her down.
What's more, you'll see the your teammates and the bad guys using some of these same moves. The bad guys will use cover and attempt to circle around to find vulnerable flanks. Your squad will advance on the enemy on their own initiative?which can be annoying if they take off without you. The game gives you a few commands to issue them (e.g. ?attack? and ?regroup?), but they aren't terribly useful. Fortunately, a few bad pathing moments aside, the team can fend for itself?or at least draw fire from you while you go for the headshot with a sniper rifle. The Locust forces are likewise aggressive. If you don't pin them down with fire, they'll advance on your position until they're at hand-to-hand range. At that point, it'll either be Locust or human blood splattered on the screen in that familiar, if a bit overused, simulated camera lens effect.
The AI in Gears comes across as relatively sharp, and you won't necessarily see them doing the same thing twice. Multiple replays of the same area will happen somewhat differently each time, with a particular NPC charging where he ducked for cover before, and so on. You'll really appreciate this at certain tough spots where poorly-placed checkpoint saves mean that you'll replay certain segments again and again. The Locust might fight a bit differently each time, but unfortunately you'll hear certain bits of introductory dialog and watch some cutscenes again and again, especially on higher difficulty levels.
The AI's improvisation saves the game from much of the canned feel of previous shooters, adding some replay value to an otherwise linear game. The game is laid out as a series of open combat areas (courtyards, large rooms, streets) connected by narrow choke points (hallways, stairs, alleys). To be fair, at a few points in the action the game gives the player a choice to choose one path or another through an area. The paths are basically two different ways through one area, the high road or the low road, so to speak, and do play out differently, but they're presented in an a strangely wooden way: the player clicks the left or right mouse button to choose a path.
The cover system and enemy smarts means that each fight will have you looking for smart positions that will have you best dominating the enemy. And hunkering down behind a concrete barricade and letting the tracers whiz over your head is one of the exhilarating moments of the Gears experience. On the other hand, the cover system makes for some of the worst elements of the game. Gears uses the regenerative health system popular with a lot of shooters today: you can get hit, but if you stay out of the line of fire long enough, your health regenerates. That means that you can stand up from behind cover, squeeze out a few rounds without worrying too much about incoming fire since you can just duck and get your health right back in a few seconds. Add that to the fact that, on Hardcore difficulty, you'll have to just about empty a full clip into a Locust in order to put him down, and you've pretty much destroyed the ?Gears of War as a tactical shooter? idea.
The other problem with the cover system is worse, since it will have you cursing the game?or mocking it. Gears uses a ?snap to cover? mechanic, meaning that if you're near cover and hit the spacebar, Fenix will duck down and put his back to the corner, wall, tree or whatever cover item is there. A similar control is used to dive and SWAT turn from one cover point to another: move and hit the spacebar. The same control is used to ?roadie run,? which is probably one of the funnest, coolest effects included in any game in a long time. It's basically a duck and fast run, but the third-person camera moves to about knee-level, making it feel like a faster run, with more of a documentary-under-fire feel. With the exception of the dive to cover, which is way to cartoonish to be taken seriously, all of these moves are great. The problem is that they all use the same control scheme, taking the choice out of the player's hands. This might make sense on the 360 controller, with its limited number of buttons, but on the PC, it just means you'll snap to cover when you want to roadie run and you'll dive sideways to cover when you want to climb over a low wall. When there are no enemies around, it's almost comic?you want Fenix to move forward, but he keeps SWAT turning back and forth across a door. Of course, when you die due to it, it becomes much less charming, especially in an on-line match.
In general, though, the multiplayer in Gears is strong. It has some fun, if smallish maps that get the action going quickly and keep the opposing forces in contact for plenty of action. One is built on the slope of a hill with plenty of low walls and fountains for cover (it's actually part of the Fenix family estate?no explanation given). I played some pretty intense matches of a modified team deathmatch called Warzone. The teams are small, with a max of four per side, and there are no respawns, so the matches are quick and fun, especially if you're winning. On that map, it's just as fun to fight down the hill as it is to work your way up. Another particularly small map isn't much more than a T intersection, with a little high ground and plenty of destroyed cars for cover. The small maps mean fast action, but they might also mean that they don't have staying power for month after month fun. It's not too tough to get into a match now, but it's rare to find more than a handful of unranked matches at any given time. Another potential problem is that Gears divides its on-line community into at least four different categories, spreading an already small audience even thinner. There's the co op play, unranked multiplayer, ranked multiplayer for Live Silver members, and ranked multiplayer for Live Gold members. It's a pity, since the multiplayer has the polish that PC gamers want to see. If the cover system feels like an incomplete port to the PC, like the 360 controller dictates how the game plays on the keyboard, the multiplayer play is top-notch PC action.