Retro Rewind: Gears of War

In our weekly Retro Rewind feature, GameFront examines the best (and worst) that classic games have to offer. Check back every week for forgotten gems, sacred cows, and fresh new insight into the gaming past.

On the surface, Gears of War is a generic sci-fi shooter with a barely-explained premise and a convoluted story that doesn’t quite make sense. The unfolding story of Marcus Fenix – psychologically wounded war vet with absentee father issues and a powerful need to kill – had approximately the same depth as that of Kratos (even if Fenix is a very sympathetic protagonist, whereas Kratos is an unrepentant dick). And the larger war between humanity and the “Locusts”, underground monsters who are attempting to destroy humanity for reasons which have yet to be satisfactorily explained, is not that compelling. Even if we’re likely to see these stories resolved in the upcoming third installment, it’s likely there’s a lot about it that still won’t make sense.

But Gears of War isn’t considered a gaming milestone because of the story – it’s because of the way it so completely affected the subsequent history of gaming. Simply put, GoW is single-handedly responsible making one button, cover-based combat ubiquitous and as a result, it deserves to be ranked alongside titles like Grand Theft Auto III. Of course, GoW didn’t invent modern cover-system combat – credit for that goes to Kill.Switch – but it so completely perfected the idea that it is now difficult to even remember that there was a time when a cover-based combat system wasn’t a standard, expected feature like auto-saving.

Prior to preparing for this article, I hadn’t touched Gears of War in nearly 4 years. Since then I’ve played its sequel, Gears of War 2, and a seemingly endless array of games whose cover systems are directly influenced by it. Still, given the weaknesses I mentioned above, I had little interest in revisiting it, beyond re-familiarizing myself with the story in anticipation of Gears of War 3. But right from the start I was astonished by how well the game has held up in the nearly 5 years since it was released.

The visceral immediacy that made Gears of War such a thrill the first time I played it is exactly as I remember. From the moment Marcus is busted out of jail by his former squad-mate and must fight his way through the ruins of a burnt-out metropolis through the final boss battle, you feel that you’ve worked for every inch of geography over which you manage to advance.

This is bolstered by the ways Gears of War subverts standard combat scenarios in inventive ways (or at least, inventive to me). For instance, near the end of act 2 when Fenix and co. are surrounded by a platoon of Locusts outside of his Father’s lab. The first time I played through the game, it took me 4 tries before I realized that you aren’t supposed to fight your way through methodically, you’re supposed to run as fast as you can. Replaying that sequence, I had time to be impressed that the game presents challenges like that, which shake the player out of the complacency of habit.

Graphically, Gears of War holds up well. This is partly due to the extreme length of the current generation of games, now entering its 7th year. The Xbox 360 is still basically the same system it was in 2005. While Gears of War 2 has richer textures and colors, more dynamic shadows and better physics, (it just looks better is what I’m getting at), it is merely a continuation from the already existing strengths of the original. Overall, Gears of War doesn’t feel too out of place alongside more recent Xbox 360 titles.

It’s just too bad that, for all its strengths as a shooter, the story itself doesn’t quite measure up and the result is that Gears of War remains basically a one-time-use product. Unlike say, Mass Effect, which came readymade with a complex, well-constructed universe and an epic story that has been expanded greatly by DLC and the sequel, Gears of War is nothing more than a pounding, linear shooter with a sci-fi setting. Frankly, you could change the setting to earth and replace the Locusts with Nazis, and you could still make basically the same game.

For the most part, story elements feel grafted on and most of the more compelling threads are simply abandoned in the last act so that the game can focus on the car-by-car battle on a train, between your squad, and the game’s big bad, General RAAM. It’s an excellent sequence, masterfully pulling together the techniques the players needs to have mastered during play, but the game ends abruptly, with barely a sequel hook. Getting to that point was certainly enjoyable, but once you’ve defeated RAAM and hear a voice over from the Locust Queen, you don’t really feel the need to play Gears of War again, other than to marvel at how perfectly the combat mechanics work.

Epic is currently readying for the launch of Gears of War 3, which promises to be everything that made 1 and 2 amazing and more. If that includes a proper story resolution that puts the series in context, I’ll be happy but it won’t really matter. Gears of War remains a thrilling experience that reminds you of just what people thought was so innovative without dating too poorly. If it remains a play-once game, so be it. It’s still an impressive achievment.

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