Do you know what it feels like when you land a rocket directly beneath someone’s crotch in Quake? It’s a beautiful thing to behold. First comes the muzzle-flash, the rocket leaves the long barrel, it sails, torpedo-like, toward its destination. It closes the distance (all of this happens in a matter of a few seconds at most) and with a sensation akin to a warm, friendly hug, you realise that it’s going to hit home. Finally it detonates and your foe explodes in a shower of blood and gibs, reminiscent of a New Year’s Eve fireworks display.
How about a good old fashioned frozen orb in Diablo II? The concept: a top-tier spell on the Sorceress’ cold tree with a freezing area-of-effect. The reality: a shimmering sphere of levitating luminescent white and blue elemental energy spraying deadly spikes of ice every which way, all the time freezing demons solid in their tracks, leaving them helpless against the continuing massacre. Rarely, if ever, have I felt a greater sense of being master of all that I survey than when I was dishing out frozen orbs in all directions, fending off blunderbores, giant maggots and shambling squadrons of zombies without being touched.
These and other wonders are rightfully cherished pieces of the rich tapestry of computer gaming history. And now, carried on the scorched wings of the reborn flaming phoenix of co-operative multiplayer that is Gears of War, there comes another addition to that tapestry. Bid a fond farewell to Quake’s gauntlet and pry Gordon Freeman’s crowbar from his cold dead hands and chuck it in a skip (if you can). There’s a new butcher’s mate in town – the chainsaw bayonet.
The bayonet is a work of art, a thing to be feared – an aspect of terror. You haven’t lived until you’ve pounced on a locust (Gear’s alien menace) and buried your saw deep within his chest, watching him writhe as the camera is splattered with dripping blood and bits of shredded lung. It’s the most visceral experience to be had in the game, and certainly one of the most visceral experiences in the genre. No matter how you spin it in the violent video games debate, in-game gore, done well, is always going to be damned entertaining.
The now iconic bayonet comes fitted to the ‘Lancer’ assault rifle, arguably the core of a small but stunning armoury including the screen-shudderingly beefy ‘Gnasher’ shotgun, a similarly beefy but more petite magnum revolver, and the torque bow – a true oddity that fires its meat-cleaving adhesive projectiles in a similar fashion to an attached grenade launcher, but looks more like a crossbow.
What brings these fantastic weapons to life – apart from the shocking impact they have on flesh – are the hectic, heart-pounding encounters with the enemy, infused with the almost claustrophobic atmosphere introduced by the game’s famous cover system. Heroic charges are pretty much out of the question, especially on the higher difficulty settings, thanks to the colossal damage that even a bog-standard locust grunt can do to you when he brings his boomstick to bear.
There’s plenty to keep you from feeling brave – manned turrets, ‘troikas’, that feel like they could tear a tank a new one, the locust elite (original wielders of the intimidating torque bow), boomers (hulkish brutes carrying rocket launchers), and nemacyst (slow-flying squid creatures – akin to sentinels in The Matrix – that explode on impact). The message comes across loud and clear: “Get your head down!”, and so you shall, tapping the space bar every five seconds to huddle behind a low wall, deftly slip around a corner, or dive to that next life-saving man-sized object, all with military precision and grace.
Because of all this hardship, and the reflexive ducking and hiding that will inevitably consume half of your combat time, kills, though not rare by any stretch of the imagination, feel far more meaningful. When you bring down a locust you’ll feel like you’ve leaped a hurdle. Accuracy is key; hitting particular body parts will quickly bring them to their knees, disabling them for a short while and leaving them vulnerable to your face-breaking coup de grace – the curb-stomp, a despicably violent finishing move that involves your boot and their head connecting at dangerously high speed.
Like Call of Duty 4, Gears can be severely punishing to play – mainly because it (unsurprisingly) saves at checkpoints (having been ported from console hell) and doesn’t provide the player with any other save options. A helping hand comes in the way that death is handled. When your health is depleted you keel over in a pool of your own blood and rock back and forth in agony. From there your (hopefully selfless) squadmates can rush to your assistance and miraculously lift you to your feet. It’s not ultra-realistic stuff, and it might anger the fanatical “vita chambers are a cheat” crowd, but it encourages co-operation, and it works.
Not that Gears needs these additions to instigate co-operation – the intensity of the pressure brought to bear upon you and your squad in combat is quite sufficient. Every encounter is a tactical challenge with intuitive solutions, and you’ll no doubt find yourself easing into the action. The basic rule (as with all proper squad combat) is to flank the enemy and dominate them, and you can achieve that well enough in single player, with your AI buddies providing suppressing fire as you advance.
But I didn’t use the words ‘flaming phoenix’ lightly before – these maneuvers come alive in multiplayer in a way that will make you loathe to go solo. Disappointingly, the co-op mode only supports two players (the other two characters in your four-man squad being directed by AI of average competence). If you’re the host you’ll be in the shoes of ultra badass Marcus Fenix; if you’re player two you’ll be his loyal companion, the more softly spoken and moderately hardened Dominic Santiago. They’re both hollow characters driving, or being driven by (it’s hard to say which) an empty shell of a plot, but that’s never a problem for the gameplay.
Most of the time Fenix and Santiago fight side-by-side (often with the other two squad members), but to spice things up they’re occasionally separated. A far cry from the classic Resident Evil “let’s split up so we can cover more ground” scenario, these splits are entirely believable. For one thing, they usually benefit the team (unlike Jill Valentine having to face off with a giant mutant snake on her lonesome), with Marcus seizing control of a troika pinning Dominic down, or Dominic providing Marcus with sniper protection from a balcony above his position.
And there’s always a satisfying reason given for why the team is scattered – either the trams on a railway leading to a destination are so small they can only support one man, or there are two objectives in different locations that need to be completed in a short space of time. It all smacks of inventiveness.
Unfortunately some of the other special stages are nowhere near as inspired. The few boss fights that there are aren’t terrible, but they’re eyesores compared with storming a locust-held mansion or emerging victorious from a pulse-racing street fight. Even the fearsome Brumak, touted as a central selling point of the game (particularly the PC version, featuring several Brumak-powered levels not available in the console release) is really no big deal when he’s up close.
That said, the single vehicle section in Gears – a dreaded night-time gauntlet driving a two-seater APC across a city infested with flesh eating alien bats, the ‘Krill’ – is unfathomably more shitty. It might sound like a thrilling getaway, but there’s a catch; you’re forced to fend off the swarms of Krill with an ultraviolet searchlight which, thanks to a stroke of mechanical genius, draws power directly from the engine, thereby slowing your escape. It’s not good if you suffer from stress. There’s nothing wrong with the Krill though (apart from their hunger for your bones) – think of the man-eating flying insects in the X-Files episode ‘Darkness Falls’ and you’ve more or less got the idea.
On top of everything Gears is a hell of a looker; a delicacy if you’re (like me) a connoisseur of fine graphics. At the time of writing I’ve just been wowed by the next ‘evolution’ in visual detail present in the gameplay demo of Gears of War 2; and yet I still hold praise for the delightful amalgam of gothic and futuristic elements exhibited in the aesthetic of the original.
Everything looks and feels meaty in Gears. Fenix and Santiago – and later Cole and Baird (the other two main cast members) – don’t look like normal men; they’re built more like mutated rugby players. They’ve got that bulky space marine-esque quality about them that seems to seep through naturally from the Unreal Engine. The locust take that inhuman figure to an extreme with their sickly, almost undead-like skin, and horrific, razor-sharp teeth.
What’s impressive is that Epic have crafted an enemy that is simultaneously a close match with the humans in size, shape and strength (a worthy adversary), yet utterly monstrous and repulsive in appearance. The environments are plenty and varied. Some feature grand architecture and chunky stonework; others are Moria-like subterranean mazes with gaping chasms and overhanging rock formations. Unfortunately they rather screwed up with the rain effects – I caught some water in the act of flowing upwards over a rock – but let’s not dwell on minor hiccups.
Let’s instead dwell on Windows Live, the near-unbearable menu and lobby system serving as the hub for all your Gears activities. If I remember correctly it was a bit of a chore to even sign up because the login system was conflicting with some other software I had installed, so for a few hours I wasn’t able to play the game at all. The menu is more confusing than most to navigate, multiplayer options that one could take for granted in other games (like being able to invite friends to your game) have been reserved for Gold account holders (who have to pay a fee), and you can only have one single player and one multiplayer game on the go at one time. The fact that the interface is plastered with annoying instructions for players using an XBox 360 gamepad is the icing on the cake.
And I’d be remiss without warning you that there are some major bugs (still unfixed the last time I played) which will stop you in your tracks. The one that happened to me several times was that I would get to the finale of Act Two (the game is split into five acts), the game would crash and all of my saves would be wiped. All in all I’ve probably completed the majority of Act Two about four or five times, the silver-lining being that I have an unusually intimate knowledge of Marcus and Dominic’s night mission.
But please don’t be discouraged from purchasing a copy if the preceding tracts of adoration had you seduced. I’ll tip my hat (or at least I would if I wore a hat) to Epic and say that they’ve created what I consider to be by far the finest co-op game in existence. It’s so good that I’m having trouble thinking of any other in its class. Time after time it delivers some of the most challenging, exciting, gruesome action scenes in gaming, and at no point does it sacrifice immersion for cinematic flamboyance (apart from during the cinematics of course).
If you want an over-the-top, testosterone-fuelled frag fest of an FPS with an amazingly solid tactical dimension whisked in, then this is your medicine. And if you want to take a break from squabbling with your comrades in frivolous deathmatches to join the co-operative revolution, then this is your ambrosia. Drink your fill.