I’ve been playing shooters since Wolfenstein 3D, so I’ve pretty much seen everything the genre has had to offer over the years. Sadly, the genre seems to offer less and less with each coming year. Graphics improve—dramatically at times—but real gameplay innovations are few and far between. Maybe that’s just me getting old and jaded, or perhaps expecting too much, but it’s been a long time since a shooter really captivated me.
And then along came Gears of War.
Microsoft has been hyping Gears for a long time now, and the game was essentially the company’s holiday answer to Sony’s PlayStation 3 launch, but I hadn’t actually been paying all that much attention to the title. You see, while I love my Xbox consoles for driving, fighting, and sports games, I prefer my shooters on the PC. With a keyboard and mouse in-hand, I feel like Ding Chavez, moving through levels like an invisible ninja, efficiently picking off enemies with brutally efficient accuracy.
That’s what it feels like to me, at least. Until some 15 year-old kid with lightning fast reflexes fuelled by ungodly amounts of caffeine drops me with a headshot before the twitch makes it from my brain to my mouse hand.
Still, it’s better than playing a shooter with a game controller. That reduces me from a highly trained member of an ultra black ops strike force to a clumsy, awkward, slightly drunk 10 year-old dressed up like a commando for Halloween. The precision just isn’t there—not even close—and as a result I’ve never been able to tolerate a console shooter. I’ve tried a pile of them, too, from Golden Eye to Halo. But not even Doom 3’s console-exclusive co-op mode could coax me into shooting with a game controller for much more than an hour.
Given my less than stellar experiences with console shooters, I was ready to write off Gears of War as something I just wouldn’t enjoy playing. And then I saw the commercial. You know the one: gorgeous graphics, infectious emo, giant spider monster thingy, and a chainsaw mounted to the end of an assault rifle. That commercial struck a nerve, and after reading a handful of gushing reviews, I just had to see what all the fuss was about.
Well, the reviews were right. Gears of War is a stunning achievement. The graphics are phenomenal, the mood is gritty and raw, the musical score is beautifully composed, the dialog is appropriately adult, and even cooperative gameplay is well-implemented. Gears’ in-game camera is particularly genius, creating the impression that you’re watching the game through the lens of an embedded journalist; the over-the-shoulder third person viewpoint drops and shakes as you run, as if you’re being trailed by a terrified cameraman trying to keep their head down, and sooner or later you’ll spray the lens with a healthy dose of blood from the gory evisceration of an enemy with your chainsaw.
Gameplay is where Gears really shines, though. The concept of cover isn’t a revolutionary idea—we’ve all hidden behind crates and barrels before—but gears makes cover the focus, adding a level of strategy and tactics to an otherwise straightforward shooter. Cover also adds an element of tension that isn’t always present in shooters; you spend most of your time ducking behind cover, bullets flying over your head, not so patiently waiting for your window of opportunity to pop up and drill a few rounds into the nearest enemy before diving to your next source of shelter.
Gears is all about surfing that edge between cowardice and aggression. Stick your neck out too much, get too cocky, and you’ll be savagely gunned down. Spend too much time cowering and you’ll find yourself flanked or overrun. But ride that edge between the two, and you can lose yourself on a riveting joyride that mixes just the right amount of cerebral tactics with senseless, juvenile violence.
Somewhere in the glorious mayhem that is Gears of War, I forgot that I was using an otherwise awkward game controller. A keyboard and mouse would have surely helped, but for first time I can remember, a console shooter was good enough that I just didn’t care.