Gears of War, or more specifically, the first gameplay footage of Gears, was the game that convinced me of the need to jump to the next console generation way back in 2006. It was a game that provided that graphical jump, that wow moment, in a way that our most recent transition between generations never really managed. It was also the game that got me into online gaming for the very first time, after I’d agreed to pay for broadband installation in my parents’ house and so forth. So when Microsoft announced that one of the finest games to grace the Xbox 360 would be making its way onto Xbox One this August, and after we got the chance to try the beta for ourselves during the week of E3 it felt like the time to look at what exactly made Gears of War such a stand out game.
Arriving in November 2006, alongside the only good CGI trailer ever made, Gears of War blew players away, not only with its jaw dropping visual fidelity, but with its amazingly solid mechanics and the impressive way in which a third-person shooter was able to conjure such a strong sense of intensity. Being one of the first console games to utilize Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 3 Gears was able to be, both a delight for the eyes, and an incredibly satisfying, meaty and visceral experience for anyone who played it.
The game opens up with players stepping into the - massive - boots of Marcus Fenix, an introduction that proved to be a great blueprint for how the game, and its many sequels would unfold. After a brief tutorial explaining basic movement, and some sparse but intriguing details on Fenix’s past, players were immediately thrown into the flawless action as a pedestrian evacuation turned into a chaotic smash and grab escape. Players soon became familiar with the shamefully satisfying gnasher shotgun, the brutal curb stomps, and of course the weapon now synonymous with the series, the chainsaw bayonet (lead developer Cliff Bleszinski’s answer to Halo’s iconic frag tagging).
But it wasn’t only those ruthless toys that stood out straight form the get go. Movement in a cover-based shooter had never felt so tight and responsive - arguably it’s still yet to be bested - but not only that, all of it worked with a single input in a way that never felt oversimplified or clumsy. This simple decision to have entering and exiting cover, shifting from different cover points, and sprinting directly to or from safety all with the use of one button was an example of truly inspired game design. It’s probably why the set-up has been copied countless time since. But furthermore it allowed players to eliminate the though process of what to do next when playing, just like any good action game aspires to, Gears’ gameplay became instinctual. It allowed players to act on impulse and afterwards step back in revel in just how much fun that moment was, or just enjoy how cool it looked.
It was this foundation of responsive gunplay and effortlessly fluid movement that proved to be the bedrock of the series. But they weren’t the only innovations that made Gears so special. The active reload system gave a frenzied nervousness to the simple act of reloading, and although personally I could have done without the damage boost it could provide (mainly due to reasons more concerned with the game’s multiplayer), it was still a vital piece in the puzzle for making Gears of War so memorable. When you’ve got an action game that has you on edge even when you’re reloading behind a solid wall you know you’re onto something good. Elsewhere the roadie run, which I - quite wrongly - described as sprinting earlier, was yet another excellent addition. Its ability to pull players into the action by using camera shake and restricting your field of view just enough ensured Gears had that blockbuster feel every time the action kicked off.
Speaking of which the pacing and craft in how the game unfolded cannot go unmentioned. The all-conquering action was delivered in short bursts for the first few hours, and was interrupted by the plot driven conversations between the game’s standout cast of characters. And that’s before we began to discover just how cruel Epic were in toying with their audience, Kim and Carmine were unceremoniously killed off with little or no warning keeping players on their toes and unaware of whatever might be lurking around the next corner. And when the action did die down Epic weren’t afraid to dip their toes into the horror genre, creating great stages such as the startlingly atmospheric Imulsion Facility, a rain soaked wreck of a building that could have slotted in neatly amongst the best moments of any Resident Evil.
Gears did slip up occasionally however, with perhaps the most notable example being the shoddy as hell, on-rails vehicle section mid-way through the second act. Why it was there was something I remember being unable to comprehend in 2006, and I’m sure I’ll feel the same when the Ultimate Edition drops in August. But when the rest of the game’s so well-crafted you can overlook a few stumbles, even General Raam and his swirling coat of krill.
Even Gears’ multiplayer, which Bleszinski later confessed had been something of an afterthought, was impressive. Yes it may have had a few underlying problems being host-based, but it allowed a greater freedom when creating and playing matches. A Gears community quickly developed, and went about creating a few unspoken rules for itself along the way, which maps players should leave out the rotation, what weapons should spawn where etc etc. This was all wonderful fun and is something we unfortunately may not see in the upcoming Ultimate Edition. But for me, the best part of the host system was that it allowed for public matches with and against friends. You could set up a lobby with up to seven players able to join you, and as the night wore on and friends began to turn in you could always count on passing strangers to plug the gaps. It’s something more modern pre-lobby party system looks set to get rid of as well sadly, but at the time it was for me, and a lot of other players, the only way to play online.
Despite these changes to the multiplayer, I still have to admit I can’t wait to get stuck back into one of my favourite games of the last generation once again. Thinking about it over the course of writing this I’m genuinely surprised at how long it’s been since I last played through Gears, and at the same time slightly surprised by how much I remember and how clear it is in my mind. If that’s not an accurate judge of a great game then I can’t give you a better example of what is, all I can say is roll on August because I’m aching to get back to Sera.