A terrific technical achievement that’s well worth your time, but somehow falls short of greatness.
+ Superb graphics
+ Some unique weapons
+ Nice cover system…
- … that becomes very repetitive
- Odd stylistic choices
- Impotent guns
- Extremely unstable
- Choppy performance
I found Gears of War a bit difficult to review. On the one hand, it gets so much right and truly brings something unique to the table. The game looks phenomenal, the cover system adds a new wrinkle on typical shooter gameplay and at times, the game feels like a sci-fi movie. On the other hand, the game experience can feel very repetitive and shallow. This game has gotten high praises from tons of game sites and is without a doubt worth a try, but I wouldn’t put it anywhere near the list of greatest games of all time.
Let’s break it down.
The GoW graphics engine (Unreal 3 engine, I believe) is excellent. The player models are extremely detailed, the lighting is top notch, there are high resolution textures everywhere, explosions look amazing and various special effects (HDR, blur) are used effectively. The game also gets massive credit for pulling off a flawless 3rd-person camera.
Artistic Design: 7.0/10
This is an area where GoW is much more uneven. The game shows some great attention to detail: the “shaky cam” when running, the brutal chainsaw animation, the even more brutal curb stomp, and the hammer of dawn are all unique and undoubtedly impressive. But I just can’t stand some of the stylistic choices: most of the game settings are the same drab, boring color; all the (biped) characters in the game wear giant, ridiculous looking boots that must weigh 50lbs a piece; despite wearing armor on almost all of their body, in typical Unreal fashion, they don’t wear a helmet; the tremendous overuse of HDR/soft light that makes everything look soft & washed out; the list goes on. While you can see the tremendous potential of the graphics engine, many of the stylistic choices really disappoint.
The music in the game is reasonably well done, and the voice acting is pretty good. However, I found the sound effects to be more of a mixed bag. Most of the bad guys, for example, make the same stupid screaming/grunting noise every time they appear. Many of the guns don’t have any real “boom” to them - they just sound like like a piece of paper stuck in a fan. Combined with the impotency of many of the guns (see the gamplay section below), you sometimes feel like you’re firing spitballs.
A completely generic, throw away plot. The focus of the game is definitely the action, not the story telling.
Level Design: 8/10
The majority of the game follows a very simple level design strategy: you walk into a room or outdoor area with scattered stone slabs/furniture/walls/etc. You hide behind these obstacles and pop out briefly to kill the enemies until the room is cleared. Then you move on. This cover system is pretty amusing initially but gets repetitive very quickly. Fortunately, GoW does toss in a reasonable number of unique set pieces that change up the pace. It’s a good thing too, as the game is completely linear, so you definitely need the variety to break up the monotony of the cover system. You’ll fight several types of enemies that are impervious to bullets, all of which require alternative strategies to defeat.
At its core, the game is entirely focused on hiding behind obstacles, popping out to shoot and hiding again, repeat over and over until a room is clear. If you try running around in the open, you are often killed very quickly, so you have lots of incentive to stay well hidden. The cover system works well and definitely adds a unique flavor to the combat. However, it becomes boring in a surprisingly short time. The level design is already linear, so being forced into this repetitive mechanic can get monotonous real quick. One other gripe is that the game uses the same button to (1) take cover (2) sprint (3) perform acrobatic maneuvers (4) jump over obstacles. The result is that you often end up performing the wrong action at the wrong time, such as jumping for cover on the wrong side of a wall when you were actually trying to sprint around to the other side.
You have the typical shooter weapons at your disposal - machine gun, hand gun, shotgun, rocket launcher, sniper rifle - but all of them tend to be very underwhelming. There’s really no way around it: most of the guns in the game are WEAK. On any difficulty setting above the easiest, you’ll empty almost a clip of ammo to take down a typical grunt. It gets better if you go for headshots or take out their knees, but the fact that even the basic grunts take multiple hits to the head is still ridiculous. Some of the smaller bosses in the game that you’ll encounter frequently can take a stupid number of headshots from the sniper rifle to their helmet-less heads, which is a mechanic few previous games would dare to ignore.
To pussify the guns even more, it’s interesting to consider the weapons in GoW that do allow one hit kills. One of these is the chainsaw - yup, a good old chainsaw can cut through armor far better than a futuristic gun. Another lethal weapon is the crossbow, which fires explosive arrows. That’s right, the arrows on the crossbow are even better than the grenade launcher. The game also features an active reload system, where if you time reloads just right, it makes your gun more powerful. Huh? Is the guy putting in the bullets backwards the rest of the time? Finally, to add insult to injury, hitting a baddie with the butt end of a rifle is often a 1 hit kill. You heard me correctly: the butt end of the rifle is more deadly than the bullets it fires. It’s nothing short of ridiculous.
Fortunately, the game does offer some motivation to play it all the way through. On the Xbox 360, the ability to easily play through the whole game in coop mode adds a LOT to the experience. Some of the levels involve set pieces that are quite different from the standard cover & shoot mechanic and can be truly heart pumping. But in the end, the game feels oddly stale and unsatisfying.
As far as shooters go, especially those with such high production values, the single player is reasonably long, lasting around 12 hours.
While the game works flawlessly on the Xbox 360, it can be a nightmare to get it running for many PC users. Issues include (1) crash to desktop when the game launches, (2) crash to desktop after a couple minutes of play, (3) crash to desktop at specific points in the game and (4) massive amounts of stuttering. I personally struggled with #2 and #4. The former prevented me from playing the game until I found a workaround on the Gears of War Forums. The latter plagued my entire game experience, despite the fact that my hardware (see below) should have been able to handle the game fine. In fact, most of the game ran at a terrific framerate, but typically after a level loaded, and at random other points in the game, I would be watching a slideshow.
As explained in the section above, the game stuttered like crazy on my system. In fact, the stuttering was identical at 1280x800 medium settings as it was at 1680x1050 high settings, so I ran with the latter. My computer:
- AMD X2 3800+
- 2GB RAM
- ATI x1900xtx
- WinXP SP2
I really wanted to like this game. It looks beautiful and is full of meticulous detail. However, the gameplay, some of the design decisions and the technical issues really diminish the game in my eyes. It’s still worth checking out, but with a few tweaks here and there, it could’ve truly been great.
I did not test (nor review) the multiplayer of this game.