Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Gears of War

I completed the original Gears of War last night. A bit late to the party, I suppose, but it was the first title I played on my recently purchased Xbox 360. I'd been intrigued ever since hearing it described as the first significant post-Resident Evil 4 shooter. I was skeptical, but, overall, I found it thoroughly satisfying. The game is far from perfect, but it is well-made and a lot of fun.

Fundamental to the gameplay is the Kill.switch-inspired cover system. Having both the player and enemies relying on cover makes for a welcome departure from the traditional first-person shooter mayhem of trying to tag moving targets while also running around to avoid getting shot yourself. The resulting experience provides a more methodical pace of play, which I find much more my style.

The game's major weakness is its level design. My first two hours or so were pretty amazing, but it soon became apparent that there was a real lack of variety in the action. The game's repeating formula has the player walking into a large space full of cover, whereupon gun-toting aliens emerge from a hole in the ground, and then the player and enemies exchange fire from behind cover until the area is clear. That describes about 75 percent of the gameplay. Another 20 percent is composed of sections where dog creatures charge directly at the player. Frankly, these moments occur too often. Dispensing with the cover mechanics, these segments reminded me of the bad FPS experiences I've had in the past, where I would struggle with the camera and controls while firing blindly at fast moving targets that got too close. The final 5 percent includes short diversions of varying success, including a few boss encounters and a vehicular stage.

While the basic gameplay remains sufficiently fun throughout, there's no denying the lack of imagination, as, aside from equipping enemies with bigger guns as the game progresses, all of the gunfights are exactly the same. There are no set pieces on a par with RE4's barricade cabin, and one can't help feeling that opportunities were missed. The game includes a sniper rifle, but then provides no occasions that take advantage of it. The core game is solid, but it almost feels more like a drawn out demo than a full, finished game.

I must also admit that the lack of any real plot bothered me more than I expected, with the abrupt ending being particularly unsatisfying.

The game's best feature, I'd have to say, is the cooperative play. The game was clearly designed with co-op play in mind. At a basic level, having two men helps to spread the enemy fire. Some sections require the two players to split up, while others, such as the vehicular stage, require splitting responsibilities and working together in different roles. Also, when one player goes down, it's almost always possible for the other to revive them with a simple tap on the shoulder. In fact, this happened quite a lot during my playthrough, and, rather than construing that to mean that a single-player playthrough would have been impossible for me, I should say that knowing my partner could revive me emboldened me to take greater risks.

I played the game on the "Casual" setting, which was the easier of the two default difficulty levels. Despite the excessively hard aesthetic, the actual gameplay is highly accessible, offering frequent checkpoints and a generous health regeneration system. The game itself is also not at all judgmental when it comes to a player's skills, or lack thereof, as the case may be. Sure, I enjoy a good challenge from time to time, but, as I grow older and busier, those occasions are becoming fewer and further between. After such indignities as "Baby" mode, "Ninja Dog," and so on and so forth, I really appreciate the developers' conscious effort to make the game genuinely inviting for players of all skill levels.

I haven't tried the versus multiplayer yet, nor do I expect to in the near future, due to the 360's lack of built in wi-fi, but, whatever my complaints, I enjoyed the co-op campaign a lot and fully intend to pick up the sequel, which hopefully expands on the first game's solid fundamentals with greater variety and richer design.

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