The Gears of War trilogy: Instant Fun, Just Add Friends

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I hope you’ll forgive the laziness of critiquing an entire series of games in a single review, but I didn’t feel compelled (read: motivated enough) to analyze my thoughts on each game in separate posts. Over the last weekend I beat both Gears of War 2 & 3 after having put a few hours into both of them with Tim and Andrew respectively. Having polished off the first Gears of War many years ago, I though now a good a time as any to summarize my thoughts on the series as a whole.

The Gears of War trilogy follows an ongoing war between humans living on the colonized planet of Sera, and a subterranean race of reptile-like creatures known as the Locust. You play as Marcus Fenix, a soldier (“Gear”) working for the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) and the leader of Delta Squad, typically consisting of Dom Santiago, Augustus Cole, and Damon Baird (among other supporting characters).

The game play in Gears of War is heavily inspired by both Resident Evil 4 and Kill Switch. Even though both games were influential for their use of over-the-shoulder shooting and cover-based combat, respectively, Gears of War combined both masterfully, taking advantage of the brand spanking new Unreal Engine 3. The franchise has become a runaway success for the XBox – each game in the trilogy holds a score above 90 on Metacritic and are among the most popular and most played titles on XBox Live.

I played the original Gears of War my freshman year of college after hearing so much about it. People were really going apeshit over it when it came out in 2006, so I expected to be overwhelmed by it’s magnificence. Instead, I found it mediocre in most departments. The cover-based combat system felt really tight (for what is was back then), and the uniqueness of its weapons and enemies made for interesting variations in gameplay. But beyond that, the storyline felt extremely disjointed, the kinetic characters seemed out of place for a gritty sci-fi shooter, and the gameplay didn’t involve much more than “get to this place and kill any bad guys in your way.”

It turns out, co-op is where the Gears of War series really shines. Although I played the majority of all three games solo, Andrew joined me for the last act of Gears 3 over some beers on Saturday night. I had a blast playing with him, much more so than I had playing any of the three game alone. In my opinion, Gears of War‘s rather straightforward game play and relatively simple plot structure really allows the co-op to flourish. It let’s both players to focus solely on combat, which is really the series’ biggest strength. Tackling each new combat scenario with a friend is exciting as you work to take on each enemy and aid each other directly in combat.

I suppose it didn’t come as a surprise, then, when Andrew told me the series was designed around its co-op, although most people wound up playing it for its great multiplayer. Many times I’ve found that co-op games with too many mechanics can get messy trying to coordinate each player’s actions. Gears of War is the opposite of that – it’s streamlined to be fun and enjoyable to play with a friend. Although the rest of Delta Squad is still present during single player, they’re controlled by bots are mostly only good at reviving you and acting as loyal distractions. The presence of a second player noticeably enhances the game’s feeling of teamwork, something I feel the designers were trying to convey with its lively characters and squad-based combat.

Overall, what’s nice about Gears of Wars is that the quality of all three games is pretty consistent across the series. When compared side by side, the core mechanics and themes of each game are essentially identical, though a few natural progressions in the storyline alter the game play just slightly. I admire Epic Game’s dedication to sticking to a formula that worked rather than trying to fix something that wasn’t broken. So similar are the games that each of them could easily be interpreted as one third of a larger, single game, and that’s something I would encourage developers to embrace when trying to tell a consistently paced story.

Is Gears of War a must play on the 360? Some might crucify me for saying this, but I can’t quite justify it based on its single player alone. Of course, there are also others who would crucify me for not playing most of its multiplayer at all, so take my own judgements with  a grain of salt.

I would recommend the series most to those with a friend they can play it with on a consistent basis. Both co-op and Horde mode are incredibly fun with friends, and you could definitely spend a good Saturday night with them passing around some controllers and sipping some beer. But playing it for the single player campaign naturally means investing in the entire series, and that’s a big chunk of time to be playing these games alone. Word to the wise: bring along a friend, and the games will be worth the time.

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