An essay, review, and critique of Gears of War
Gears of War made it easy to feel great about games.
When the original game debuted in 2006, the industry was awash with positivity. One year earlier games like Psychonauts (2005), Resident Evil 4 (2005), and Shadow of the Colossus (2005) had —at least in enthusiast circles— given rise to this idea that games had hit a stride, that authorship in the industry was expanding. We were talking about pacing, using one mechanic for multiple kinds of gameplay, and beating people over the head saying, “look, look! Games are art!” In the same breath as a game like Gears of War was the unproven, possibly doomed Wii. In a way, the ultimate success of Wii Sports (2006) made it easy to ignore the ultra-violent Gears game, because, at that moment, it was so obvious that all games were different. We could have our cake and eat it too.
Today things are different. There’s still industry-wide positivity about where we’re headed, but there is also a newfound skepticism of AAA games. In the last decade, the slow erasure of directorial influence from big budget games has made it difficult to rally around them. That moment when you realize that Mass Effect 3 (2012) and Dead Space 3 (2013), two series which have next to nothing in common at the start, had become unsettlingly familiar by the end of their trilogies was discouraging. Seeing Halo 4 (2012), Assassin’s Creed (2007), and (again) Mass Effect 3 follow such similar tropes was maddening. How many open world games in the past 12-18 months have released with the exact same structure. Somewhere along the line, ‘good design’ became ‘the only design.'
I bring all of this up because I think Gears of War (the series) through its identity as a ‘bro shooter,’ and the nature of Judgement’s (2013) release so soon after Gears of War 3 (2011), has given the game a bad rap. The original Gears of War, both as a historical moment and individual game, is completely worthwhile.
For me, and many others, Gears of War was the moment when the word “polish” changed from being about relative playability and bug-fixes, to being about the small flourishes that pull a game together. That secret sauce that Nintendo games always had that other companies never seemed to focus on. Sometimes that means unique character animations and other times it means a one-off moment in play that make a game feel like magic. Really what I’m talking about here is a game’s commitment to its underlying aesthetics.
Gears of War is a pretty hilarious, awesome, giggly comic book. The whole bro-shooter identity is real, but its self-seriousness is so often ironic that it rolls back into being damn cool. The anti-hero Marcus Fenix and his rag-tag gang of beefcakes have so many one-liners they could fit in with Radioactive Man. And it works because the game is committed to it. When Marcus climbs a ladder, he doesn’t shimmy up it, he drags himself up five rungs at a time one handed (because his other hand is still carrying his enormous gun). It feels silly to bring up in an academic sense, but when you clear a checkpoint the game inexplicably strums an electric guitar. This over-the-top sound effect goes beyond merely matching the aesthetic of the game, it speaks to it. It informs how you’re supposed to react when you finish a section, as opposed to simply notifying you that you have. It’s goofy, but that’s the point — the game is giving you high-five for exploding that last dude’s head.
And the game contrasts all this absurdism with its CNN-style shaky cam. Sprinting in Gears of War echoes the handheld camera style that we associate with war on a screen. The camera drops down to your knees so you can’t properly make out what’s in front of you as you start barrelling forwards trying to find a safe spot to stop. Gears of War uses running to commit to its visual style, making players appreciate that despite the game’s humour it takes place in a war zone. The frantic camera work also emphasizes your safety. The handheld camera 'look' only shows up during cutscenes and while you are sprinting — moments where you aren’t really in control. These are the moments where you should be nervous about death. Narratively, characters only die in Gears through cutscenes and, as a player, you’re more liable to game over when you exit cover. This is a clever way to combat ludonarrative dissonance before the term ludonarrative dissonance had even been coined.
Back to History for a little bit. Gears of War still holds up impeccably well, but there are a lot of parts of the game that felt groundbreaking in 2006, which are par for the course in 2015. Remember, even though the Xbox 360 came out a year before Gears was released, a lot of people bought their first seventh generation console alongside it. For a lot of players, this was their first time seeing things like HD visuals and an online co-op campaign. But there’s a bit more to those features than we tend to think about today.
In Gears of War, when you switch weapons, your character puts one on his back and pulls the other one off. Moreover, when you’re playing online against someone, you can see them pull out grenades or switch to shotgun — this was profound in games. Gears of War marked the moment when it became clear we could replace the word graphics with visuals. Here was this high-definition game that looked so good you could find a way to tell whatever kind of story you want without needing to worry about polygons. Of course, Gears was lauded for graphics, but it was about so much more than that. It was about animations and attention to detail more than how well any single object was rendered. Suddenly it was about the sum of a games parts less than a single character model.
In the second chapter of Gears of War, we’re introduced to the man-eating, light-adverse Kryll. Marcus and Dom are forced to split up so that one person can shine a spotlight on the other while he makes his way to a generator that can light up the city block. This is far from the first time we’ve seen a sequence like this one —and far from the last— but contextually this scene was a crucial illustration of legitimate online co-op. Two players seeing different things, working together through a scenario. Again, simply another example of a popular, AAA game using a variety of design work in tandem to create something that stood out. It felt cutting edge.
Partially, this is why Gears of War 2 (2008) was disappointing compared to the first and third game. The second game is filled with plenty of meaningful additions to the series —and to gaming as whole— like Horde mode for example. But whereas the first Gears game felt like a trail-blazer, the second game often seemed like a follower. Gears of War 2 is a product of a world post-Bioshock (2007). The second game has a lot more scripted, linear moments than the original. Make no mistake the first Gears is still straightforward, but it is a more cohesive game, whose world building and level design work together, instead of being shoehorned into one.
Like so many director’s cuts, final cuts, and extended edition in the film industry, before writing this I played through the “Ultimate Edition” of Gears of War. The burning question is of course, which version of the game should you play if you’re coming to it for the first time. Is it the best version of the game? Maybe, maybe not. Historically speaking: No. They’ve fixed too much of it. The frame rate is better and it’s much, much less grey. There’s a cleanness to Gears of War Ultimate Edition that makes several of the game’s set pieces look less decrepit. In some areas the lighting is so vastly improved that the level takes on a new meaning. The flip side of this is that similarly textured areas in the original game suddenly look distinct in the new version.
There are also a few cutscenes where I think changes made to the video editing —as well as added visual details— alter the scenes to feel more warlike than the comic-book style of the original. That being said, it’s nothing so pronounced I’d say the game is worse for it — just ever so slightly different.
Gears of War Ultimate Edition is a great version of the game. Don’t let my bellyaching about preservation dissuade you if you want to play it. I bring it up because I think it’s the most interesting and important aspect of a remake. I wouldn’t tell you to avoid the Ultimate Edition by any means; in fact, if you’re strictly curious what Gears is, not what it was culturally, then this is the way to go. It plays great and Gears of War has aged extremely well.
For another critique by Raphael check out Alien: Isolation.
- This essay doesn't mention the Chainsaw. That wasn't intentional. Obviously it's the coolest.
- HD, achievements, online co-op, cover mechanics, active-reload, etc... A collective astonishment in 2006.
- Specifically in those recreated cutscenes I felt like some of the 'cheese' was removed in favour of serious drama. I definitely don't think that's the right move.
- Gears is so powerfully influenced by Resident Evil 4. I love that lineage.
- There are still a bunch of moments where the AI drove me nuts in-game, but not enough to care once I'd cleared an area.
- If you were curious, I played Ultimate Edition on hardcore mode. I would recommend that difficulty.
- At the beginning of Act III Dom says, "did you see that!?" and Marcus responds, "[yeah] kinda wish I hadn't." He sounds identical to Eeyore from Disney's Winnie the Pooh. It's hilarious.
- I still burst out laughing over the violence. They completely nail it being so extreme that it isn't bothersome at all (for me anyway).
- I didn't talk much about the sound design in the game. Gears of War's sound effects are absolutely amazing.
- Remember CliffyB's paintball note inside the original game's manual — that was very sweet. There's a lot of love in the first Gears. I'm very glad it's available for a new audience. The first word I wrote down for this piece was "optimism" which is a strange thing for a hyper-violent game, but it fits. It's a game created with love for the craft.
Please consider donating to Castle Couch. All of our content is handmade with real love — we couldn't do it without you.