I’ve always had a mixed reaction to the games in the Gears of War series, and as I noted in my latest review, that’s true of Gears of War 4 as well. Here’s a quick rundown of my experiences with this game franchise.
Gears of War
In my review of Gears of War for Xbox 360 in December 2006, I wrote that the title offered the best overall graphics and sound, and most immersive game play of any Xbox 360 game to date, and was my clear choice for the best overall game of the year. Let’s just say that things went downhill from there. You know, like the Matrix movies.
“Gears of War is Art, with a capital A, a crowning achievement that proves, once again, that video games can transcend their humble technical lockboxes and achieve true greatness,” I wrote. “Gears of War is immersive, gritty, and realistic, and offers stunning single player and multiplayer action, a plot that’d be right at home in a first class blockbuster movie, killer music and sound, and the best graphical presentation seen in any video game, on any system.”
I did note, however, some weird limitations. As a third-person shooter,Gears offered a different perspective from the first person shooters that are still more common today. The controls were—and still are—confusing and complex, and many buttons were overloaded with multiple functions, further adding to the complexity.
“I often found my character unintentionally rolling across the floor, moving stupidly in and out of cover, or performing other unintended actions,” I wrote of the confusing controls. “When you hold down the A button, for example, you can run in bursts. But sometimes when I meant to run down a corridor—to avoid an enemy or grenade—I’d latch onto a nearby obstacle instead and take cover [instead].” This is still very much an issue a decade later in Gears 4.
But I really liked it, apparently. The single player campaign, that is. Multiplayer was always garbage, with your low-to-the-ground on-screen avatar waddling around like he has a full diaper. And as I soured on that, the limitations of the Gears game play possibilities became more obvious.
Gears of War for Windows LIVE
In early 2008, Microsoft released a special new version of the original Gears game for Windows PCs, in a bid to bolster sales of Windows Vista. As I noted at the time, “the PC version of Gears of War, with a few exceptions, is almost identical to the Xbox 360 version. And depending on what we’re talking about, that’s both good and bad.”
Good: Single player, which provided a “great combination of storytelling, plot, action-oriented game play,” and even some additional levels—including the first-ever appearance of the Brumak, a Godzilla-like monster with a rider and mounted guns and rocket launchers—that had to be left out of the 360 version for space reasons. (Fun fact: The 360 utilized a DVD drive, and while Xbox-formatted discs offered a bit more space than a real DVD, that was only a small portion of what you get on Blu-ray discs.)
Bad: Multiplayer. “Gears PC multiplayer is just as bad as it was on the Xbox 360–which is to say, horrifically, unbelievably bad–and since there aren’t many people playing the game at all, you can almost never find online matches (cooperative or multiplayer) online anyway. Gears PC also loses some points for setup complexities that are common to the PC platform and non-existent to platforms. It just doesn’t play as well on a PC as it does on the 360, even with pretty modern gaming PC hardware. Gears PC is a pig.”
Gears of War 2
In November 2008, Gears of War 2 arrived with improved but still imperfect multiplayer and a “bigger and better” single player experience too.
“Everything that was right about the original comes through in the sequel, but the scope of the story and everything in it is so much bigger than before,” I wrote. “Consider this single example: In Gears 2, you battle against several Brumaks in the first few minutes of gameplay. And as the game progresses, the size and scope of the creatures you battle—and the environments you battle within—are far greater than anything in the original. There’s a Godzilla-sized worm/snake that destroys entire cities by tunneling beneath them. And other similarly-sized fish that try to capsize your boat as you head for a showdown in the enemy stronghold. And these creatures aren’t just background graphics. You battle both of them first-hand, and to dramatic effect.”
The original Gears was dinged for its very gray color palette, but Gears 2 provided some splashes of color, and more diverse levels. “There are new weapons, finishing moves, and death effects to please Gears fans,” I explained. “There are new enemies and creatures, new vehicles and places. There are new Delta Squad members, and we get our first peek at the leadership of both the humans and the Locust.”
As for multiplayer, it was mostly the same: Players trod at ground level only and moved like they’re wearing overly-full diapers. But it was now possible revive fallen teammates in multiplayer, and matchmaking was much improved.
Gears of War 3
In 2011, Epic finally delivered Gears of War 3, the final game in the original trilogy. And here, we see a warning for the problems that would dog Gears of War 4 five years later: The game was beautiful, yes, but monotonous and repetitive.
“As with any sequel, Gears 3 is bigger—much bigger—in scope than its predecessors, and often to good effect,” I wrote. “And certainly, its makers have settled into a nice rhythm with this series, delivering the most polished and cinematic version of the game yet. But Gears 3 still suffers, somewhat, from “been-there, done-that” syndrome. There’s just precious little that’s truly new here, and aside from wanting to see the storyline wrapped up, little reason to continue playing.”
With this game, I finally gave up on multiplayer. “As with previous Gears titles, I feel strongly—very strongly—that the multiplayer [game] types, for the most part, are worthless,” I wrote. So I focused on the single player experience, just as I have this week with Gears 4.
“The single player game is too long and repetitive, with the same types of set pieces repeated endlessly while the pseudo-dramatic storyline winds down to its silly conclusion,” I wrote. “As a cinematic experience, you do more sitting and watching than you do fighting and blowing stuff up. And this type of thing has always been a strong point of the GOW franchise. It’s just that there’s nothing really new here from a storytelling experience. You watch a movie, are given a new objective, and then you fight, and achieve that objective. Rinse, then repeat. You spend as much time watching the plot unfurling as you do playing the game.”
And in what reads like the notes I took for Gears 4, I had written the following of Gears 3:
“The game play is getting tired and overly familiar. A level section begins and—what’s this? A playing field conveniently stocked with rectangular objects for you to hide behind. So we’re about to get attacked. Obviously. Been there, done that.”
“The single player campaign is long—too damn long—in an age where single player games, notably Call of Duty, are getting shorter and shorter. By the time I got to Act 4, I was thinking, please, let this end. It’s just the same thing over and over again, and it kind of ruins the payoff of seeing the series wrap up. In fact, I only finished it so I could write this review. By the time it happened I couldn’t have cared less.”
And then there was this warning.
“Let’s hope this really is the final chapter of this tired series, or that some future game goes in a new direction, including with multiplayer, which has never been well-done. There are better shooters out there, and some new games this holiday season show great promise, including Rage, Battlefield 3, and of course Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3.”
Well, I’ll say this. No lessons were learned. And while Gears of War 4does provide an even better-looking version of the Gears world, it’s still the same, tired old gameplay.
Rinse, then repeat, indeed.