Continuing an examination of the Gears of War trilogy it should be noted that story is the soul of GoW… but even the most competent writing would be severely hindered if there was not a good game upon which to lay it. Sure, the novels are great independently of the games but without the three- part magnum opus wrought by Cliff Bleszinki and Epic Games there would be no cause for the novels to even exist. While it was far from the first cover-based shooter, there was something about the combination of the ponderous pace of the characters and the visceral feel of the combat that made the cover mechanics not only effective but precious in a way not seen before. The characters had weight to them to match the gravitas of the story and slow the pace of combat down and make positioning and tactics more important. Dashing from cover to cover, blind firing, and enemies with would attempt to press and flank your position made for engaging and intense combat that was brutal and visceral in nature. The grim and often grey environments served to starkly highlight the situation of a society that had known only a few weeks of peace in over a century. Blood and bone fly in the shadow of crumbling edifices, dank tunnels, abandoned research stations, and grand palaces alike as the denizens have to content with dwindling resources, festering mistrust, infighting, and hostile forces from the Locust and the mysterious Lambent. It is a story of constant conflict and a sort of grey morality where ideals are largely forgotten in the face of survival. Every entry in the series does an excellent job of representing this bleak state of affairs graphically and thematically, and the set-piece action moments would not be out of place in a Michael Bay film. Few games have the capacity to present such a constant stream of astonishing water cooler moments that stick in the mind for long after the credits have rolled.
“Humans are no strangers to war. After all, we’ve been fighting for as long as we can remember. War is all we know. In the past, we fought for Imulsion. We fought for country. We fought for freedom. But all that changed after E-Day. For fifteen years we’ve been fighting for our very survival against inhuman, genocidal monsters… but it is a fight we cannot continue. Humanity faces extinction… unless we end this war now”
– Chairman Richard Prescott (as voiced by Charles Cioffi)
Sound design is an oft-overlooked aspect of sci-fi games or shooters in general, but Gears employs it to great effect. The soundtrack espouses great citadels, massive war efforts, and the toll of war on the human psyche. The sound effects are staccato counterpoints to the orchestral score that lend a great deal of weight to every shot fired, every explosion, and every bone-crunching impact. The haunting piano of Gary Jules’ version of the Tears for Fears song Mad World feature prominently in advertising for the first game and a heart wrenching scene in the third, providing a perfect compliment aurally and thematically. Songs have even been contributed for the soundtrack by the bands Megadeth and Body Count. Voice acting in the series also ranged between the competent and the phenomenal, led by the prolific John DiMaggio as Marcus Fenix and Carolyn Seymour as the Locust Queen Myrrah as well as excellent performances by Dee Bradley Baker, Fred Tatasciore, Lester Speight, and even Ice-T.
All of what has been mentioned so far would be an accomplishment for any series of games, but this does not even touch the added value of multiplayer. While all of the games feature the standard fare for any shooter in team death match, and objective based modes such as capture the leader and domination, one of the biggest contributions of Gears of War to gaming in general is Horde Mode. First introduced in the second game, Horde Mode pits up to five players against increasingly difficulty waves of AI controlled enemies in a fight for survival. Its original incarnation was brutally challenging as the game ended when all five players will killed in a single round. An update to the game provided an option to continue from the round and wave in which the party failed, but the original version forced you to start completely over from round 1. This mode was tremendously addictive and has been expanded with Horde 2.0 in Gears of War 3 by adding the ability to build and upgrade turrets and defenses. Since the introduction of Horde mode in GoW 2 it seems that there are interpretations, adaptations, and variants on the idea in every major shooter that is released. Whatever the name, whether Firefight or Nazi Zombies, the label “Horde Mode” has become the default sobriquet for any similar game mode and stands as a testament to the staying power of the games.
Whatever the reasons for playing the games there is something for just about anyone who has a taste for gritty military shooters: engaging game play, immersive storytelling, a wide expanded universe in other media, compelling characters, and gorgeous graphics. Even through multiple books, comics, and three games there was one original hook that raised enough eyebrows to start a franchise: with everything in consideration, all you often need to know is the Lancer.
They give you a machine gun… with a chainsaw on it. Need anything more be said?