Sunday, January 16, 2011

This is the end.

And by that I mean I beat Gears of War. Sorry, Jim.

This post contains spoilers regarding Gears of War.


Overall I stand by my initial impression, though I'm prepared to say I like the product more than I did at first. Pacing is good, the mechanics are - for the most part - tight, and design works very well. The only disappointment in terms of game design (aside from Dom's suicidal AI) are the occasional sequences beginning with the words "Jack, rip this door." Why does it seem like every shooter has one or six of these Big Elevator moments?

The first one I directly recall was back in Resident Evil 2. You get to the end of the game, you've set a device to blow up whatever evil Umbrella lab you're in, and you hit the button for The Big Elevator.

Well, The Big Elevator is gonna' take about five minutes to get to you - and oh no! A bunch of monsters / a boss! You'll have to fight them off while waiting for The Big Elevator to arrive / Jack to rip the door / X to happen - whatever. It's just too damn prevalent.

And speaking of over-used tropes, y'know when you set off the resonator and Marcus, Dom, Baird and Cole all run from the mine and - all together - take a flying leap as the resonator detonates, and this blue explosion blasts out of the mine? It's such a balls-out, shameless cliché.

I rolled my eyes so hard I nearly snapped my optic nerves. Anyway - about the end boss...

General Raam. This whole sequence works. And is more than a bit disappointing. Let me explain.

Mechanically, it's the best one could hope for. There's nothing worse than getting to the end of an action game and have an end boss that relies on a whole new, half-baked gameplay mechanic (Sly Cooper) or quicktime events (Resident Evil 5). Gears of War doesn't make this mistake. Defeating Raam is wholly dependent on the player maximizing their use of what makes Gears' core gameplay unique: the cover system and the active reload.

It demands the player have these mastered, or you're simply not going to kill this guy. Perfect!

It's also a lost opportunity, in terms of presentation. The second berserker encounter (in a lovely old room with an arching, smashable glass ceiling) or taking down the corpser (in a massive underground cavern, surrounded by glowing liquid on all sides) are deeply memorable thanks to their settings.

Fighting Raam on a kind-of claustrophobic train car is just... not an interesting set piece, compared to the others. Yes, the sky effect throughout the whole train sequence is very cool - but I was really hoping for something more, for Gears' finale.

One final thing : I wish it plugged deeper into a gamer's desire to shoot weirdo monsters (a'la Doom/Resistance) instead of relying on such humanoid enemies (which is perhaps a necessity to retain balance in online play). Wretches come close to filling this need, but their design and silhouette reminds me too much of the grunts from Halo. Killing the corpser was, I must admit, fun on the bun.

Above points aside, I rather like the game.

While, yes, things are uniformly gray and drab throughout, it also manages to create a cohesive reality. You do get the sense of humanity being on its last legs - of a world that was once bright and lively - which has been irreparably changed. The time before Emergence Day is hinted at, here and there. The Cole Train was a celebrated sports hero, and near the end of the game we learn that Marcus Fenix was not always a war-hardened old-hand at death dealing - he clearly had a privileged youth, in a huge estate - but this seed of information is wisely left to bloom and grow in the player's imaginations, instead of being over-explained. Lovely.

While the characters are a bit too prototypical (Baird is the capable but loud-mouthed sarcastic jerk, Cole is the affable comic relief, Dom is your stalwart, reliable right-hand), they do a good job of developing a sense of camaraderie over the course of the game. By the time you board the final train, there is a sense that these are your boys, and you're working together.

The controls, which felt too sluggish at first, slowly reveal themselves to be perfectly capable of getting the job done. I found my fun factor jumping by leaps and bounds when I started shooting wretches from the hip with the shotgun or Boltok pistol, and using the Gears' snub-nosed pistol from cover.

Once you get comfortable with the mechanics and controls - despite the limited scope of its mechanics (shoot mans, move forward, shoot more mans) - it's very fun to play.

Having defeated it, I recalled my impressions/game diary article the other day.
"Y'know what it feels like? It feels like the promising first try of a team that will do much better with a bigger-budget sequel."
And so, I promptly threw in Gears of War 2 and played through the opening sequence.

Yes. Yes.

This is what I wanted Gears to be. It is a big, loud feast of set pieces, capable graphics, a well-realized world, use of color and actual character development on the part of Dom. I hear Dom's narrative thread will get a bit insufferable when we finally catch up with Mrs. Sidekick, but I don't care - Gears 2, so far, feels like the game I was hoping Gears would be.

So far.

* * *

Oh, also, why the fuck is Rev Your Chainsaw a face button instead of the left bumper? Is it because Epic wants it to be more than a bit awkward? Don't tell me "it's because the left bumper is your objectives button." That button should be a face button and the chainsaw should be on the bumper so you can still intuitively control the camera while you're trying to carve up your holiday locust.

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