YOU DON’T BEAT THIS ONE — You survive it.
On the surface, Gears of War is as macho and chest-beating an action game as they come. The heroes are battle-scarred commandos with shoulders the width of park benches; the villains are gigantic lizard men who talk like Cobra Commander. The gore level is unsurpassed; the chunkiest gibs since at least Soldier of Fortune are rendered with a clinical accuracy. And let’s not forget the chainsaw bayonet. Indeed, the whole thing is like a manifestation of Jack Thompson’s darkest nightmares, but it’s not the adolescent excess that makes Gears of War work.
No, the reason this is the best game on the Xbox 360 so far is that every scenario is calibrated to make you feel as vulnerable as possible. Gears begins 14 years after Emergence Day, the day on which a race called the Locust launched a surprise attack from beneath the earth’s crust and wiped out most of humanity. Although the grand narrative is only alluded to during gameplay, the idea of a monomaniacal foe hiding underfoot is a recurring theme. The Locust spring from holes in the ground that are linked together by an underground network. In the past five years, we’ve played lots of games about secret agents and counter-terrorism squads, but no game has tapped into topical, existential fears quite like this.
Death comes swiftly and frequently in Gears, especially when you try to play the hero. Most shooters reward brashness; success in Gears means taking advantage of whatever meager cover you can find. It’s not a totally new concept — a Namco game called kill.switch tried something similar, with some degree of success — but Gears is a triumph of execution. Taking cover is as simple as pressing the A button near a friendly bit of landscape. Often such context-sensitive commands are fickle at the worst times, but here it always works. You don’t end up doing somersaults in open terrain when you really mean to duck behind a burned-out car. And even when your best efforts end with your character lying in a pool of blood, checkpoints are frequent enough that you never feel swindled out of significant progress.
Most of the combat takes the form of back-and-forth firefights. Even popping your head up to aim at the Locust exposes you to withering fire. The way to win is to fall back and displace as necessary, and look for ways to outflank the enemy. You’re helped along the way by computer-controlled squad mates, who, it’s refreshing to see, are not retarded. You have the option of giving the squad commands (to be precise: “regroup,” “attack,” and “defend”), but it’s just as easy to let them do their own thing. (Even better: go on-line and play cooperatively with a friend and communicate over the Xbox Live headset.) Besides, it’s hard to concentrate on much beyond keeping your head down.
The intensity of playing Gears of War trumps most of the criticisms one could make. I’d like to think that developers will eventually tire of restricting themselves to brown and gray. Not to mention dutifully laying out a mine-cart scenario, a level set on a moving train, and an incongruous vehicular mission. In the abstract, Gears seems like just another shooter. But even more than the gigantic bosses and the endless bloodshed, the little touches — like the distant rumblings that indicate the opening of another emergence hole, or the subtle fisheye effect when you’re dashing across exposed ground — set this one apart. It’s the kind of game you find yourself recounting in the first person, as if it were something you’d experienced and not merely played. You don’t beat Gears of War — you survive it.