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Gears of War's gameplay is as fresh today as it ever was. But although I enjoyed it, I did so while being weighed down by cliched characters and derivative plot lines.
I played Gears of War in reverse order. The second game was an exciting battle for freedom against the subterranean threat of the Locust with set pieces and massive destruction straight out of a Roland Emmerich movie. I had expected the first game to be a bit less impressive. While this is true in terms of scope of the story as far as gameplay goes it is almost identical.
I got a real adrenalin rush from Gears of War. In a matter of moments I was knee-deep in blood, sewer water and bullets as I faced off wave after wave of daemons, giants and vicious dogs that look like they have escaped from HR Giger's Big Book of Nasty Things.
I found reassuring thrills similar to that of Time Crisis (PS3) or House of the Dead (Wii). Like those games this is simple reaction based shooting you don't have to think about too much. It somehow feels strangely cosy.
While Gears of War isn't strictly an on-rails shooter, like the above arcade classics, it might as well be. Locations are easy to find and ammo is spread plentifully, it doesn't take much effort to move from one kill zone to another.
Each playing area is littered with pieces of rock to hide behind, cover and shoot being part of the game's premise. The abandoned cityscapes are actually quite pretty to look at. Some of the wackier architectural ideas give a genuine feeling of otherness.
As the ogre smashed up the stonework I began to feel quite guilty.
My favourite location was a huge abandoned greenhouse where you have to destroy a lumbering Berserker. As the ogre smashed up the stonework I began to feel quite guilty. This place was crying out for restoration.
Although Gears of War's locations are unique its characters are not. The look of both Delta Squad (steroid-infused super soldiers) and the Locust troops all owe a heavy debt to Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000.
As a kid I enjoyed playing 40k, Space Hulk and Bloodbowl and found myself wishing Gears could follow through and adopt the 40K trappings wholesale. It still holds its magic for me today - the mock medieval architecture, Gothic overtones and religious zeal.
But unfortunately things are much more derivative in the Gears universe. Coltrane for instance. He's big, he's black, he appears to be a former American Footballer (they have that on planet Sela apparently). He also behaves like a walking cliche machine.
All this cliche had a detrimental effect on my enjoyment.
He whoops, he hollers, he says "Yeah, baby!" when firing his gun. He's Bill Duke in Predator, Michael Clarke Duncan in Armageddon. I can honestly say that I felt embarrassed playing Gears of War (and its sequel) whenever he came on screen or opened his mouth.
The remaining cast aren't exactly blessed with deep characterisation either. Marcus is the strong and silent type. A no-nonsense combat expert. Baird is the complainer, Dom the concerned family man. You can tell Dom is the emotional sort because his voice is pitched that bit higher than the rest of the cast.
All this cliche had a detrimental effect on my enjoyment. I know Gears of War is always going to be about the shooting, that I had no problem with, but I also want a game to be an immersive experience. The reward for performing tasks, for progressing through levels should be something that keeps you interested, keeps you itching to take on the next challenge. After two-thirds of the game I simply thought Delta Squad should have packed up and gone home by this point.
I discovered a comfortable shooter wrapped in unfortunate packaging.
Even though Gears of War is now four years old, the game itself doesn't show its age. Turn to the source material however and it's a different story. The lack of thought beyond Hollywood movies, the stealing from existing franchises like Warhammer and the risible dialogue all make it feel rather juvenile.
Returning to play Gears of War after missing it the first time round I discovered a comfortable shooter wrapped in unfortunate packaging. The sad thing is though, that while game mechanics have come on since then, many of the surrounding issues I found here still remain.
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