Gears of War. The name itself holds a nostalgic tinge to it. It’s a game that, even if you didn’t play it during its hay day, is understood to have fundamentally manipulated the identity and understanding of Video Games. I remember a few months after the Xbox One was released people continually asked themselves “What’s going to be this consoles Gears of War?” People remember Gears because it changed our understanding of what games are capable of. It pushed the boundaries of the medium and influenced it for years to come.
I’m saying this as someone who didn’t play the original Gears during its release year. I played it much later, probably right before Gears of War 2 came out, and at the time I didn’t fully realize just what Gears had accomplished. While the gameplay was fun and the world design was fascinating, the pacing felt off. Almost as if I was being scurried along from set piece to set piece with no moment to stop and examine the world I have been haphazardly thrown into. Yet, it didn’t bother me since the game was so damn fun to play. It was unlike anything that had ever been released, especially on consoles. This isn’t to say that Gears invented the third-person shooter, that’s just not true, but what Gears did accomplish was a systematic deconstruction of the third-person genre. Epic implemented sweeping changes to the core gameplay loop which dramatically shifted the feel of the game. Cover mechanics, a concept that was essentially nonexistent prior to Gears, had been implemented and has now become a staple of modern third person shooters, even some first person games.
I recently went back and played Gears of War and, suffice it to say, the game still plays fantastically. I bought the Ultimate Edition on my PC because I hadn’t touched a Gears game in years and GoW 4 was right around the corner. I wanted to go back and reminisce on the good times I had with the series. While I encountered a few issues during the install (which I will save for a separate post), none of it stymied my anticipation for the game. After now completing the campaign I can wholeheartedly say that Gears of War is a masterpiece. A game that, from its opening moments, fixated me on the tumultuous and disastrous war between Humanity and the Locusts and entranced me with the interpersonal relationships of Delta Squad who are, for all intents and purposes, big lumbering meatheads.
Gears of War is known for its exceptional gameplay, which has now become a staple for the series, and the original Gears is a shining example of its mechanics. While the series became more competently playable as it progressed, I was still able to see why people were so transfixed by the gameplay. It’s so much damn fun. Shooting down hordes of Locusts with fun and stylish weapons was an absolute blast, and the chainsaw is still as gruesome as ever. The first Gears came out at time where hyper violence in the media was at an all-time high. As a society, the notion of grotesque ultra-violence was a seducing prospect and Gears capitalized on that to the fullest extent. Extreme dismemberment, bullets causing ligaments to seemingly explode from the body of your foes, and graphic, adrenaline filled violence was exactly what Gamers wanted and Gears was happy to deliver.
The story was equal amounts horrifying and absurd, an intoxicating combination that really grabbed me. I was getting into Gears around the same time that I began an obsession with Warhammer 40k. I devoured any information related to the universe because it was so fucking cool. The similarities between the two properties are undeniable and that was all the better for me, since that whole concept of perpetual, unstoppable war is interesting… for purely thematic and narrative reasons (I, and most rational human beings, would fucking hate to live in a constant state of war. That shit ain’t cool). I especially applaud the original Gears of War for keeping this air of mystery around the events and holding back the full scope of what’s really going on. Even with the full knowledge of the Gears trilogy, the first game was still able to really hook me. There were high stakes and legitimate consequence to actions. One thing I really appreciated during my playthrough was the relationship between Marcus and Dom. They just spout one-liners and crack jokes with each other but there is subtlety in their relationship. Dom holds an immense amount of respect for Marcus, and the game never outright tells you that, but through the interactions with Baird and Cole you can really relate to their authentic friendship. It’s beautiful and tragic, considering the events of Gears of War 3.
Gears of War, more than most games of this caliber, showed that you could tell an emotionally engaging, narratively driven shooter that play’s incredibly. It’s not all mindless shooting, for the most part. There are consequences, reactions, albeit at times melodramatic, yet still enjoyable and believable. Gears changed the game. It raised expectations for Gaming’s capabilities and changed the third-person shooter genre. Some people would argue its effects were for the worse, I’d tell those people they’re fucking crazy.