I recently made a choice I’m surprised I didn’t make a hell of a lot sooner; I subscribed to the Xbox Game Pass. Amongst all these brand new games I could be sinking my teeth into like Sea of Thieves or State of Decay 2, for some reason I found myself ignoring these and instead downloading the remaster of the first Gears of War that came out in 2015.
I didn’t have any solid memories of the first Gears, not really getting into the series until the second game. So playing through the game in its entirety for what might have been the first time, in all its brown, muddy, ultra-violent glory was a far less exciting experience than I’d first assumed. But like a dope, despite its shortcomings becoming apparent early on, I still trudged through to the end.
Starting with the story, the game begins with the player character, Marcus Fenix, being broken out of prison. This happening before a backdrop of humanity fighting a seemingly unwinnable war against an enemy that can only be described as mole men. From there, the campaign follows Delta Squad as they attempt to map the underground network of the Locust in order to most effectively blow them up.
From there the game is essentially a series of narrow corridors that take the form of ruined cityscapes, dilapidated factories, underground tunnels and then ruined cityscapes again. While this version of the game certainly looked more polished than the original, there was nothing interesting of ambitious to work with in the first place. The game is a series of combat encounters you can pretty much get through using soley the Lancer and rarely moving from your starting spot of cover.
It’s rare the game forces you think on you feet and take your positioning into account, and every time it does its only ever to flank a turret. There were rare instances of interesting set pieces, including a section in which you need to create light sources to progress and sections where players need to split up and aid each other’s progress from alternate vantage points.
But the characters are so chunky and movement feels like such a laborious task that just sitting in one spot and unloading into enemies until the job is done feels like the most efficient way to get past the encounter. Everything feels like too much of a commitment in a combat situation to bother with any of it. Enemies are incredibly bullet spongey and their AI is almost non-existent as many of them just run straight at you or just sit in cover and pop out rhythmically.
I was never excited by the combat and changing weapons felt like something just to keep it varied rather than an essential action to deal with a particular enemy type. The Hammer of Dawn is the only weapon that actually feels like it needs to be picked up, and that’s only because its tied into story progression.
The story ends with a frustrating boss fight against RAAM, a big bad that really doesn’t feel deserved as the game’s primary antagonist. His first appearance takes place early on when he kills the squads original commanding officer, a character that never felt like he had been endeared to the player characters, or the player themselves to be honest. I never understood why people got excited about the including of Kim in future games, he’s such a nothing character, purely there to die.
When you finally take down the super spongy final boss, it doesn’t feel like any amount of satisfying retribution as a result. It’s only the second time we see him after his introduction and his only defining feature is that he’s really big, otherwise he’s just another bullet sponge grub.
While I’m on the subject of characters, the main four characters of the game do have more distinct personalities, but that doesn’t make them interesting. Marcus and Baird come across and gruff, unlikeable assholes who just bicker with on another. Dom seems like a nice enough guy but is pretty bland throughout. Cole is Cole, he exists to be enthusiastic and shout quotable lines.
The characters don’t really change from the start to the end of the game. They become slightly less dickish to one another and not much else changes. I’m not saying I wanted some deep and meaningful character study about the phyce of Marcus Fenix, but any arc whatsoever would have been nice. It felt like they toyed with the idea of it by having Marcus return to his family home and re-establish that connection with his father, the reason he was in prison in the first place.
Instead, they arrive; Baird is snide, the house gets blown up and they move on without so much as a wistful glance from Marcus. It goes to show how much better and likeable the character was come Gear of War 4, when we see Marcus getting really pissed about the tomatoes in his greenhouse getting shot up by a bunch of robots. He was still the same gruff asshole, but the writing about him was far better.
This first game seems to feel like an excess of gore and foul language is a suitable replacement for development, interesting characters or a story that gets any deeper than “we gotta nuke that hole”. The most interesting development takes place right before the ending credits when we see the actual leader of the Locust Hoarde is a human woman. Then the game cuts away before you can say “hey wait, what the hell was that?”.
I ended up playing to the end for a number of reasons, none of which are reasons you should ever actually continue playing a game you’re not enjoying. These include achievements, stubbornness and the need to feel justified about ranting about a game I actually finished. All the more annoying because I know the games got better and more interesting going forward.
Gears of War is ultimately a blunt force instrument of a game. If gives you the options to mix it up, but there’s never any need to. The shooting doesn’t actually feel that great in most cases, hardly any of the weapons ever feeling like they have significant impact against enemies and you unload a number of clips into them before they finally react by dying.
There are unique aspects to the game that made it stick out as interesting at the time. Both its cover system and active reload systems acted as templates for a lot of games that came out afterwards. But the first steps in a game style just feel like tired cliches when you bring them back without really changing them. Going back to the first Gears when you don’t have a huge amount of nostalgia for it is probably not the best idea.
I was thinking about jumping straight into Gears of War 2 after finishing this, but felt like I’d gotten Gears of War out of my system by the time I’d finished. Just in time for them to show Gears 5 at E3 too, poor timing on my part there. Oh well, It just means there’s more time for me to play State of Decay 2.