It took me 2 years to complete Gears of War 3. That was the singular thought that led to this article and I don’t even mean it as the sort of complete where you finish every difficulty level, nab every achievement and generally throttle every last ounce of life that a piece of software has to offer (poor Bayonetta), but it took me a whole 2 years just to finish the campaign once.

Not the most impressive statistic really, but I found the story of Gears of War 3 (as well as Gears of War 2 for that matter) to be so wholly unengaging that it felt like a real slog getting to the end. And it’s not that those two sequels are necessarily bad games, the plot especially is just one giant excuse for one chaotic melee to the next but even then these sequels do very little in advancing the solid formula established by the first Gears of War.

Learning to stay in cover as much as possible is one of the first lessons you learn.

The Internet emitted a collective sigh when Microsoft announced Gears of War as the next free game for their Games with Gold program; where Xbox Live members are treated to a free full game every month. I guess the overall consensus was that “Gears is an old game we’ve all played; we want something newer please”. But this (admittedly typical) lack of respect kind of irked me. Not only because Gears of War is actually a solid game but also because of the historical context too.

Developer Epic Games fought hard for the Xbox 360 to include 512MB of RAM. Microsoft initially wanted 256MB until Epic showed them Gears of War running on as much… It’s said that Microsoft‘s Senior Finance Officer called Epic and remarked: “You guys just cost me $1 billion”, and Epic‘s Mark Rein simply replied: “No, we just did 1 billion gamers a favor”.

It’s no doubt that Epic also did Microsoft a big favour too as Gears of War would quickly be considered the Xbox 360’s first (sorely needed) killer app back in 2006. The game would even go on to steal Halo 2’s lauded crown of most played Xbox Live game of all time; a title it would hold for many years until the Call of Duty franchise would kickstart its plans for total domination of the living room.

I enjoyed Gears of War during its original release but not enough to get involved with its numerous sequels on their own respective day ones, so it would be many years until I would sit down for the Gears of War 2 and Gears of War 3 cooperative campaigns (the only way to play in my eyes). I didn’t enjoy either sequel very much and during every mindless shooting gallery and stupid plot contrivance, my mind would turn back to the original Gears of War and wonder… Did I ever really like this game? Gears of War has never been one of my stone-cold favourites but surely it’s more enjoyable than this?

The years had passed and I, like the rest of the world seemingly, had forgotten the answer. So, armed with Microsoft’s generous free download, I decided to find out.

The first thing I noticed when revisiting Gear of War was how much grittier it all feels. The sequels had abandoned the ‘war-torn world on the brink of collapse’ vibe in favour of a slightly more upbeat, fist-bumping tour of carnage. I imagine it will be quite a divisive thing but I for one prefer this game’s tone a lot more. It nails that anxious feeling where you’re constantly uncertain as to which creature baying for your blood is about to come bounding around the next corner and there’s certainly a heavier focus on the whole battlefield experience with shakier cameras, dirt flying up from the ground and bullets whizzing across the barriers you’re trying to hide behind.

The Unreal engine has certainly made for some routine sights over the years but back in 2006 Gears of War looked incredible and it still has some of that power today.

The locations are sharply rendered, the character models are huge (facial animations are a bit basic mind) and you’ll witness a detailed post-apocalyptic world filled with many convincingly ruined buildings, dilapidated tunnels and huddled human settlements.

Gears of War 1 Gameplay Screenshot

The story is your basic fare of humanity struggling against a bizarre alien threat intent on claiming Earth for its own.

Why the sequels chose to ditch the rather wonderful weather effects is both mystifying and unusual. One chapter plays out over the course of an actual day- you’ll begin an arduous trek in the pleasant sunlight and end in a tense nighttime firefight where the last vestiges of light you can find become crucial to your survival against a relentless army of parasitic carrion that thrive in the darkness.

Another level starts by dumping you in the middle of a fantastic rain-slicked wilderness alongside your broken transport, forcing you to quickly hike through a drenched forest to reach a hidden underground mining complex. It makes for some gorgeous views in spite of the rather brown and muddy palette that the Unreal engine is known for.

Talking about what makes Gears of War unique is always interesting to me though considering the sheer weight of things I see as derivative. Gears fights as hard as it can to escape Halo‘s ever-present shadow but it doesn’t always succeed.

Consider this laundry list of similarities that I compiled from simple observation:

  • A two weapon limit
  • Hulking male leads dressed in pseudo power armour
  • A token vehicle section (which in this case constitutes the low point of the entire game)
  • An arsenal of usable alien weapons alongside human weapons – each with a respective counterpart
  • A strong focus on the cooperative campaign (no shame in this one at least)
  • The Locust antagonists are an alien threat bent on humanity’s destruction
  • The alien threat bent on humanity’s destruction have the good guys backed into a corner
  • The alien threat bent on humanity’s destruction are wiped out by a magic, planetary-scale super weapon (wrote yourself into a corner on that one didn’t you, Epic?)
  • The Lambent threat which is essentially an additional race of evil creatures looking to consume everyone involved in the conflict (The Flood, anyone?)
  • A limited edition version of the game that comes in a metal tin that features a bonus disc with a remarkably familiar making-of documentary that rather disingenuously repeats the “we might not make the release date in time” sentiment of Halo 2‘s development. Bizarre, no?

But in spite of these elements, Gears of War did introduce many subtle innovations that have ensured the franchise’s continued success despite a general lack of originality.

The cover shooting mechanics still remain as solid and inventive as they were in 2006, with every encounter laden with objects for you to magnetically attach yourself to for protection. Despite being a bit fiddly at times (magnets don’t always like to be detached), blindfiring over the various plant pots, roadblocks and even gas ovens you’ll find yourself hiding behind is both satisfying and engaging and it’s not hard to see how this spectacle resulted in such a quickly adopted sub-genre in the years that followed.

The active reload feature is a subtle addition that turns the basic act of reloading into a game within itself as you try to stop the reload marker at the exact right time for a faster fresh clip and maybe even a bonus to damage and rate of fire. Curb stomp execution moves would take multiplayer to a more brutal level of competition and who could honestly forget the absurd awesomeness of the Lancer assault rifle? With a solid rate of fire, decent damage output and terrifying chainsaw bayonet- it’s obvious why this game comes with an 18 rated sticker plastered all over it. Even the windup nature of Bolo Grenades and sealing emergence holes was something a bit different for a game so focused on in-your-face action and intense brutality.

The difficulty is also a lot more rewarding in this game than in the sequels. There’s a keen focus on squad based teamwork and you’ll quickly learn how this is not a game for lone wolf players. Staying out of cover for too long is a big mistake and it pays to coordinate your efforts when playing alongside a friend. Gears of War truly excels as a two player game- as you must always try to stick close to each other in case one of you needs to be revived during combat.

The ability to give commands to your squad is underdeveloped and pretty worthless considering the rather basic capabilities of the AI, but it would have been nice for the sequels to have built upon this rather than simply cutting it completely. The campaign experience is further watered down in the later games where a practically invincible squad of computer controlled buddies will continually roam the battlefield and pick you up should you get downed which entirely eliminates the threat of failure that persists in the original.

Gears of War 1 Gameplay Screenshot

The Berserker. Run!

This gets so bad in Gears of War 3 for example that it’s hard for me to recall many occasions when I died at all. The end boss in particular; usually a highlight in terms of frantic challenge was reduced to a 15 minute long “bullet sponge” shootout that didn’t even come close to being difficult because the AI would always rescue me before I could be finished off. A pretty crap way to end a trilogy if you ask me.

Things are no better in Gears of War 2 where the final conflict reaches Halo 2 levels of bad end-bossery (there’s that pattern again!) as you square off against a huge Lambent Brumak enemy that dies in less than 60 seconds following a brief turret section. The final showdown with General RAAM in Gears of War may not be the stuff of legends but I found it a more tense and satisfying end than those previous examples for sure.

That also ties into how this first game is more memorable; that’s definitely what has always clinched it for me. Whether it was the first (or second or third) encounter with the monstrous Berserker, the imposing doom of a nighttime Kryll storm (complete with light vs. dark mechanics) or that final tense level atop a moving train; Gears of War is a game that has stuck in my mind much longer than its sequels ever did.

Gears of War is also an expertly paced game with intense shootouts bookmarked with the occasional welcome downtime and lots of entertaining co-op action. The level design is also extremely good- enemies are tough to take down and you’ll experience many encounters that demand good flanking tactics at every opportunity; something that the various interactive areas are very good at communicating where appropriate.

After completing it again recently I’ve realized that Gears of War is easily my favourite game in Epic‘s notable series. No doubt the more sophisticated multiplayer thrills of later games will prove more popular with most players, but for me this original offers a more undiluted slice of gaming goodness that works in spite of its uninspired narrative.

And now it’s time for me to load up Gears of War: Judgment for the first time.

Wish me luck; something tells me I might need it…