One senses throughout Gears of War that developer Epic Games doesn’t care what you think about the game as long as you feel the action is big and badass. Sure, there’s a story involving the institution of martial law to ensure humanity’s survival against an alien horde named the Locust. But the main appeal of Gears of War is to go from one shootout to the next as part of a squad of musclebound, wisecracking bros. While the cover-taking action is distinct and intuitive enough to be convincingly marketed as a unique brand, the game relies so much on this element that it resembles a prolonged action-movie cliché. Even worse, watered-down ideas from an obvious inspiration, Resident Evil 4, prevent Gears from registering as enthralling action-based art.
Earlier this month, Ed Smith covered two aspects that make Gears of War stand out in the history of pop action games: active reload and the cover system. I would add the duck-and-run maneuver as a third distinguishing marker, as each time you execute this move, the camera leaves its over-the-shoulder perch (i.e., the Resident Evil 4 perspective) to sit almost underneath the protagonist. Similar to why film director Orson Welles dug a hole in the studio to render his subject Charles Foster Kane more towering, Epic Games goes with the lower angle here to emphasize the hugeness of your meathead commando, to reinforce the feeling that the proceedings are bigger than anything you’ve experienced.
Yet the most significant of the three parts mentioned above is by far the cover system, as it most frequently determines the direction of the action. This fact highlights an irony: what sets Gears of War apart as a game is also what often makes it banal as action-based art. How many times have you watched an action movie sequence in which rival gunmen spray bullets at each other from behind objects that are absurdly close together? Since you can almost effortlessly roll from cover point to cover point in Gears of War, it’s easy to overlook that the consequences of this ability, which your enemies share, can be as laughable as this scene from the spoof Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear.
In theory, cover should create tension, but when cover dominates the action to the extent that it does in Gears of War, the results can be tedious. In a cutscene from one of the game’s later chapters, you and your partner Dom jump behind cover upon detecting enemies in the distance, and Dom says, “Is this ever gonna end?” I identified with his frustration to say the least.
The most irritating potential effect of this cover system is not its unintentional parody or predictability, though. To advance to a new checkpoint in Gears of War, you have to kill every enemy in a particular section. The premise is fair enough, but the emphasis on cover means that sometimes the final enemy, perhaps a run-of-the-mill foe, might be hiding in a cranny of a large set piece, entailing an anticlimactic search and firefight. After all, in a game that requires you to thrive against multiple aliens shooting at you at once, what’s the threat of one Locust— especially when you’ve had time to heal, reload, and regroup with a squad mate?
Still, thanks to the allure of a well-placed headshot, grenade throw, or chainsaw rampage, the cover-based battles are the most exciting part of Gears of War. Outside of this context, the game often comes across as a second-rate Resident Evil 4, perhaps most clearly in the following two examples: fighting the Berserker, a humongous and powerful creature that happens to be blind, and the mine-cart ride.
In Resident Evil 4, you face a blind enemy named Garrador. Like a Berserker, Garrador will charge when it gets a sense of your location thanks to its enhanced hearing. While you have to draw both enemies toward you and then get behind them to take them out, Garrador is more challenging to evade and kill. Leon, Resident Evil 4’s protagonist, doesn’t have a dodge move like Marcus from Gears of War, who can easily leap out of harm’s way as a Berserker charges. Furthermore, Garrador tests your aim. You must shoot a small place on his back to kill him, and depending on the weapon you use, you may have to do this multiple times. To kill a Berserker, all you have to do is lure the creature to a spot where you can use the Hammer of Dawn, a weapon that summons fire from the sky. As long as you aim the Hammer of Dawn at any part of a Berserker, she’s toast, and Marcus’ dodge allows for simple follow-up blasts. (The last time you encounter a Berserker in Gears of Wears feels even more pointless: all you have to do is lure it to a different car on a train and undo the coupling.)
Gears’ mine-cart ride is similarly boring. This sequence immediately becomes a too-safe affair: although enemies fire at you from both sides, all you have to do is duck into the cart for cover. It’s a different story in Resident Evil 4’s more knuckle-biting ride: as Leon, you can’t take cover, enemies can jump into the same container with you, and because you are riding a line of carts, sometimes you must hop from container to container for better positioning. In Gears of War, you hide in a single cart like a coward, and the only thing you have to worry about are creatures that crawl along the ceiling, lest they drop in on you and explode.
To be fair, not every idea in Gears of War fails to live up to its influences. The best part of the game, while frustrating, divorces itself from a reliance on familiar action movie logic and Resident Evil 4 homage: while on the roof of a train, you must shoot down hovercraft-driving enemies who will flank you from different sides, forcing you to switch to a different stationary chain gun or mix in fire from one of your regular weapons. Since the hovercraft can take positions where enemies will nail you even if you take cover, the situation forces more precision with your aiming. What’s more, if you’re playing solo, your AI-controlled partner Dom is too stupid to help (he didn’t even climb the ladder to the train’s roof in my playthrough). If more of Gears of War had put this much creative pressure on players, I’d have no problem calling it a classic. As the game stands, however, you would have to buy into the authoritarian machismo of its story to excuse the numerous kinetic shortcomings.