Microsoft was planning to cream Sony in the game space this year. Not only was the Xbox 360 going to have a one-year head start on the PS3, but they'd have streamlined their Xbox Live service, released a ton of new features and (here's the big part) be releasing a must-have game just in time for the holiday season. It was the perfect plan in 2005, back when Mr. Gates laid it out for Time magazine. And sure enough most of it came true.
The one year head start has earned the Xbox 360 five or six million new users (depending on who you ask), a streamlined online service and a ton of new features including, in the coming weeks, TV and movie downloads. The Xbox 360 also has a must-own game for this holiday season. It's just not the one they wanted.
"It's perfect," Gates told Time in May of 2005. "The day Sony launches [PlayStation 3], and they walk right into Halo 3."
Unfortunately this wasn't to be. Bungie had no plans to ship Halo 3 in 2006, a fact Gates later acknowledged, saying it wasn't his place to establish launch dates, in spite of being the chairman and all. In fact, earliest estimates for Halo 3's release put it somewhere in mid-2007. Most likely in the fall - a year later than Gates had planned. Enter: Plan B.
Starting at this year's E3, Epic's Gears of War got pulled off the bench, shoved into the spotlight and handed the torch. Microsoft stoked the hype fires, wheeled out the charismatic Cliffy B. and poured cash on the ad machine. All in an effort to convince you, the consumer, that Gears of War was the next Halo, or at the very least an ample substitute this holiday season.
Did it work? Judging from the early press, yes. The scores have been through the roof, the buzz is out of control ("The amount of hype right now is ridiculous," Cliffy B. told EGM in their November issue.) and the game is currently topping the charts. This holiday season (today in fact) Sony is unleashing their PS3 console in North America and walking right into Gears of War.
Too bad Gears is not, as Gates had hoped, "perfect."
I played a game many, many years ago on the PC called Robinson's Requiem. I didn't play it very long, but I remember it well because of how painful an experience it was. The game was supposed to be an exercise in realism. You were a clone of some sort and your space ship had crashed on a supposedly uninhabited planet. You were alone, had limited equipment and were forced to survive however you could.
On the allegorical scale, it was more of a "man vs. his environment" game, as opposed to the majority of other games which are "man vs. other man." Your main obstacles were violent animals, the elements and time. I recall one mission requiring you to maneuver your guy into a cave to retrieve something or another. The only problem was that the cave was dark, and filled with pools of water. So you had to swim. But since the water was cold, you were in danger of hypothermia or catching a cold. To avoid this you needed cold weather gear, which you didn't have. But you could make mittens and a hat out of animal hides, a bone needle and some kind of cord. But you had to kill the animals to get the skins and you had no weapons ...
It seemed to be an adventure game modeled after the US Navy's S.E.R.E. survival training course. It was brutal, unrelenting and impossibly hard. One review I recall reading described the game's death screen in detail (an animation depicting your guy as a desiccated corpse), saying "get used to it. You'll be seeing it a lot."
Gears of War reminds me of this game. The Gears of War loading screen is beautiful. Colored flames lick the stylish gear and skull logo, pulsing red with rage or whatever. It's clean, functional and gorgeous; truly a wonder to behold which; is A) good, because you'll see it a lot playing Gears of War, but B) bad because it's the only aspect of the game that feels perfect.
To be fair, Gears of War is not a bad game, it's just not great. Certainly not Halo great, and certainly not worthy of the tremendous amount of hype surrounding it. It's, as I've already mentioned, quite difficult, but mainly owing to gameplay quirks, bad A.I. and a few control issues. Problems many games have, to be sure, but things you don't expect to see in a game that will supposedly herald the arrival of the "next-gen," and definitely not what you'd expect from the game carrying the Xbox 360 flag this holiday season.
I also, still, found the game to be visually dull. It's not hard to detect the presence of some truly advanced whiz-bang technology at work in subtle things like smoke, shading and an odd, yet beautiful shimmer effect used on a number of metallic surfaces, but none of it really works together. The game looks, feels and plays as if a number of wonderfully creative people got thrown into the project together with little or no guidance, and all created masterpieces in their own right, which all nevertheless fail to coalesce into an appealing whole.
The story is a relatively uninspiring, B-movie quality Sci-Fi affair, pitting the denizens of an Earth-like place against a strange alien race which one day emerged from beneath the surface of their planet. The voice acting and dialogue compliment this tale the way a rusted Chevy Vega on cinder blocks compliments a trailer park, completely failing to induce one to actually care what happens to the various soldiers and citizens whose fates almost rest in your hands.
But those elements, while important to some, are merely gravy on the meat and potatoes of the average shooter. Most good shooters (and make no mistake - Gears of War is a shooter) fail to meet the high marks in those categories set by the likes of Halo and Half-Life. A good shooter can survive a corny story and lousy acting. What it can't survive, however, is flaky gameplay.
I played Gears of War's single player campaign in just under 12 hours (which, in the tradition of online-reliant Xbox 360 games like Chromehounds is a ridiculously meager amount of game for $60), and for about 10 of those 12 hours I was gritting my teeth, casting furtive mental glances at the multitude of other things I could have been spending that time doing. As I said before, Gears of War is not a bad game, but it's not the quality of game I'd prefer to spend my limited time playing. Mainly because a number of subtle gameplay difficulties all combined to make it less of an enjoyable ride, and more of a struggle versus bad craftsmanship.
Take, for example, the terrifying bat creatures which live in darkness, fear light and are incinerated by ultra-violet beam weapons. It's a novel concept, poorly implemented. A number of the game's missions take place at night, and in these you'll encounter areas which must be traversed carefully lest your character enter a pool of darkness and summon a wave of deadly bat creatures that will kill you instantly. This concept would appear to have beeen designed to engender terror, but it really only serves to up the frustration level, as it's often difficult to distinguish (due to the game's sloppy graphics) the difference between "sort of dark" and "instantly deadly bat creature summoning dark." Thankfully these levels end quickly and most of the game's other enemies are not instantly-lethal - when you can see them, that is. Telling friend from foe in Gears of War, again due to the sloppy graphics, is another constant struggle. With the game's washed-out graphics, the dingy, brown aliens look a lot like the dingy, brown human soldiers. Even close-up.
It's this inconsistency, above and beyond the graphical and design failings, which ultimately ruined gears of War for me. At times, your A.I. squad mates will be accurately-firing, positively reinforcing killing machines, taking fire, flanking and generally doing their best to help you slaughter hordes of smart, deadly enemies. They sometimes follow orders, sometimes offer tactical advice and sometimes absorb heroic amounts of damage, springing back to full health the second danger has passed. Yet at other times they will stand dumbly in the middle of a firefight, run headlong into a wall of oncoming fire, knocking themselves out of the battle or wander too close to a rampaging, indestructible man-beast and get slaughtered (actually dying!), forcing you to restart (often many, many times). How and/or when they'll die is as unpredictable as their actions, even when they choose to follow orders.
I can't exactly say that I'm disappointed in Gears of War, since I had a feeling the game's over-hype, and slapped-on graphical amusements were designed to conceal the game's core mediocrity, but I can say that I'm disappointed in Epic's failure to capitalize on what is truly a revolutionary new graphics engine. The Unreal 3 engine will, I have no doubt, be used by a number of truly inventive game houses to create a number of stellar titles in the years to come. Unfortunately, Gears of War is not one of them.
Final Verdict: Gears of War is worth a rent, if only to see what the fuss is all about, but unless you're a hard-core member of an online clan, it is not worth buying, not when there are so many ultimately more satisfying alternatives.