When the Xbox 360 launched in 2005, the main highlights of the launch schedule were Perfect Dark Zero and Call of Duty 2. None of Microsoft’s major franchises (Halo, Fable, Forza) made the crossover from the original Xbox in that first year. Instead, an entirely new franchise came to life, one that would become one of the Xbox 360’s most important series to date – Gears of War.
It was the first release from the rebranded Epic Games (formerly Epic MegaGames, creators of the original Unreal). It is a third-person shooter based around cover, with a button dedicated to moving into and over cover. It also introduced one of the most iconic weapons in gaming: the lancer. An assault rifle with a chainsaw attached; holding B will result in some satisfying scenes of slicing and dicing.
The Gears of War storyline consists of a central group of the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) led by Marcus Fenix (voiced by John DiMaggio) and featuring characters like Baird and Cole (a larger-than-life former football star who refers to himself as the Cole Train). These characters have come under fire for being overly masculine and female squad characters were introduced in Gears 3 to alter the perception. The Gears universe is set in an almost post-apocalyptic world, where an alien race called the Locust came from underground and wiped out the majority of the human race. The story serves only as a backdrop to the gameplay though, where you traverse from cover to cover, killing whatever big ugly the game throws in front of you.
While it’s always hard to pinpoint what series did what ‘first’, Gears can lay claim to a number of innovations. The active reload system (reloading takes two button presses, one to initiate the reload and another to finish it. Finishing the reload inside the little white reticule over your ammo will give your gun a clip of higher powered bullets) can still call itself one of the most unique shooter mechanics. Gears also introduced co-op campaign over Xbox Live to the masses and was one of the first major titles to find massive popularity over the service. Gears of War 3 would later add four player co-op over Live.
Gears of War 2 also introduced a new game mode that would change online co-operative play for years to come. While games had had ‘survival’ modes before, Gears 2 brought the ‘Horde’ mode to the masses. Up to five players could team up to survive wave after wave of Locust, growing in challenge with every wave. The concept was so popular that it has been adapted into series like Call of Duty, Halo and Team Fortress . Gears 3 expanded on the simplistic nature of Horde by adding defences (turrets, groundspikes), challenges during waves and boss waves. Boss waves usually feature your team facing off against a giant hulking creature from the game’s campaigns, such as a Brumak or a couple of Berserkers; each different boss providing a different challenge. Gears 3 also introduced a reverse form of Horde called Beast, where you play as the Locust and have to kill the AI controlled humans. While Beast is a lot more simplistic, it’s certainly interesting to see things from an alien species’ point of view. Gears of War: Judgment will expand on this by introducing a multiplayer mode called OverRun where two teams face off – one controlling the CoGs, the other the Locust.
The multiplayer of the Gears series has always shared similarities to Marmite. Gears of War was notoriously unbalanced weapon-wise, with the Shotgun ruling all. This, however, founded a hardcore fanbase who used the imbalance and glitchy nature of the game to create a happy medium. It was unwelcoming to beginners, but through perseverance and patience, you could find some real enjoyment and some unique experiences. Nothing beats the rush of being the last man surviving on your team and coming from behind to claim the win. Gears of War 2 dabbled in online ranking and improved balance (although the shotgun was still many people’s weapon of choice) but it too suffered from glitchy play. Gears 3 can therefore probably claim the title as the best in the series for multiplayer, with a variety of weapon choices; a prestige mode and improved gameplay throughout. While most of the maps were largely forgettable, several from Gears 1 have retained fan favourite status and appeared throughout the series. Only one map, Gridlock, has been an ever present in every game.
Gears of War: Judgment will arrive on 360 on March 19th. It is a prequel to the Gears storyline, featuring two fan favourite characters, Baird and Cole. What has been shown of the game suggests it will be largely campaign orientated with smaller “Declassified” missions providing the Horde styled gameplay. The multiplayer was on show at last year’s Eurogamer, with the new gamemode OverRun. It features much more strategy than previous games with different characters having different classes (for example, Baird is an engineer who can build turrets and maintain defences). Whether OverRun can establish itself as a popular game mode remains to be seen, but it’s a fairly unique experience.
The future of Gears remains unclear. While Judgment will arrive on Xbox 360 this March, little is known beyond that. Series designer Cliff Bleszinski (Cliffy B) has stepped away from video games for the foreseeable future so any future Gears games may have to wait. It is unlikely that such a vital series for Microsoft will be allowed to rot away, so expect to see Gears return in some fashion after Judgment’s release. A feature film has long been rumoured (along with Halo) and the series has had some success outside of gaming with comics and novels.
Those looking to enter the Gears universe for the first time may struggle to find a good entry point. Story-wise, burning through Gears 1 and 2 to catch up with 3 and Judgment should prove easy. If you’re only interested in trying the multiplayer or Horde, Gears 3 should be your go-to-game. Yes, it’s big, dumb and loud (for the most part) but it also provides some of the best third-person action you’ll find on any system.
Let me know if Gears of War: Judgement is on your pre-order list.