a review of Gears of War
a videogame developed by epic games
and published by microsoft
for the microsoft xbox 360
text by tim rogers
Name any film Jerry Bruckheimer produced, and I’ll tell you that it sat comfortably at the top space of the Japanese movie ticket sales ranking for at least one week. We’re talking about some stuffty, American-testosterone-fueled films, here. Films like “The Patriot”, aka “American Braveheart”, starring Mel Gibson in a wig, or “Independence Day”, with Will Smith welcoming aliens to earth with a punch. Some of these top-grossing films are non-descript techno-paranoia thrillers, like “Enemy of the State”, which had cultivated cult talent like Jason Lee and Jack Black for its meandering plot devices. And some of these films even go so far, and so rudely, as to objectify Japanese soldiers during World War II and star Ben Affleck (“Pearl Harbor”). Even “The Day After Tomorrow” — which perhaps wasn’t produced by Bruckheimer, though let’s pretend it was (checking Wikipedia would kill my flow) — a disastrous lump of schlock, in which the world froze over completely and impossibly overnight thanks to a bitching storm. That film was so ****ed that indie darling Jake “Donnie Darko” Gyllenhaal had to play a homosexual cowboy to regain his street cred. And yet it, too, was a number-one hit in Japan — for several weeks, even. These are classic “Get in the van!” movies. Movies that make Midwestern mothers on Memorial Day yell at disobedient sons: “Get in the van! The air-conditioner’s been running for ten minutes and your dad is pissed!”
The reason, obviously, is marketing. Marketing is the reason these films top the charts in America, and it’s the reason they top the charts in Japan. I’m spelling this out because it is quite baffling that “industry analysts” the world over will, when asked why the Xbox doesn’t sell in Japan, shrug and immediately conclude that “American-style” entertainment can’t achieve popularity in Japan because Japanese people just don’t like “American-style” narrative, game design, or “American-style” anything. This is mostly not true, because movies and, say, cheeseburgers (also popular in Japan) are doing fine. Sure, though, games are different: they require skilled input from the player and/or possession of a perhaps-heavy piece of game hardware.
Gears of War sold 33,000 copies in Japan, after selling more than 4 million in America and the rest of the world (read: Europe). It reached number seven on the Japanese sales charts, which blew many analysts’ minds. This happened firstly because Gears of War is similar in design and narrative to Lost Planet (one word review: schlock) — both are stories about a world ravaged by an alien race and the freedom fighter, viewed over the shoulder in a third-person perspective, who takes said aliens down with numerous angry firearms. Lost Planet had sold 50,000 copies because it was by Capcom, a renowned maker of many games involving dumb action and B-movie situations, it had been marketed cleverly (a two-page ad in Weekly Famitsu showed a giant, 65-inch-ish HDTV in a tiny Japanese apartment, and a caption: “Please play this game with as large a TV as you can fit into your apartment.”), and it was released just a week after Blue Dragon, the first game by ex-Final Fantasy producer Hironobu Sakaguchi. Gamers who had rushed to beat Blue Dragon saw Lost Planet was on the horizon, and figured they might as well give it a shot, while they still had this Xbox heating their floor. Gears of War, released in Japan two weeks after Lost Planet, and with a sparkling, crackling Japanese dub or the option to play in English with Japanese subtitles, sold 33,000 copies, either to the rare breed of Japanese gamer that likes American-style stuff, or to gamers warmed up ever-so-slightly to over-the-shoulder shooting by Lost Planet, which they only purchased because they had finished Blue Dragon and were thus in a state of euphoria during which they’d try anything once.
This is mostly a theory, anyway. Here’s what I know:
Gears of War is a Hollywood blockbuster of a videogame. It’s as viable a form of entertainment media as a Jerry Bruckheimer film, only instead of pulling in one or two independent actors, it decides to salute anyone who’s ever played a videogame by exhibiting sparkling, perfect level design. You’ll be plodding through a stage with your crew of scared-stuffless future-marines, and one of them will scream to hold up and take cover, and then the enemies start firing; the gamer in a man, at this point, will feel it in his heart: a fade out, white numbers on a black screen reading “STAGE 3-2”. Take cover behind rocks, pop out and shoot enemies, try and get them in the head, maybe miss, reload, try again. Clear out the enemies any way you wish. On harder difficulties they’ll be more ferocious, et cetera. You can play this entire game, from the start, with a friend. You can crank the difficulty up all the way and chat about delicious pastries you’ve eaten lately as you trek from the prison at the beginning to the train ride toward the edge of the earth at its climax. All the while, little, brain-pleasing victories pop up and make you feel like hot stuff: the “Active Reload”, for instance. Press the reload button to reload your gun; press it again with proper timing to speed up the reload and/or make all of the reloaded bullets extra-strong. Break up your conversation with your good pal in Sweden for a second, and say, “Just head-shot some dude with a perfect Active Reload.” Collect your “Right on” and continue talking about strudel.
Or, if you like, play the game alone. Witness the story. It’s a real “get in the van!” kind of story. A pot-boiler. Evil alien creatures versus humans. Your main character, a soldier, was locked up in a prison for some reason. Now he’s out. You’re fighting a war against these aliens called the “Locust”, who had apparently existed deep beneath the planet’s surface for much of human history, before deciding to go nuts and attempt genocide. The game takes you from the prison to the city to deep beneath the earth, to a mansion on a hill, to a train under a hell-like sky. It’s not a big story. It’s not a long game. This is part of the reason it works so well. It’s polished. Every turn of events is presented richly — rather than make the war between the humans and the aliens itself into a story, the war lends the events of a story context.
Back when the game was still in development, the lead game designer, Cliffy B, was quite outspoken about its theme of “Destroyed Beauty”: this world was beautiful before it was destroyed by the Locust. Cliffy B was, in a sideways fashion, acknowledging the tragic truth of game design — that we are inspired to blow up anything and everything in a Grand Theft Auto game because someone took the time to put that world together. If the genre of games Grand Theft Auto belongs to is indeed a “sandbox”, it’s a sandbox where a couple of kids have already built an awesome castle, and you’re the fat boy with permanently popsicle-stained lips, who got a Swiss Army knife for his birthday, who steps in there and calls the kids “****ed babies” and smashes the castle under his left Converse. Physics, in videogames, are shaped toward destruction, and sandbox games like having their castles crushed. Games design is a weird kind of masochism. Cliffy B has a conscience that defies the shapes of the stars of his games. They’re all lumpy, grotesque, oatmeal-skinned men with giant phallic machineguns. They shoot inhuman bastards for breakfast. When we interviewed Mr. B at Tokyo Game Show in 2005, he spoke of the themes of “Destroyed Beauty”, and of the game’s shyer “artistic” aspirations. Cliffy B would mention that he makes games about people shooting things with guns because those are the types of games — half escapism, half entertainment, half whatever you want them to be (three halves a genre) — that people buy. The easiest way to express something with videogame physics is to shoot. “Reach out and touch someone with your gun”, as Mr. B put it.
The game was universally loved, upon its release, for its amazing high-definition visuals (there’s a subtlety that needs to be seen to be believed) and its imaginative set-pieces. Some reviewers lamented the low number of enemies on-screen at any given time, which is a little weird, especially when each kill feels at least as accomplished as scoring three lines in Tetris.
Eventually, though, I look at the internet and I can’t believe what I’m seeing, sometimes. Apparently, one of the producers, a man named Rod Ferguson, saw it necessary to defend the game from claims of unoriginality. Apparently, some critics find the cover system boring because it’s about avoiding bullets; they would probably rather prefer to run into a firefight dual-wielding a couple sub-machine guns, spinning in circles all the way. Some say the story is not original. Some people are saying that Gears of War is “not original” because of its format, which is, in case you forgot, “guys with guns”. I say, shuddering maybe a little bit as I say it, that these people are missing the point.
Remember when Super Mario Sunshine came out, and people in parents’ basements all over the world shrieked about how terrible it is to have a Super Mario game that takes place in just one location? That must have scared a lot of developers stuffless. They got introspective: to be certain, most popular videogames have had ice stages, fire stages, night time stages, cloud stages, haunted house stages. Games are grab bags by nature. We reach into one and pull out all kinds of sights and sounds. We trust them to keep us from getting bored. We throw them on when we want to show someone something awesome. In the end, though, isn’t it kind of dishonest to make a game with wildly varying stages for wildly varying stages’ sake? In an effort to bless a Super Mario game with a plot, Sunshine set itself on a tropical island. (This was kind of a failure, because the game was still about Princess Peach getting kidnapped, this time by Baby Bowser, who should really just grow up already. Also, the game kind of sucked. For one thing: camera control. For two things: why was sliding around on Mario’s belly that much faster, funner, and easier than simply walking around? ) Gears of War is made with a similar kind of conscientious focus, and it succeeds flying-colorfully because it is perhaps the sturdiest, most consistently satisfying game of all time.
What is innovation, to these McCarthyists who might dare criticize Gears of War? Is it always having widgets and gadgets and Pennyforth Crumblestackers to collect? Is it earning new abilities and upgrading to new equipment at every turn? Do they want heart containers split into fifths instead of fourths? Do they want a double-jump, earned via a magic artifact hidden after a boss room, so the player can jump over that slightly taller wall and continue to the next single-jumping segment, during which the player will double-jump all over the place just because he can? Cliffy B told us, “Never underestimate the player’s willingness to undermine the narrative you’re trying to tell” — he was justifying why you can’t shoot civilians: the game’s hero cares about the fate of the earth. Have a little heart: you want to shoot something, shoot something that can shoot back, et cetera. Anyway, Mr. B’s statement isn’t just about conscience: it’s about design. It’s about context. You won’t see Marcus Fenix Esquire, Marine Of The Future jumping around like an asshole. And it’s perfectly fine — every action the game lets you perform is simultaneously crunchy, smooth, and satisfying. Maybe because there are only so many things you can do: take cover, fire a gun, change guns, throw a grenade, “roadie run” — you learn all of these actions in the opening segment. Eventually, you can learn how to “tag” an enemy with a grenade, though that’s never actually required. It’s just a neat little trick. You barrel right through this game, switching weapons, shooting, stopping eventually to take cover and think a situation through. It’s Super Mario Bros., only now you can do more than run, jump, or throw fireballs, and there are realistic explosions. The game works because the levels are expertly designed and the set-pieces are enthralling. Take, for example, the fight on steps leading up to a mansion, followed by a scene where you defend that mansion from enemy reinforcements coming up the same steps you just came up yourself. The flow of it all is masterful. If “innovation” is double-jumping, then I say innovation is the new communism, and Gears of War is a red-blooded American.
Cliffy B and friends drew inspiration from many games around them: the crunch and feel of Gears, for example, came from Resident Evil 4. The nature of the cut-scenes and story — integrated into the game, always in motion — came from the way the camera jerks back whenever you trash a rival car in Burnout 3: without that look back, there’d be no reason to defeat your rivals. Cliffy B told us that the look back in Burnout is perfect as what it is, and more perfect because it also leaves the game an instant to put your car back in the middle of the road to avoid an unexpected collision. Perhaps one of the greatest sources of inspiration, though, was simple common sense: note that there’s no aiming reticle when blind firing, though when your character is wounded, his wounded status shows as a bloody circle in the middle of the screen, which can sort of be used to aim. This, of course, is a seamless way of indicating the way a man’s senses sharpen as his fear of death increases, and it doesn’t even have to present itself pretentiously. It just . . . flows. It’s not God of War, it’s not Zelda, and it’s not Resident Evil 4 (is it hip yet to criticize that one? not exactly, no.) — it doesn’t have to throw in little quick-timer events to make the action look more exciting. It doesn’t jerk you off and tell you it’s watering the lawn. It doesn’t even piss on your shoe and tell you it’s raining. It just rains on you, and then waits for you to tell yourself it’s raining.
So there you have it: this game is about the creative and varied application of simple actions. It is, indeed, straightforward and punchy; yet, to throw Gears of War into the same semantic burlap sack as any clippy, unimaginative, Tom Clancy Rainbow Six or Ghost Recon, or one of those awful, trudging, sham-fisted market-flooding World War II games is to deny the perfection of its craft and flow. Let’s stop calling “first-person shooter” or “third-person shooter” a “genre”, please? “Sci-fi / fantasy” is a “genre”. “Third-person shooter” is a “format”. And as a member of that format or any format, Gears of War is a masterpiece of construction, a victorious stride toward the old, abandoned “virtual reality” dream of the 1990s. It requires no motion-tracking controller, it stars no blocky pterodactyls. It is proof positive that the “interactive movie” format might not be dead, nor will it necessarily require moving chairs to make audiences feel like they’re part of something. What the deceptively cerebral Dead Rising did for narrative structure in an interactive-movie-type game, the balls-forward Gears of War does for flow. Taken as quickly or as slowly as you like it, Gears of War is an adventure, and it’s always a videogame. And the online multiplayer is just plain great.
So why couldn’t this game achieve enflamed acclaim in Japan? Because “Japanese people just don’t like shooters”? That’s a weirdly racist thing to think. American people didn’t like FPSes, for example, until Castle Wolfenstein. And you say, “There were no FPSes until Castle Wolfenstein“, and I say a-hah! See what I did there? Haven’t you ever fallen in love with a band that you didn’t hear until years after they broke up? It’s kind of like that. Somewhere, anywhere, the game format of the “American Shooter” is catching up with Japan.
In our interview, we managed to ascertain that Gears of War‘s Cliffy B was a huge fan of Japanese role-playing games when he was in high school, and that he had scored 9,999,990 points in Super Mario Bros. and sent in a Polaroid to Nintendo, which got him featured in the first issue of Nintendo Power. He also admitted to crying at the end of Lunar for Sega CD. Pieces are starting to fall into place, right about now: Cliffy B is a gamer’s game designer. Too long has this medium struggled under the boots of power-lunching, power-haired, power-tie-wearing businessmen and PR reps.
A funny story about PR reps, then: Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi, who recently released Blue Dragon on Xbox 360, whose Lost Odyssey is likely to be the game of the year, 2007, was recently asked if he would ever make an action game. He was asked this in light of the announcement that Dragon Quest IX, the latest game in the most popular game franchise in Japan, would shockingly be both for Nintendo DS and an action-based game. Sakaguchi shrugged off the question, and said no. Sakaguchi explained that he was comfortable with the genre of “Japanese RPG”, which he had helped solidify, back in the early 1990s. He was happy with the Unreal Engine, also used in Gears of War, and said that he felt he could use it like an author uses a typewriter. It was the proper tool for his medium. His rival, Dragon Quest producer Yuji Horii, had, on the other hand, always been quick to note that the number-crunching nature of his games was merely a placeholder. The tree-like tiles to indicate forests in Dragon Quest would, eventually, be replaced by lush forests in Dragon Quest VIII. The menu-based battles, too, were a placeholder, and the series is now switching over to action.
Months later, Sakaguchi was interviewed again, by GameSpot, about the impending release of Blue Dragon in America. A skilled reader can sense the mouth-breaths of the PR rep over his shoulder. At many points, the PR rep butts in: “Actually, I can speak to that for Mr. Sakaguchi.” Eventually, if one pays attention to the notes in the margin (marked “[English]”), one can see that Sakaguchi starts speaking to things for himself. He talks about Gears of War. He talks about how excited it had made him. He talks about how enthralled he was by how it had handled its world. He says that the game should have been a million-seller in Japan — and he says this as a man who has produced many million-sellers himself. He claims that Microsoft’s marketing was terrible, that they went the wrong way. That they were sitting on what Action Button Dot Net would eventually call THE GAME OF THE DECADE, and they weren’t giddy enough about it. This game was made by a man able to cite significant thematic differences between Final Fantasy IV and VI, who cried at the end of Lunar and confessed about it on an interview published on the internet. And yet no one showed it to Sakaguchi. He hadn’t played it until three months after it hit retail in Japan. A friend had to recommend it to him (he’s too busy to read IGN, I guess). What kind of people, really, are we dealing with here, that no one would figure Hironobu Sakaguchi would be interested in this game, which is published by the same company that’s publishing Sakaguchi’s games?
And now, when asked what kind of game he’s thinking about making in the future, Sakaguchi says “Something like Gears of War.” If we get ahead of ourselves, we might chuckle and say that a third-person shooter about humans and aliens made by the creator of Final Fantasy would probably be terrible. That’s missing the point, though. That’s misunderstanding the difference between a “format” and a “genre”. What Sakaguchi means is that he’s going to make something big, flowing, crunchy, smooth, seamless, gorgeous, simple, and deep. If only a whole lot of other developers started to think the same thing. We’d be in for an interesting next decade.
EXTRA BONUS PARAGRAPH. Hello and welcome to an extra bonus paragraph, written in celebration of Gears of War‘s induction to the Action Button Dot Net Manifesto Hall of Fame. We would have just reprinted this review and walked off whistling with our hands in our pockets, hardly giving a heck, though we have this tendency to always think of the Readers’ Enjoyment, so here goes. Yep. Here goes. Gears of War. Fuck yeah. Hell of a game. It came out two years ago, and it’s still a hell of a game. There’s a sequel coming out in just two months (so so turgid right now), and it would take something of a sick miracle for Cliff “Dude Huge” Bleszinski to make it suck. They’re talking about a denser story, they’re talking about more drama. That’s good, yeah. They’re also talking about bigger and crazier action set-pieces, which is great. And they’re also also talking about never putting slow-walking radio-dialogue cut-scenes immediately after checkpoints. That’s even better! I bet you’re thinking, right now, “Sounds like a perfect game!” So are we! However, just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, the tooth fairy leaves a gold brick under your pillow: they’re making a five-player, co-operative endless survival mode. There’s absolutely no way in hell this will not be the most amazing thing ever. Gears‘ basic game mechanics are already razor-excellent. Each little skirmish in the original game is already a fascinating study of level design, where the game mechanics bang against each other vigorously; the rules are clear as a game of (American-style) football (and all that analogy entails): centering a mode around cooperatively holding one position for eternity is just too good of an idea. It’ll make Gears into Tetris, with that same vaguely depressing psychological rub: the only way the game ends is when you lose. It’d be something amazing for a talented game developer to base an entire first-person-shooter on the idea of a small group of men holed up in a bunker, waiting for death, with no reinforcements on the way. If done right, it could be amazing: you wouldn’t even need to tell a story to tell a “story”. We can’t be 100% (or even 10%) certain that Gears 2 is implementing this mode out of any “artistic” aspirations, though we hardly care. Cliff “Dude Huge” Bleszinski and his Wheaties-Eating Warriors at Epic deserve gigantic thanks for their generosity. Whether Gears of War is “original” or not is hardly the point: they have let level designers take center stage, and the game design evolved from there. We’ve heard that the original pitch for Gears was merely to make a big-budget sci-fi action shooting game set in a fantasy world, and the cover-based “stop-and-pop” mechanic was born from the simple concept of a stage where a player ascends a steep staircase, encountering enemy resistance all the while, and then must defend the top of the staircase from enemy reinforcements. The game design just kind of gushed forth from the question of how to make such a scenario as much fun as possible. Our forensic analysis leads us to believe that the first stage “completed” was the final, straightforward endurance dash from one end of a train to another: the cover is so carefully positioned that it feels like a proof of concept at times. An awesome proof of concept. An awesome proof of an awesome concept. Story, character, and ambiance were also carefully considered, of course. Whether you like your dudes beef-chested and oatmeal-skinned or not (we kind of don’t), you can’t say that Gears doesn’t at least take itself seriously. There’s no jutting jagged corners of bullstuff; it stays nice and clean. Either way, we don’t care about the story so much as we like how the characters happen to both constantly be aware of grave danger while also possessing traits exclusive to realistic people. It’s nice. (If only all the characters had heads drawn by Tetsuya “Kingdom Hearts” Nomura, and they changed the name of the game to something connecting it to “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”, or if they just got any old anime artist to do the characters’ faces, this game would be both popular in Japan and number one on our list (that’s a joke (kind of)).)
Back to the game-design thing, though. We are putting Gears on this list here because it manages to marry the Absolute Fun of Classic Arcade Games with the Technicality FPS Fans Crave and Hollywood Production Values. This is a polygamous marriage, illegal in 49 US States; somehow, Epic make it work, and even the US Supreme Court is capable of acknowledging that hey, everyone is actually getting along. Most game developers will immediately fold their hands over their chests and say no when someone says they want to develop a game starting with the level design, or with the game design, and maybe there’s a good reason for this (if everyone on staff is doing only level design, you’re going to end up with some unmarketable technical masterpiece a la Treasure). CB and the boys, with their world-class developer status, managed to appeal to marketing (and Microsoft) by promising a big-budget gritty sci-fi fantasy-ish shooter with a story and Great Online Modes; then they encouraged their level design team to think inside and outside the box when it came to developing “something new” for the way the game plays. They hit on something so brilliant that it’s not a bad thing that they’re using it again. It is not a miracle that Gears plays as well as it looks and feels: the package is blessed with actual artistic conscience.
Gears probably didn’t invent the idea using common sense as a marketing analysis tool, and it probably didn’t actually inspire games like Call of Duty 4 (we’re pretty sure Infinity Ward don’t actually need anyone’s help), and sure, it borrows a lot from Resident Evil 4; that said, in the current climate, Gears is the game to chase. Gears speaks of a future where Fun Has Returned, of “hangout” games that anyone can enjoy, even if they suck at playing them, of abundant progressive action games that combine same-old-same-old with the subtly different-new. Clear rules, beautiful graphics, deep play. Here we could go on to extrapolate that things like Bionic Commando: Rearmed‘s “don’t touch the floor” deathmatch mode (where bullets don’t injure players, only knock them back) are likely inspired by the tight skirmish-friction of Gears of War; doing this would necessitate a couple more sentences, and we’ve already written three bonus paragraphs after only promising one.