Receiving huge hype and easily ranked as one of the highest-profile titles of 2006, the Gears of War assault machine was successful in generating buzz, selling millions of copies and taking the lead in Microsoft's holiday charge. It certainly became the new reason to own a 360 according to most sources, but was it all that it could have been? I think it depends on perspective.
In my view, Gears provides an unsatisfactory experience for the solo player-- something I classify as an unforgivable sin. However, in spite of being less than impressed with what I usually regard as the most important aspect, I'm going to agree with the majority and call it a success. Why? More than the retail numbers, more than the stunning graphics, and yes, even more than the messy chainsaw melee kill, I'll remember Gears of War as the game that brought co-op back.
First and foremost, players' initial impression of Gears of War will likely be awe at the magnificent visuals. Although too much of the game exists in various shades of gray, there's no question that the amount of electronic opulence on display is currently second to none. Without overstating the case, it impresses in every area from the major elements all the way down to the fine details, but once past its formidable appearance there really isn't a lot to it.
A third-person shooter with heavy emphasis on taking cover, Gears' play style is very familiar and instantly accessible. Although labeled "stop and pop" as opposed to the traditional "run and gun", there isn't much here that hasn't been seen in other games. However, it's worth noting that the intelligent control layout makes it effortless to get into the action and rapidly absorb the nearly-nonexistent learning curve.
Sadly, in contrast to the cleverness displayed in its welcoming mechanics, the story mode feels flat and unimaginative. Utterly failing to create memorable characters or an engaging tale, logic and narrative continuity don't exist in the Gears universe. Lead designer Cliff Bleszinski has stated in interviews that he didn't want to weigh the game down and overwhelm players with too much story, but Gears' plot is laughable, and barely capable of stringing the impressive-looking set pieces together. With such anemic effort in this area, it feels almost as though Gears of War is less a complete game and more a solid technical framework within which to place one.
Other aspects of the adventure are also surprisingly weak, like the small number of enemy types, limited interaction and mobility within environments, and transparent pre-scripted segments that hearken back to games from generations past. As just one example, I was stuck at a door, unable to unlock it. I had somehow managed to make my way past the invisible "trigger point" meant to unleash a surprise enemy, and since I hadn't killed that particular enemy, I couldn't move forward. Once the enemy was dead, the door unlocked... and I scoffed. Oh, and there are minecarts. Nextgen design philosophy, this is not.
Although I wasn't impressed by the campaign mode, what I was impressed by was the ability to go through said campaign mode with a friend over Microsoft's Live service. Having the opportunity to crack Mystery Science Theater-style jokes in between giving directions and covering my teammate's six gave me a reason to keep coming back when the absurd plot and straightforward action weren't enough.
Plenty of other games have online multiplayer, but I'm a player who needs a goal; an objective or a reason to keep pushing forward against all odds. Although I've saved the world and even several universes by myself many times over, the chance to take on an entire adventure with another living, breathing person added the unique kind of excitement and addiction that's been missing from console games for far too long.
One of my favorite moments from the game was being perched comfortably behind cover and taking potshots at a lethal enemy gun emplacement. I had practically no chance of getting a headshot on the Locust soldier manning it, so I kept myself busy by being a target and making sure the heavy cannon was aimed at me. At the same time, my brother was slowly working his way towards the gunner, hopping behind fallen pillars and crumbling blocks, keeping out of sight while I talked him through it. It was a thing of beauty to watch him from a distance, slowly creeping... when the Locust exploded into a shower of unidentifiable parts with both my brother and I untouched, it was icing on the cake.
This co-op feature was extremely welcome and exciting enough to make me forgive Gears of War for its various trespasses. I couldn't help but celebrate the appearance of a full-length multiplayer option that didn't involve repetitively gunning down strangers in the kind of standardized fragfest that's become all too common in the last few years. (That fragfest is also in there for those who want it, but it kept my attention for less than an afternoon.)
Call me a jaded critic, a wet blanket, or anything else, but I'm not going to be dazzled into submission by stunning visuals and overlook a core game design that doesn't impress—but I do give credit where credit is due. My hat is off to Epic for bringing back a completely engaging style of play that hasn't been in vogue (or even possible) for quite some time. Its significance is not lost on me, and I'm hoping with both fingers crossed that the opening co-op salvo Gears of War unleashed is merely the start of a continuing trend.