I spent last weekend obsessively playing Gears of War Ultimate Edition co-op on Xbox One. It took about four days (maybe 18 hours) to finish it, with both of us playing on Hardcore difficulty. I had played some of the original game before on Xbox 360, but playing co-op is a whole new experience, and the game looks fantastic on Xbox One — the colors technically brighter while still maintaining the original’s shadowy atmosphere. It was so much fun playing, I want to continue with 2 and 3 even though they were not in my plans anytime this year… And I also kind of want a Dominic Santiago action figure.
Gears of War visuals are pretty dark and dirty. The game takes place on a fictional planet, Sera, which has been colonized by humans. Fourteen years prior to the start of the game, aliens known as the Locust emerged from underground and started attacking humans there. This leaves the planet in a post-apocalyptic state, which Gears captures through murky skies and a mostly colorless landscape.
I’m not usually a fan of post-apocalyptic stuff, but that’s because so much of it revolves around zombies or plagues or something along those lines. It’s a little tired, to me. But Gears does things differently.
It’s like the game has taken what was once a beautiful place and torn it apart. The world is filled with crumbling buildings. When you take cover, it’s often behind the protection of sandbag piles, a slab of brick, or the soulless husk of a car that must have had an engine once.
Every place you go in the game looks forsaken. There’s never a reprieve from this — no secret military fortress where things inside are clean and crisp. I never felt like protagonist Marcus Fenix and the rest of his squad were going to be sleeping in soft beds at the end of their days fighting. It’s just a shithole, from one end of the place to the other. But kind of a beautiful one.
In spite of how dark and gritty this atmosphere is throughout the game, the settings are surprisingly varied once you get used to that. There’s a factory overrun with wretches. A house that feels haunted, where you need lights on at all times so the bat-like kryll don’t devour you in the darkness. An estate so abandoned, it looks like a greenhouse. A run-down theater.
One of my favorite places was the Fenix estate. Set on top of a hill, with a light snowfall, it’s an abandoned mansion that’s really interesting for feeling so intimate — maybe because it’s personal to Marcus — yet being so ripped-up and lonely. In the front courtyard, there are sandbags for cover. Inside the estate are fading portraits, holes in the walls, and furniture that I imagined had layers of dirt and dust on them, from warfare and neglect. You spend quite a bit of time here, head-shotting enemies in the courtyard while perched in the bedroom upstairs, and even fighting through the wine cellars. The Locust are everywhere.
Combat in Cover
In all cases, the environments provide a lot of cover. That’s what Gears of War is about — it’s a third-person, cover-based shooter. A lot of outdoor locations have those sandbag trenches.
The funny thing is that there are several instances where you can take control of a turret, blasting enemies with the glee of knowing you won’t run out of ammo. The problem is that it’s very risky to leave yourself exposed like that, in a game where cover is so necessary. I died a couple times taking a turret; I also killed a lot of enemies behind one.
The gameplay is also varied by setting. For instance, there’s one section, in a factory, where you have to make your way across rotten boards without falling into the sewage below. I fell in several times and had to fight wretches to make it back to the ladder, returning to the rotten boards to try a different path. Eventually, I made it across in one piece.
Another area, outside, is filled with kryll. They’re like bats that will eat you alive in the dark. (It’s cool to see they’ll eat your enemies alive, too. It’s all the same to them.) To get through the area, you have to shoot little tanks to set fire to them, lighting your path. Later, you jump in a vehicle with a UV light, which you use to burn the kryll as they near you.
There are also a few timed missions. Usually these are very brief, but they always make me nervous. The one I had to replay several times was early in the game, when you lead an enemy outside to a courtyard to kill them. You have to literally lure the thing toward you, dodge, and let it hurl itself through a wall — multiple times. I don’t even know why I worried so much about the time limit, because I never actually ran out of time — I died before that could ever happen.
One of the most fun parts of playing was using the Lancer assault rifle, which has a secret weapon: a chainsaw that can be used as a melee weapon. I didn’t use it nearly enough to become skilled with it, so I always felt like there was a little delay when I pulled it out and started sawing — a delay that could cause me to die before I could use it. That’s why I usually busted out my shotgun for melee attackers instead… but that Lancer is pretty iconic for Gears, I think.
There are a few enemies that are comically simple to take down despite their impressive size — and others that are surprisingly tough considering how small they are.
Boomers are the easy ones. They’re huge, stomping out at the end of battles like mini-bosses, with Boomshot grenade launchers. The thing is, those weapons take forever to reload, and you only fire one shot at a time. Before shooting, the Boomer yells, “Boom!” like it’s giving you a heads up. This means you can just take cover somewhere and fire away while they’re busy reloading; when they say “Boom,” you just duck until the blast has soared past your head… then pop back out of cover and continue your assault.
On the other hand, I had a lot of trouble with wretches. They’re tiny, jumpy things that ambush you with melee attacks. They remind me a lot of the husks in Mass Effect, which I also struggled with. (I just don’t do melee in shooters.) I had to scramble for my shotgun and frantically back up while reloading it to take down hordes of them. The best thing you can do is spot them from a distance and shoot them down, one at a time, before they reach you. Dark wretches offer an added challenge, as they explode on death, stealing a good chunk (and sometimes all) of your health when they do.
Another interesting thing I noticed is that at least one section of the game has some unpredictability when it comes to enemy patterns. Usually, when you die and have to restart an area, the exact same enemies appear in the exact same spots. This makes it easy to learn your route and prepare for it on your second, third, or hundredth time trying to get through it.
However, in a co-op mission in the factory, my partner and I had to take separate paths. We ended up in side-by-side rooms but couldn’t reach each other. Replaying this area, in some cases, my room would be overrun with wretches, while my partner’s would be clear. Other times, my partner got the wretches and I didn’t. This unpredictability seemed to continue throughout the rest of the section in terms of when the wretches appeared for each of us. I didn’t test this theory, but I think it has to do with who presses a button first. We both have to find doors in our respective rooms and press a button to open them, and I believe the person who gets to their button first gets the enemies, or vice versa. In any case, it was refreshing not knowing what was coming — if a little panic-inducing.
Playing with a Partner
The real fun of my Gears of War experience this time comes in with co-op. Gears of War is pretty revolutionary in nearly perfecting co-op. I don’t have a lot of experience playing with other people, other than playing all the Halo games co-op this past year (except Reach), but I can tell you I love the way Gears does things and have a hard time believing it could get better, at least in a shooter.
There are a few reasons Gears co-op is so good:
Separate Difficulty Settings
You and your co-op partner can choose different difficulties, which is really cool if one of you is a more experienced player than the other. It has to do with your character’s health and how many shots it takes to down an enemy.
In my case, my partner and I both chose to play on Hardcore, but I wish the option were available in all co-op games; I probably would have played Halo on an easier setting!
There are no clones in Gears of War… The host player is protagonist Marcus Fenix, while the other player is assigned his squadmate Dominic Santiago. (I was Dom.) You also have two AI squadmates joining you, Augustus Cole and Damon Baird. Each has a unique personality, and the banter between them is a lot of fun to get to know them.
Having your own character gives you a sense of ownership over your experience. It personalizes it. It also makes the game feel more realistic, as you and your co-op partner are not clones of each other but are individuals who are in this together — not just as players on the couch, but as characters in the game.
Gears of War features wounds as well as deaths, and if you’re wounded, your co-op partner can rush to you on the battlefield to heal you. This feels very realistic; Marcus even yells, “Fight through the pain!” after treating Dom, implying that he’s patching him up to get through the battle.
It also adds some challenge to the game, because it can be really tricky wading through enemies to make it to your partner. Apparently, you can bleed out when wounded if you’re not healed in time, but this never happened in my game. However, there were a few times when I saved my partner only to be immediately taken down myself, or vice versa. Once, I was wounded by a turret on a staircase, but when my partner revived me there, I stood up (this automatically happens) and immediately got shot down again. This happened three times in a row. It was just a bad spot.
One of the coolest things about Gears of War co-op (and the most challenging) is that in several instances, you have to choose two different paths. The host player chooses the path they want — right or left, sniper high ground or battlefield — and their partner is automatically assigned to the other. (Obviously, being that second player, I called dibs when I could since I couldn’t make the selection in-game!) It’s a lot of fun providing cover from above while your partner shoots and chainsaws his way through the muck… or vice versa.
In these split paths, you are not able to reach each other on the battlefield — which means if one of you is wounded, it’s over, and you both have to restart the mission. I can’t tell you how many times we had to restart the Campus Grinder mission and the theater section due to the difficulty this adds. However, I liked the challenge of having to be more careful as I progressed. A few times, my partner suggested we switch places, but I never really wanted to because it felt good learning your route and mastering it.
These sections can also be fun for watching your partner make their way, seeing how the paths differ (and often require different skill sets, such as sniping abilities versus melee).
All of these things made me fall in love with Gears of War this month. I always knew I liked the first game, but I had never finished it and wouldn’t call myself a superfan. However, now I’m dying to play the next two games. I may play them solo on Xbox 360, if I can’t bring myself to wait for Xbox One backwards compatibility this fall. We’ll see…