With the upcoming release of Gears of War 3, I thought I’d take the semi-topical opportunity to clear another little bit of writing from the hopper… and that is a look back at the original Gears of War.
Absolutely nothing about the pre-release hype sparked any interest in me for Gears; even the positive murmurs of the online enthusiast press failed to inspire curiosity. It all seemed so drab, so cynically testosterone-driven; the graphics that had other people drooling didn’t impress, and the constant giddiness surrounding the chainsaw-led enemy dismemberment was a genuine turnoff.
And then Gears was released.
My XBL Friends List went wild. All my friends seemed to be playing it, and my international forum-friends – having an extra week (or two) before the Australian release – started agreeing with the critical response, breathlessly raving about the graphical quality and storytelling approach. Now my curiosity was piqued: innovative storytelling, you say? Hmmmmm…
I found myself visiting my mailbox, as I am wont to do, after work on a Thursday evening; my regular bricks-and-mortar gaming store was just a block away. Maybe I’d just pop in, to… y’know…
I blame my frothing friends and retail therapy for the Limited Collector’s Edition tin I purchased; I even managed to snaffle the t-shirt (a laughable XL that fit like an S on my frame) and some (pointless) COG tags that had been reserved for pre-orders. I went home, the words of friends swimming through my mind in anticipation, and fired up my 360.
Straight away, I knew I’d made a mistake.
For all their detail, the visuals were as drab as I’d initially imagined; the chunky characters, lethargic controls, and forced dialogue left me genuinely distanced from the game. Even on the easiest difficulty setting, the bullet-sink enemies made combat feel unsatisfying; so much so that I couldn’t bring myself to finish even the first Act that evening, getting scared off by the guttural snarls of the Berserker. Returning to Gears for the weekend gave me a better glimpse at the “innovative” storytelling; alas, it failed to impress me. The comic relief of Dom, intended to contrast the overblown machismo of the player’s Marcus, barely raises a smile; most of the dialogue continued to feel B-movie-strained, with the storyline being propelled by the demise of previously unknown characters.
Act 3, in particular, demonstrated the best – and worst – that Gears had to offer; opening with wonderfully understated and atmospheric weather effects, the game turns to almost survival horror (a loathed genre) with the arrival of the Wretches. Abhorrent monster closet action breaks to a thrilling mine-cart ride and assault into gorgeous underground caverns; muscular macho posturing after the death of the Corpser, followed by the stereotypical jump for safety, make it feel like a Michael Bay-esque Hollywood action-fest.
But I hate Michael Bay’s movies. I prayed for Gears to end.
It took a lazy week to finish the game on Casual, and a peek at the Achievements left me depressed. Still, a friend in England loved the game, and wanted to play through it in co-op; off we went on the Hardcore difficulty, with most of the hosting being done in the southern hemisphere. It was noticeably tougher, to be sure, but with a friendly off-sider it was infinitely more enjoyable. The arrival of Cole inspired a bunch of friendly memes (“my throat is parched… woo!”), there was silly panic as we struggled through the Kryll driving section, and the surprise when the Corpser actually ran away from us… they were the memorable moments for me. The moments surrounding the game, not within it.
When we turned things around for the Insane difficulty, with the hosting being performed in the UK, I was gobsmacked: there was a tangible lag in the controls, with about a third of a second between squeezing the trigger and bullets being fired. To my mate’s credit, he’d never mentioned it when he’d played as Dom; I, however, was rendered useless. Unable to mentally compensate for the lag, my attacking moves were pointless, my defense comical. Separated, and unable to rely on my offsider’s host advantage, the mine-cart section took ages to push through… and the Wretch rail-car was almost Benny Hill-ish, as I ran around firing my shotgun in a seemingly random (and certainly ineffective) manner, waiting for my partner to pick off the enemies. Once RAAM got stuck on some geometry, it was over.
With the Campaign conquered, I looked at the remaining Achievements… shit. All were based on ranked matches, and I was reluctant to go online with strangers; my experiences in other games had left poor impressions of ranked games being packed with selfish shitulent children. So, against every OCD fibre in my being, I reluctantly reconciled myself to the fact that there were a huge number of Achievements that would not be Achieved… completion percentage be damned. But then the Annex-related DLC hit the Marketplace, with 250 GS that could be achieved outside of ranked matches… I broke out the second controller and ground out (what felt like) the millions of Annex matches locally. Then, stuck in the middle of an Achievement-per-Day run, I swallowed my fear of the unknown and ventured online to score my “Always Remember Your First” Achievement (for my first online ranked match) – and my fears about the online community were confirmed. What a bunch of wankers! Two games, a lot of juvenile smack-talking (to a n00b, no less), less-than-a-handful of chainsaw kills, and I was willing to kiss Gears goodbye, languishing in half-completeness.
Late in 2010 I found myself aimlessly drifting between little gaming projects; sadly, none of them were sticking. None of them were compelling enough to persevere with. I’d start a seemingly small task, spend a couple of days making significant progress, before letting it slide off with indifference.
I felt the need for something bigger to sink my teeth into; a task that was big enough that any progress represented Good Progress, but was daunting enough to not immediately burn out on. Something with numbers that accumulated would be nice, something with accumulated statistics that I could plonk into a spreadsheet and extrapolate expected completion dates, then attempt to drag that date ever closer; those sorts of things really tick my mental boxes.
And that massive number associated with Gears‘ most revered Achievement sprang into my mind: ten thousand kills in ranked online matches. Ten thousand… that’s a pretty big number.
I thought I’d start by researching. The boosting community in 2010 was far far far more substantial than that of previous years, with the advent of sites like True Achievements facilitating the congress of likeminded people hankering for the same goal; I signed up for a couple of Gears boosting sessions. Now, I had no idea what to expect from the boosting, but after the first session, after I saw the 30 minute breaks afforded by the spawn boosting method, I thought that this would actually work in well with other little projects of mine. I figured I could do something else productive in those breaks – write blog posts, do my taxes, clean up e-mail, pound my way through Chrono Trigger again.
That never happened, though.
Instead, I found myself talking to people.
I’ve written before about the start of my boosting escapades, and of the joy contained therein, so I won’t cover that again (except to thank nearly everyone who helped me out over that mad month – you know who you are!). But as I wrote the opening paragraphs of this piece, I realised that my time with Gears of War was largely enjoyable; not because of the game itself, but more because of the social interactions it inadvertently encouraged. From taking the piss out of its testosterone-fuelled “story”, through to a silly New Years Eve boosting session consisting of wine and smoke grenades, and that shared thrill within the group when someone’s Achievement popped… they were the bits that made Gears of War a special game.
Not some stupid bloody chainsaw on an ineffective machine gun held by a chunky nouveau-emo muscle boy.