Gears of War

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.

Until…

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.

8 thoughts on “Gears of War”

  1. Brilliant read mate.

    I too bought GoW because everyone else was raving about it, but I couldn’t even bring myself to complete Act 1 it was so bloody awful.

    Not gone back to it since, and doubt I ever will…

  2. You know, at times during reading this post I felt like you were writing it just for me. You weren’t, of course, but I guess our similar experiences — being both completionists — correlate enough that it certainly reminded me of my own thoughts, again and again.

    I disagree about the general view you have of the game. I did like it, from the art direction to the sadistic brutality of the game’s weapons, but I understand the reasoning and in some ways share it. Gears has always been a mindless experience for me — something to engage in because it might be fun (to pop someone’s head off with the Longshot or frag tag them before making a quick (and lucky) dive away from the inevitable explosion) to do so, or because of the social experience that you cover so well. It’s not going to be like a BioShock or something (I probably shouldn’t use that example, actually, given my fanboy status…) where I’m paying full attention and expecting to be fully engrossed in the experience; it’s simply going to be something where I press some buttons, make some cool shit happen, and forget about it again when the console is powered down. Because of this approach, I have somewhat of a soft spot for the franchise, though as I’ve recently suggested (in my last comment) that fondness was nearly wiped away due to the tedium involved with certain completion requirements.

    I get that such boredom is a result of my particular habits of play, however, so while the relationship soured momentarily it’s certainly back on track, too — perfect timing given the impending conclusion of the trilogy, though as I have also implied I probably won’t be experiencing that finale this year.

    Which brings me to the social component. You’re already vaguely aware of the woes and hardship I endured to obtain that 10,000th kill (well, more like 11k, but you know what I mean), and again grinding to level 100 in Gears 2. Well, for every bad memory — of which there are many, there are probably ten more that are positive, and it’s because of the social aspect of the game. It was the first true co-operative experience for me, as Halo and the like prior to it were only dabbled in when I was lucky enough to be in the same vicinity as other gamers. I ran through the campaign three times in co-op, the difficulty increasing each and every time, and I had an absolute blast the entire way. Then it was time to venture into multiplayer and as such, player matches were had. Nightly. For weeks. Which turned to months. We (me and the main person I was playing it with) me plenty of new people who made those players matches get better as they went on, and it was just a genuinely fun experience. Eventually these people moved onto other games so, with that, it was time for Ranked matches because of the achievements.

    I thought, given the experience obtained in player matches, that the progress towards 10k kills would be gradual but delightful, and that the only real difference between the two would be the appearance of randoms, rather than familiar faces. Boy, was I wrong. It took about eight months all up and they were definitely some of the most horrible gaming moments I have ever had. That community was abhorrent, a real disease on (what I thought to be) an otherwise fun multiplayer game. The arrogance, profanity and bravado on display was disgusting — the fact that I started to become like them through frustration was even worse; thank god I’ve gained control of that again — and yeah, it was just an abysmal environment to be involved with. But, completion desires over-ruled being smart and ditching that scene, and so I pressed on until it I finally achieved my goal eight months later.

    Thankfully there were some good times mixed into those eight months, usually when playing with the aforementioned friends together, but I guess the discrepancies highlight just how positive and negative an online environment can be, and how quickly attitudes can change towards any game out there. Will I bite the bullet and put that burden on myself, once more, when it’s time for me to play Gears 3? I can’t answer that, but something tells me at the same time that it’s a pretty obvious one…

    Also, holy crap, long arse comment. Hope you didn’t mind the wall of text too much — clearly these series gives me a lot to say…

  3. Hi Muttley! FWIW, after the warm fuzzy glow of the boosting-fest for Seriously, I went back and played through the game again earlier this year. Doing so just confirmed my suspicion that Gears and I were just never meant to be together. She showed me some good times, but in the end she was a real nightmare to hang around :}

  4. TL;DR.

    …only joking. Hi Steven! When you said “I felt like you were writing it just for me,” I didn’t think you meant “here’s my own blog post!” ;)

    Seriously, though, we couldn’t have had more differing experiences. You loved the game, and persevered with the multiplayer out of bloody-minded completionism; I hated the game, only attacked the multiplayer out of bloody-minded completionism, and wound up loving all the socialising around it (indeed, in spite of it). The only commonality, really, is that OCD tick and the 1250 gamerscore ;)

    What did your Seriously pop at, can you remember? You said 11k – low or high elevens? (Mine was 13,166)

  5. Even though some of my commentary (and how easily I can go on and on about the game) would suggest otherwise, I wouldn’t say that I love the game. Or I guess I would — as I said yesterday, I quite enjoy that mindless, sadistic, gorefest — but it is not the kind of love that I usually think about when I consider the games that are dearest to my heart.

    Semantics aside, I think mine hit at around 11,700 or so. So beyond 10k as most people’s experiences were, but not as bad as some stories. I remember hearing of people who had hit 20k and still nothing, so it’s certainly a varied mix. Thank god that game is over for the both of us, eh?

    Though, having said that, I’m playing Test Drive Unlimited 2 right now and, after what feels like over hundreds of hours (granted, a lot of those are me just driving around because it’s nice to do so), I am still nowhere near finished. Probably not even halfway. What is with us completionists and long, grindy games?

  6. What is it about us completionists? Well, I can only comment for myself when I say that it’s abject short-sightedness – certainly in the case of Gears, and even in cases like After Burner Climax, which will haunt me forever (despite its incredibly easy Achievements, there’s one aspect of that game that will niggle my OCD forever – and a little research would have easily revealed that prior to purchase commitment.

    11.7k was pretty good, especially if you were running with randoms (and all their flaky network connections). Just out of (terrifying) interest: how long do you reckon you spent on F-Zero GX?

  7. I was younger back then so I didn’t really pay attention to the time such endeavours would take like I do now (and I forget if the game has a clock where I can, y’know, actually check), but not as long as you might think. Everyone expects me to have put it 500 hours or more into that game when they hear about what I did, but it was much less than that. Because I can’t remember for sure, I am going to say around 200-300 hours, but if I were to guess it would be much closer to 200.

    It’s a long game generally speaking, but getting through it (on easier difficulties and etc.) is pretty easy and happens relatively quick, so the majority of those hours is doing that, then a gradual effort to work towards full completion whilst also playing it for fun because I loved it so much. It was one of (if not the) hardest things I have ever done in games, but because I was enjoying it the whole time and appreciated the challenge — after so many racing games posing no problems at all — the time went by quickly and, now, it is almost as if I never did it.

    Kind of like both Gears games, actually — I know they were big commitments that took an immense amount of time and dedication to get through, but now that they are over and have been for quite some time, it feels as if I never did them. Going through the process again with Wipeout HD, however, ensures that, deep down, I know full well that I accomplished what I did in F-Zero GX, that I should be proud of it, and that goddamn it, Nintendo need to release a new game in the series! :)

  8. I’ve unlocked all the races in F-Zero GX myself, but I used a heavily customised machine to do it – and, if I recall correctly, there’s a chunk of stuff you can only witness (post-race interview bits?) if you finish in stock racers. And, quite frankly, that scares the shit out of me. That, combined with the fact that I haven’t even beaten the Story Mode on the easiest difficulty level, leads my to believe that you’re a legend if you can finish GX inside a lifetime. Well played, sir! :)

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