RETRO GAME REPLAY | 'Gears of War' (2006)
War is a road to hell. Enjoy the ride.
Gears of War was awesome because it wanted to be. It cranked the volume of violent games to 11, letting you play hulking soldiers in bullet-tested armor wielding assault rifles with chainsaws on their end because that’s just awesome. And yet its trailer chased after a prestige “awesome” couldn’t afford, but that just made everything else about it awesome.
Did it tell us the story? Did it tell us anything? No. It broke every rule trailers uphold and sold raw emotion. And it worked: Gears of War was the fastest-selling game of 2006 and the fifth best-selling Xbox 360 game of all time. It has been nearly ten years, but gamers are still talking about it.
What of the game itself? Did it deserve to be decorated with a slew of “Game of the Year” awards and critical acclaim? What was it about this pseudo-horror, apocalyptic shooter starring soldiers the size of NFL linebackers that gave gamers hard-ons?
Because it was just so much fucking fun.
Fourteen years after “Emergency Day” when reptilian-like Locust emerged from underneath the planet Sera, Marcus Fenix is a soldier with a soul patch recruited out of prison to join a squad. Their task: end the war with the Locust once and for all. Why? For reasons unclear so spin-off books and comic books could be sold, but humanity is doomed and you have to save it.
Gears of War has a story because there has to be. It’s decorated with set-pieces of titanic scope ripped straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster, but the mythology and character motivations matter as much as it does for the Transformers movies. You can enjoy them, but it’s not what you came for.
Which makes the “Mad World” trailer baffling. Gary Jules’ cover of the Tears For Fears anthem of teenage angst doesn’t match the Vietnam-esque “war is hell” narrative Gears of War tries (and fails) to ape. The ad was cinematic and visceral — This is for a video game! How could they make ads like this for toys? — but it loses power when the end credits roll and you haven’t heard the song once. And your adrenaline is pumping because war is totally okay because it was survival. The “war” in Gears of War is hardly that. There’s no room for Vonnegut.
But it helps these goons you play talk like a good HBO sitcom. They’re not just soldiers, they’re MEN, and if you know MEN in WAR MOVIES they will always rag on each other but save each other’s asses every time. Marcus is your prototypical badass soldier, Dom is the best friend whose wife is his plot device, and two others — Cole, a former star athlete before the world went to shit who still walks with swagger, and Baird, an asshole — make up the gang. Other characters join (and die) from the core four, but they’re not as interesting.
First-person shooters like Call of Duty and Halo were the rage during the mid-aughts, but Gears of War chainsawed the trend in half. Epic Games didn’t invent the third-person shooter, but they perfected by fusing it with a unique cover-based mechanic reminiscent of Konami’s Kill Switch from 2003. This would later inspire games like Red Dead Redemption and Mass Effect, walking on the paths Gears of War paved.
Gears of War reveled in its immature maturity, and it pushed the visceral envelope just enough to become a mainstream success without looking like snuff for deviants. The Locust have fucked society up, so anything goes in Gears of War: chainsaw assault rifles, satellite-powered lasers that rain hell, grenades Dirty Harry-like revolvers that, with perfect aim, had enough punch to turn skulls into goop. And every blast felt good.
The mythology of Gears of War is weak sauce but the world you shoot up has been enough to enrich the games with books that gamers have actually cared to read. The game’s cities like Jacinto are silent characters throughout the series. They’re a breathtaking mix of Roman, Venetian, and western architecture; broken Roman spirals tower over burnt-out Japanese-style sedans, and rusted Victorian mansions and abandoned factories right out of the Industrial Revolution are roamed by robots and soldiers in metal.
The horrors Sera has endured is reflected weakly in the actual game experience, like Epic Games wanted to make a horror game but got too excited about their chainsaw rifle. As the series progressed Gears of War became an epic war that Megadeth could sing about — Oh hey, they actually did — but in its first outing Gears of War had a gothic, survival-horror texture that is underplayed. It was less an active war and more like you exploring the battlefield that had already been ravaged.
Looking back, Gears of War is almost quaint, like your rebellious teen years trying to be edgy but now it’s just kind of cute. Blood and curse words flowed like a river, but the lack of meaning and depth rings it hollow. But it still plays just as fresh as it did in the fall of 2006, and its legacy in perfecting the third-person shooting experience is woefully under-credited. With a fully remastered version coming to Xbox One later this summer, gamers will remember just how much fun that first chainsaw shred was.