Coming out just before Halo 3 was released onto the Xbox 360, Gears of War managed to be the game that was in the right place at just the right time. People were hungry for a definitive action game for the 360 and this title stepped up. Third person shooters had steadily been evolving on the PS2 for some time, but Gears deserves credit for honing this design to its essential elements. It borrows from the “over-the-shoulder” camera of Resident Evil 4 while using the left-trigger aiming that was popularized in the Call of Duty series. The cover system was inspired by Space Defender and Kill Switch.
Coupled with this critically acclaimed melding of ideas is a plot that has received a much more mixed response. The macho setting of Gears of War has been criticized for being shallow and for its homoerotic undertones. At its core, the game is mostly a classic retelling of the standard ‘Dude War Story’. The characters may be cliché and their relationship by the numbers, but it’s the same classic formula that people have relied on for centuries. For the purposes of this essay, I played and beat the game on co-op with a friend split-screen at Hardcore difficulty.
One of the more effective elements of the design are the destructible spawn points. The awkwardly named ‘Emergence Hole’ will produce enemies indefinitely until you throw a grenade into it. Shooting enemies will not be enough when one appears, you’ve got to push forward and get a grenade lobbed in before you use up too much ammo. This creates a sense of tension and provokes tactics that go beyond just finding a safe spot and shooting. The player must move away from cover and move towards an objective eventually. Incorporated with this tension are two innovative timing designs: the Lancer’s bayonet and reloading. You have to get the chainsaw moving a second or two before the enemy closes in, getting hit while revving the Lancer means the saw shuts off. Reloading also throws in a timing element by having a sliding bar while you reload. Hit the reload button a second time when the slider is at just the right spot and you reload faster and gain a damage boost. Hit it at the wrong time and you botch the reload. Making the player have to manage additional tasks mid-combat without them being distracting is a tricky challenge and the game manages it elegantly.
Gears ‘ combat stands apart because it generates tension on all fronts: enemies, reloading, and even close range all must be managed with more care than typical shooters. The only flaw in this elaborate system is the split up sections. Most of the levels are well developed sprawls that give me a variety of choices for choosing how to engage a situation. The split-up portions, however, are often the complete opposite. Not only does dying suddenly become an insta-lose for the player, solutions to combat situations are often linear as well. It was designed to make the two players work in a coordinated manner while separated, such as taking out turrets while the other is pinned down, but it’s such a change of pace from the rest of the game that it’s mostly nerve racking. Every time the split-up option appears, be prepared to start over incessantly as you slowly learn what the game wants you to do through trial and error. Part of why choice is so important in a game’s level is that the player is much more likely to figure out the solution to a problem if there is more than one.
The setting of the game is planet Sera, where war with an underground race has left everything a smoldering wreck. The story details Delta squad’s mission to successfully map the underground catacombs where the aliens live and launch a bomb into it. Although the plot doesn’t require much explaining, the game’s setting is a clever take on the epic hero story. Roger Travis, a Classics professor, made the connection between the achievement oriented stories of epic poetry and writes on it regularly. The concerns with collecting superior weapons, fighting skill, and roleplay are all key elements of The Iliad and The Odyssey and are equally applicable in games. What’s interesting is how much Gears of War even relies on the characters of The Iliad as stereotypes to base their own cast on. Marcus Fenix is an easy stand-in for the cold and enterprising Odysseus, Baird’s constant complaining and sarcasm echo of Achilles, while Cole Train is an obvious candidate as the hulking Ajax. I have trouble placing Dom but I’d say Menelaos is the best fit since his wife is constantly motivating him. Keep in mind I’m not trying to compare the two, everything from Robin Hood to the Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles relies on these same character formulas. The smart one, the uptight leader, the strong guy, these are all the characters you continually see in various combinations in any war story. Cliffy B. explains their popularity in an interview,”Oftentimes what an experienced person sees as clichéd a neophyte experiences as fresh and exciting. Now, it’s true that some of the Gears universe is very conventional in regards to what science fiction is. That is by design. We never wanted Marcus to be a one legged emo space alien; he’s a badass with a deep voice.”
Planet Sera, much like Troy, is a place that has known nothing but war for years. Fourteen years of fighting have gone by before the first game even starts, while with The Iliad the war has been going on for ten. The COGs are also an interesting take on the epic hero. Several moments throughout the game we see normal humans, which are much smaller and fragile in comparison to the enormous muscles and armor of the COG soldiers. In The Iliad the same distinction exists: there are the epic heroes and then there are the normal people. Odysseus is the only person who can use an enormous bow, Achilles is the only person strong enough to lift his giant spear. Part of the relationship an epic hero has with the rest of the world is blatant superiority over others and how each character manages that. Several missions involve forcing the normal humans to supply you with a car or destroying their propane supplies. Missions like this help enhance the epic role the player is inhabiting: you are stronger and more dangerous than these people and the narrative echoes this.
The homoerotic undertones of both stories often come under fire from the internet. Blogger Aezeal comments that most of this seems to just come from the fact that the game almost entirely involves men. He explains, “What we’ve managed to do is conflate homosocial and homoerotic, though this is hardly new to videogames, or even this particular videogame. There exists a cultural standard that a single-sex environment is rife with sexual tension in some way that will release itself in homoerotic and lusty propositions of which no one will ever speak.” As Aezeal summarizes later in the post, the game isn’t really homoerotic, it’s our culture that constantly sees it everywhere.
Rounding all this out is that the narrative sticks to its strengths. These epic heroes are being sent on a suicide mission and always pulling through just at the last second. Mitch Krpata noted in his write-up on the sequel that the second game lost this cohesion when it becomes a story about assaulting the Locust homes. Constantly being outgunned makes jumping behind cover satisfying in a way that is supported by Marcus’ grim attitude or Cole’s grim humor. Also fleshing this out is the fact that both Marcus and Cole are celebrities themselves, receiving gushing praise from people when they realize who they are. Both aspects bring out their roots as being characters based on the classic stereotypes created in The Iliad.
The last boss, General RAAM, is an appropriate conclusion to this concept. His only lines are garbled and impossible to understand, allowing the player to relate to him only at the most basic level. He is larger than the other grubs, they clearly bow to his orders, and is easily a stand-in for the Locust’s own epic hero. The two on one showdown before igniting the Light Mass bomb is the same kind of epic duel that we see in The Iliad, Westerns, and countless games. This is their big guy, their main epic hero. And we, on the side of humanity, are the ones who have to take him down. Gears of War takes all the thematic elements of epic poetry and neatly transfers it to a sci-fi video game.