This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Gears of War: Ultimate Edition.
"Oh boy, a review not only of a fucking HD remake, but an HD remake of the game that first introduced us to cover-based shooting with much the same effect as when Kurt Cobain was introduced to the wonderful world of home defence solutions! Better call the aeroplane bathroom maintenance crew, 'cause some shit's about to start flying!" Well, the funny thing is, viewer, that after a lengthy string of indie games, sandboxes, interactive stories, and whatever the fuck that Godzilla thing was, I found myself hankering for a bit of good old-fashioned linear shooty action, even if I would have to spend most of it cuddling a chest-high wall with a suit of armour the size of a boat that I'm not so much wearing as, "vaguely located inside".
Absence makes the heart grow fonder; maybe the distaste I developed for cover-based shooting was rooted more in its overexposure than its inherent godawfulness. Now that it's the generic sandbox that feels like the overexposed thing, it'd be nice to kill baddies without having to climb to the top of a radio mast first and peep through their changing room windows with high-power binoculars.
The other thing is that I'd never gotten around to playing through Gears of War 1. I've only done 2 and 3, and obviously I lost some of the impact of the plot moments in those games since I lacked the necessary background. I tried really hard to remember some of those plot moments. I think there was a bit with a giant worm in Gears of War 2. I do remember a moment in Gears of War 3 where Marcus Fenix got very cross and yelled at someone. Everything else kind of blurs together into a smelly grey-brown cloud in big stompy boots.
What I was really after was some context as to why we hate the Locust when the only reason given for hating them is that they're ugly, violent and keep yelling mean things, in which case Marcus Fenix probably shouldn't be throwing stones. It would be different if we were on Earth. Fuck the Locust if they were invading Earth, the audience automatically has an investment in defending Earth 'cause all our stuff is there. But we're not on Earth. I think they did say the name of the planet, but then someone said, "Scratch one grub!", and my brain died a little bit.
A cruel person might say that Gears of War is an odd candidate for HD remakes as prettying it up is the very definition of a lost cause. "Hey, remember all that greyish-brown cluttered garbage? Well, now it glistens a bit as well, like the dog's been licking it." Without a side-by-side comparison, I couldn't tell you if there's been a massive visual improvement. But just in practical terms, I still had the most tremendous difficulty telling the enemy apart from my NPC squad members at first glance, 'cause they tended to die at roughly the same rate and are all built like the Sugar Puff monster cosplaying as a Doom 3 environment. And there's some really wonky animation whenever a character has to do something more athletic than waddle into a corner. You'll see a dude run up to a chest-high wall, then there'll be a violent flurry of poorly-animated limbs, and then they'll be on the other side of the chest-high wall, shooting me in the face. I suppose there's only so much one can do to make a vault animation look natural when the vaulter is so loaded with down with muscle and armour they probably couldn't walk across a room without their grizzled thighs sanding their own balls off.
Don't you just hate when a game has four difficulty settings? I'm a devout Medium man. Easy just doesn't stimulate, and I lack the time to get really autistically good enough for Hard. So when I'm offered Medium A and Medium B, it immediately sets off a harrowing identity crisis. On this occasion I thought, "Well, I've played enough shooters in my time, and I did remember to put on my big boy trousers this morning, let's lean towards the hard end of Medium." That, in retrospect, was a mistake. I should have remembered that Gears of War was the introduction of cover-based shooting. And when you're introducing a mechanic, you have to make it really important so that players can fully appreciate the brickwork rubbing companionably against their cheek. To that end, if you stand up for more than one second, the immediate area gets filled with so many bullets that I don't know if I died from blood loss or suffocation. What the burbling cock-dribble are we even wearing this bulky suit of armour with the practicality of a wheelie bin with arm-and-leg holes cut out for if it can take fewer hits than an asthmatic bong user? The Locust can take it, mind, 'cause this is the bone-idlest approach to higher difficulty settings in action: they just crank up the enemy health or crank down the player's damage output. Either way, the end result is you keep firing and they keep defiantly titty-shaking until they get bored, jump over your cover and shotgun your top half of your bottom half as you try to wrench yourself away from your amorous chest-high wall, and it feels like the chainsaw bayonet thing only works when the butterfly of chaos theory isn't flapping its wings.
I suppose the point of this whole exercise was to see how Gears of War holds up nine years on, and incidentally most classy people would have held out for the ten-year anniversary, Microsoft. I guess you didn't want to bank on getting through another year without every single Xbone imploding from sheer force of suck. And I suppose I have my answer, 'cause I went into this thinking, "Boy, I could just do with some nice, straight forward cover-based shooting for once", and came out of it thinking, "Boy I could just do with a mule kick to the gonads". If only the games industry had had that epiphany so quickly the first time around. Cover-based shooting is lame, and like all lame things, it needs a crutch. Uncharted had adventure set pieces, Kane and Lynch 2 had sweaty buttocks. Gears of War was certainly part of our education in that area, but re-releasing it feels like re-releasing the loom.
You know what I think we did learn over the past not-quite-a-decade? Cover-based gameplay is better suited to stealth than to shooting, using it to creep up on someone as you think, "Little does he know I'm about to slash his ankles up until his Achilles tendons flap about like drawstrings on a hoodie." That's dynamic and proactive and various other words middle-managers like. Cover-based shooting, meanwhile, is fairly static and reactive. "Little does he know I'm about to pop up and shoot back in a minute just like I've done seventeen times already. But this time I'll be one meter further to the right!" And another thing we learned since 2006 is that it helps if your human characters are the slightest bit relatable. Or indeed human rather than twenty litres of chunky beef stew poured into a onesie and taught how to swear.
- In arrears of war: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I'm away next week on my first actual holiday in like five years so if you've got a problem with that then feel free to eat my ass
- Yes thank you I know technically Kill Switch did cover shooting first