Examining the key ingredients of Gears of War’s recipe for success.
Back in 2006, Microsoft and Epic Games took the industry by storm with a not-so-little game called Gears of War. Immediately upon release, it was met with widespread, unanimous acclaim, and immediately joined Halo in the upper echelons of Microsoft’s best first party franchises. And it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to call the original Gears of War one of the most influential games of the last couple of decades. Because Gears of War opened the floodgates for a veritable wave of cover shooters. Stop and pop shooting became the “in thing” in video games last generation, and Gears of War was the game to kick off that trend.
But the mark of a truly game is how well it ages- and here’s the thing about the original Gears. More than a decade on from its launch, in spite of all the ways not only the series itself, but the entire industry has moved forward, it still holds up. I recently went back and replayed the game, and I had just as much time ripping and tearing through wave upon wave of Locust as I did back when the game first came out.
But what is it that made Gears of War so good? What exactly what it that made the game tick, that made the entire industry sit up and take notice? In recent weeks, we’ve taken a look back at several great games and tried to identify their key strengths, from The Witcher 3 to The Last of Us to Spider-Man, and here in this feature, that’s what we’ll be doing for Gears of War as well. We’ll identify and talk about the three key elements that made it the industry-shaking revolution it turned out to be.
And the first – and the most obvious – element is the mechanics. Because Gears of War was, above all else, a bloody great game. Playing it was a blissful experience, and every action had a weight to it. The responsiveness and the feedback for nearly every single thing you did turned it into an experience unlike any other, and it’s not easy to achieve that sort of mechanical perfection (or as close to perfection as games can get, at any rate).
In the thirteen years that have passed since the game first came out, we’ve all sung countless plaudits about the weight of movement and combat in Gears. And really, the fact that even after six instalments and thirteen years, the series hasn’t felt the need to make any radical changes to the core moment-to-moment combat should tell you everything you need to know about how good it is.
Sure, Gears has added a whole lot on multiple fronts over the years, but that core has remained largely the same- and this is one of those rare instances where that’s actually a good thing. The fundamental mechanics of Gears of War are so good, so perfect, they’ll be just as compelling even twenty years from now.Taking cover and popping up to take aim feels good. Shooting at enemies and watching them get blown to chunks feels good. Using the Lancer’s chainsaw to rip enemies to shreds feels good.
Nothing exemplifies the mechanical perfectness of Gears of War better than the active reload mechanic. It’s so simple, yet genius in its simplicity. It’s not something that you have to interact with, and it’s not something that requires tough combos or upgrades or anything of the sort- it’s literally just a well-timed press of a button. That’s all it is- and yet it adds something tangible to the whole game. In the midst of an intense fight, surrounded by enemies, when you run out of ammo in a clip and perfectly time the next active reload to be able to let lose with renewed vigour lends so much thrill and agency to the combat.
What helped Gears of War elevate its combat to untouchable heights was its excellent level design- which is the second key element that we’re going to talk about. Gears was a strictly linear game, and its levels were little more than corridors and arenas designed specifically as combat encounters- but they shined exactly for that reason. Because they were designed around the combat, to leverage the game’s greatest strength, and they did a damn fine job it.
Each room, each corridor, each arena was a bespoke, handcrafted arena with strategically placed cover- it was’t just sacks of sand throw on top of each other haphazardly, or crates strewn about in random fashion. It was all carefully handcrafted, to make every encounter an intense and thrilling encounter. From the positioning of cover, to expertly placed chokepoints, to the more open arenas to allow players opportunities for flanking enemies, Gears of War knew – pretty much all the time – exactly how to shape itself to keep throwing new, interesting, and varied fights at the player.
I won’t fool myself into thinking it was revolutionary. It wasn’t extraordinary by any means, and there is a pretty valid case to be made that the constant forward momentum and linearity could lead to almost exhausting intensity at times. But it stood out because it was exactly as good as it needed to be, and because it was the perfect foil for the game’s excellent combat mechanics (which we’ve discussed at some length already).
With that, I’ll move on to the third key element of Gears of War’s genius. And while the first two elements have been strictly gameplay oriented and mechanical in nature, the third element is a bit more abstract- the atmosphere. Gears of War’s never won any awards for its story, and though the series undoubtedly has some great characters and pretty strong lore, all of these were things that would come into their own with the sequels (though the first game did set it all up pretty well). But while the first game in the series may not have excelled in those areas, the one area that it did excel in was the atmosphere.
Anyone who’s played the game knows exactly what I’m getting at- the horror vibes. Gears of War was by no means a typical horror game- in fact, it wasn’t a horror game at all. It was an all-out action shooter. But it definitely had some serious horror vibes. The Locus were a new and mysterious enemy- no one knew what they were, what they wanted, and where they came from, and the havoc they wreaked on the planet of Sera was absolutely devastating.
We also got to see the results of their war on the planet with out own eyes. Gears is often criticized for its abundant hues of brown and slightly darker brown, but within the context of the setting and the story, they made perfect sense. Trudging through the war-torn remains of Sera and seeing the remnants of its once-great cities and civilization was a chilling experience- and Gears of War did everything it could to constantly put it front and centre. Dark corridors, dim lighting, some truly horrific sights and sounds- Gears of War always knew how to keep its players on edge, and to make us feel like we were coming up against insurmountable odds.
Earlier in this feature, I mentioned that Gears of War’s true mark of greatness is the fact that even now, thirteen years after its launch, it’s still a great game to go back to. Its core strengths shine through even today, and while with many other great relatively older games, it’s often hard to go back to them after the improvements their own sequels or others in the genre make, that isn’t true for Gears of War. It’s still an excellent, thrilling, tight, and compelling romp- download the Ultimate Edition and give it a whirl if you don’t believe me. It’s a timeless game, one that had a tangible impact on the industry, and will always be remembered as one of the greats- and rightly so.