Christmas, huh, what is it good for? It's good for opening a window on our Fairtrade advent calendar. Mmmhmmmm!
What lies within?
HOLY SHIT! It's chocolate! Om nom nom nom! OM NON NOM NOM!
I bet YOU want something too, eh? Well how about this:
It's: Gears Of War!
The first think that struck me about Gears Of War was how clumsy and slow I felt. Clearly, this was a kind of cognitive hangover brought on by years of circle-strafing and unnatural leaping. As "physical" entities the protagonists of most FPS games have been more like sped-up monkeys than they have been like real human beings, and the lumber beasts of the Gears Of War universe act rather more like real people than many previous shooters. Consequently the initial outing feels clumsy and weird - and that's compounded by the doubled up leap/take cover key. Much has been made of the absurd carved-from-bicep physic of everyone in GoW, but the truth is that they move and cower a bit more like real people than previous shooters, and that alone was the main and crucial innovation that makes this game an interesting one to chew on.
The realisation that diving behind cover is cool and fun has been a slow one for shooter developers, but it's now basically come of age across the genre. From Brothers In Arms to Stalker, suddenly you're making sure you can get behind a log. Of course it seems so obvious, but proper use of cover, being and to lean, or blind-fire, or stay down to regain health, are elements that really have taken their time to come together.
It seems as Gears Of War is trying to play with our expectations of what we thought games should end up doing - particularly in giving us a different avenue of cinematic action to the one delivered by, say, Max Payne. Cliff Bleszinski's design ideas stems from these same kinds of iconic action-flick stuff, the classic gun-poser stuff that anyone with a vague gun-battle fetish wants to see emulated. B explained a bit of this on his 1-Up blog:
When I was first pitching this game (to Microsoft, to Epic leads, to team members, etc...) one of the images I couldn't get out of my head was the classic "Lethal Weapon" buddy cop moment of Gibson and Glover outside of a room of hooligans and looking at each other and saying...
"Okay, count to three and we go."
"Wait. Right on three or three and THEN go?"
For me, taking cover on opposite sides of a door while you watch your best friend on the adjacent side doing the same, trading turns unloading on foes always seemed like a great moment to shoot for.
Which leads to the other thing that GoW does so well: co-op play. Rather than leave gamers satisfied but able to say “yeah nice game, I wish there was a co-op mode”, as they seem to now do for every decent shooter of the last decade, it was right there from the beginning. Indeed, it seems rather as if GoW is just a co-op game where your partner is more often than not an AI drone, rather than a person sitting next to you, or at the other end of a phoneline. Gears Of War is a great big high five of a game, because success and a quasi-ironic "Yee-haw!" is better shared with a buddy.
The second thing that struck me about Gears of War, by the way, is that's awesomely beautiful. It might look as if it has been dipped in grit and dust, but it delivers one of the most believable wartorn worlds we've ever seen. And it's purest sci-fi. This isn't another ruined village in Normandy, it's some ludicrously overblown classicist palace in what looks like Space Paris. Epic have reached a point in creating virtual architecture where they're just showing off: and I like it.
Gears Of War is just a really great shooter. The ludicrous overwrought visual immensity, the simplicity of the cover use, the little tricks like the faster-reload timer and the 'glance at interesting thing' hotkey – it all adds up to one of those games which might be essentially derivative, but masters all the details, giving you so much to play with that you end up hooked in, like an action film where the opening-credits heist scene is just so good that you have to keep watching, just to see if they can maintain the audacity of it.
This is one of the best games of this year, even if it was converted for PC, rather than designed with the PC in mind. In fact, the extra levels fill the game out to what it could have been previously. The PC version, you might say, is the definitive version of Gears Of War. Yeah. That's it.
Oh, okay then. It's this, too: