With the announcement of Gears of War 3’s release date earlier this year, the recently concluded (and popular) multiplayer beta, and with E3 just around the corner; many gamers have chainsaws on the brain. So as the trilogy draws to a close and Cliff Bleszinski finds something else to attach to a machine gun (perhaps a corndog mmm…) it seems like a good time to reflect back on what Gears has done in the last few years to change the way that the gaming industry develops games.
Take a look below at the gaming systems that Gears help bring to the masses. Epic may not have invented these, but they found a way to make the integral to their the series. Now, every third title seems to be using one of these perfected gameplay mechanics. But imitation is a form of flattery, right? Read on to find out how Gears did it.
The Cover System
The concept of cover goes back almost as far as video games. Just think about hiding from Eggman under a platform or from Bowser behind a stone. This carried, naturally into almost every action game that involved projectiles. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty was one first games to use a modern cover system in which the character could take cover behind walls and crates and peek out to shoot enemies. Similar systems were implemented in Winback and the Time Crisis arcade series, but it was Kill Switch, Namco’s surprisingly mediocre third person shooter that changed how shooters were designed from that point forward. Kill Switch was the first game to use cover as a main gameplay mechanic. You could vault over walls, blind fire, and use one button to slide into cover. It was fun and fast paced, if a bit too heavy on the cover aspect and too light on everything else. But Epic Games took notice.
Lee Petty at Epic showed Kill Switch to Cliff Bleszinski, and they both thought it was perfect for Gears. Indeed, only a short time after Kill Switch was released, its lead designer, Chris Esaki became a design director for the original Gears of War. With his help, the team at Epic spun the raw potential of a cover-based shooter into pure video game gold. Gears managed to improve on the mistakes of Kill Switch by creating a multifaceted game that still used a cover system at its core. After proving that it could be done and done well, myriad games began to incorporate cover systems; either on a small scale like in GTA IV or on a larger scale similar to Gears; like in Army of Two. Even Star Wars: The Old Republic is going to offer up a cover for their Smuggler class. But no matter what game presents a new cover system, the question always remains – how does it stand up to Gears of War? In this sense, Gears has become the gold standard for cover systems.
Revive To Survive
As an uninhibited lover of co-op gaming, Gears of War holds a special place in my heart for bringing the revive feature into prominence. Before 2006, most co-op games used a respawn system when a player died, such as Halo: CE. This created a dynamic not far removed from simply playing single-player; all one needed to do to regain a partner was wait in cover for a few moments. By requiring gamers to revive their squadmates, Gears made the co-op experience that much more involved. Cowering behind a rock and waiting for magical reinforcements to appear out of thin air wouldn’t cut it anymore. If you wanted your friend to live to fight another day, you had to brave the hot lead and rescue him. Then, as often was the case, you both had to fight your way to safety. My eternal co-op buddy and I became so accustomed to this that reviving one another has become as natural as curb-stomping Locust.
And once again, other games sought to capitalize on this success. Misting your partner with first aid spray, applying a medkit while they cover you, shoving a hypo into their vein, rescuing them from a closet; the list goes on and on, but the story stays the same. Gears inspired a generation of true co-op games; games in which if your partner died; you failed, and often would be forced back to a checkpoint. Gone were the days of playing the hard parts alone and spawning your partner afterwards.
As a whole, I view this as a victory for co-op gaming. It adds to the often frantic nature of firefights and forces you to be constantly aware of not only surroundings and enemies but of where your partner is. I remember the first time I beat Halo: CE on Legendary difficulty, I did so by taking turns with a buddy running into battle while the other waited at a safe distance. While this certainly was not the intended way to play the game, it was apparent that we were not cooperating so much as simply using one another as living checkpoints. Clever? Maybe. But it would have gotten me kicked out of the UNSC.
Hoarding the Horde Mode
The Gears of War 2 feature that best exemplifies the need for cooperation is Horde Mode. I get madder when players do selfish things in Horde than I do when my dog pees on the rug. By forcing players to share ammo, constantly revive one another, and share kills, Horde solidified Epic’s commitment to making Gears a solid co-op experience. The camaraderie that Horde created among gamers led to great acclaim, and consequently scores of studios trying to replicate that success.
While it doubtlessly annoys some developers, “horde” has become a universal term for survival wave combat (I’m copyrighting that phrase). Among other gamers, I’ve often heard the term “Halo Horde” used in place of “Firefight.” Even a concept as hilarious as Nazi zombies was overshadowed by the question of “how does it stand up against Horde Mode?” While I won’t say that Horde Mode is the be-all and end-all of Survival Wave Combat ©, there certainly is reason for its duplication across so many different types of games. For big name shooters it has almost become obligatory – Halo, Call of Duty, even the single-player heavy Red Dead Redemption features its very own version of Horde.
Epic happened across a game mode that fit perfectly into the type of game that Gears of War already was. Just try to name another game where it feels natural to crouch behind the same wall for three hours shooting at wave after wave of oncoming enemies. It fits because Gears takes place in one of the most depressing video game stories in the universe, where you know that you're part of the last remnants of the human race, under constant assault from the Locusts. Not only did it fit, it was fun. Really fun. And so are other versions. I used to kill a bunch of hookers in order to fight the resulting waves of cops in Grand Theft Auto; but now there’s actually a game mode dedicated to it and when other games incorporate it I’m ecstatic.
Gears of War did not introduce anything that hadn’t been done before in video games. It simply picked out some neglected aspects and did an incredible job of improving them, and meshing them together in a way that really worked. Everyone had played a co-op game before Gears came out, but no one had really cooperated in the way Gears forced them to. In fact, it wasn’t until Portal 2 that my co-op buddy and I felt a challenge similar to Gears of War. Everyone had used cover in games before Gears of War, but no one had blind fired, slammed into walls or mantled over obstacles quite like they did in Gears. And while Survival Wave Combat© existed in one form or another before Gears, it has never been the same since.
It’s an absolute certainty that Gears of War changed games forever and only time will tell just how much. There’s so much that Epic added to the industry that I’m sure I’m missing stuff. I seem to recall a gun with some sort of power tool attached to it…maybe a drill? I’m sure it'll come to me later.
Nationally unacclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing has been writing about video games for dozens of weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to Peruvian history and of course, anything with buttons. If you can't get enough of his musings, check out his Twitter feed.