Where Would we be Without Gears of War?

February 15, 2010 § 1 Comment

It’s easy to look back on Gears of War now and wonder what all the fuss was about. The story’s fragmented at best, all the lead characters have the combined depth of a puddle, and in at times the movement was so clunky so as to be almost tank-like. At the time however, the game was as close to revolutionary as the game industry gets, and without it we’d be playing games very differently today.

For one, we’d still be playing most of our shooters in first person.

It’s weird to think that in the space of a couple of years, most of the biggest games released now use an over-the-shoulder camera viewpoint as opposed to the first person. It would of course be insane of me to claim that every game has made this leap when this is clearly not the case, but on reflection, the biggest fps games released today, use this perspective because of a history with it.

Games like Call of Duty, and Killzone, have their gameplay systems so focussed around the close viewpoint afforded by the first person, that to change this for a sequel would alter the game so much so as to make it completely unrecognisable. Modern Warfare is, for better or for worse, always going to be a first person game, and Gears of War will likewise – in several years time when first person inevitably comes back into fashion – remain in third person.

So why did this shift occur? You could point towards the increased graphical fidelity afforded by this generation of consoles, and claim that developers have always wanted to work with an over-the-shoulder camera, they just couldn’t make it look good enough until now. A cynic might argue that this change has only taken place so that marketing executives can cash in on the wave of appreciation for Epic’s seminal shooter, and there’s probably quite a bit of truth to their claims.

Of course, there’s another argument that would claim the only reason you’d go for such a camera angle is to be able to jump on another bandwagon.

Cover systems

Again, it would be crazy to claim that cover systems hadn’t existed before Gears of War. How many times playing Timesplitters have players crouched behind a waist-high object, only to stand up briefly to unload a couple of shots before crouching once more. Cover systems have existed for years in the minds and strategies of gamers, but it was Gears of War that took what we’ve always done with complicated strafing and crouching techniques, and mapped it to the ‘A’ button.

It was, needless to say, genius. Gone were the stalemates that often punctuated mid-level encounters, (and I’m sorry to say, still existed in Resistance 2) as were the – in retrospect – insane bouts of circle strafing that would feature against tougher enemies. The solution was simple, elegant, and – dare I say it – cool. Who doesn’t love frantically sprinting for cover, only to be ousted by a well placed grenade at the last minute? It’s almost ironic that an innovation revolving around hiding has the effect of making you feel like such a badass.

Subtle guidance

It’s a small point, something that to my knowledge didn’t exist before this game’s release, but having a button you can hold to point out items of interest is a genius move on the part of Epic. Some might argue that having such a button is an admission of failure by the developer, that a level should be designed in such a way so as to make it obvious what you should be looking at, but not every studio has Valve’s ability in this regard.

Even the best games have moment’s where I’m lost as to where to look, and this problem only increases when large set pieces occur outside of cutscenes. It takes a huge amount of confidence to take camera control away from the player entirely, as as such the ‘hold a button’ method is the perfect half way house in such a situation.

The traditional health bar is empty.

Like many of the things Gears did, thinking about the way things used to be often illicit a response akin to, ‘How the hell did we ever get by without it?’ from me. Having a bar filled with colour to denote your life is such an arcane way of doing things that it’s a wonder there are games that still use it today, especially now that recharging health is almost standard across games.

It’s not that having the screen go all faded and bloody is any more realistic than having a bar denoting hit points remaining, but when everything’s going to pot, enemies are closing in on your position, and you’re close to death, don’t you want the entire screen screaming at you with this information? Call me overly progressive, but I’m glad health bars have died out.

Now if we could just simplify ammo counters in a way that doesn’t involve my gun having ugly numbers on it’s hilt, I’d be one happy bunny.

Hello I’m the Unreal Engine, soon I’ll be powering everything.

It’s something of a given that the future always looks far shinier than the present. Looking at Crysis 2 shots today is like giving my eyeballs a bubble bath, but I just know that when it finally comes out, there’ll be something even better on the horizon.

It’s weird then that Gears of War managed to both show off the best of the present, whilst hinting at the great things that were to come over the next few years. Of course we had no way of knowing that the engine was going to go on to power damn near every other game released this generation, but when Gears loaded up on our shiny new HDTVs for the first time, there combined thought that reverberated around the world, ‘Oh,’ we said to ourselves, ‘so THIS is what games look like now then.’

It would be impossible to try and list the games that have taken inspiration from GoW, so I won’t even bother trying. Suffice to say that the gaming landscape would be very different today without it, even if chainsaws on guns didn’t quite bring about such a plethora of imitators.

Oh, just so you know, I’m not dead.

But you already guessed that right?

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§ One Response to Where Would we be Without Gears of War?

  • Anonymous says:

    The over-the-shoulder camera became notorious with Resident Evil 4, well before Gears. The cover system too is a refined version of that found in Kill.Switch and Call of Duty 2 had no health bars and probably wasn't the first. It seems a bit remiss to me to not at least mention the first two?Like Halo before it, Gears success was borne from combining a few mechanics from other games, iterating them to perfection and cutting the fluff. That and to sell an engine, though UE3 had quite a bit of momentum in the industry before the game actually shipped as the costs of current-gen development became apparent.The one thing Gears did do that I haven't seen in another game (asides from the POI system you pointed out) was the active reload feature which was quite effective I think. Shame nobody has copied it.

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