Wednesday 12 August 2009

Reviewlet: Gears of War 2.

After another splendid session with Jon Shute’s Console Club[TM] last night, I decided to write-up a quick reviewlet for our current game of the moment – Gears of War 2. There will be spoilers, however, so if you haven’t gotten around to playing this game, you think you may yet, and spoilers are the sort of thing that matter to you, then you may want to look away now. Have they looked away? Yes? Good. You know, I never liked them. And they smell of Fisherman’s Friend.

Gears of War 2 is a simple game concerning the plight of two He-Man impersonators charged with wiping out a race of alien creatures who have a muscle structure so improbably ripped that they can bench press 800lbs with their orbicularis muscles alone, and are thus a clear and present danger to the masculinity of all He-Man impersonators on the planet. Our two heroes are at times joined on their missions by other meatheads, who are presumably taking time off from their busy day down at the gym, where they flex at their oiled-up thong-wearing reflections in the mirror, then head into the locker room and whip each other’s naked bottoms with towels in a manly heroic fashion, before heading into the shower and engaging in some hot steamy guilty sex. As only heroic manly meatheads can do.

Where was I? Ah yes, homoerotic allegory in the post-modern apocalyptic war genre. I mean, World Wrestling Entertainment. Ah no, Gears of War 2. No wait, same difference.

In the single player campaign we are quickly introduced to our two steroidally overdosed heroes, shortly followed by Token Nod who is, coincidentally, related to a well known character from the first game in the series. Token Nod never takes off his face-covering helmet, however, and therefore might as well be wearing a red Star Trek ensign shirt. The game even tries to explain away the fact that Token Nod never takes off his helmet, while Muscle and Musclier never wear theirs, when Dom (you can recognise him because he’s the homogeneous pile of muscle that isn’t wearing a bandanna) explains that wearing a helmet severely restricts the experienced combat veteran’s ability to spot a sniper. I was going to suggest that they didn’t wear a helmet because they had no use for their head, what with all motor and cognitive functions being controlled by the master muscle in their underpants, but clearly the game’s developers had thought of something even funnier. Last and by no means least likely to be seen staring in a porn film in the near future, is Token Hotty, she with the supermodel looks and a military uniform cut so tight that it must have been applied with some form of hyper-advanced vacuforming technique.

After a brief optional tutorial, and then the customary introductory waffle “Now listen up you magnificent menageries of muscle. Aliens are trying to destroy life as we know it… blah, blah, blah… we must fight them in the trenches… blah, blah, blah… or life as we will know it will end forever… blah, blah, blah… no more hot steamy shower sex… etc.” you’re finally allowed to get on with the game, and it is actually a game that I enjoyed a great deal for the most part.

The game is broken up into acts and chapters, with each act being an overarching segment of the storyline, and the chapters being missions within that segment. In turn each chapter has various checkpoints strewn throughout it, as is the norm with such games, and there are often small sections of dialogue between the characters as you reach certain points. Generally these involve a lot of macho posturing, shoulder bumping, and I’m sure if there’d been hot steamy showers in the vicinity… oh, I think I’ve made my point. There was, however, a disappointing lack of fist-bumping between the characters; I do like a good bit of fist action between a couple of frenzied sweaty mounds of masculine muscle, but who doesn’t? Ok, ok, I’m done.

Having said all that, I do have to confess that I found the part where Dom finally finds his wife Maria, to be quite haunting. The acting is, perhaps appropriately, a bit Arnold Schwarzenegger (“Nnnnnoooooooooooooooooooooo”) but the transition from Dom’s reality into actual reality, where it jars us into a shocking comprehension of the horrors of what Maria must have been through at the hands of the Locust without spelling it out for us, is very well realised. This is achieved on two fronts, the first is that the Unreal graphics engine is powerful enough to present a detailed and harrowing character model, no words are required because a thousand are being painted to the screen, sixty times per second. The second is the use of Tai Kaliso. Tai is introduced early on in the game, and his character is quickly developed (as much as character development ever exists in shooter games) in the eyes of the player as the stalwart, indestructible and unswerving spiritual warrior. Marcus, the aforementioned bandanna wearing meatpile and lead character, describes Tai as “tough as a Brumak though, so if anyone could make it it’d be him” after Tai walks away unscathed as the sole survivor after his transport is destroyed by a Locust ambush. Later, when Tai is rescued by Marcus and Dom after having been captured by the Locust, he immediately commits suicide when given a weapon due to the nature of his time when incarcerated. Thus when we see the reality of Maria’s condition, a simple civilian exposed to such horrors that made a hardened combat veteran commit suicide, we understand that although the body is still alive, the mind is utterly broken, and how it must have suffered to reach that state. For anyone who has truly cared for another and ever worried about their safety, this is quite a heart-rending scene.

It is a shame, therefore, that this is quickly shrugged-off with a bit of bullheaded bravado. And possibly some shoulder bumping, I forget. It was the only part of the game where I felt any sort of emotional connection to the plight of the world and the denizens thereof, and it showed quite clearly that the developers could readily have achieved such emotional manipulation had they wanted to.

The game itself is a third person tactical shooter which relies heavily on cover mechanics to enhance the tension (useful when there haven’t been any steamy showers for a while), and to give a more realistic feel to the combat. Charging gung-ho into the midst of the enemy is a recipe for a quick death, and judicious use of the abundantly available cover provided by doorways, walls and crates that are conveniently placed in open areas at the perfect distance from one another to provide superb continuous cover for an advancing force, is advisable on the easiest difficulty setting, and pretty much mandatory at any level thereafter. The cover mechanic works well in the main, a simple press of the A button when near to anything that looks like cover will generally result in your character slamming up against it and, where feasible, ducking down behind it as you’d expect. From cover the character can choose to aim their weapon by holding the left trigger (which also works when not in cover), at which point they will pop out from cover and the game will temporarily switch into a first person shooting mode. Releasing the left trigger at any time ducks the character back into cover. As long as the cover is blocking line of sight between your character and the enemy it will significantly reduce any incoming damage, pretty much to zero, barring well placed grenades and such. The other option is to blind-fire, which simply requires the player to fire using the right trigger as usual, at which point the character will shoot without leaving cover but at a greatly reduced level of accuracy. The advantage to blind fire is obvious, you cannot really aim at an enemy, but you can lay down suppressing fire for yourself and your team mates without any risk. The only grating problem I have with cover is in its interaction with the Roadie Run. The Roadie Run is activated by holding down the A button when out of cover, at which point your character will enter a sort of crouched jog which allows you to cross open spaces quickly whilst reducing the target you present to the enemy. It’s awkward at first because the camera moves such that it’s almost level with the floor, which results in you looking up towards the third-person perspective of your character’s bottom, like one of those camera angles in porn films where they’re trying to get a better shot of the action. Despite the distraction of Bottom Cam the Roadie Run works well, and is useful for escaping ambushes, but the problem comes when you accidentally run into an object that can provide cover, at which point the game assumes that with the A button held down you want to take that cover. So what results is you being surprised by a bunch of rather meaty, bulgy-veined and angry alien lizard things, turning around and running away (Brave Sir Robin), only to clip a nearby crate and thus have your character slam into a crouch ‘behind it’. Only it’s not behind it, because the enemy were behind you in the first instance, so what you’re actually doing is cowering up against a crate while facing them. Not only this, but you can’t see the enemy chuckling to each other as they slowly walk up to you because the camera angle is designed to look beyond the cover to where the enemy should be, were you the correct side of it. Finally, it takes a bit of time to disengage from cover into open space and instigate Roadie Run again, at which point the camera then flicks around from Cover Cam to Bottom Cam, throwing you off just long enough that your character veers off and slaps into a nearby wall. And takes cover against it… at which point the following paragraph seems apposite.

In representing injury to your character Gears eschews the conventional health bar for what I can only describe as the Soreness Indicator. As your character takes damage a red image slowly fades onto the middle of the display, the more solid this image becomes the closer to death your character is. My only problem is that because it starts out so faint and gradually becomes more clear, my first impression of the image was that it was akin to the puckered posterior from that famous Internet image of a certain Mr Goa Tse, hence my reference to it as the Soreness Indicator. It turns out that it’s not, and that it is in fact the Gears of War logo, which seems more logical now that I think about it. But the Soreness Indicator is still relevant, because with one enemy pounding on your character the Soreness Indicator takes some time to fully develop, but as one would rightly imagine, with several enemies pounding away at once the Soreness Indicator quickly develops to the point where your character can take no more punishment and cries out in agony while collapsing to the floor. The Soreness Indicator is quite a clever take on the health bar though: due to the subtle nature of the graphic fading in, it’s quite hard to tell precisely how damaged your character is. You can tell that a character is ‘pretty healthy’ or ‘close to collapse’ or somewhere in between, but there’s no definitive readout as there is in many games where a health ‘fuel bar’ gives a fine level of precision as to just how close to empty one is running.

In general Gears is a very polished, graphically accomplished ‘follow the path and kill anything that moves’ shooter. The weapons are varied and sufficiently satisfying to use, with each one feeling different enough from the rest to make it a difficult tactical choice as to which ones you should carry with you – you have two heavy weapon slots, one pistol slot and a slot for grenades, of which you can carry only one type at a time. There is a decent variety of enemies, from snipers and close combat shock troops through to chain-gun wielding armoured hulks. The AI is acceptable, ranged types try to stay at range, certain other types will try to flank you, and yet others will try to pop a grenade underneath you in a way that makes your Soreness Indicator scream for mercy. I will say that it has one of the most horrible handling vehicles of all time, and I can only assume that the developers were in some sort of competition with the creators of Halo for the Most Infuriating Vehicle Control in a Meatheads vs Aliens Console Shooter category at the next Game Developer Choice Awards. Thankfully the vehicle segments are short enough not to draw down the full Controller Through TV Screen wrath of the frustrated gamer.

Finally I’d just like to address a complaint that I heard on a recent podcast about the colour palette. “It’s drab, and dreary. Brown. Washed-out” they complained. Well, just in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s a gritty ‘realistic’ fighting game, set in a world that is, for the most part, in utter ruin due to a massive globe-spanning war, and a huge portion of time is spent running around ruins and tunnels underground. What the flying ferret did you expect? Super Mario Brothers? “Oh, I like the game well enough, but it could have done with more cornflower blue in the scenery, and those aliens are so drab dahrlingk, couldn’t we spruce them up with a slinky little Dolce&Gabbana number?”. I think the graphics in Gears of War 2 are splendid, character animation is also superb, as is the bulk of the voice acting, mainly thanks to the inestimable talent of John DiMaggio as lead character Marcus Fenix.

I’ve only dabbled briefly in the competitive online play, so I won’t be commenting on that. The co-operative multiplayer, especially the Horde mode, is outstanding fun however. I’ve mentioned it before, and I really do like some of the ways that it enforces group cooperation without it actually feeling like you’re being arm-twisted into it, I guess a better word would be ‘encourages’. Either way, I think I’ll save that discussion for another post, although I will state for the record that it has nothing to do with steamy hot showers. Honest.

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