The original Gears of War is one of the best action games in history. But sadly, in 2016, this is so easily forgotten. While the November 2006-released game's first two sequels certainly embraced a culture that became associated with all things "dude bro" – which, for the record, only heightened developer Epic's choice of characters and narrative approach – Gears was so much more than an empty headed shooter. The impact that leading man Marcus Fenix and his band of jacked-warriors had on the industry was massive. Gears was, pardon the cliché, quite literally a game-changer.
A decade and a solid console generation later, it's not so easy for younger players, who've only attached themselves to the latest models, to truly appreciate just how essential Gears of War was to the Xbox 360. Every new console needs its better-looking-than-ever titles to appeal to the mass market – like it or not, as good as a game might play, its visuals are paramount in getting someone to invest their eyes in the product, and spark interest in reaching for their wallet. When your current console's looking a little weathered, Shiny New Things are always going to catch the attention.
"Gears was exceptionally grey – but that aesthetic perfectly captured its story's dark and miserable tone."
In 2006, no game looked better than Gears. The Unreal Engine 3 powering it might have only been in its infancy, but Epic had already discovered what tack it wanted to take with Microsoft's new toy. Yes, Gears was exceptionally grey – but that aesthetic perfectly captured the dark and miserable tone that the game's story carries from start to finish.
Nothing in Gears of War is pleasant: the human race, removed from Earth and building a new existence on the planet of Sera, is in ruins. That's the broad canvas upon which more detailed strokes are applied: Fenix's leader, Lieutenant Minh Young Kim, is murdered by General RAAM before the first act is even over, hammering home the bleakness before you. To have Delta Squad go about its business under crystal-clear blue skies just wouldn't have worked – and you can see how that visual messaging has been brought through to the latest Gears entry, Gears of War 4, with its oppressive weather, threatening shadows and fire-fights set against the blackness of a never-ending night.
The launch trailer for 2015's "Ultimate Edition" of 'Gears of War'
The art is one aspect of Gears that proved influential – look at how many other shooters, from Bulletstorm to Vanquish to newer entries in the Crysis and Resistance series, bear their similarities. But its mechanical foundations were even more of a powerful force on games-making going forward. The waist-high-barriers-everywhere cover system, so common now, felt uniquely Gears in 2006, as did the spread of red that stained the screen as Marcus took damage. The over-the-shoulder shooting had been popularised by Resident Evil 4, but Gears refined the format, made everything faster, trading tension for terrific waves of opponents that just kept coming.
But it's the game's "active reload" system that was both totally fresh ten years ago, and weirdly, perhaps, hasn't been widely copied in the time since then – maybe because it was so immediately synonymous with this series that to ape it would only damage the critical reception to any game paying tribute to it. Prior to Gears of War, reloading in a shooter was simply par for the course, a necessary action that required no thought or skill – as to complicate it would get in the way of the action. Some developers just chucked it out entirely – DOOM didn't have a reload button in 1993, and nor does it in 2016. In Call of Duty, it's a quick tap of a face button – anything more would spoil the core experience.
"If you can just sit behind a brick wall and pick your moments, then what's the point? You've got to feel like something is at stake."
But Gears creator Cliff Bleszinski thought differently. Reloading in their game wouldn't be a menial task – it would become a test of skill. A simple one, granted, but nevertheless: a single button press wouldn't cut it. Instead, reloading in Gears resembles a mini-game all of its own, where tapping the relevant shoulder button at just the right time can provide your weapon with increased damage – Because Video Games – while missing that sweet spot could cause it to temporarily jam up, a nightmare situation in a heated encounter.
That more studios, in an industry that's long been about reiterating on previous design successes – which is a polite way to say that developers rip-off those who came before them all the time – haven't copied Gears' active reload in a more prominent fashion is actually pretty baffling. Its present and correct in Gears 4, too – and across five games in total, the system hasn't got boring. The why is elementary: it works. No matter the situation, managing your reload allows for a degree of pace control, and all that takes is a tap, and then a second, of your index finger.
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Epic's level design, at the first time of asking, was a class apart, too. The reputation of the cover shooter has been dragged through the mud because of the sudden surge that arose after Gears' success, but few can deny how well structured each of its mini-hubs was. It's not easy to build a playing field where there's not only constantly accessible cover, but the threat of danger is still very real. If you can just sit behind a brick wall and pick your moments, then what's the point? You've got to feel like something is at stake.
That's always the case with Gears of War and – as you'd hope, if not expect – it only gets more complex and intricate as you progress. There's a pattern and learning curve at play here before you start to understand how to get the most out of the tools at your disposal. Take the "roadie run". Aside from the cool camera effect that accompanied it, it was a way to sprint away and slam into cover as and when you needed to, as well as get the hell out of dodge when you'd screwed up. What could be seen as a gimmicked way to Just Move Faster actually had multiple functions to be taken advantage of, and starting to understand that is what made the first Gears so great.
Then there was the small matter of having a chainsaw on the end of your gun, the (come on now, it is) iconic Lancer, allowing you to saw an enemy in half. If that's not the finest way to diversify death dealing in a game, I don't know what is. It offered a disgustingly satisfying option to alter the way in which you killed the antagonistic Locust Horde. It was always a treat to admire when you pulled it off, and always a source of contention when you got caught in the same trap during multiplayer matches.
"When you pick up the Hammer of Dawn? Forget about it. It's like someone just handed you the key to the switch that has the power to blow up the entire planet."
Even the multiplayer of Gears ignored what was an increasingly common trend for mega battles, purposefully downsizing its matches, starting with four against four before capturing the same magic with five on five. This wasn't about splattering bullets – the focus was on executions and strategically savvy teamwork that, when performed well, could wipe out the opposition in seconds. Furthermore, much like its single-player modes, Gears' multiplayer felt slow and deliberate. The dominance of the fast-paced FPS market had already begun, with Counter-Strike kicking off in 1999 and the second Call of Duty had come out the year before, but that didn't stop Gears from daring to stand out. You had to use your brain to succeed. Or overuse the Gnasher, whatever.
On top of all this, what a joy it's always been to simply fire a gun in Gears. With shooters saturating the market, it's natural to feel somewhat blasé about the actual act of pulling a trigger – and it's so very easy for a game to get the sensation of wielding a deadly weapon so very wrong. Gears never has, though – every time you pick up a new instrument of destruction, it immediately feels right, like its only purpose is to send death to enemies, whatever their size or scale of swarm. And when you pick up the Hammer of Dawn? Forget about it. It's like someone just handed you the key to the switch that has the power to blow up the entire planet.
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'Gears of War 4' launch trailer
That power and purpose extends from the arsenal to the avatars. The leading characters of Gears – Marcus (back for number four), Dom, Baird and Cole – never float through their environments, as so many protagonists in FPS titles do. They stomp. They crush. Every movement is meticulous in its might – you immediately know, from the first second of meeting them, that these are not people to mess around with. That they all look like mutated cans of ham helps, too, their disproportionate frames giving off an action figure vibe that helps the player connect with their "hero" casting. That sensation of your character, and those closest to him, truly being a force to be reckoned with is essential to losing yourself in a game, in its moment-to-moment action and overarching story beats. We have to believe that Marcus can crush a skull with his boot. And looking how he does, we're not given a chance to doubt it.
It's easy to buy into revisionist history after the fact, but Gears of War shifted expectations for games ten years ago and had a significant influence on what came next. Success has, as ever, undermined what it did so well, but it only takes a quick look back to remember why it became the franchise it did. Epic reinvented the third-person shooter, and did so without compromise.
Sure, that General RAAM boss fight wasn't the best way to conclude the campaign – it's one of many examples of a great game failing to close itself out in a convincing manner – but it was far from awful. The real testament is that we're about to see Gears of War 4 release, and the hype and excitement for it is very real. It's arguably the Xbox One's biggest title to date. It means a lot to the console's future that this one game performs well.
That kind of reputation and responsibility doesn't come from nowhere. It has to be earned, and the first Gears of War did that. It demands respect, because without it the action games of today would undeniably be in a poorer state, without such a classic to look up to.
Gears of War 4 is released on October the 11th for Xbox One and Microsoft Windows. Gears of War: Ultimate Edition is available now.
Illustration by Stephen Maurice Graham
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