The promise of Gears of War is still best captured by the original “Mad World” trailer. Melancholic and understated, the marketing offered something of a response to the triumphant jingoism of Microsoft’s other blockbuster shooter series, Halo. War with aliens isn’t bad-ass. It’s sad and lonely and probably hopeless. Protagonist Marcus Fenix could well have been Independence Day’s Steven Hiller, shooting down aliens and punching them in the face until the end of time because what else was left? Coming out of an era of “Ooh Rah” patriotism and gas-guzzling machismo, making the hulking, lone COG soldier’s anthem a Gary Jules’ cover of “Mad World” felt brave and refreshing.
Sit down to actually play it, however, and it’s clear the game is just as much at war with itself as Fenix is with the Locust Horde. From its depiction of a Baroque civilization shattered by subterranean monsters to its four-man squad of weary dude-bros, the tragedy at the heart of Gears of War is tacitly acknowledged but never openly confronted. Nearly a decade since its original release, it’s clear that whatever Microsoft wants the game’s legacy to be, a brooding meditation on war and genocide is not part of it.
Not that this sliver of sophistication would be difficult to conceal beneath the game’s grating dorm-room banter and predictable action beats. Gears of War tasks the player with shooting hundreds of anthropomorphized bugs just so that she can eventually plant a bomb to blow up the rest. It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the engine driving its narrative has just two speeds: big action and bigger action. But this was by design. As one of the fledgling Xbox 360’s first major blockbusters, Gears of War had to push the videogame console to its limits, or beyond them, depending on which version of the marketing you came across. And the result didn’t disappoint. In 2015, Gears of War still holds up as an exemplar of the bombastic AAA shooter.
Where the years have etched themselves into the game, however, the result feels somehow even more substantial. Technological limitations and studio inexperience have, in retrospect, blessed the first Gears of War with a gritty resilience. Its superficial bravado, anchored by both the game’s military fetish and showy violence, has worn thin, allowing the game’s more subtle art and music direction to move to the forefront. As a derivative tale of space marine-ism that spawned countless more imitations (as well as three sequels and a spin-off), it’s easy, on second and third playthroughs, to focus instead on the emo sensibility and conscious insecurity that helps set Gears of War apart from its close siblings and extended family.
Its in-engine cutscenes are striking now, not for their detail or realism, but their blurry contrasts. The blue-tinted lights and darks of Fenix and Co. off-roading through the woods in a post-apocalyptic junker heighten its horror-movie parallels. Detailed urban backdrops fall out of focus in large-scale encounters with the locust, shifting emphasis away from large action set-pieces to the intimate faces and fragile bodies of human survivors being subjected to them. It’s still hard not to laugh when Lieutenant Kim is impaled in slow-motion on a giant knife, hoisted up in the air by a mysterious figure so menacing he might as well have the words “Big Bad” tattooed across his face.
But it’s also equally hard not to appreciate the artful restraint of a section later on in which Fenix and Dominic “Dom” Santiago sprint gingerly from street light to street light for fear of being shredded by piranha-like “Kryll” should they linger too long in the darkness. Blasting open propane tanks in order to light the way down abandoned city streets is one of the game’s slowest, most methodical sequences. It’s also one of its more creative and enthralling. It’s here that a creeping anxiety takes hold as the player is forced to take up position on small islands of street light while enemy locust attempt to surround and overrun her.
Talking about the series prior to the release of Gears of War: Judgment, that game’s co-writer, Rob Auten, explained, “I think the ‘dude-bro’ [image] is sort of a double-edged sword: People slag Gears for being sort of emo, and they slag it for being dude-bro. It’s like, ‘Look guys, you can’t have both!’” You can though, and in its more delicate and untidy moments, Gears of War is remarkable for doing exactly that: subverting the dude-bro posture and signaling the inherent vulnerability that motivates it.
The fact that ornate, stone exteriors and wingback chairs abound in Gears‘ world only underline this divide. Stumbling through abandoned apartments filled with elegant sofas, bookcases and landscape paintings with textures so muddy they might be considered early French impressionism, gives the sense of lost beauty not often found in a shooter with stakes so high. These details are as prolific as they are unpolished, at least by today’s standards. But that lack of artifice works in the game’s favor, hinting at the care and attention put into them by a games studio of mostly guys making a testosterone-addled gun-fest like Gears of War.
The game’s music was created in part by recording the Northwest Sinfonia orchestra, led by Corey Status, playing in an old, cavernous church. It’s another element that helps provide some ironic distance between the game’s chunky protagonists and the world in which they’re fighting. I don’t imagine either Fenix or Baird have a secret penchant for classical music, and yet it’s a plodding medley of woodwinds and strings that’s used to score their struggle.
In this context, the vocal atta-boys and butt slaps that Fenix and Co. exchange during battle feel more like coping mechanisms than glib musings born of bromantic swagger. How else to explain the apparently dissociative state from which each character interprets and reacts to the extended graveyard their journey takes them on? Playing the game in 2015, their performed hyper-masculinity offers perhaps a more interesting and original avenue to their insecurity than a direct emotional confession would have. The fact that the game never wears its existential panic on its sleeve, poking and prodding it like a 1980s Vietnam movie, is precisely what heightens it.
In the lead up to Gears‘ release back in 2006, the thing designer Cliff Bleszinski was clearly most excited about was the game’s Lancer assault rifle, now iconic for its accompanying chainsaw bayonet. Ripping enemies in half with it made Microsoft feel queasy. It was over the top. But Bleszinski and others fought hard for it, and what would go on to be the game’s most distinguishing design choice was kept intact.
Watching an awkward Bleszinski tell an even more awkward Bill Gates why the weapon was so important, it’s easy to think of the former as blissfully and unthinkingly adolescent. “It’s a chocolate in a peanut butter for me, right, it’s like a gun with a chainsaw, right, so it works out perfectly,” he says to Gates. But the chainsaw is also what lays the rest of the game’s reality bare, the one grizzly detail that keeps the specter of death and its painful, fleshy truth ever present. Mowing down waves of snarling locust can feel like a morosely juvenile power trip, up until one of them hops the barricade and guts Fenix before he even has time to lift his gun. By the game’s end, a helicopter evacuation you’ve been waiting for the entire time comes as relief. A sweeping panoramic view of the wasteland you’ve just blowup is less jubilant than exhausted. Even for its beloved dude-bros, Gears of War offers no redemption, only escape.