Released a full two years later and the first title in a wave of second-generation games for Microsoft's next-generation console, Halo 2 and Gears of War clearly have nothing in common, and nothing would be gained by trying to compare them. So why am I doing it? Because that's the nature of my illness. After having completed the game twice through now (still working on Act 5 on Insane) I feel compelled to write up some observations comparing the game I've spent the last two weeks playing to the game I've spent the last two years playing. Beware Gears spoilers!
I already made some remarks regarding Gears' all-things-to-all-soldiers cover system; how Frankie said it wasn't appropriate for Halo 3 (which it isn't) but wondering what Halo might have been like had it stayed a third-person game and used controls like Gears. Both games are still sci-fi shooters, though, which means they have a lot in common that has nothing to do with cover or controls. There are quite a few resemblances in a number of areas, but Gears also does a number of things right that Halo 2 didn't, and as much as I'm saying to myself now, "oh, Gears does this just like Halo" I can't help but wonder, by the end of this year, will I be asking "why doesn't Halo 3 do this like Gears did?"
Chapter And Verse
Apparently "level" is a dirty word now. Perhaps sick of answering over and over the question "how many levels does your game have" designers have decided to eschew the word. At first, Halo was going to be seamless. That's not quite what we got, but we did get nearly zero load times. Gears doesn't have levels. It has Acts, like Diablo and Shakesperian plays. Within those Acts are Chapters just like Halo has. These Chapters also act as checkpoints. Unlike Halo, though, once you've played through a Chapter you can go back and start playing at that specific point by choosing it from a menu. Halo allows you to save a game in progress at a checkpoint, but you can't choose a chapter or checkpoint arbitrarily like you can with Gears. This can be helpful if you've painted yourself into a corner with your ammunition usage or weapon choices; starting off at a chapter will give you standard equipment.
Since I got stuck at the very last chapter of the game on Casual difficulty, I wanted to drop it there and restart the game on Hardcore, figuring the game had been so easy on me that I hadn't developed good playing habits and not put myself in a position to beat the final boss. As with Halo, a single profile can only have a single campaign checkpoint saved. Gears warns you that starting a new campaign will erase your old save. However, I had nothing to fear, since I could go back at any time to that boss battle by selecting the last chapter of the last act. A very nice feature.
What I Really Want To Do Is Direct
Most of Gears' cinematics are not terribly long. As pointed out by Eric Trautmann on his blog, most games don't have a story, they have plot. It may be too early to tell whether Gears has a story bigger than its plot, but indications so far are good.
You'll spend more time with the NPCs in Gears than you do in Halo; more on this later. While Gears borrows from the buddy cop/soldier genre as freely as Halo does from the alien-invaders-from-space genre, most of the time it's enjoyable and entertaining, even funny. Your squad starts out with just your Best Friend, Dominic Santiago. Later you get the By-The-Book Lieutenant Kim and the Hey-Aren't-You-The-Marcus-Fenix Carmine, both of whom are marked for death. Eventually you get the ex-Thrashball star Augustus Cole and tech guy/wiseass Baird. Between chapters and even in battles, you'll get a steady stream of chatter amongst them. Even when you and Dom are off on missions by yourselves, you'll periodically get updates on what Cole and Baird are up to, some of which I found downright funny. The voice actors all do extremely good jobs; the days of embarassing voice acting in games may well be over. Good riddance.
What Gears doesn't do that well is handle player death. Like Halo, you restart at the last checkpoint after dying. Unlike Halo, you have to press a button to do so, which is sure to make Mat Noguchi's blood boil. Mine, too. Better to just assume the player wants to take another shot, and let him hit a button if he doesn't; since you can stop play at any time and quit anyway. Moreover, if that last checkpoint starts with an interactive sequence-- not a full blown cinematic, but a sequence during which you cannot run, shoot, or do anything but walk, then it, too, will be repeated. If the sequence starts with a cinematic, such as the beginning of the Locust invasion of the Fenix estate near the end of Act Four, then you can interrupt it, but you cannot prevent it from starting. If it's just an interactive sequence, such as the conversation between NPCs outside the pumping station at the end of Act Three, you're stuck sitting there listening. I've heard Fenix say "we're not here to sell cookies" more times than I can count. It was funny the first few times. After awhile it just becomes annoying. And since you're hearing it over and over again because you keep dying, that just makes it more annoying.
Gears' checkpoints sometimes seem much too far apart, more like Halo's than Halo 2's. Checkpoint behavior is also sometimes erratic; if one occurs at a point where you make a choice of taking the left or right path, as Gears does several times, some checkpoints restore you to the point before the choice, as it does in the mine in the middle of Act Three. Other times, it restores you to the point just after the choice, as it does in the outbuildings of the university in Act Four. You can always choose to go back a chapter if you don't like your choice, but if you've got a particular weapon you like, you may lose it.
He's My Hero
In contrast to the helmeted hero of Halo, Master Chief Petty Office John-117, we get an up close and personal look at the protagonist of Gears right from the start, and it isn't necessary to go buy a set of novels to get his backstory. He's been in prison for insubordination for some time, stemming from the beginning of the war against the Locust 14 years ago. That war is now going so badly that the military is pardoning prisoners to conscript them; such is Fenix's fate.
The theory behind keeping the Master Chief a reticent cipher, one can only assume, is to allow the player to inhabit the character and project his (or indeed her) attributes onto him. It also harkens back to Marathon, in which the main character's identity is the focus of much speculation throughout the series. However, there's no real mystery about the Master Chief. His backstory is accessible through the novels for those who want it, but isn't included in the games, and is eventually just superfluous. John might have been kidnapped as a child and trained to be a killing machine, but if this has affected him psychologically we'll never know. The closest he gets to character development thorugh two games derives almost entirely from his relationship with Cortana.
I can see the argument about letting the player inhabit the character, but at the end of the day I have to say: it doesn't work. In real life, I am like neither Marcus Fenix nor the Master Chief. I'm not a gritty, bad-ass ex-convict with father issues; nor am I a cybernetic super-soldier with delusions of invincibility and a penchant for purple holograms. However, when I play Gears, I feel more like Fenix than Halo makes me feel like the Chief-- at least, so far.
While the obstacles that face both Fenix and the Chief in their respective outings are, for the most part, physical and not psychological, there are hints that Gears might be going somewhere with its cast of supporting characters. Is Fenix eventually going to be redeemed? Will he have to prove himself for doing so? What is the significance of his father? Who was he? These issues may just be a backdrop against which Fenix performs the usual kicking ass and chewing gum tasks-- and he's just run out of gum. However, it also may be leading towards something that gives a personal angle to his battle, one that has been missing in Halo, at least up until the latest installment.
More on Gears and Halo in a follow-up piece later this week.