E very few years, the phoenix of console gaming is reborn, as each company rises up yet again, brandishing their newest systems; “Next Generation gaming” is the phrase used to convince gamers that it’s time to throw out the old consoles and buy all new ones. These Next Gen consoles always promise the moon but deliver Ohio.
Until now. This holiday season has seen the launch of the Nintendo Wii, a little thing with an intriguing, hyperinteractive controller, as well as Sony’s deliriously high-powered PlayStation 3, available almost exclusively on eBay. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 has now been out for a year, and it’s clear that designers are really beginning to get a handle on the system, delivering games that satisfy the gaming consumer’s every need—bigger, brighter, faster, better. Case in point: Gears of War, a new game from Epic Games and Microsoft.
Put simply, Gears of War is one of the best video games I’ve ever played, a fist-pumping, heart-pounding, profanity-justifying juggernaut of an experience. It uses an old genre—the bloodthirsty shoot-’em-up—and makes it seem utterly new, sheerly by dint of the better system that surrounds it. The game takes place in a world where the human population has been decimated by the Locust, an alien horde that erupted from tunnels under the planet’s surface. You are Marcus Fenix, a hard-bitten combat veteran with an impressively steroidal physique, sprung from prison to fight the Locust in true Dirty Dozen style.
The game is as picaresque as mission-based video-gaming allows: You battle your way through the city against overwhelming odds, dealing with everything from heavy gunfire and swarming Locust troops to snide comments from the anti-Establishment types who’ve stayed on to scavenge among the burned-out buildings. As night falls, you encounter the kryll, flocking carnivorous bird-creatures who’ll tear any man to shreds in seconds if he steps outside the light (shades of Pitch Black); in one particularly exhilarating sequence, you pilot a jury-rigged car through the city’s collapsing highway system, switching desperately between driving and firing a light cannon at swarming kryll. The “light equals life” sequences are ingenious; the player struggles to find any form of illumination to keep himself alive, all the while sustaining withering enemy fire. It’s also deeply satisfying, since sometimes the Locust lose their cool and charge, only to be shredded by kryll halfway across the plaza.
It must be said that a lot of shredding goes on in Gears, an epically violent game by even the most Jacobean of standards. The Locust physiognomy (shades of Skeletor) clearly merits the sort of punishment meted out by the Lancer—the end result of two decades’ worth of video-game weapon design: a huge assault rifle tipped with a spike-toothed chainsaw. Immensely impressive as you wave it around, the Lancer is actually quite tricky to use—rev it up too soon and you’ll be shot. Still, when you do nail the enemy, Locust blood, thick and russet as boysenberry yogurt, spatters everywhere; rarely has an enemy been so thoroughly killed. (It should also be said that, alien blood aside, Gears is an unapologetically Mature-rated game—obscenities are tossed about almost as frequently as fragmentation grenades.)
The game works so well because it borrows elements from some of the most successful video games out there—Halo and Resident Evil 4 among them—fuses them together cleanly, and even adds an innovative system of movement. Beyond excellent level design with varied game-play, Gears is visually stunning, luxuriating in the system’s processing power as it smugly shows off what it can do with the Unreal 3 game engine. Every frame is beautifully rendered, the smoke and explosion effects immaculate, the characters detailed, with fluid and natural movement. The images have true battleground grit, with a sense of dirt and mass, as opposed to, say, the surreal limpidity of this spring’s Hitman: Blood Money. And the fantastic single-player game is boosted with unusually rich multiplayer options, from team-based battles to fighting side-by-side with a buddy.
Those of us who’ve been playing video games since Pong have greeted each new generation of systems—Intellivision, Super Nintendo, the original PlayStation—with enthusiasm tempered by the knowledge that they could always be better. (And with a historical humility: Just a few years ago, games were proclaimed realistic that today resemble nothing more than neon needlepoint.) But I can’t help but believe that the current video consoles have indeed reached that peak, becoming more like actual experiences instead of abstractions based on experiences. For some people, this may seem frightening—what does it mean to create the most exhilarating possible version of an imaginary war? For me, though, it offers something truly valuable: a new kind of catharsis, at once real and unreal.