One of the most interesting aspects of games is allowing for a this unique combination of mechanics, interaction and graphical or audio feedback illicit a feeling from players. One of the most typical that developers seek is to build some sort of connection with players; building some sort of relationship between the players actions and their emotions to the events happening on screen. This is particularly the case of games that either carry some strong narrative component, or are designed to illicit fear. But in this case, looking at the Gears of War series, there is something rather unique. Gears of War, beyond anything else, feels heavy.
It’s an interesting feeling to achieve and when you begin to deconstruct it, it’s this wonderful combination of expertly crafted mechanics combined not only with the imposing physical stature of our heroes, but the way in which these characters slam into nearby cover: how they move with a sense of urgency, albeit struggling with their own heft. Even their weapons, complete with bone crunching and flesh shearing power, feel almost unwieldy. It’s a weird manifestation of the military industrial complex that seems built solely around the fact that these guys are barely strong enough to hold on in this otherwise chaotic environment. Of course, that’s really rather ridiculous, but quite often you buy into the premise.
The premise being that these enormous and imposing and borderline deformed characters, are the titular gears of war: a squad of soldiers fighting for the survival of the human race on the planet Sera, all the while fighting off the Locust horde: an army of subterranean monsters seeking to wipe out all who oppose them. Gears of War is a cover shooter: meaning that the game allows for players to frequently take cover behind walls and other environmental objects in order to survive firefights. While there is much to be said about the AI is adopted largely throughout the series: ranging not only from the enemy grunts to your own squad of three teammates, we want to look at a very specific instance and how it proves exciting in how it breaks the core game-loop.
The Core Game Loop
Before we discuss how AI is used to break that which is largely established throughout Gears, we need to formally identify what the core gameplay loop is in this series. As stated, Gears of War revolves around the use of cover: with a variety of mechanics allowing for players to hide behind local geometry and attack opposing forces. Gears is largely built around particular skirmishes that take place sequentially throughout a given chapter. Each skrimish is built around enclosed areas of the war-torn cities of Sera, with the physical layout often providing interesting tactical opportunities for both sides. Regardless, running in guns blazing is suicide. As a result, the game is built around getting into cover, finding means by which to flank the enemy and wipe them out as quickly as you can. Similarly, the enemy will seek to push into areas that put you on the defensive. As a result, the game forces you to think quick and be ruthless.
The anxiety and panic that this induces is exacerbated by additional mechanics. Firstly, there is the rapid reload mechanic: offering players a gamble to reduce weapon reload time and gain a damage boost, only to cause the weapon to jam in the event you fail. Secondly, there is the notion of emergence holes: spawn points that emerge in the ground for Locust soldiers. This spawning process can be stopped prematurely by successfully detonating a grenade in the hole. However there is of course the risk of exposing yourself to make the throw, as well as wasting a precious resource. This becomes particularly of importance later in the game, when multiple e-holes can appear on the field at once.
While on a surface level these skirmishes seem rather formulaic, they nonetheless provide a clear sense of progression and typically don’t outlast their welcome. This is achieved due to the variety of Locust non-player characters (NPCs): with grubs, soldiers, grenadiers, rocket-launcher-wielding Boomers and the more elite Theron guards. A wide range of NPCs with unique AI behaviours, combined with the challenges faced given the topology of the landscape, help ensure a unique feel to each skirmish, while ultimately committing to the same core game loop.
Breaking the Loop
The core loop of Gears of War is broken in a fashion that borders on risky, were it not for the fact it works so well. The first real boss-battle encounter, which takes place at the end of the first act is built around a single non-player character, called the Berserker. Having escaped a legion of Locust forces in the war-torn city of Ephyra, Delta Squad are now trapped in the Tomb of the Unknowns. At this point, the game reveals that the Locust have unleashed a Berserker into the building. Berserkers are blind, near-invincible and hunt by sound and smell. The NPC will hunt the enemy down and this is made perfectly clear courtesy of the death of a poor red shirt that managed to escape the prior conflict. This sequence is focussed solely on two squad members: Marcus and Dom, who are tasked with finding a means to get the monster outside so that the Hammer of Dawn can be used to take it out. The limited window of satellite coverage provides added incentive, ultimately ensuring this sequence is completed within a short period of time.
This breaks so much of what the opening hours helped to establish, given that your weapons are now useless to kill the enemy. In addition, hiding behind cover and running between locations won’t help. This is no longer a firefight: there is very little cover to hide behind, but also the Berserker will slowly hunt you down wherever you are. At that point, when it charges, the last thing you want to be doing is hiding behind cover. Every instinct, every reinforced behaviour that has been established thus far in the opening 90 minutes or so is now broken courtesy of the Berskerker: one solitary AI non-player character.
Despite this, there is solution that uses these now (temporarily) broken mechanics. As noted, the Berskerker is blind, so the weapons sound can be used to lure the enemy. We now have to fire the gun to lure enemies closer to us, rather than keeping them at a distance. Continued noise will force the Berserker to charge; we openly invite the AI to run towards us, rather than keeping it pinned down behind cover. We actively encourage the enemy to hunt us down and follow us in a tight and confined environment, without the protection of armour, weaponry or environmental cover. Every aspect of Gears of War is effectively broken and subverted, if only for a couple of minutes.
The Berserker sequence is short but does well not to outstay its welcome. Once outside, the monster is taken out fairly quickly courtesy of the Hammer of Dawn. Afterwards, the Berserker does return later in acts IV and V, but once again these experiences are tightly scoped and their length continues to be short and sweet. Given the nature of this segment, it’s easy for it to become frustrating or annoying for players as they are forced to once again break from the established gameplay patterns. A handful of quick and exciting segments helps ensure these continue to be one of the most memorable parts of the original Gears of War. Only now in hindsight, years after playing it, do I truly recognise not only the risks, but the successes of this experience and how it is driven by one solitary non-player character.
If you want to try it out for yourself check out the original Gears of War on Xbox 360, or pick up the Gears of War: Ultimate Edition on Xbox One.