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300 Word Review – Gears of War 2
(Solo Campaign, Hardcore, No Cover)

Sometimes you have to make your own fun.

Gears of War 2 is not a hard game. In fact, it would be fair to say that on its default settings everyone will see the ending cinematic if they’re willing to sink the time. With this in mind I decided to give myself some additional challenge in my second playthrough, so I increased the difficulty to ‘Hardcore’, meaning when enemies took me down I would actually die instead of being revived by my AI companion. On top of that I decided that I would see how far I could get without taking cover (with the exception of vaulting over barriers, which requires it), expecting to make ample use of the ‘dive’ mechanic. A couple of hours into the game I discovered something surprising:

The cover mechanic in Gears of War 2 is completely superfluous.

In Gears 2 the most effective way to take cover is to simply stand behind something, and there is always something you can stand behind. This is actually more advantageous than ‘taking cover’ because it allows you to quickly dart in and out of fire without having to re-aim. It also helps that there’s almost never a need to flank in Gears 2;  if you can get behind something you can stay there for the entirety of an encounter.

This situation is probably because all the level designers at Epic grew up with and got jobs making levels for first-person shooters. As a result they’ve created maps, perhaps unconsciously, that can almost always be played without resorting to Gears of War‘s signature mechanic.

The real question is whether or not these additional contraints made Gears of War 2 more interesting and unfortunately the answer is ‘no’. Maybe I should try ‘Insane’ difficulty with no cover in co-op?

8 Comments

  1. Frank Lantz wrote:

    Well played. If it actually is more efficient to play without cover than that seems like a very interesting discovery.

    So this would be an example of the search for the “optimal” taking one away from the “fun”. I guess for some people this would confirm that seeking to master a game is orthagonal or oppositional to the best qualities the experience.

    Ironically, I think the opposite is true. This shows how seeking mastery can lead to creative, original, improvisational and expressive play. Instead of playing along, and acting “as if” cover mattered because that’s what the script says, you went off book to figure out what was really happening in this system.

    I’d like to see this approach more often in game criticism – trying to figure out what it means to play a game well, and seeking out the game’s actual rules instead of just following the designers’ suggestions.

    Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 10:05 am | Permalink
  2. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Thanks Frank!

    I should back-pedal a little and say that not ‘taking cover’ is almost always more efficient. There are parts of the game where if I was doing a speed run I would probably take cover instead of just standing behind something.

    Also,I agree that exploring a game in this manner is important for a real critique. For instance, I’m planning on trying a no cover run with the first game. If I complete it does that prove that the original Gears isn’t as innovative as everyone thought, or that it’s innovative but poorly implemented?

    Wednesday, April 22, 2009 at 9:27 pm | Permalink
  3. Yo Charles!

    So it took me a week to figure out what this post meant to me. Finally it congealed while I was writing one of my term papers. Anyhow, I mocked up a short “manifesto” that these thoughts inspired here: http://chungking.wordpress.com/2009/04/27/our-amps-go-to-eleven/

    I can say that Krystian of Game Design Scrapbook and I have been playing through the first Gears on Insane, and it’s basically unplayable without cover–much of the time you find yourself two-shotted just for peaking your head out under fire. I do remember that the game was particularly fun to play inebriated and on lower difficulties, because in that state of lowered tension you are able to navigate the space without taking cover in a way that you usually can’t when sober and afraid of getting head-shotted.

    Monday, April 27, 2009 at 11:58 pm | Permalink
  4. GunBlade wrote:

    I must say that Gears of War, like many other current generation games, is just too soft and cuddly when it comes to the difficulty level. Maybe it is so that newer players would feel welcome, or maybe it’s because companies put more trust on the AI (which is still not good enough to trust) than before.

    Tuesday, April 28, 2009 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  5. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Hey Simon, I left a comment on your response, but I can just sum it up here: I agree!

    I’ve been meaning to try out a ‘no cover run’ on the first Gears. It wouldn’t surprise me if they were more careful with the first one.

    GunBlade, yeah, that feeling was what led me to call Gears 2 a ‘casual game’. My feeling is really that developers are making easier games because they think it will help them reach a larger audience. I would even go so far as to say that the majority of people who like Gears aren’t really ‘hardcore’ gamers!

    Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 2:03 pm | Permalink
  6. GunBlade wrote:

    @Charles: Naaaaaaahhh… I wouldn’t go THAT far :) Gears of War is still pretty elaborate when compared to a casual game. I think that ‘hardcore’ gamers need not be judged by their difficulty preferences.

    Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink
  7. Charles J Pratt wrote:

    Haha, you’re probably right…

    So, Gears 2 is elaborate but not difficult. Would that be worthy of being called ‘hard casual’?

    Wednesday, April 29, 2009 at 9:47 pm | Permalink
  8. @GunBlade & Charles:

    You know, it’s late and I’ve only got 400 words left to go on the longest paper of my life. So I’m going to go there: you could say it’s “hard on casual gamers.”

    I apologize for writing this in Frank Lantz’s house. You may delete me.

    Thursday, April 30, 2009 at 4:55 am | Permalink

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