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Gamers Get Along

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Once you filter out the clamor over new consoles, the future of gaming clearly belongs to the simple pleasures of playing with your friends.

At first glance, "Gears of War" and "Guitar Hero II" don't have much in common. One is the highly anticipated and brutal squad-based science-fiction combat game, the other a follow-up to last season's sleeper hit that puts a guitar-shaped controller in the player's hands and lets him rock.

But while each game sports ample single-player value and offers challenging head-to-head options, they also share the common virtue of thoughtful and compelling cooperative play.

"Gears of War" pits a handful of human soldiers against a marauding horde of monsters who have emerged from under the Earth's crust and turned the future into a pile of architectural rubble. Dodging enemy fire with a well-designed set of duck-and-cover controls and a nifty rifle that doubles as a chain saw for close-in action, "Gears" has earned well-deserved praise for providing adrenaline-soaked thrills. It also happens to look stunning. Game play supposedly trumps graphics - but not in "Gears" where the screen transforms into a nightmare of detail. If you're not careful, you'll find yourself gawking at the scenery when your team needs you to toss a well-placed frag grenade.

Pair a player up with a buddy on the couch or a full squad online, "Gears" grinds into overdrive. Barking orders, coordinating attacks, and sharing in the thrill of the fight, going multiplayer provides exponentially more fun than solo action. Because the game supports a style of play that lets you revive a fallen comrade with a futuristic battlefield syringe, even a mismatched team of experienced and novice players works out. The pro just plays more cautiously, waiting for the call to save a teammate taken down by reckless play.

Oddly, "Guitar Hero II" works in a similar manner.

With a miniature red Gibson SG controller in hand, players use the five buttons on the guitar neck and a strum bar to match melodies represented on the screen. Whether rocking on Kiss' "Strutter" or aching through Guns N' Roses' "Sweet Child O' Mine," "Hero" delivers the guts of air guitar without the embarrassment of waving around an imaginary instrument.

When players team in cooperative mode, with one taking lead and the other handling bass or rhythm guitar, the true sprit of rock enters the room. Bounding through the guitar dueling on the Allman Brothers classic "Jessica," thundering along with Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Free Bird," or pouring on the charm as you do your best Spinal Tap playing "Tonight I'm Gonna Rock You Tonight," rocking together you really can make beautiful music.

Because each player can set his own difficultly level, those with different skills can still make it through the most challenging songs.

Cooperation in games isn't new. But judging from these titles, wherever gaming is headed, look for it to feature jacks for multiple controllers. The future lies in getting along.

Who's It For: "Gears of War" will appeal to anyone who just wants to blow off steam. And you don't need to know a Stratocaster from a Telecaster to enjoy "Guitar Hero II."

If You Like This, Try That: "Halo" fans have flocked to "Gears of War" while waiting for "Halo 3." If you haven't gotten on the "Halo" bandwagon, start with "Halo 2." And even though "Guitar Hero II" perfects the formula, you'll need the original "Guitar Hero" just to enjoy Boston's sublime "More Than a Feeling."

Best Part: The frag grenade in "Gears" never fails to raise a smile. And the drummer catching on fire at the end of the Spinal Tap song in "Guitar Hero II" is just one of the masterful touches that makes this game rock.

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