Jon Gracey's

Games That Rocked My World – #8: Gears Of War 2

In Xbox 360 on October 31, 2011 at 12:28 am

Title: Gears Of War 2

Format: Xbox 360

Release Date: November, 7th, 2008

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Videogames are, for me, a shelter from the storm. When the controller’s in my hand, I often enter a zen-like, focused state which shuts off the outside world. In the right context, playing is a soothing, cathartic experience.

Everyone feels there could be more success in their lives. There’s always more you can be achieving, no matter what path you choose, and with gaming there’s a certain symbolic delight to be had in conquering your foes and saving the world; people like to be heroes, and gaming is in a unique position to replicate that. On a crude level – and this week’s game is nothing if not crude – people like to kick the shit out of things to make them feel better. *Knock knock* Who’s there? Gears Of War 2, you say? Come on in!

December 2008. I had been in my first full-time desk job for a little over a month. The job was fine, but I wasn’t keen. Yet I approached it with a certain puritanical justification. I had just come out of three years of university which were among the best of my life, and had changed a huge amount with regards to taste and outlook. I had become more realistic. After a fairly hedonistic three years, I now felt I bound to the 9-5 life, almost as if it were penance. Jobless, full-time arty lives were a frivolous pipe dream, I told myself; an irresponsibility which no one in their right mind seriously considered past their mid 20s. I had decided I was going to work full-time, and find creative outlets elsewhere.

And yet – this wasn’t going so well. The office was full of great, but similarly frustrated people; highly intelligent, given little to do. Conversations were a mixture of highbrow theatrical discussions and acute boredom, but what really got me down was the sinking suspicion that This Was It. I’d been all the way through the education system, from nursery to prep to senior schools, before a gap year and university, for this? To work in an office for a low wage, making lots of money for other people. I had a job in the arts sector, so I kidded myself and anyone who asked that I was “using my degree”. Na. I was a desk monkey.

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I was grateful to have a job – these were early recession days – but really, I was living at home with my parents, my only outgoings being travel, and I was bored to tears. Two and a half hours of every day were spent on a train, my face crammed into sad, sweaty armpits that seemed intent on crying pungent tears of sorrow at the merest of provocations, and I was spending the large majority of my day performing a job that could be done by a primate.

Years of tedium spread out before me. Of thought-obliterating Friday afternoon drinking sessions followed by weekend-long hangovers. Of snatched cinema visits late on a week night, before running home in the rain to get enough sleep to get through the next day. Of endless underground commutes, desperately trying to get somewhere. I couldn’t see an end to it. “But hey”, I thought, “This is what everyone does, right?”. “Man up and get on with it.”

So I did. It’s hardly the worst life in the world; London is one of the greatest cities there is, and I was lucky enough to be among the highly privileged bracket of people that not only live there, but is employed there too. Complaints-wise, I didn’t have a leg to stand on. But I was fresh out of uni, and despite my constant internal attempts to rationalise the situation, this state of affairs depressed me. Tragedy is relative, after all.

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December rolled around, and despite only having worked at the office since the start of November, the last day of work felt uncannily like the last day of term. I rather liked the comparison – a release from the clutches of the workplace, everyone scattering across the world to the warmth of their respective homes. It reminded me of nothing more than the guttering throes of a winter term at school or Uni, everyone heading back to their families for the Christmas holidays.

It was a half day, and very cold. The company had had a very good year. It was a few days before Christmas, and the air was chill. I remember wearing boots because of the ice, and trudging towards the tube, when I suddenly got tremendously excited at the thought of going home; of a long, warm holiday with my family; sitting around, drinking and eating, singing, party games; all the good stuff.

But it was lunchtime, and there would be no one home. I wanted to bask in the glow of the guiltless pleasure of doing nothing, and I was damned if I was going to spend it on my own. So before getting on the tube, I called my friend Adam, and asked if he was in. He was. I headed to King’s Cross.

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I got there and a sense of immense calm fell over me. London felt very quiet. Perhaps it was snowing, I’m not sure. But things felt very still. I went over to Adam’s place, and got buzzed in. He was embedded in the couch opposite the TV, playing a video game. Can you guess which one?

The gaming session only lasted a few hours, but gradually I felt a powerful sense of release. I had been masquerading as an adult for nearly two months, despite feeling younger than ever before, and the pretence was starting to take its toll. Sitting down with my good friend blasting through Horde mode gave me a heady draught of comforting gaming memories of the past; sitting on sofas with friends, battling the odds, laughing at the close calls. In that moment I suddenly and strongly felt that things weren’t so bad.

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Horde mode should be fundamentally depressing, but it isn’t. It’s an unending co-op experience, where you fight off increasingly dangerous waves of Locust (Gears’ aggressive alien race) with other players online until you are inevitably crushed beneath their overwhelming numbers. Yet there’s a strong sense of resilience about it, of the last stand. It’s a slow-paced, long-burn game that becomes more and more tense the more you withstand.

As the sun went down and London froze, we sat in that flat together, helping each other out with well-placed headshots, saving each other’s asses from certain defeat when the odds were stacked hugely against us, hi-fiving at the crazy successes and consoling over the close losses.

Perhaps this was longing for days since passed, but I felt ensconced in this warm bubble of timelessness during those hours, as everything else faded to nothing in the darkening evening. All the questions of jobs, career, life, were given a shot of morphine and put to restful sleep, if only for a little while.

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I forget how long we played for. Adam’s internet connection kept inexplicably throwing us off the server, so no matter how far we got, fate gently flicked us in the balls and forced a restart, but it didn’t really matter. For me, it was an island of calm in this huge ocean I was paddling out into, and it was welcome.

It’s easy to mock the Gears Of War franchise. It’s big, dumb, space opera, with more grizzled marine than you can shake a rusted chainsaw at. But it knows what it is, and it does it well. There’s comfort in that.

And for those few hours on that freezing, clear afternoon, I just shot shit in the face with my friend. Life was squatting outside, but hell – this time it could wait.

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Sometimes that’s ok.

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  1. […] a bit disappointed when I unwrapped you (I was desperate for an Xbox 360 so I could play Halo 3 and Gears Of War 2) but hush my entitled, pretty little white mouth, you’ve been a barnstormer. If the last game […]

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