Francis is the closest thing to a hardcore gamer I have in my life. He's the kind of guy that bought a DualShock 4 controller on a lunch break before the PlayStation 4 had come out just so he could hold it. Buying the PS4 over the Xbox One was a calculated decision he can justify many, many times over.
So when he asked if he could stay on my couch one weekend while he was attending a wedding for one of his cousins, I knew that saying "yes" meant that we'd be playing some serious video games. It was just a question of which ones. We only had a few hours by the time he got back on Saturday night, so we had to choose wisely.
I hadn't really started playing Titanfall yet, so I wanted to try that. Francis had gotten into that game early on his PC, but he was curious to see how it measured up on the Xbox One, so he consented. We would take turns.
I booted up the game on my Xbox One.
"I'm excited to finally see this," I said, tensing up my shoulders. The anticipation for Titanfall had been more than breathless.
"It's pretty cool," Francis said.
We were greeted by an "update required" message.
"God dammit," I looked down at my phone. We were supposed to meet friends at a bar downtown in two hours or so, which gave us maybe an hour to actually play anything.
"Uhh…how about Plants Vs. Zombies?" I asked, picking up the Garden Warfare box. Francis gave his assent without looking away from the screen—of the TV or his phone, I can't remember which.
Another loading screen. Dammit again. Then another. And another. We thought about switching to the PlayStation 4 to play Killzone.
"Fuck it, man." Francis said finally. "Let's just play Gears of War."
I was more than happy to oblige. A few minutes later we were fending off waves of clammy white zombie-looking monsters called Locusts, enthralled in the routine spectacle.
"I feel like that's kind of sums up the next-gen experience so far," Francis said, laughing. We were both pretty giddy, the way we always get when we start playing the game's horde mode. "Let's just Gears of War instead."
That could easily describe my experience with the new Xbox and PlayStation. I enjoy the ambitious work that's beginning to come to the two consoles. Titanfall and Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare have already won me over in particular.
But switching the allegiance of my go-to shooter of choice is a much more involved process than being wowed by impressive visuals and new types of gameplay. It's something that will only happen gradually as developers and players alike settle into the new hardware. So for the time being, I keep being pulled back into Gears of War.
Gears of War 3, specifically. And it's not even that whole game, though I do play through Marcus and Dom's entire saga whenever I find a friend who will go along with me. That doesn't happen very often anymore, however, so really what I end up playing is the game's horde mode—an ongoing challenge where giant monsters are thrown at you in increasingly overwhelming amounts. You're only change is to beat them back. All of them. Unlike many other types of shooters, horde mode isn't about winning anything. It's about surviving, a constant endurance test to see how long you and whoever you're playing with can remain alert and on top of their shit.
I keep playing Gears of War because I see no reason to stop. The series has been out for almost eight years now, and I still haven't gotten tired of shooting my way through the same challenges—even the same maps. The morning after we tried to play Titanfall, my roommate and I started playing a round of horde while Francis packed his bags. Hours later as the sun started to set and Francis was well on his way back to Chicago, we were still playing.
The game is so finely tuned that by the time creator Epic Games took a third lap around the development track for Gears of War 3, it was near perfect. Everything in the game just fits so well together. Staring down one of the game's giant bazooka-wielding enemies known simply as a "Boomer" while the friend sitting next to you screams to hold on until he can get back to cover feels just as invigorating today as it did in high school and college. The same goes for that rush of adrenaline that comes every time you land an instant kill with the torque bow, the game's powerful but slow-aiming futuristic longbow.
Partly this stubbornness is brought on by the obstinacy of the crowd. People don't cross hardware generations in a single, unified leap of faith. They trickle across slowly as they're won over by the beauty of promises delivered or the pestering of insistent friends. Very few of my game-playing peers have gotten the PlayStation 4 yet, and even fewer have bothered with the Xbox One. Whenever I bring up the best games on both systems, therefore, they often fall on deaf ears.
The hesitance to give oneself over to something new is rooted in profound memories, however. Gears of War might be a silly-looking game set in a flat gray universe pulled from some b-rate sci fi thriller about killing space aliens, but traversing that world has created many enduring bonds.
I played Gears in passing throughout the final years of high school and well into college, but I only really got into the game with my friend Salim the year after we graduated and moved to New York. We'd meet several days a week at his apartment after working our internships or shaky first jobs. Exhausted and overwhelmed, we'd sit on his couch together concentrating on the gory action on screen while we narrated the day's events to one another. Maybe we'd sent out another cover letter that day or landed an interview that sounded promising. More often, however, we both just felt the routine grind of trying to find a job, any job, and hold onto it as long as we could.
I've made a surprising amount of friends playing Gears of War this way. Salim and I started playing together over cases of PBR before going out on Friday or Saturday nights. When I moved into my last apartment, my roommate gave me a funny look as he watched me unpacking the full extent of all my gaming systems. Later that week, I got home to see him sitting on the couch, intensely focused with his head inches away from the TV screen.
"Wanna play Gears of War?" he asked once he looked up.
My new roommate and I first got to know each other by killing hordes of Locusts, too, before we'd ever discussed going in on a lease together.
Only time will tell if Gears becomes one of those system-keeping classics like Super Smash Bros. or Mario Kart: Double Dash that make diehard fans hold onto an old console long after its prime. But it seems telling to me that whenever the game is around, it's what I end up playing with friends.
This has lead to some ridiculous moments. Last year, I went to visit Francis for a few days on my way to and from Thanksgiving. We were planning to spend one of these days on shrooms since he'd bought a batch a while back and wasn't sure how much longer they were going to last.
Or at least that was our logic. For some reason, we hadn't planned on Chicago being absolutely freezing in late November, which it was. So after eating our peanut butter Nutella and shroom-sandwiches and trying to step outside for approximately five seconds, we ended up back in his living room shivering and wondering what to do.
"Well, I guess we can play Gears of War and figure it out from there," I suggested.
There are moments playing video games that I'm never going to forget. Lifting off to Gears of War the first time I took hallucinogens is one of them. The drugs took a while to kick in, but at a certain point we were screaming "TICKERS" and "LAMBENT" every time a new wave of those enemies arrived.
Gears is an extremely gory game, so the constantly squelching sound of splatting corpses got way too intense once we were good and high. After I saw my space marine's head get crushed under the foot of one the Locust foot soldiers, I dropped the controller and put my palms over my eyes, inhaling deeply. Francis leapt off his chair and started rolling around on the carpet, cackling wildly.
We both noticed his cat as if for the first time. Descending upon the confused animal, Francis put out both hands and whispered, "...1080p." We both fell to the floor, cracking up again.
At a certain point that afternoon, an unpleasant email from an editor I freelanced for came in and put me in a bad spiral. I ended up sitting on a chair that was really just a car seat they had in their apartment, staring out the large kitchen windows into an abandoned lot across the street.
"I'm...feeling...a lot of negative emotions right now," I said, my eyes bulging and my legs bouncing up and down rapidly.
"Just try to push them out," Francis said, also looking out the window as the sun slowly set. "Make room for other, better ones."
The past few years haven't been an easy transition, for any of us. Salim eventually decided he couldn't cut it in New York, and after returning home to Boston briefly he packed up and moved to Dubai—the one place he said a family friend could help him get a job. Instead of playing Gears of War, we now mostly talk when he messages me from a bar there after work. He's still looking for a way to come back, he always says.
Francis has been looking for jobs that will let him relocate too, but he's held back because of his citizenship status. And at the time we were playing Gears last November, I was working as a full-time freelance writer with no idea how much longer I was going to be able to find work in New York.
In its own weird way, Gears of War reflects these modern anxieties that we all face. At its core, the game is about the friendship between two men—Marcus Fenix and Dominic Santiago—both of whom have experienced profound loss. The tagline for the third game, "Brothers To The End," seems like a heartwarming display of bromance until you play through the game and realize how fatalistic "the end" truly is. Marcus and Dom do keep supporting each other, but that support only takes them so far.
My relationships with my friends has changed as we've grown and become separated by frustrating realities. We're not always eager for further change. And I'm no more ready to leave Gears of War behind than I am to let these people go.
Salim and I still haven't finished the Gears of War 3 campaign, after all. We keep promising one another that we're going to.