Gears of War Becomes a Horror Game with the Berserker Fight
Gears of War is the kind of game where you character is so strong and well-armed that it doesn’t seem possible to feel afraid. I mean, the protagonist, Marcus, is just a wall of muscle. He uses a machine gun that is also a chainsaw. What’s to be afraid of in this bloody shooter? Well, the developers in the game felt the need to inject some horror into the experience, using an early boss fight to add a sense of vulnerability into the game. The Berserker fight is an excellent demonstration on how, with careful design, you can spice up a shooter with a little terror.
Up until this point, you’ve spent a good while firing from behind cover. Carefully outflanking enemies as you gun them down. Or, if things get up close, you’ll be cutting through foes with the chainsaw on your lancer assault rifle. You’ve likely been in danger at points. Pinned down by gunfire as your gruesome locust foes close in. Maybe you felt a little scared in those moments. Still, being a wall of regenerating muscle man does tend to make that fear fade away when you blast your enemies to bits. I felt twinges of fear as I played the game. Mostly, though, I felt empowered. Strong. Ready to fight.
And then, Gears of War pits you against something different. After tangling with groups of enemies you could just gun down, you’re introduced to a nigh-unkillable monstrosity. The Berserker is immune to regular gunfire, so any shots you fire are just wasted. On top of this, the Berserker responds to sound and smells, so any pot shots you take are just going to draw its attention. Don’t run, either, as it will definitely hear that. Finally, if this thing so much as touches you, it’s going to rip you to pieces.
Suddenly, you move from this position of extreme power to extreme powerlessness. All of the tools you’ve used so far are useless. No guns will hurt it. Not even that, but even your movement can now get you killed. If you run at the wrong time, you’ll die. You can do a roll to get to safety, sure, but it feels like most anything else you do will result in death. Even if you stand around – something you had to do while in cover to avoid getting shot – is a good way to die. The Berseker just sniffs you out if you stand there. The only way to live is to fight all of the instincts and movements you’ve spent the last few hours learning.
At first, the only way to survive the first boss of Gears of War is to walk. Quietly. No gunfire. No noise. Just walk, and walk carefully. It’s not too stressful at first as you start off in a large, open area. However, things steadily narrow as you move through the various stages of this stealth-like section. Also, if you just had to avoid the Berserker, it wouldn’t be so bad. Instead, you need to lure her into battering down steel doors that are in the room. This means that, after carefully avoiding her, you need to draw her toward you.
The rooms keep getting smaller and smaller, though. There’s pillars all over the place, too. Those won’t stop a Berserker charge, but they make it harder for you to dodge and maneuver. I have died man, many times in these rooms while trying to get her to bash down a door. The spaces are too tight, and the margin for error is really small. After undermining every skill and ability you’ve been using to win so far, the game forces you into tight quarters with the Berserker. There, you really soak in that sense of vulnerability.
You eventually escape, and things get a little bit easier from here. Once you get outside, you can use the most powerful weapon in Gears of War, the Hammer of Dawn. It’s a satellite beam that you can call down to decimate anything it strikes. It’s the only weapon that will hurt the Berserker, but it takes a few moments to boot up. So, you have to take aim while this creature is sniffing around for you or running, screaming, around the area. You have to kind of guess where it will be and then hope it doesn’t sneak out from under the beam.
This might not be too bad, but you also have a timer during this segment. The Hammer of Dawn will only work under certain conditions, and those are only going to last a few minutes. That timer was constantly ticking down while you were working your way through those narrow rooms. It’s constantly pushing you forward, making you draw her attention with gunfire and generally taking risks because you’ll die if you take too long. It adds this incredible pressure to this segment that makes it even more likely you’ll be killed, amping up that fear as you work through it.
Finally, I have to talk about the Berserker’s scream in Gears of War. The creature emits this high-pitched shriek as it comes running toward you. It’s followed by this sound that feels like it’s coming from a runaway train. Hearing that noise is awful enough when you can see her. Hearing it if she’s gotten out of your sight while you were avoiding her is something else. My heart rate spikes while hearing that noise, making it hard to focus on the fight. While she’s physically intimidating, hearing that sound might be what jars me most of all.
I felt like a rugged, tough guy with a powerful arsenal throughout much of Gears of War. The Berserker fight stripped that feeling away and left me vulnerable and afraid. While horror infuses much of the game’s enemies, here is a place that helped you really learn to fear your locust foes. And, in a shooter with some great setpieces, it was one of the most memorable fights because of that temporary dip into fear.