I picked up Gears of War: Ultimate Edition for Xbox One this week, and while playing, a friend signed on. I met him playing Gears when it originally released in 2006, huddled under blankets and drinking bottles of Sam Adams. We played a series of well-coordinated rounds in matchmaking together and had a blast, so we became “Xbox friends,” playing Gears together through the winter. We haven’t spoke, let alone played together, in years, but I paused my game and checked to see if he was also playing Ultimate Edition. He was.
Gears of War was probably the last time online gaming still felt surprising for me. In sharp contrast, my first experience in the late 80s or early 90s was lackluster and I was too young to appreciate what I was actually doing. My paternal grandfather, who was the sort of guy who bought the weird shit you never heard of in the back of a Radio Shack, showed me how to dial out and play Carmen Sandiego. It was slow and frustrating and I quickly lost interest.
Over the next decade, I lacked both the hardware and the desire to play games online. In the mid 90s, playing GoldenEye with my friends or siblings in the same room seemed more appealing than fighting with America Online and fiddling with PC games.
That didn’t change much late in 1999 when my best friend convinced me to invest in EverQuest. I forced myself to believe I was having a good time for months before finally giving up. The unfriendly world seemed better suited for only the most dedicated and ardent players; I wished the landscape was free of other players and mobs so I could just explore. The kinds of experiences most online PC games provided at the time just were not for me.
And PCs were always prohibitively expensive for my family growing up. I had had little experience with them for much of online gaming’s infancy, so it’s little surprise my first memorable experiences were actually on consoles. As a fan of RPGs, Phantasy Star Online for the Dreamcast was like a wonderful dream (as opposed to the nightmares of EverQuest). I couldn’t play often because it tied up our phone line, but I played as often as I could. I remember logging in on Valentine’s Day and seeing the ship decorated with hologram hearts. I didn’t even know that was possible! I thought a dynamic environment was just the coolest thing.
A couple years later, I bought a modem for the PlayStation 2 specifically for Tony Hawk’s Underground. Although I could clear the single player goals in a Tony Hawk game with little problem, I wasn’t a very competitive player until Underground. Underground introduced a battle mode called Fire Fight, wherein creating bigger and bigger combos would launch bigger and bigger fireballs from the tip of your board with the goal of destroying the other players. I was devastating at Fire Fight. Matches would culminate with the text chat scrolling across the screen cheering on my handle, Big Mac, as I annihilated the last of the competition.
That thrill of being cheered on by strangers was new and intoxicating. I played Underground until the community dwindled and no one was left to cheer for Big Mac. I only half-heartedly dabbled in other online games until I bought an Xbox 360 with Gears of War.
Even by then, the Xbox 360 online community had earned a reputation of being filled with foul-mouthed children but I found the early Gears community was composed mostly of friendly young guys like myself. I liked the single player, but the multiplayer wouldn’t have been nearly as attractive if the other people playing weren’t so welcoming.
I remember one match on the Fuel Depot map, standard four on four Warzone deathmatch. The opposing team, still numbering four, had killed the other three players on my team. I skulked around the map, staying in cover and out of sight. My only hope was the Hammer of Dawn, a weapon that takes a few seconds to acquire its target before triggering a column of fire from the orbiting satellites. The only problem was that on Fuel Depot, the Hammer of Dawn was located in the wide open and I was severely outgunned. I made a mad dash for it, picked it up and spun around. The opposing team, huddled stupidly close together, were running toward me. I pointed the Hammer of Dawn at the group, praying the acquisition would complete before they reached me. The Hammer’s beeping slowly ramped up and just before I was sure I would be killed, all four enemy players exploded into thick, meaty chunks. My mic cut over to the post-game lobby and all I could hear was my team loudly cheering in my earpiece. I’m not very good at games, especially competitively, so the feeling of winning a match like that was incredible.
I probably won’t recapture those memories playing Gears of War. I don’t play online very often and when I do, it’s not with a headset. My friends have different schedules and different consoles. Different lives. So I don’t even intend on trying. But it’s sort of nice to play the game again, virtually side by side with someone I played it with years ago. Online gaming can be pretty great, even at its most passive.