Honoring one of the greatest weapons ever put in players' hands on its 15th anniversary, here's to the Mark 2 Lancer Assault Rifle (the one with the chainsaw) from 2006's Gears of War.
Among the hordes of alien shooters from the early 2000s, one series elevated its violence into something more like an artform by equipping you with a way to create a highly satisfying ballet of gore. Gears of War's most essential tool of the trade, the Mark 2 Lancer, is a futuristic assault rifle with its bayonet attachment upgraded into an undercarriage chainsaw. The game pits the outmatched Delta Squad against an entire hive of the creatures which burrowed out of Sera's core to destroy human civilization, and the gun is their standard-issue weapon, leading to combat where you end up driving a running saw through these enemies. There's something about that which is so gloriously out there it warrants celebration. It's not pretty, nor is it respectable, but neither Gears nor chainsaws were ever either of those things.
The chainsaw's pop culture legacy is as a horror prop. It is the maker of a monster in the case of one of its earliest appearances, 1974's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, wielded by the infamous Leatherface. A scary item, the chainsaw is a handheld, fuel-spitting, spiked conveyor belt designed to do nature's work for it and topple the tallest living things on Earth. When turned on something less robust than a tree, its menace is palpable.
Add to this its heroic transformation into a saving grace as Ash Williams' replacement arm in The Evil Dead franchise, and you see it become an immortal piece of the demon killer's arsenal. As a game weapon, it took on those same specific demon-killing purposes in DOOM from the game's release, and has stuck around in that series ever since.
Speaking to GamesRadar+ about the Mark 2 Lancer, lead designer Cliff Bleszinski specifically name checked those influences on the design. His insistence on "intimate violence" as integral to the Gears formula meant that the carnage brought of this horror icon became a gameplay feature.
Gears of War's "Intimate Violence"
The game allows for that violence by making your encounters with its underground enemies just as likely to be up close and personal as they are classic duck-and-cover shooter experiences. You can either rev up the saw, puffing black smoke as you run up on emerged Locust horde members, or just wait for them to quickly advance on you with brutal force. It's not a forgiving game, and you aren't in forgiving circumstances, broken out of prison and just as quickly plunged into a rescue by a commander that your team doesn't respect. Those team members will use the rifle and its toothy attachment just as much as you will. However it's when you unleash that saw yourself that the game goes full schlock, arching the view into a cinematic camera angle and splattering the lens with dark red blood.
To me, this experience with the weapon is what sets Gears apart. In an era of brown shooters all dealing with hordes of indistinct enemies, Gears, which has a much bleaker and more cynical story than most, offsets that with the brutal flair it introduces. This type of bloody flourish was a step away from the attempted modern military naturalism of something like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. It was also a choice that found close cinematic equivalents in horror around this time too, where between Saw and Sweeney Todd screens were frequently being splattered with fountains of blood.
This desire, to see gore and guts sprayed all over the place is nothing new to art, and before it was in the movies and games, it was part of the modern theater. The most famous example of this is the Grand Guignol in Paris, which ran for 65 years from 1897. They regularly staged highly popular shows in which the bloody gore onstage, and its tendency to spill offstage, was the main attraction. Its name is now synonymous with any type of entertainment that engages in brutal, crowd-pleasing violence and can be applied here.
The Mark 2 Lancer and the gore that it led to elevates Gears of War into Grand Guignol theater, and along with games and sequels that followed its lead, like Lollipop Chainsaw and up to 2019's Gears of War 5, represents the modern-day equivalent of that stage tradition. Fifteen years on, there is still plenty of room for a shower of blood and guts in my heart.