The Gears of War series is one that burst onto the scene in 2006 when gamers were ready for the HD generation ahead of them that would embrace HDMI cables, as well as other advancements in technology that enhanced the experience for gamers. The series also popularized cover-based third-person shooting and made way for a new branch of online multiplayer. Furthermore, Gears of War also established a certain standard for map design in online multiplayer, setting various criteria that many other multiplayer games should seek to fulfill.
A Game of Symmetry
Gears of War's map design is, simply, symmetrical. Nearly all map layouts contain congruent halves. This is important because it means that each player, regardless of skill, has an equal fighting chance. There is no "high ground" to have and, while one player may be more experienced than another and have a few tricks up their sleeve as such, there is no inherent advantage.
Gears of War's "Gridlock" map is a perfect exemplification of this. As fans of the series know, this map has received iterations in nearly every Gears title thus far. In Gridlock, each team of players starts out near the end of an alley. The only option from either end is to head toward the center of the map. Although a player can head up a set of stairs to the side to grab a power weapon, the point stands that the path is fairly linear. However, this works out because players will ultimately meet to clash at the map's center for other power weapons, such as the Longshot, in an intense tug of war that will leave more than a couple of dead corpses in its path.
It's also worth noting that points of cover where players can shield themselves from aggressors are dispersed evenly and nearly identically, as can be seen in the overhead map of Gridlock.
What's so Wrong with Other Games?
There isn't necessarily any diminishing of quality in maps seen in other online multiplayer games because of their lack of symmetry. Battlefield's expansive multiplayer maps, while often unsymmetrical, are very conducive to its chaotic nature that invites a feeling of real war. However, there is a fix that doesn't necessarily mitigate the aforementioned nature, which would be to make the maps more symmetrical. For the players filling the shoes of the Americans, it's important for them to not feel overwhelmed by the strategic advantage given to the players on the German side due to some map feature that violates "equality of opportunity," which is something Gears embraces.
A somewhat relevant example of a map that would have benefitted from map symmetry would be the Hoth map in 2005's Star Wars: Battlefront II. While the game is a cult classic, its Hoth map displayed the epitome of inequality of opportunity in its design. While it tries to recreate the scene from Empire Strikes Back, its handing of the advantage to the Rebels is counterintuitive because, not only does this not line up with the events of the intro to Empire Strikes Back, but it simply means players on the side of the Empire fight an uphill battle. The tucked-away base owned by the Rebel side is all they need to secure a win, unless Darth Vader comes in swinging his lightsaber.
Series like Call of Duty don't have necessarily have mechanically-flawed maps. Their map layout suffers from blandness in setup, where everything is spread out and the blood-curdling expectation of conflict is lost when players have to aimlessly sprint around the streets searching for foes to end.
One Giant Leap for Map-Kind
Gears of War's map design did something extraordinary for multiplayer games to come after it, giving them an overarching structure. It's true that symmetry can be seen in multiplayer maps from other series, but it was seemingly often a tool of distinguishing one map from another. Gears of War took symmetry and ran with it, crafting an online experience that was meant to make players have an equal sense of standing, rather than an impending sense of doom if they'd spawned in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Simply put, many games can learn this lesson of symmetry from Gears of War's map design.