STAFF REVIEW of Gears of War (Xbox 360)

Tuesday, November 14, 2006.
by neurro

Gears of War Box art If you're looking for a next generation experience, look no further than Gears of War.

With over 10-million dollars put into the project, publisher Microsoft and developer Epic Games had a lot to do to justify that kind of payroll. On top of that all the hype the game has garnered over the months would leave most other games shivering in their boots. I'm here to tell you that Gears of War delivers and plays like everything press and fans alike imagined and sets the bar for all future competition.

Gears of War is an impressive game, and the first thing to be noticed is the graphical presentation. Made with the powerful Unreal 3 engine, the look and feel of the game surpasses anything to be seen on the XBOX 360. From the hail of bullets of the enemy to the lowering of your head as you sprint toward the nearest slab of cover, everything looks remarkable and serves to get your blood pumping and your nerves wired. The desolate, war-torn environments set the stage and keep the atmosphere in check throughout the duration, and the level by level design is varied enough to keep you guessing. Character models are thick and overall outstanding, and there are a variety of enemy types to gun down, with sometimes vague distinctions between them. Whether you're admiring environments, the good use of lighting and shadow effects, or the satisfying spray of enemy blood as you chainsaw them in half, there is always something gorgeous to look at. Campaign cut scenes are done with in-game graphics, and when the action gets heavy the visual can chop along, but otherwise all this visual excellence is managed by a very steady frame rate, allowing the player to keep their head in the game and away from any slowdown that is potentially immerslence is the food of choice, and this is definitely a game geared toward an adult audience. Death animations are visceral and intense, and blood is in abundance. There are a variety of ways to kill your opponent and all of them are tension charged and can easily be considered disturbing for children. This game definitely deserves its ?mature? rating, and could quite easily be one of the more bloody video games in history.

The game's campaign mode tells the story of Marcus Fenix, a former soldier of the Coalition of Organized Governments (COG) who was branded a traitor and locked up in prison. The game opens with Fenix being busted out of jail by Dom--another COG soldier--to help fight the growing threat of the Locust invasion. The Locust are a mysterious alien breed that are both intelligent and ruthless. Early on you're tasked with tracking down Alpha Squad and a potentially important device that can be used to thwart the aforementioned threat, and the story continues from there. This mode plays out in a series of tension filled battles between your squad and the enemy horde, during most of which you?ll be in cover and being tactical in your shooting and flanking, or you?ll just be dead. The campaign takes many cues from your typical action movie; the dialogue is tense and sometimes bone-headed, the music is suitably cinematic and sets a good pace, and the overall story is shallow. I believe this to be the game's weakest element, and only wish they could have added more background on Marcus' incarceration or the details of the Locust invasion. It would have provided even more appeal for the gamer and leave an impression on the campaign other than it being there for the base satisfying action, achievement system, and friend participation.

Two difficulty settings are available from the get-go, and both scale in difficulty through the campaign. A third and final setting is unlocked upon beating the one before it, and is possibly more frustrating than its worth. As soon as you pop out of cover you?re being bombarded by multiple lines of fire, and they definitely know how to hit your head. Toward the end of this setting you?ll more than likely have to call in the aid of a friend, be it split-screen or online co-op. You?ll have to beat all these settings to unlock all the achievements. This is a dish best served cold.

The campaign clocks in around 10-12 hours, and is altogether a satisfying experience, hampered little by a lack of story depth and out of proportioned difficulty scaling.

Another area that this game shines is in its sharp, well structured game play. On the surface this may appear to be your typical run-and-gun action game, and if you go into it with that mentality you?re going to die, and die horribly. A slab of concrete is your friend here, and if this suitable piece of cover isn?t available, you can make due with humps of metal debris, wrecked vehicle remains, or even more destructible materials like couches, chairs, and dressers. This pop-and-gun element of game play allows cover tactics to be used and the proper flank all the more important. In fact, the campaign mode promotes this by issuing commands on when to flank and how. It?s even more important in the multiplayer aspect, and there will be more on that later. Suffice it to say, if you aren?t using these tactics to your advantage, you?re going to have a hard time of it.

The controls are intuitive and well-mapped, and quickly feel at home in any hand as you?re blasting heads and chain sawing your enemies into submission. The A button serves as a universal tool, being used to take cover, switch cover, jump over cover, dive, or sprint toward destinations. This all-inclusive use of a single button can be both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand it provides ease with maneuvering, and on the other it can serve to confuse the programming and send you into a mindless spam of cover-switching death. Movement and aiming is done through analog controls and is as sharp as the rest of this package, and melee attacks run the gamut of pistol whips and chain-saw massacres. Plus there is this little thing called a curb stomp that is done on downed opponents and is a wonderful way to top off that satisfying humiliation of an enemy. The good people at Epic threw another feature to be used during the heat of battle called active reloading. Active reloading is a bar that appears when you reload, this bar has highlighted areas within it that need to be struck with the right bumper, the result being a faster reload with increased damage for a short time. Should you miss this highlighted area, your character will provide a punctual curse and go through a jamming animation that causes a slower reload and could easily lead to death.

Achievements are expansive and rewarding and some are much more difficult to get than others. You?ll get points for beating the different acts of the campaign for each individual difficulty setting, for collecting cog tags that lay around the battlefield, and ultimately for beating the game. Beyond that there are many more to be obtained. You can get achievements for being good at the online play, helping friends in co-op mode, and even rudimentary things like using active reloading reliably and gaining kills.

Online play is where Gears of War will gain the majority of its replay value, and is a selling point for many people. If you have xbox live you can join campaigns in progress of friends should they also be online in the co-op feature, and this of course works the other way around. There is also a versus feature that pits four Cogs against four Locust in a battle for domination. This versus mode is attended to by different game types: War Zone is your typical team death match, Assassination provides a leader that must be kept alive, and Execution is a team death match that prevents death unless it is done in the most brutal ways possible. If you die in these modes you?re forced to watch the proceedings until the start of the next round, and just watching is sometimes as entertaining. Voice chat is prominent during all this, providing communication between your teammates when alive and also universal voice chat when you and others are dead. On writing this review, there is currently a bug causing voice chat to deteriorate over time or just not work for some people, but it has already been said that it?s being worked on, and generally just remaking the host can fix these minor problems.

Gears of War is a brilliant game. The visual presentation sets the bar for console games to come, the game play is thrilling and very rewarding, and the online aspect will keep people playing again and again. All this serves to make Gears of War stand out from its competitors, sending a challenge to companies currently developing similar titles by slapping them across the face.

SUGGESTIONS: Grab some local friends and meet up on xbox live for some 4v4 action. You?ll be playing until the early hours of the morning, shouting and having fun the entire time.

Overall: 9.6 / 10
Gameplay: 9.8 / 10
Visuals: 10.0 / 10
Sound: 9.2 / 10


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