Xbox 360 owners patiently awaiting the arrival of Halo 3 will find their time is much easier spent with Gears of War, a sci-fi shooter that nearly lives up to the crushing hype thrust upon it since its 2005 unveiling. While it doesn't have the epic feel of the Halo series, Gears of War is steeped in atmosphere and is a more cerebral shooter than one would expect, especially considering its theme has more mileage on it than most space shuttles. Played entirely from a third-person perspective, the design allows for more acrobatic movement than you're used to in a futuristic blaster, and the enemy AI is aggressive without being stupid, unlike some of your lunk-headed squad mates. Yet it's the presentation that will immediately draw players in, with visuals that easily eclipse all previous efforts on the platform.
The lead protagonist is gruff, battle worn and everything you want him to be, given the storyline's bleak outlook of mankind's fate, with a somber disposition and a steely eyed gaze that makes Splinter Cell's Sam Fisher look positively exuberant in comparison. The bombed out, desolate environments are not unlike war-ravaged cities of modern times, save for a reptilian-like race intent on eradicating the few remnants of humanity. While weaving your way past crumbling concrete, rain-soaked streets, and the rust and the rubble, you will notice plenty of battered objects to dive, roll, slam, or crouch behind, something you'll be doing quite often in the game, as using cover to your advantage is the only way you'll survive the intensely loud, intensely violent firefights that lay in store.
Real military tactics lend an air of authenticity to the gritty futuristic setting, with techniques such as maintaining suppression fire, flanking, and mantling over objects being essential parts of the action. The enemies are intelligent in this game, trying to flank or counterflank you, seizing opportunities to rush toward you while you reload your weapon, and barking out orders in some seriously deep voices. In an unusual twist, the process of reloading is an optional skill-based exercise that involves timing button presses as a horizontal meter swings back and forth. Time it right, and the character will reload faster and receive a temporary bonus to damage. Miss, and the weapon can jam. There are no real "missions" or diverse objectives to complete, other than getting from point A to point B, eliminating all threats in your path, and closing up portals by lobbing a well-placed grenade at their point of origin.
Gears of War is divided into five acts, with each act spanning three to eight chapters apiece. Unfortunately, a "chapter" consists of two or three shootouts as players advance through areas in a linear fashion, which means the entire campaign can be completed within eight hours. Helping players get the most bang for their buck are multiple difficulty settings, a slew of achievements to earn, and some of the best cooperative play to be found on the system. Multiplayer combat is addictive too, though it could use more game types and maps for it to stand shoulder to shoulder with games like Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter. While Gears of War is a little lean in places, the satisfying action and sumptuous visuals will help you forgive the game's shortcomings and embrace its ability to entertain.
A new benchmark has been set on Xbox 360, with an exquisite amount of detail, smooth animation, and a gritty, grimy world that feels real.
Amidst the machine gun rattle, explosions, buzzing chainsaws, and the humorous radio chatter is an atmospheric soundtrack that heightens the mood in just the right places.
Gears of War doesn't reinvent the genre, but its emphasis on real-world tactics and strategic firefights make for an enjoyable time. Team up with a friend and crank up the difficulty for even more fun.
Replay Value 8
The three included multiplayer modes are as addictive as the single-player campaign, but solo soldiers might be disappointed by the game's relatively short length.
The manual clearly explains each of the controls, play modes, and weapon functions, and the game includes a built-in tutorial stage at the start.