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Review – Gears Of War (XB360)

Few games have the kind of hyperbole and weight of expectation behind it that Gears does. I mean, hell, this is the game that is meant to make, to define a console and also the game which will debut Epic’s brand new spanky Unreal Engine 3. It’s as much the poster boy for Epic’s new tech as it is the XBOX 360 in much the same way the original Halo was back in 2001/2002, and as such there are a lot of folk out there who want to see if it stands up to scrutiny now that it’s finished and out there.

Aside from a few minor niggles, Gears comes off admirably as perhaps the finest third person action adventure we have seen in recent times, with both an astounding, if a little short single player campaign and an extremely robust multiplayer mode. The single player campaign revolves around a loosely knit story going something like this: Man has pretty much depleted every natural resource on the planet Sera, a planet not too dissimilar from our own, until they stumble across a renewable energy source called Imulsion. Of course man being man, this triggers much struggle and conflict until a mysterious race called the Locust Horde, boil up from the Earth’s crust and begin wreaking havoc on the populace at large.

So there you have it, your classic humans vs. monsters premise, and rather than add any over dramatic weight to the storyline or indeed any of the characters, the plot and the charcaters that feature in them are unapologetically cookie-cutter to the extreme. You control Marcus Fenix, a true man’s man, gruff, scarred up, loud and up for some serious ultra-violence. Marcus and his gang of ultra macho misfits are basically Gears equivalent of the marines from James Cameron’s Aliens film, dumb, gruff and ready to blast anything that moves.

Thankfully, Gears’ campaign mode triumphs not in it’s story or characters but quite simply in the robust game mechanics that it has and the sense of epic scale it gives during its many frantic battles. The gameplay in Gears is set in the third person and follows a cover and shoot based approach, whereby as the enemy approach you need to find cover where you can fire and manoeuvre from. Whilst in cover there are a number of moves that are available to you such as blind firing, leaning over walls, jumping over cover, diving out of cover or performing SWAT moves to get you from one piece of cover to the next. On the first two difficulty levels staying out of cover for extended periods doesn’t really the punish the player a huge amount, try this on the appropriately named ‘Insane’ difficulty level however, and prepare to find yourself severely punished for just being out of cover more than a couple of seconds.

All of this interaction with cover is triggered by the ‘A’ button which pretty much does everything in this game. Besides all the aforementioned cover interaction, the A button makes you evasively roll, dive and also when depressed, makes your character go into a ‘Roadie Run’ whereby you holster your weapon close to your stomach and basically do a commando sprint, complete with a nice graphical effect whereby the view is concaved slightly and you get a nice shaky ‘war cam’ look. This is all well and good but it presents a problem because when you are roadie running, you tend to get stuck to various pieces of cover that you really don’t want to, because the system sees that you are pressing A and assumes that you want be behind whatever cover you are running past. More often than not this isn’t an issue, but sometimes it can cost you your life when you are trying to dash past an enemy, but then you end up behind cover with them.

Whilst the cover and shoot mechanic my initially appear to lend itself to uninspiring and perhaps even pedestrian gameplay situations, Gears spices things up sufficiently in the campaign with a number of cool, well thought out missions that the feeling of repetition is the last thing to compromise your enjoyment of the game. Even the mechanic of just reloading itself, is deeper than one would originally perceive due to the ‘Active Reload’ system. This works with a bar with a white sweet spot, and as you reload using the right bumper button, you need to get the reload pointer in that sweet spot for an optimum reload with more powerful ammo. Failure to do this results in reloading taking twice as long and potentially leaving you vulnerable. As such I feel this stands as a nice little innovation to help polish the veneer of what could otherwise be a very repetitive combat system.

Besides the long pitched cover battles with automatic weaponary and sniper rifles, Gears revels in it’s ultra violent nature with a number of gleefully nasty weaponry. The basic Shotgun for example, will quite happily sunder a foe’s body in many different directions if they are unlucky enough to take a blast at close range, creating a mess of squelchy body parts that can be kicked around the ground in the aftermath. The Hammer of Dawn is the next weapon on the list – a hugely powerful satellite laser that can be used only where there is clear sky, and is basically a pillar of light that is dragged around by an infra red laser marker which basically turns anything it touches into gooey chunks. And finally, my personal favourite, the chainsaw. Built onto the underside of the ‘Lancer’ weapon that Marcus and his gang have, you hold ‘B’ to rev up this thing for roughly two seconds and then depress the right trigger to bury it into the anatomy of whoever is unfortunate enough to be in front of you at the time. Cue the most satisfying moment in videogame history, where there is a disturbing sense of resistance as the chainsaw gets stuck in parts of your victim before fully splitting them asunder, scattering their anatomy across the camera. I’m not sure if it’s the noise of the motor or just the carnage it causes, but using the chainsaw never gets old.

Gears biggest asset remains in it’s aesthetics. Gears is quite simply a staggering visual achievement. The European influenced architecture looks so vivid, vibrant and detailed thanks to the extremely high quality of textures and HDR lighting which are used throughout. Everything looks polished to the absolute nines, from the character models (check out the skin on both the locust and the humans), to the explosions, fire, water and particle effects, Gears Of War is quite simply the best looking game I have seen to date, and amply demonstrates Epic’s much touted Unreal Engine 3 technology as a great piece of middleware tech. Even the sound, stands out as being truly exceptional with a stirring epic score, great sound effects and of course lots of testosterone charged macho voice acting.

Another of Gears’ biggest assets is it’s multiplayer and in particular just how thoroughly robust and comprehensive it is. Gears offers two players the chance to tackle the main campaign in co-op mode, either over split screen, system link or XBOX Live, with little degradation to visual quality in split screen and a pleasingly lag free experience over XBOX Live. Even better, the way the co-op mechanic works is by utilising a drop-in/drop-out system, whereby a human player can take the role of the other character at any point during any mission in the campaign. For those with a competitive streak Gears caters you too, with a number of different game types. What game types you have on offer for competitive play over split screen, system link or Xbox Live, are Warzone, Assassination or Execution.

Warzone is basically your run-of-the-mill team deathmatch mode whereby teams of opposing COG (marine) and Locust Horde players face off until the other team is dead and then move onto the next round, with the team having the most rounds won, winning the game. In Assassination, each team has a captain and the game is over as soon as that captain is killed, with the player holding the lowest score becoming the captain in the next round. Thus this creates an interesting need for strategic play to keep the captain alive. Interestingly, only the captain can pick up the larger weapons such as the torque bow or the longshot rocket launcher, but they can drop them for other players to use too making the captain a weapon carrier as well as a protectable objective. And finally, in Execution, the idea is similar to Warzone where each team has to destroy members of the other team, the difference lies in the way this is achieved. In this gametype unless a team member is eviscerated by a chainsaw or by a shotgun blast, they now have to be put out of their misery with an execution resulting in a particularly horrific curb stomp. If this execution is not done in time, the player may revive themselves by tapping ‘A’ or be revived by a fellow player in a very similar manner to how another player would revive their partner in co-op mode.

If it wasn’t for the quality of Gears’ multiplayer maps, the gameplay modes would get old quick, as truth be told there simply isn’t enough variety between just three different modes. Nevertheless, the tight design of the maps, along with the promise of additional maps (two of which have arrived as of writing) and the robust, tactical nature of the cover and shoot gameplay, ensure that Gears will be top of Xbox Live user lists for a good while to come yet.

Gears of War is simply a fantastically well thought out shooter, that strips bare what people expect from third person shooters and builds from the ground up a staggeringly epic display of what we should expect from this genre in the Next-Generation. Minor niggles aside, Epic have created a game that is more than just a standard bearer for new technology and graphical benchmarks but one whose role is equally important in it’s reinvigoration of a genre.

Overall Score: 9.2

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Written by bitsnark

January 2, 2008 at 9:25 pm

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