Review by Evil Dave

"Almost a masterpiece, but always a blast to play."

The ultimate goal of any company that produces a videogame console is to make money. Throughout the short history of the entertainment medium, one of the most reliable methods of doing this has been to include top quality games for use with the system. Nintendo owned the late 80s/early 90s market thanks to its game library, while Sony's PlayStation brand took the lead in the mid-90s due to strong game sales.

Gaming is now entering a new generation of consoles. While this new era promises the advent of some of the deepest, most technically stunning titles ever, it has also brought about the dawn of unprecedented expenses for the makers of the systems. Both Sony and Microsoft, who held the first and second place in market share in the previous generation, are expected to lose a significant amount of money on each console they sell for the next several years. The costs of producing games have ballooned as well, with some titles reportedly needing budgets of more than $15 million dollars to complete.

All of this translates into a simple, market-driven conclusion: the titans of gaming are desperate for sure-fire hits in their release lineup. They are now willing to throw the hype machine into overdrive in anticipation of the release of any game with the potential to be a Halo- or GTA-esque blockbuster. Unfortunately for them, to this point there simply has yet to be a title to live up to such lofty expectations; however, if you've been paying attention to the media machine, Gears of War may be the first game of this generation with the promise to change that.

Developed by the minds behind the Unreal franchise, GOW has been promoted by Microsoft as the biggest new game franchise to hit one of its systems since Halo. Offering a strongly tactical take on the traditional single-player shooter, as well as a fully-featured multiplayer mode that promises visceral, exciting action, it's been a long time coming. Now, with “Emergence Day” behind us and the game in consumers' hands, we can finally see for ourselves if it's what it has been hyped up to be.

Visuals:

Put quite frankly, Gears of War is one of the most impressive-looking games ever to be released on a game console. The game's graphics, effects, and technical performance simply meet or exceed nearly every expectation that a gamer could have for them.

Upon jumping into gameplay for the first time, the character models are the first thing to stand out on screen. Your character, Marcus Fenix, displays an immense level of detail on every speck of his being – his face is grimy and battle-scarred, as is the immense armored suit he wears around. NPC character models for both friendly forces and enemies are almost equivalently impressive, showcasing incredible textures that look as eye-catching from a distance as they do up close. The game's Unreal Engine roots are quite visible here, due to the hulking, extremely muscular stature of the human characters, and it performs every bit as well as advertised.

Perhaps more impressive than the graphics, though, is the way they flow through each of the game's highly varied locations. The animation in GOW is easily as impressive as the graphics themselves, and features a similar concentration of small flourishes that help keep the game flowing. Little touches, such as your character shielding his face from a nearby explosion, or smacking his gun when it jams during reloading, help to keep the visuals grounded during the course of the action, while also giving you a true sense of the chaos happening on screen. This game is also gleefully bloody – heads will explode, bodies will be carved up, and blood will splatter everywhere, all seamlessly within the course of the action. GOW is by no means for the squeamish.

The environments you'll encounter while playing GOW are no less impressive. You'll traverse a wide variety of locales in the single-player game, with each presenting new obstacles to overcome. At times you'll be in cramped indoor quarters, battling room by room to move towards your objectives; other areas have you fighting through ruined city streets, an abandoned mine, and even a speeding train. Regardless of your location, your surroundings are always stunning to behold. It's interesting to note, though, that despite the game's ‘destroyed beauty' theme, at no point is any portion of the levels destructible outside of scripted events, aside from a few items that serve as degrading cover. It would have been nice to see bullets and explosions taking chunks out of walls or columns, although the game does handle them nicely with superficial scarring and bullet holes that show fading heat signatures.

From a technical standpoint, GOW is clearly a showpiece for the XBox 360. Slowdown is extremely rare, only occurring a handful times when the screen is taken up by the game's largest enemies. The game makes use of a rag-doll physics system for dealing with environmental objects and bodies, as well as a lighting system that makes the nighttime levels of the game much more foreboding. As you might expect from Microsoft's newest flagship franchise, the game also supports HD output up to 1080i, which makes the visuals seem downright breathtaking.

When considered as a whole or in pieces, the visuals in Gears of War are clearly a step ahead of most other games available today. The combination of excellent graphics, stellar animation, and a nearly flawless technical performance make this game truly a sight to behold.

Score: 10/10

Sound:

With a game filled with situations that run the gamut from action-filled firefights to slow crawls through half-lit corridors, sound performance is crucial to creating an appropriate atmosphere. Fortunately for gamers, Gears of War manages to deliver a high-quality audio show that easily keeps pace with the fantastic visuals.

One would expect that a game from the developers of the Unreal franchise would put a premium on making its firearms sound good, and this certainly proves true for GOW. Weapons each ring out with fittingly guttural noises, while the variety of sounds amongst the individual types of guns help to separate them from one another. Explosions and other environmental effects are done superbly as well, and they help keep up a fitting tone of mayhem during the action.

The voiceover work for GOW is not anything Oscar-caliber; indeed, many of the actors seem to be purposely over-playing their roles, simply to suit the nature of their characters. At times, an awkward line or two may cause you to wince, but the performances usually even out for each character, and they end up being memorable as much for their gusto in giving personality to the soldiers as for the characters themselves. As a matter of fact, the most outstanding lines of dialogue you'll hear take place during the gameplay itself, as the COG fighters either banter back and forth amongst themselves or comment on the Horde soldiers whom they just dispatched.

Music works simply in GOW, matching itself to the pace of the action during battles, and fading out at appropriate times as well. The score is comprised of the type of militarily cinematic tunes that you've always heard in this genre, and although it never sticks out as being particularly catchy, it will always satisfy the requirements of the game's activities.

Acoustics are yet another area of Gears of War that the developers nailed. You won't encounter anything as spectacular as the visuals here, but every aspect of the sound conveys itself with enough panache to be striking in its own right.

Score: 9/10

Gameplay:

One of the first things that anyone who wishes to play Gears of War should realize is that this game is not, by any means, a traditional shooter. Despite this, the gameplay is intuitive enough to keep the learning curve simple, and maintains a level of excitement and enjoyability throughout that few games on the 360 have managed to attain yet.

From the very beginning of the game, the concept which you will need to become intimately acquainted with is cover. To be specific, GOW is set up so that you are absolutely forced to find objects to put between your character and the bullets that will be flying towards you. This game mechanic is hardly new; many shooters in the past have had taking cover as a part of your character's move list, and some have even required it in a fashion similar to GOW. None until now, though, have managed to convey quite so clearly just why you need to be behind those objects, or to make the act of maintaining your advance despite needing those objects so intriguing.

Throughout the game, you will find cover by using the A button to advance to the nearest object and ducking yourself behind it. This will quickly become second nature as you play, as the cover mechanic is quite intuitive, and very accessible. In fact, the only real problem you'll ever encounter with the system stems from a curious design decision; in addition to its duties in regards to cover, the A button is also used to carry out evasive rolls when cover is not nearby, or to initiating the game's ‘roadie run,' which is a full-out sprint with your weapons holstered. There will be no shortage of times during gameplay where you'll hit the A button and you won't receive the result than you had hoped for, which tends to leave you exposed to flying lead. Overall, the controls are extremely well thought out, and are easy to get comfortable with, but this one odd choice will end up costing you your life more than once as you play.

After you've found yourself some cover, you can peek out to aim and fire your weapon, or you can simply blind fire your gun towards your foes. The core of the game will find you hiding behind some object, and using the occasional lulls in enemy action to poke your head up and attempt to pick off as many foes as you can. On the surface, this seems like a straightforward task, but the game puts you into enough challenging situations that it always remains fresh.

Another major reason that the gameplay maintains its interesting hook is that it's just so fun to experience. You will always get a tangible sense of the danger of looking out from your cover, thanks to the hail of bullets you'll notice coming your way. This urgency then, in turn, lends a strong sense of accomplishment to the act of finishing an enemy from your safe spot. The game does throw tougher enemies at you as you progress through the campaign, but this just adds more tension to your encounters as you get further along in the story. Load times are masked by the cutscenes you'll see in between acts, and aside from the occasional pause of a second or two when moving through a level, you'll never even notice any seams in the action.

Of course, without some fun toys to play with, none of this fighting would be at all interesting, and so the developers have kindly offered you a small arsenal of weapons to choose from. You'll encounter a typical arrangement of pistols, rifles, and explosives, and while all of these firearms perform superbly, none are can match the sure-fire thrills of your chainsaw bayonet. That's right – your assault rifle comes with a chainsaw stuck on the end of it, which gives melee-range encounters a new, brutally violent twist.

An additional twist comes in the form of the game's active reloading feature. Instead of a typical one-button reload, GOW allows the player to try their skill at achieving faster, tougher-to-execute reloads for each of their firearms. These allow the character to bypass the normal reload animation by pressing the reload button a second time, and timing it correctly to an onscreen meter. If done properly, the character reloads their gun faster than normal, and if the button press is timed perfectly, the character even receives a damage boost for the newly-loaded bullets. The risk of active reloading stems from the fact that your gun will jam and take nearly twice as long to reload if the second button press is poorly timed. This mechanism serves to make reloading an act that takes on added significance during gameplay, and can really make or break your prospects during a tough battle.

GOW is not all cover-to-cover combat; in truth, the game manages to break up its pacing with some fun diversion-type sequences during its five chapters. These include a handful of sections that split your team up to tackle different objectives, as well as a vehicle-based segment that forces you to choose between speeding to your goal and protecting yourself from attacks. One exceptionally neat chapter takes place at night, which (thanks to a horde of Pitch Black-esque flying monsters) forces you to remain in the well-lit areas as you move towards your objective. It can be very cool to lure unsuspecting Horde into the darkness, only to see them gobbled up by those flying creatures.

Then again, it can also be somewhat disappointing to see such actions from your foes. One of the most disappointing areas of the game is clearly the A.I., for both friendlies and your opponents. Enemies have a clear tendency to move to cover, but will often leave just enough of themselves exposed for you to pick them off from behind your cover. What's worse, they occasionally won't even bother trying to move their butts once they start eating bullets, which (needless to say) negatively affects the realism of the gameplay. Your squad mates aren't a whole lot better; they exhibit the same stupid behavior, and they usually aren't much help at dispatching your adversaries when they're alive, even with a rudimentary squad-command system in place. Thankfully, you usually won't need to worry about reviving them once they bite it, since they automatically come back to life when an area is clear of Horde.

Despite the middling A.I., GOW is clearly not an easy game. On the Casual (i.e. Easy) setting, you're able to withstand a lot of punishment before going down, but the game is best played on Hardcore, which serves as the ‘Normal' difficulty level. Here, you'll truly come to appreciate how important cover is, and you'll always find yourself getting knocked almost to death's door when you leave yourself open; fortunately, the game uses a recharging health system that is neither too punishing nor too lenient. The campaign can reasonably be completed in about a week or so, although there is definitely plenty more to do once you've finished it.

The single-player campaign in Gears of War offers no shortage of thrills, thanks to a well thought-out variety of objectives and a satisfyingly challenging gameplay experience. It's just a shame that a couple of major problems occasionally interrupt your fun.

Score: 8/10

Story:

Given the futuristic Sci-Fi setting and the ample opportunity to add in an extensive background story, it's not hard to think that Gears of War could have an interesting, well-crafted plot to keep gamers interested. Sadly, though, this turns out not to be the case.

GOW puts you in the shoes of Marcus Fenix, a soldier in the human forces that remain after a mysterious enemy called the Locust Horde one day simply appeared from out of the ground and began to slaughter mankind. You'll play through the game accompanied by at least one other member of your team at all times, and although the banter between these guys can get very interesting, none of the plot ever really goes anywhere. You're never given much exposition on your character, or the Horde, or even your actual mission itself; as a matter of fact, the background information in regards to the storyline is never even mentioned during the game, which says a lot about the developers' priorities. The plot does manage to wrap up fairly well at the end of the campaign, but it's definitely safe to say that it won't leave you yearning for more by its merits alone.

Thank goodness for the addictive gameplay in Gears of War, because the game's plot just doesn't have what it takes to keep any but the most hardcore fans interested.

Score: 5/10

Features/Modes:

Naturally, the guys who made the Unreal games are going to build a full-fledged online multiplayer component into their new franchise, and it comes packed with a lot of depth. Multiplayer is accessible via XBox Live in either ranked or unranked matches, as well as over System Link or via split-screen local play. Split-screen is limited to only two players, though, so it tends to be a much more boring affair than the other methods.

GOW offers a fully-featured Cooperative campaign experience, which is playable through the same methods as the multiplayer. Playing the campaign through with another human being is clearly the most preferential way of experiencing the game, as it eliminates one of the stupid A.I.-controlled teammates from the mix. The gameplay also just feels more exciting with a real person watching your back, and the thrill of a well-coordinated attack plan in co-op is about as good as this game gets offline.

The game also offers three difficulty levels to complete the game on, with Insane rounding out the trio with Casual and Hardcore. Insane difficulty is truly challenging, although (largely due to the fact that you'll need to complete the game once before you can play it) it is nowhere near ‘insane' to believe it can be beaten.

Finally, as is par for the course on XBox 360 games, GOW offers a full range of 49 unlockable achievements for completists to add to their gamerscores. These achievements run the full gamut, from easy to attain to highly difficult, and the tougher ones offer even more incentive to play the game extensively.

Gears of War was unquestionably designed to present quite a bit of replay value, and the fact that it delivers on its gameplay makes the game even more attractive to own.

Score: 10/10

Online Play:

Gears of War's online play is notably different from that of other games currently on the market, and although it features a somewhat steep learning curve to grow accustomed to, it has the potential to become one of the most-played online games of this console generation.

Multiplayer in GOW offers three separate game types for play: Warzone, Assassination, and Execution. Warzone serves as the game's variant on the traditional deathmatch, with the first team to eliminate all of their opponents winning. Assassination features one specific player on each team as the main target, with the other players attempting to kill that main leader while protecting their own. Execution plays out similarly to Warzone, with the exception that enemies must be completely finished off for them to count as kills, as they can come back to life so long as they haven't been dismembered. Each game type is round-based, with players who are killed unable to respawn until the next round.

Gameplay only allows a maximum of four players per team, and as such the matches take on a more intimate feel. The maps are very intelligently designed, so that each side has equal paths that lead to the same destinations, where most of the action takes place. Once you get into battles, the game plays out a lot like the single-player campaign, with players sticking to cover and trying to out-maneuver one other to get close enough for a kill. The real key here is to find a team that knows what it's doing, and then to stick together with them to pick off your foes one-by-one. When you get a good group going, and if you know what you're doing, the gameplay can go stride-for-stride with any other multiplayer game available for XBox 360.

The online experience isn't without its problems, though. For starters, the gameplay lends itself to camping, and although this isn't really a huge problem if you're playing with a team that knows how to play offensively, it can still lead to some rounds taking a bit longer than they should. Also, if you can't find a good group, you can end up losing quite a bit, since each of your four players is of greater importance on such small teams, and teamwork is vital to success here.

It doesn't help that the online setup doesn't allow for any sort of consistent, hassle-free group play. Halo 2's XBox Live experience can reasonably be considered a benchmark against which all future online games should be held to consideration, and GOW's absolute lack of group-related features compares very unfavorably to it. The whole process of getting all of your buddies on one side to play though a series of matches is much more of a hassle than it had to be.

Gears of War's online play mode is extremely fun to experience once you've gotten used to it, thanks to incredible level design and a nice job of balancing the game's features. What this does, though, is transform the lack of simple online gaming matchup features into a glaring and extremely annoying omission.

Score: 8/10

Total Score:

Gears of War looks, feels, sounds, and plays like a masterpiece. Upon putting it into your XBox 360 and getting into the gameplay, you can easily tell just how much time and effort went into crafting every portion of the game so that players would enjoy it to the fullest extend possible. It does an excellent job of living up to its billing, and can easily serve as a yardstick for future games to strive to meet.

Despite all of this, however, it is not a perfect game. It has some glaring flaws that can – and will – affect players' experience with the game from time to time. Does this mean that the game is a disappointment? Absolutely not. GOW is still an amazing game to play, and one that can provide hours upon hours of fun for anyone willing to give it the time to allow it to grow on them. After all, what is a rose without its thorns?

If you own an XBox 360, and have the stomach for an unmistakably violent game, then you owe it to yourself to at least rent Gears of War to see if it suits your tastes. Similarly, if you don't own an XBox 360, but you've enjoyed M-rated titles on other systems, then now may be the time to consider moving into the next generation of consoles.

Score: 8/10 (not an average)

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Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 11/14/06, Updated 11/17/06


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