Review by Gruel

"Explosions rule"

The wait is finally over as “Emergence Day” has arrived and the post-apocalyptic action begins - Gears of War is now out on the Xbox 360! Gears has been highly anticipated for almost two years now, well before the 360 itself was out. Microsoft has been pushing this as the must-have killer app for the 360 much like how they did for Halo on the original Xbox. Just like Halo, Gears somehow manages to live up to the hype.

Oddly, the main story background for Gears isn't readily available when you start up the campaign; instead, a cut scene pops up after letting the title screen set idle for a minute that explains the story. It is the distant future, what becomes known as “Emergence Day” arrives where the alien horde known as the Locust emerge from the planet, Sera's crust and wipes out a quarter of humanity. That's about all it explains, which is kind of weak but it sets the overall tone for gameplay, I just wish the developers could have incorporated this into the opening of the campaign as well.

If you decide to not to wait at the title screen and jump into the campaign, you instantly go to COG soldier Dom breaking our main anti-hero Marcus Fenix out of prison to go back to work and finish the fight against the Locust. Marcus was imprisoned for treason after disobeying an order so he could attempt to (and fail at) save his father's life. The top dogs at COG don't want Marcus back, but at this point in the war they'll take any help they can get.

Dom is the right-hand man of Marcus and is the only guy that is present at all times in your four man squad throughout the five act journey. After the first act two more characters, Baird and Cole (think Bear from the film Armageddon) finish up rounding off your main four man squad. There is also Anya, a female tactician who is constantly in your earpiece setting you up with escape routes and such a lot like Cortana did in Halo. Don't think of this as your typical Ghost Recon-esque squad based shooter however, and don't think of this as a run-n-gun fest like Halo. The developers at Epic are labeling Gears as a “stop-n-pop” style action game; the name is because many objects allow you to duck behind it for cover.

With a couple exceptions, the weaponry appears to be very basic in Gears yet it still brings a lot to the playing field. Future technology allows a chainsaw of all things to be attached to an assault rifle which allows for some very gory, yet extremely satisfying up close and personal death blows. There is also your standard sniper rifle, shotgun and pistols which act how you'd expect them to and Locust versions of these weapons as well. The grenades have an on screen trajectory arc that predicts where they'll land, which proves handy because they are needed to vanquish “emergence holes” that the Locust erupt from. The main standout weapon is the Hammer of Dawn which shoots down a satellite beam of energy once an area is targeted outside for a few seconds.

When I first heard of this description of gameplay I was skeptical, but I became a fan within minutes of immersing myself in the visceral action. Health is implemented in a way similar to Call of Duty 2 where after taking enough damage you'll see the Gears skull logo pop up and will get darker indicating you're about to die, just take cover and hide until the logo goes away and you'll be back at full health. If you die, you got a certain amount of time until your allies can “revive” you back into battle. The way the action is presented and controls is like very few games before it. Going in and out of cover is as easy with a flick of the A button. Also when holding down the A button your character can run across the battlefield, but the camera follows your character like an actual cameraman is running right behind you which adds a new intense atmosphere into gameplay that I can't say many other games have achieved. Rather than dreading battle after battle, I anticipate it as I plan out how I can flank or outmaneuver the Locust and savor every precious kill.

I have read some people complaining about Gears length saying it is too short of a game. I went through it on Hardcore (medium) difficulty and it took me about a good ten hours to complete, though I did have a couple parts that I had to repeat several times due to my ill-conceived battle tactics. With that said I feel Gears is the perfect length, it has enough action and places you in a variety of different atmospheres to keep the experience fresh to the very end.

I also disagree with people who say Gears has a cliffhanger ending. Without spoiling anything, Gears actually ends with a feeling of overall accomplishment, and just tosses in a little something to leave the door open for the inevitable sequel much like the original Halo did. One of my few qualms with the campaign is your next objective only appears once during gameplay and cannot be accessed at any other time which proved to be a nuisance a couple of times as a few battles left me sidetracked and lost until I unintentionally stumbled upon my next goal.

Gears does have a very solid multiplayer component thanks in part to the always-excellent Xbox Live. First off co-op play is here in full force in split screen, system link, and Xbox Live options. There are three multiplayer modes, Warzone is your basic deathmatch, Assassination makes a named captain of each team the primary target in order to win, and Execution allows only close range kills such as death by chainsaw and curb-stomps. Only up to eight people can compete online simultaneously, more would have been nice but eight players seems to be the sweet spot with Gears as planning your attack with your allies proves to be vital in order to win unlike a lot of other action titles out there.

The Unreal Engine 3 powers Gears and it looks phenomenal. Even on my basic standard definition television the game looks amazing. Once I plugged Gears into an HDVT however, Gears unleashed a whole new type of amazing to the plate. The hi-def graphics blow the standard def away, and it is far superior with its uber-shiny layer of polish it adds. This is one of the defining next-gen games. I don't know where to start breaking down how great Gears looks, I could ramble on about the insane lighting effects, and super-detailed character models, but instead I recommend you just hunt down some screens and see for yourself as my mere words can't do the visuals justice.

A lot of work went into the original score for Gears. This orchestral mix chimes in at all the right moments in the campaign, though at times it oddly reminded me a lot of the Star Wars score. Just a friendly reminder, make sure not to skip the end credits as there is one unique tune that plays that you should not miss out on. There isn't a boatload of voice acting as I thought there would be, but what is here is done very well all around as all the voice actors accomplish the Gears theme of making everybody sound badass. I also got to give mad props to the sound effects director, they did one heck of a job and added a lot to the presentation in a way not a lot of other action titles have done before it.

Overall, Gears of War is the complete package. It packs a dang good campaign, along with some stellar multiplayer. It will go down as one of the few games that managed to live up to the insane hype it created. Your Xbox 360 collection won't be complete without Gears of War in it.

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 12/07/06

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