"Rich with atmosphere and graphical splendor, this is the new standard for shooters."

Once in a very long while, a game comes along that is just so brilliant and so fun that it can redefine your standards on what makes a good video game. Through history, games like Super Mario Bros 3, Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy VII, Metal Gear Solid, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Halo, and God of War come to mind. A new game to join the ranks of these elites has arrived, and its name is Gears of War.

The story is something of an interesting animal. While it is not all that deep or complex (the whole single player campaign takes place over roughly a day's time), its presentation is so emotionally powerful and involving that you can't help but pay attention. The world of Sera, originally dominated by human civilization, is suddenly rocked one day as countless hordes of subterranean hostiles known as the “Locusts” suddenly burst forth from the ground and assault the human race. The world's military force, called the “Cogs”, goes into action to stop them, but they are quickly overwhelmed by the Locust's monstrous creatures and surprisingly advanced weaponry. Defeated, the Cog higher-ups play the “if we can't have it, nobody can” card and use satellite weaponry to demolish their entire civilization. You play as Marcus Fenix, a former Cog who fell from grace years ago (the specifics are never really discussed) and has been rotting in prison for several years as the game begins. Freed by his old friend and comrade Dominic, he rejoins the fight as the remaining Cogs make one last stand to reclaim the planet. For most of the game, Marcus and Dom are part of Cogs' Delta squad along with two other soldiers, Baird and Cole. All four of them have unique personalities which are very well fleshed out though dialogue as the game progresses. The game also makes it clear that there is more to the motivation behind the Locust's extermination campaign than meets the eye, but that story (and perhaps Marcus's backstory) will have to wait for the inevitable sequel.

Perhaps the true key to what GoW so fantastic is in its gameplay, which is both innovative and technically flawless. Most third person shooters these days adopt one of two extremes: slow, strategic infiltration or trigger happy run-and-gun. Gears, while taking some elements from both, is not all that much like either of them. In combat, effective and aggressive use of cover is the name of the game: charging in too fast will get you gunned down in a hurry, while trying to snipe everyone methodically from a distance will lead to getting swamped by grotesque (yet still oddly humanoid) Locust soldiers. Getting from point A to point B is rarely an easy matter, and sometimes a more innovative approach is required for the more heavily defended Locust positions. The thing that makes this game challenging is the surprisingly intelligent enemy AI. The squads of enemies that cross your path are just as familiar with the idea of using cover and advancing on an opposing position as you are, and their shooting accuracy is nothing to scoff at, either. Thankfully, your squadmates are also pretty darn smart, too, and generally never require direction on what to do (this is good, because the squad command function is practically useless). In addition to the standard Locust soldiers, you will also face less squad oriented creatures like recklessly aggressive insectoid creatures, and vicious flocks of winged killing machines that only come out at night. One thing this game does not have a whole lot of is bosses. There are really only three creatures that would be could be considered bosses, though you have multiple encounters with one of them. One might think this would lead the game to become stale, but this isn't the case, as the terrain, number of enemies, and their armament changes with each squad you encounter. As for weapons, all of your basic types are here: assault rifle (with a chainsaw bayonet….no joke), burst fire rifle, handgun, shotgun, sniper rifle and so forth. An interesting function with weapons is the “active reload”, which allows the player to reload faster (and get a short boost of firepower, if they're really precise) with a timed button press during the reloading sequence. The end result of the gameplay elements is near-perfect gunplay and a rip roaring good time.

And now: graphics. Let me put it this way: if somebody came up to me and claimed Gears of War as the best looking game of all time, I would have an awfully hard time arguing with them. This game combines unbelievable photorealism with a dark and moving artistic style. The best description I've yet heard for the world of Sera is “destroyed beauty”. It is abundantly clear as you traverse the ruined structures that human civilization, before its obliteration by the war, was a gorgeous place. The humans and Locust themselves are brought to life with a completely insane level of detail, which becomes abundantly apparent (and quite gruesome) when one of them gets blown up. Clearly, the folks over at Epic Games knew what they were doing when they got their hands on the Xbox360 hardware…..this is a work of magnificence. The game is pretty much just as good in the audio department. While there isn't an awful lot of music to be heard, this is understandable given the game's dreary atmosphere. Instead, sound effects and voice acting are used to make the game sound good, and it delivers here big time. Every sound, from gunfire, to exploding grenades, to a chainsaw bayonet ripping somebody in half, is real and powerful. The voice acting is just phenomenal. Very rarely will you hear performances of this caliber: every single member of Delta squad is brought to life with memorable realism and personality.

The 360 needed a killer app, and Gears of War is just what the doctor ordered. A fast-paced story with likeable (if somewhat brutish) characters, downright fun gameplay, and superior graphical genius combine to make a game that is going to be talked about for years to come. This one's here to stay.

STORY – 8/10
GAMEPLAY – 10/10
VISUALS – 10/10
SOUND – 9/10
SWING – 9/10

OVERALL – 9.2/10

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 03/05/08

Game Release: Gears of War (US, 11/07/06)

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