Review by Muk1000

"Perfect? No. Amazing? Oh yes."

Gears of War is simultaneously excellent and flawed. It's far from perfect, and yet it feels so close. The game is filled with unrelenting excellence, and perhaps that's why the very real problems seem to detract so little from the big picture. Maybe by the end of the review, you'll see what I mean.

Gears of War is a third-person shooter, a genre that traditionally plays second string to the more common first-person shooter. There are some important advantages to the third-person perspective, however. With an over-the-shoulder view, a third-person game can more easily take advantage of a detailed cover and movement system, giving you more options in your fights, an advantage that is used to its fullest in Gears of War. Don't expect a standard run-and-gun game; Gears of War will make you use caution and tactics.

The game's story is not particularly inspired, but it's certainly not bad. Unfortunately, the game leaves out some details only found in other official sources, meaning you won't get the whole picture just from the game itself. To sum it up, Gears of War takes place on an Earth-like planet called Sera, where, besides some wars over the valuable imulsion resource (a sort of fuel), humans were doing okay. That all changed on Emergence Day, or E-Day, when a mysterious army of monstrous humanoids called Locust burst from the ground. These vicious monsters tore through human defenses. In the end, mankind retreated to a small area of Sera where the Locust could not tunnel. Then, they used satellite weaponry to burn every other part of Sera. If the humans couldn't have the planet, they reasoned, neither would the Locust.

As the game begins, the game's protagonist, Marcus Fenix, is released from jail by his friend Dominic Santiago. Dom explains that the war is not going well, and they need every soldier they can get, even ones that were tossed in jail like Marcus. These two are the main characters of the game; if you're playing co-op, the second player will play as Dom. You'll meet several more soldiers, two of which will accompany you for most of the game: Cole Train, a rambunctious, headstrong soldier who loves to fight the Locust, and Baird, a sarcastic, often sour companion that is more than willing to share his opinion. The story is compelling and entertaining, but it's not the game's strongest area. Chances are you'll be playing for the gameplay, not the story. That said, there's great dialogue and voice acting, and the cutscenes are excellent.

The game's mechanics are unique. The screen is remarkably uncluttered, with only the barest hint of a HUD. You have four weapon slots, one of which must be a pistol, and one which must be grenades. This means that you'll have to make careful weapon selection decisions; is the long-range lancer going to be more useful than the slow but powerful boomshot? None of the weapons are bad, thankfully, since there isn't that big of a selection. Weapons can be reloaded as you'd expect, but Gears of War makes the process more interesting. When reloading, a sort of progress bar will appear. An area is marked on the bar where, if you hit reload again at that point, you can perform an active reload. This lets you reload faster or even get some extra power in your new clip. Slip-up, however, and your reload time will become significantly longer.

In combat, you can choose to fire from the hip, so to speak, or you can line up your shots more carefully, although doing so will lower your mobility. Much, if not most, of your fighting will be done from behind cover, be it a wall, pillar, pile of rubble, or any other object that happens to give you some protection. From there, you can pop out, take a few shots, and hide again. Some cover can even be damaged and destroyed; don't expect a sofa to last very long in a hail of gunfire, for instance. To top it all off, context sensitive cues will appear when you can jump from one area of cover to another or leap over a low wall, meaning you can quickly enter and exit different areas of cover. Gears of War also features melee attacks, one of which is almost the game's signature: the lancer's chainsaw, which slices through enemies like… a chainsaw. Even grenades can be stuck to enemies within arms reach, although you have to be ready to run or roll away from the resulting explosion.

So the game's got great gameplay, but that's not all. The graphics are perhaps the best yet achieved on the Xbox 360, and anyone who doesn't mind the game's copious use of brown and gray should be satisfied by the game's detailed characters and environments. The animations are smooth, the textures are great, and the little touches are fantastic. It's one thing to chainsaw an enemy apart; it's another thing entirely to watch blood splatter against the camera as you do so. Speaking of which, the satisfying sound of the chainsaw isn't the only good sound effect. The game sounds great, too, and the music by composer Kevin Reipl is some of the best I've ever heard in a game. That means fully orchestrated, epic music that surpasses even big budget movie soundtracks. Gears of War is the complete package.

But once the campaign is over, it's time to test yourself online against human foes. And that's where things get flawed fast. Rather than featuring a matchmaking system, the game forces you to search for games, picking the one you want from a list. This might not be so bad, except you can't do so as a party, meaning you must find or host a game and then have your friends find it or invite them to it. Ranked games don't even display the host's name when you join them, and don't allow invites, meaning you can't even play ranked games as a team with your friends. As such, you'll probably spend most of your time in custom games with friends.

Once in a game, things get hairy. Most games on Xbox 360 give the host of the game some small advantage, thanks to the fact they have less lag. This is usually minimal. In Gears of War, it's huge. The weapons the host wields are like a completely different set. Even if you're not fighting the host, you'll often see strange lag effects, such as shots hitting when they appear to miss, shots going right through character models, and getting stuck on walls. This, along with a decent helping of glitches, turns what could be an amazing online experience into a great, but often frustrating, experience.

There's so much to praise in Gears of War, so much polish and quality that even what problems it does have seem minor. This was the flagship title of the Xbox 360 for almost a year, a position that is more than earned. Even now, it's one of the 360's best games and a fantastic entry in the action and shooter genres. If Gears of War 2 can fix the few problems Gears of War has, it could very well be one of the best games this console generation. But that doesn't mean any action or shooter fan should miss this amazing game.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 06/16/08

Game Release: Gears of War (Collector's Edition) (US, 11/07/06)

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