An explosion roars through what was once an ammunition factory, throwing Sergeant Marcus Fenix against the remains of a broken Gothic column that is strewn across the floor. Fenix’s head is about three sizes too small for his gigantic armored hulk of a body, but that’s the least of his concerns right now. His planet, Sera, has been decimated by subterranean monsters known as the Locust Horde. He remains crouched behind the shattered column before pivoting around and taking aim at an approaching beast. Bullets thud into the drone but it doesn’t seem to mind as it lunges for Fenix. Deftly rolling away from a lethal strike, he revs his chainsaw bayonet and pushes down hard. Scratch one grub.
An unending barrage of moments like these makes up Epic Games’ “Gears Of War” for the Xbox 360 console. It’s an unrelenting, immersive and unabashedly savage experience. But most importantly, it’s fucking fun. On one hand, the game offers the simplest brand of testosterone-fueled brutal combat, but behind its mindless premise lies the Xbox 360’s most complex and innovative game yet.
The most immediately striking feature in “Gears of War” is its outstanding graphics and environments. Rich textures and extraordinary detail realize fully the post-apocalyptic nightmare of the destroyed landscapes of Sera, while motion blur and bullet traces immerse the player in the adrenalinized nightmare of the urban war zone. “Gears of War” is not only technically impressive, but also artistically coherent and consistent. The soldiers are dirty and imposing, the locusts are truly disgusting, and the environment that whips past as the player stands on a train is unlike anything attempted in a video game before.
The gritty, filthy feeling of the game is reflected in the control system as well. A third-person shooter viewed from an over-the-shoulder perspective, “Gears” challenges the “Halo” paradigm of shooters, where soldiers leap and dance around with impossible agility. A character in “Gears” moves like a bulky soldier in heavy armor should — slowly and clumsily, meaning the player is forced to compromise between mobility or accuracy at all times during fighting.
A soldier in “Gears” compensates for his heavy movement by spending most of his time hidden behind objects in the environment. You’ll have to constantly crouch behind boxes or press yourself against a wall to evade enemy fire, sprinting from cover to cover until you find the right position. The control for this maneuver is easy enough, but one button performs all of the specialized movement options, so expect to be frustrated with unintended action before you get your bearings. The extensive use of cover puts the overriding focus of the combat on tactics. It’s about outmaneuvering and hammering the enemy’s exposed flank. Of course, when things get up close, it’s brutal split-second decisions about when you reload or whether you dive behind cover that will make or break each messy encounter.
A few notable exceptions aside (anyone want to guess what a “hammer of dawn” is?), the weapons remain very basic: a pistol, an automatic, a sniper rifle, a shotgun. All of the weapons’ abilities are well balanced, and which two guns you’ve chosen to carry will dramatically impact how you approach a situation. The simplicity fits the game, but some more interesting weapons would have been appreciated. That being said, Epic gives the player the wholly original and brutal chainsaw bayonet. Like the rest of the game, it’s clumsy, requires tactical precision to pull off and fucking rocks.
The single-player campaign is engaging and exciting throughout, but the game is too short and isn’t giving up all Epic has to offer. In cinematics, impressive character models are introduced that are under-utilized or don’t appear at all in the playable game, and the story ends before you expect it to. The higher difficulties, however, will provide a genuine challenge for you and a friend (fro-cos will do in a pinch if you don’t have any), and the multiplayer provides more content than you need. Xbox Live four-on-four matches will have you relishing your brilliant flanking and cursing the unknown badass who rolls up and crams a grenade in your chest, and will ensure you never have to go to class again.
Almost a full year into the 360’s lifespan, Epic has finally succeeded in bringing a title to the platform that truly feels next-gen in every way. The controls, the experience and the graphics all break new ground for the console, making it the system’s first true must-own title. It could not have come at a better time for Microsoft, with the system launches of Sony’s Playstation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii bringing into sharp relief the paucity of Microsoft’s software lineup. With “Halo 3” remaining only a blinking green light, Xbox had neither the hardware nor the games to compete. “Gears” has performed a video-gaming feat worthy of Stallone or Schwarzenegger, diving through the window of opportunity, all guns blazing, to deliver a heroic shot of pure testosterone to galvanize the Xbox 360. The fight for the future of the console war is far from over yet.
Gears of War