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Which Console Did You Buy/Receive Over The Holidays?

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Xbox 360
Epic Games
GENRE: Action
November 07, 2006

Gears of War 4

Gears of War 4

Gears of War: Ultimate Edition

Gears of War 3

Gears of War 2

More in this Series
 Written by Nick Doukas  on November 20, 2006

Reviews: My love for you is like a truck?

Yes, Gears of War lives up to the hype ? seriously. Now that we've got that out of the way, let's talk about exactly what it is that makes Gears so perfect (well, technically it's not perfect, but realistically it is). Is it the absolutely untouchable graphics? The incredibly intense gameplay and firefights straight out of a big budget Hollywood epic? The unbelievable amount of detail and polish the game sports? The fantastic characterizations, great voice acting and compelling orchestral score? It's all of that and so much more. It's a triumph, an artistic and technical masterpiece that you'll be enjoying for a long time. It's also the birth of a franchise and a truly killer app for the 360. It's just that good?

Gears of War places you into the role of Marcus Fenix, a military badass and all around tough guy who's been imprisoned for abandoning his post in an attempt to save his father, the administrator of a military academy where Fenix grew up. The military has been stretched to the brink ever since Emergence Day when the Locust Horde birthed from the core of Marcus's planet Sera, and put an end to the Pendulum Wars men had fought for years over Immulsion ? an energy source harvested from the planet's recesses. A common enemy brought the forces of Sera together, but it's a losing battle. As the game opens it's been 14 years since Emergence Day and Marcus is busted out of jail by his best friend and squadmate, Dominic Santiago. In a last ditch effort, the bruised and battered Coalition of Ordered Governments has authorized an all out assault into Locust territory to deliver a weapon that could turn the tide of the war.

As you break out of incarceration, you begin a narrative that will take you through 36 tense hours in the lives of Marcus and Dom, as well as their squad of exhausted warriors who are giving everything they have to send the Locusts back into their holes for good. You'll have the opportunity to choose your path immediately upon start up with either a run through the prison block that acts as a tutorial, or if you're feeling saucy you can get right into the fight. As soon as the first wave of Locust warriors burns through the steel outer door it's on, and it quickly becomes apparent that Gears of War is no ordinary shooter. The need to fight from cover is paramount here and you'll learn that every encounter is a thoughtful game of gaining ground and improving your line of fire while remaining out of harm's way. Fortunately, the controls are finely tuned and work wonderfully, so within a few minutes of play you'll start to discover the intricacies and beauty of this remarkable system. Just press the A button and Marcus slams into the nearest available cover ? walls, burned out cars, doorways and even old furniture - among other things. The great thing about it is that all you have to do is tap A when you're within 5 ? 8 feet of a cover point and he'll slide smoothly into place. Once behind an object you can SWAT turn across an expanse, dive for shelter, mantle over low items and basically engage in a variety of cool-looking and very functional moves. Pressing and holding A will result in the ?roadie run? as the camera angle drops low and behind the character in an embedded war-journalist style as you race to another area of the battlefield.

The enemy AI is outstanding, particularly on the higher difficulties and the Locust will intelligently take cover and coordinate their attacks to flank and pin you down. You'll eventually be able to issue limited orders to your mates, but unfortunately the AI of your boys can occasionally be rather poor. That said, many times during solo play-through I saw my men take up smart positions, toss grenades and flank and flush enemies very professionally. So it's hit or miss. I personally found the AI to be more on than not, but it can't be omitted that there are times when your boys act like it's special needs day at summer camp.

The cover system works so well and it just seamlessly draw you into the game. As beautiful as Gears is (and it is truly beautiful ? that's not just lip service either ? no game, on any platform, has ever looked this good) it's the firefights that truly envelop you in Sera's desperate struggle. Every encounter is a pulse-pounding epic battle that will leave you exhausted. Enemy contact happens in a variety of areas, from burned out buildings to wide open streets. Dank, water-logged basements and huge, sprawling squares and plazas ? you'll constantly find yourself in awe of the wild locales and frenetic action before you. The Locust warriors look insane, bristling with horrific detail as they charge towards you while their brethren pin you down with blind-fire. There's something so visceral and raw about the shootouts, it just captures you emotionally and creates excitement like few other games have managed. Tracers zip by overhead, chunks of concrete explode all around your position and the guttural grunts of the Locusts as they shout ?Reload? so their squad can cover them will ring in your ears long after you cease playing. If you're not playing Gears of War, you'll be thinking about playing it, and strategizing your way through the campaign with a buddy takes a great thing and makes it even better.

At any time you can invite a friend to join your game via the Live service (you can also play co-op in split-screen). This is no watered down co-op play; this is the entire single player campaign, every last bit of it, for two people. The host will play as Marcus while the second player jumps into the persona of Dom and let me tell you, it's some of the most fun I've ever had in a game - and I've played a lot of games. You'll encounter every cutscene, every last battle and the whole narrative as partners, and it really does amount to quite the shared experience. There are real tactics involved and excitedly calling positions over the headset as you cover each other and flank the Locust warriors creates seriously spellbinding gameplay.

I played through on the Hardcore difficulty with my buddy Filter who's an aggressive, hard-charging type of player. Since I'm more conservative, and since you can't be out in the open very long in Gears or you'll soon be dead, I found myself covering his attacks from vantage points with my assault rifle while he closed with the Locusts and engaged them at point blank range. Conversely, there's nothing like taking cover on opposite sides of a door with a friend while you both take turns popping out and shooting down the corridor at an entrenched enemy, and we had plenty of those moments as well. At one point on one of the outdoor battlegrounds we'd taken up position side-by-side behind a low wall, blind-firing and pinned down by several aggressive drones. As one of them broke free and launched himself at us Filter let him have it with a steady stream of concentrated fire from his assault rifle and blew him away just as he launched over the wall at us. His corpse came flying over the obstacle to land in a bloody heap between both of us, perfectly detailed and animated. It's moments like this when you realize just how well put together Gears of War really is. In a hold over from single player you can revive your partner if he goes down with the X button, so if you can safely make your way to his position you can lend him a helping hand and fight on.

The game arms you with a nice variety of cool and powerful weaponry. Everything from the Lancer Assault Rifle complete with chainsaw bayonet, to the Gnasher Shotgun and the surprisingly useful Snub Pistol, there's something for everyone here. You can trade up for a Magnum ? powerful as hell but slow to reload ? or use smoke and fragmentation grenades, which can be manually flung or precisely aimed with the left trigger to flush out and obliterate enemies. The Longshot Sniper Rifle has a zoom feature and pops heads like bubble-wrap, while the Hammer of Dawn paints a target for an orbital laser beam that burns anything in its path alive. All the weapons are nicely detailed, plus they look and sound amazing. The shotgun demolishes anything up close and the Lancer tears stuff up from medium distance, while losing accuracy at longer ranges. The Hammer is useful (and necessary) for taking down some of the game's larger enemies. It only works outdoors though, which brings some interesting play mechanics into the sequences where you need to use it.

Gears ushers in a nice little touch of innovation with its active reload system. You can tap the right bumper for a reload anytime and Marcus will automatically go through his animation. However, if you take note of the small meter just below your ammo counter and try and nail the button again while it's in one of the two sweet spots you'll benefit from a faster reload or enhanced damage with your next clip. That said, there is a risk for reward element in that if you miss the mark you'll jam your gun and it will actually take longer to clear the clip than normal. Cool stuff, and while you may be dismissive of it at first you'll soon realize what strategic importance it imparts in both single (especially on the harder difficulties) and multiplayer.

It just goes to show how amazing the gameplay really is that it's taken us this long to get to what is arguably Gear's strongest drawing point ? the graphics. Truthfully, no words can do them justice; they must be seen in hi-def motion to be truly appreciated. I've seen games come a long way over the years and I've experienced some truly gorgeous titles in my day, but nothing comes close to Gears. Epic has created a benchmark for next generation graphics that exceeds anything anyone's seen up until this point. Incredibly detailed character models with scars on their faces, realistic expressions, convincing skin tones and bristling with dazzling-looking futuristic armor and weapons. You can see the guns holstered on your back at any given time and when you switch them up there's a nice animation of Marcus swapping out his piece. Speaking of which, all of the character animations are smooth, perfectly executed and look simply outstanding. Remarkably atmospheric locales, the shattered cities of Sera serve as an astoundingly exquisite background for the battles at hand with perfect haze, smoke, and particle effects that will blow your mind. The lighting and texture work is out of this world and the rain and water effects are the best I've ever seen, bar none. The sheer amount of eye caviar on display here is almost ridiculous and every time you boot the game up your peepers will be popping out of your head like something from a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Seriously, even after spending a huge amount of time with this title I'm still in awe of its looks every time I play. It really is something special, and you'll recognize that the first time you see it. All of this runs at a consistent framerate with full V-Sync and it rarely drops below a smooth 30fps, even during huge battles.

Aurally the game is top shelf, with gorgeous and lush orchestrations, stirring themes and triumphant battle music that's up there with the best of what a major motion picture has to offer, and the sound effects are totally amazing. I referenced the game on a 50? plasma display panel and a fully digital, high-end 7.1 surround sound system and in every respect it's a remarkable technical achievement. To borrow a phrase from fellow GT editor Glenn Wigmore, the Lancer sounds like a bullhorn spitting nails, and the booming explosions, screaming gunfire and thundering destruction will leave you wrung out after every battle.

While the game is light on plot elements it does present a tight little tale of isolation, as this small group of rag-tag soldiers fights their way through a burned out, dead world against almost insurmountable odds. You do learn quite a bit about the backstory through support material and there are lots of small points brought up through character dialogue as well. Dom is looking for someone in his travels, perhaps a fellow soldier, brother or other loved one? Marcus's father had something to do with the weapon that's central to the plot, but it's not clear what. What is clear is that Marcus was raised to be a soldier by his father and that he may be Sera's last, best hope for survival. The hour is late and time is running short, the Coalition needs to pull out all the stops in order to exterminate the Locust threat. Since Gears is sure to have sequels, gamers can likely look forward to the story fleshing out in the next installment and I wouldn't be surprised to see a Gears of War novel hit the stands sometime in the near future. As it stands, the immediate tale is quite compelling, with solid pacing and a real sense of weight to the proceedings.

The game plays out in 5 acts, each made up of numerous chapters and the narrative remains gripping throughout. There's a sense of urgency and purpose to the missions and events and this is heightened when playing with a human partner. As well, the banter between Marcus, Dom and the rest of the squad ? Cole, a former pro-athlete who possesses the largest arms I've ever seen and Baird, a bleach-blond prima donna who constantly bitches about everything - is hilarious and razor-sharp, even if it is more than a bit sophomoric. It also helps that it's all convincingly delivered with inspired voice acting. Each character has a distinct personality that you come to know and love and it's really quite appropriate for Marcus and the boys to curse and clich? their way through the game. After all these are big, mean, tough sons-of-bitches with little time for niceties; their grim, gallows humor and macho posturing the only thing between them and a full on breakdown in the face of such a grave and terrifying threat. Rock on boys?

The multiplayer adversarial aspect of the game cannot be understated as well. While some hardcore Halo gamers (of which I am one) may lament at the lack of customization and limited gametypes, one has but to experience a few online matches in Gears of War to be completely hooked. Everything from the campaign comes into play here - taking cover, gaining ground and flanking enemies. The maps are all designed perfectly and each match plays out like a mini war epic. You can use all the weapons, though you'll start with the standard assault rifle, pistol, shotty and smoke grenades. Various pick-ups around the maps let you lay your hands on the sniper rifle, Hammer of Dawn, Boom-Shot and frags.

The game ships with 10 maps, but we can definitely expect more in the near future as according to sources, Epic is hard at work on downloadable content even as you read this. That said, the current maps are wonderful, polished and brimming with detail and many strategic points from which to fight. Visually the game looks just as good in multi as it does in single; with gorgeous vistas as far as the eye can see and every light source and special effect in full bloom. Whether playing as a COG soldier or Locust warrior, the character models represent just as well as in the campaign and all the blood-splattered shooting and chainsaw action is just as compelling. You'll take on your friends (or strangers in ranked matches) in graveyards, on train-platforms, roof-tops and in other sweet locations that offer over the top play to the last one. The three versus gametypes offered are Warzone; a round-based deathmatch, Execution; where you must finish off a downed enemy ? either with an additional burst of gunfire, explosive or a good old curb-stomp, where-in you'll explode your enemy's head with a combat boot to the dome - and finally, Assassination. In the last mode you must protect one player on your team who's designated the leader from being killed by the opposing forces.

We can expect much more multiplayer support from Epic as the life of the game continues and I wouldn't be surprised if we saw new gametypes along with new arenas released as part of the first downloadable content. Overall, strategizing with your teammates to take on the opposition is very exciting, as GoW multiplayer requires a level of team coordination that's incredible, yet never gets in the way of the fast moving action. It's tactical and methodic, but it's also blazing and visceral at the same time. It's well balanced and thrilling, likely to be spinning in your disc tray for a long time to come. Matches are generally lag-free and the netcode that Epic has implemented seems to work very well, though the matchmaking system is undergoing some issues and the bare bones lobby system leaves something to be desired. Fortunately neither problem detracts much, if at all, from enjoyable gameplay.

Bottom Line
Gears of War towers over the competition as the de-facto shooter for today's discriminating gaming audience. The loftiest of production values married to one of a kind graphical fidelity, all wrapped up in astounding, innovative and exciting gameplay that shooter fans will die for make GoW a true AAA title that not only lives up to, but surpasses its massive hype. And considering the heights the hype reached, that's no small feat. The magnificence of this title can't be overstated and while you will find detractors out there, you can rest assured that they're dead wrong, or possibly insane. Gears of War is the killer app for the Xbox 360, and a defining moment in action gaming. Don't miss it, whatever you do.

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