Gears of War

Microsoft once famously claimed that Halo 3 would launch on the same day as the PlayStation 3 in the US. Obviously that hasn’t happened, but instead we’ve been presented with Gears of War, which not only looks better than Halo 3 – judging by the shots printed in certain publications – but was actually released a whole week before the PlayStation 3. So in a way Microsoft managed to better their word. Good!

gowbody.jpgThe plot is pleasingly simple: burly solider Marcus is busted out of prison to help a bunch of other burly soldiers take on the Locusts – antagonists who’ve buried themselves deep within the earth’s crust. How long they’ve been living under our feet is a mystery, but now they’ve started rising to the surface to attack via ’emergence holes’ in the ground. It’s your job to find and activate a device that’ll destroy their tunnels for good, literally crushing the opposition in the process.

What this really boils down to is a series of tense shoot outs and sniper battles, with the odd surprise chucked in along the way. The Locusts pack a punch, so if you go running and gunning you won’t last very long, even with the brutal chainsaw rifle attachment. Instead you have to constantly find cover, rolling and dodging incoming fire. The controls work perfectly to this end, allowing dramatic rolling from place to place and leaping over objects with the touch of a button. You can also duck and run by holding the A button, which is handy when a team-mate is ‘bleeding out’ and in need of help.

When Alain Tascan, managing director of EA Montreal, said that “Gears of War brings nothing in terms of innovation to the shooter,” he wasn’t wholly incorrect, although there are dozens of neat subtle touches. The reload system is a fine example: if you manage to stop a moving cursor inside a little white box when reloading, Marcus will jam the clip in quicker and also be granted a round of more powerful bullets. At first it does seem like a gimmick, but once you get the sniper rifle – which can only hold one bullet at a time – it becomes a lot more important.

The biggest twist occurs a short while into the game with the appearance of Krill – bat-like enemies that swoop down for the kill soon as you step into darkness. Clearly somebody at Epic is a fan of Pitch Black. They’re a vicious bunch, so in order to progress propane tanks need to be found and set alight.

A section in which a spotlight needs to be aimed on a cohort as they work their way through a ruined town is about as close to a puzzle as Gears of Wars gets. But if you get stuck the camera usually zooms in to items of interest, or team-mates will blurt out a suggestion.

As implied earlier, it looks phenomenal. A mission set in a forest during a rainstorm is the highlight, though most of the environments – including an unkempt public conservatory and a large manor with antique furniture scattered around ready to be smashed – are packed full of detail. It sounds good as well, with a suitably dramatic musical score and near-constant team-mate chatter; when your team gets split in two, your partners often provide running commentary of what’s happing on their side of things.

When playing co-op over Xbox Live it’s a bit annoying if you and your playmate get split up, because soon as one of you die it’s back to the restart point, whereas if you’re in the same area there’s the option to revive and continue. Co-op online is identical to the single player mode, but thankfully the cut-scenes and such can be skipped. Finding a game to get into can take a few attempts – usually by the time we’d found the level and difficulty we wanted, somebody else had jumped in. You can host games easily enough though.

There’s no mistaking that Gears of War has upped the bar for all things next-generation; it’ll probably be quite a while until another developer manages to make a game this good looking. But at eight hours long it isn’t the longest thrill ride around. There are loads of achievements to unlock – some of which you need to play with a friend to gain – and thirty dog-tags to find though, not to mention another two difficulty levels to tackle. Good luck with the ‘kill 10,000 people in versus mode’ achievement. By the time you get that Gears of War 2 will probably be out.