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Gears of War

Erin McGinn | Thursday, November 30, 2006

“Gears of War,” a new third-person shooter for the Xbox 360 produced by Epic Games, is Microsoft’s flagship title for the holiday season. Set to compete with the release of two hotly-anticipated gaming consoles – Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Wii – “Gears of War” debuts with high expectations.

“Gears” is primed to be the game that the Xbox 360 will be known for, much like how “Halo” provided the heart for the original Xbox.

Set in a post-apocalyptic universe on the planet of Sera, “Gears” provides a compelling atmosphere of beautiful desolation. The character models, environments and weapons are detailed with dirt, grime and debris that easily draws players into what is arguably the prettiest game on the Xbox 360 to date. Sera and its destroyed civilization are brought to life through intricate environments ranging from massive, destroyed cityscapes to underground caverns. Sera’s ambience is most spectacular during the night scenes. The darkness adds several interesting twists to the gameplay.

The plot is that of typical first-person shooter fair, but the game’s atmosphere easily makes up for the lack of storytelling. In fact, the game’s atmosphere sets a new standard for future releases – arguably even beating out such well-known powerhouses as “Call of Duty.”

“Gears” spans a 36-hour period chronicling the exploits of soldiers from the Coalition of Ordered Governments in their desperate fight against the Locust. The game begins with a quick animation detailing the destruction of Sera’s civilization on Emergence Day by the Locust. The Locust are a gruesome, ferocious enemy often discharging from the depths of Sera without warning to rampage and generally cause havoc. Their motives are unknown and never truly explained to any satisfactory degree, leaving the Locust in the realm of a generic, destructive, horde creature.

The game is split into a number of chapters, each composed of missions that range from extremely short to quite long. During the soldier’s fight of survival against the Locust hordes, the player is armed with a truly brutal array of weapons that only helps underpin the game’s juxtaposition of elegance and devastation. Enemies are immolated, sundered and maimed in a most visceral fashion producing a satisfying feeling of retribution. Weapons such as the Hammer of Dawn will leave avid gamers grinning from ear to ear. Although members of the Locust are for the most part a generic foe, they do provide an excellent source of fodder for the uniquely designed weapons.

The soundtrack and effects will satisfy any audiophile, and those lucky gamers with 5.1 surround sound will be in for a treat. The music changes pace to match the action on screen. Each weapon produces an exhilaratingly deep response. The voice acting for the characters is done well, although the dialogue leaves much to be desired. Each line of absurdity is delivered in a spectacular and grandiose manner, often eliciting a good chuckle.

The control scheme adopted by “Gears” is non-standard and takes a little while to learn. But with a little patience, the controls they feel extraordinarily natural. The buttons are all context-sensitive and provide a rather large repertoire of mobility options. “Gears” utilizes a cover system that is fairly reminiscent of “Killswitch.”

The game requires a high level of finesse and planning, especially once the higher levels of difficulty are unlocked. In fact, the higher levels of difficulty are near impossible without the help of a fellow gamer in co-op mode. “Gears” provides the best co-op experience available on the Xbox 360 and is playable either in split screen or through Xbox Live.

“Gears” is a guaranteed pleaser for both the avid and casual gamer, and easily the Xbox 360’s strongest argument to put them at the head of the console battle.