The other thing that doesn't aid the enjoyment process of playing Gears of War online is that the actual process of getting into an online game is not far short of a joke for some players. From my own experiences (and from scouting the dreaded forums to check it wasn't just me), it can be a lottery as to whether the game lets you join matches or not, with the 'connection lost' error message repeatedly delivered when you try to hook up to matches. The problem seems to be this: the server reports might state that a match has two spare slots, but in the second or so between giving you that information and you clicking on it, those places will have already been allocated to other people and the game reports that the connection is lost - presumably a consequence of the game's overwhelming online popularity at the moment. The workaround seems to be to immediately pick a game that - at the time of the search - has four or less players in it - any delay on your part will almost certainly see the game also fill up and be lost. But this is completely daft of Epic - the whole point of Xbox Live's quickmatch facility is to be able to hop into the nearest available game without the faff, not to have to select from a list of games the instant they appear. It's messy, and something that ought to be patched as soon as possible.
And if you're not put off by the connection issues or relentless, demented, selfish, smack-talking teenage Americans that seem to accompany every single match without fail (in my tortured experience, at least), you'll encounter idiotic hosts that quit out if it looks like their team is about to lose the match (and therefore the stats don't get uploaded). Just as annoying is the regular occurrence of players who drop out of matches and leave your team high and dry for no apparent reason, or people who just plain refuse to even entertain the notion of team play. The game is so wide open to abuse in so many ways at the moment, it's plain unbelievable that Epic has left the multiplayer in such a basic state for what is the most important Live game on the 360 so far. It's just as confusing why cheats who quit matches aren't punished in some way - some sort of points deduction for those who deliberately quit would soon clear this sort of nonsense up. At least some sort of ability to avoid players with a certain percentage of unfinished matches would help, however hard it would be to monitor in reality.
Another thing that struck me as odd is why there aren't any solo multiplayer modes, such as an all-against-all deathmatch set in more expansive maps. Clearly the behaviour of most of the players online at the moment suggests this is what they'd prefer. At least then there would be a chance for the team players to actually be free to enjoy the concept of co-operation. Admittedly, the unranked Player matches are a lot less affected by the problems mentioned above, so perhaps your best bet is to avoid the TrueSkill mob and just have some fun. But when so many of the game's achievement points are directly connected to your performance in ranked games, it seems unfair of Epic to penalise those who go online and choose not to play ranked matches. Also, as a team game that relies so heavily on communication, it would have been nice to be able to filter out players who don't have the voice communicator, as matches are often spoiled as a direct result of people who don't and won't talk. It goes without saying that a lot of these issues just mentioned are hardly unique to Gears of War, but other games have solved them in numerous ways, so why didn't Epic - the developer with more online shooter experience than just about anyone?
Alone again, or...
All that remains is to talk about the rather lovely online co-op mode. Having played it offline in split-screen for a few hours, there's no question that playing it online is where it's at. Split-screen is a bit confusing, not least because of Epic's decision to go for a horizontal rather than vertical split. On a widescreen TV, you're playing in a very narrow field, and it never feels quite right. Online (or system link, of course) it's a different story, and you can hop into any number of ongoing online campaign games at various difficulty settings, regardless of whether you've unlocked them yourself. Of course, there is the issue of finding a good companion, and some might find it frustrating to have to constantly retread certain sections because of someone else's mistake. For example, when you're both on the same section you can revive one another - which is fine - but on the branching paths you end up having to effectively go solo for a while, and if your partner goes down, it results in an instant return to the start of the checkpoint. Not only is this a bit irritating, it can take an age before they get it right - and on balance you might feel that playing it on your own is more fun after all. Having said that, you'll probably stand a greater chance of getting through the harder difficulty levels with a partner - not necessarily because of being able to revive one another, but because the AI squad members constantly get killed on Hardcore or Insane.
So, where were we? Ah yes, Gears of War's multiplayer has the potential to be great, and Epic had the means to make sure it was great. If anything, the multiplayer shows some of the game's core components - the controls, use of cover and weapons - in a much more sympathetic light. But then came up with a team-based multiplayer game where you can't create an official team, and failed to cater to the crowd that are just here for their own personal glory. And it's essentially these points that make it almost impossible to score - how do you rate something on its potential, if the reality is so wildly varying and the developer doesn't make it easy for it to live up to its potential? In a vacuum I'd have no hesitation scoring the multiplayer a nailed-down 9/10 (which is the very reason I waited to play it on real-life Live instead of dishing out pre-emptive hyperbole), but with all the niggles and issues surrounding the game right now, it's solid enough to still be great, but it still only worth an 8.
8 / 10