Version tested: Xbox 360
What do you expect from Gears of War? Does your fevered imagination place you in the white heat of mankind's very survival amidst the shattered remains of a once-proud city and a vicious, uncompromising alien threat? Do you picture a true next generation audio-visual feast so incredible that every scene looks like the most improbable rendered cut-scene where every monster you face looks like some of the grisly abominations that Capcom used as boss monsters in Resident Evil games? Do you fully expect to be left slack-jawed and powerless to resist maxing out your credit card to buy that high-definition TV and surround sound set-up that you've been hankering after? Could it be the perfect splicing of Halo and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter that you've been looking for? Could it be the 360's big system seller this Christmas?
Or are your expectations so stupidly high that even a game as gloriously polished and relentlessly entertaining as this can leave you somehow let down? Maybe you're just so sick of the barrage of hype over the past 18 months that the endless pre-release coverage has had precisely the reverse effect. Could it be that the steroid-pumped character design of the COG war machine inspires nothing but bile-fuelled apathy every time you see Marcus Fenix's improbable jaw line? It's possible that you've played way too many shooters down the years to get excited about one that's got a prettier skyline than all the others. Or could it be you're impossible to please?
Me? I've lived through both sides of the argument several times over. I've drooled over the pre-release teaser videos - the ones that made it look more like a tense horror shooter than this year's Brute Force. I've sat through CliffyB's excellent presentations and wondered how it could possibly go wrong. I've marvelled at the technical feats that allow Epic to render glorious scenes of shattered majestic architecture and realised that spending silly money on that giant TV was worth every penny. I've also been fearing the worst - that Epic would ruin it with bullet-headed characters, grunting dialogue and a woo-hah save-the-world premise. Worse still, my early X06-based impressions suggested that Gears of War could end up being merely a template shooter with more emphasis on taking cover. An unsophisticated but riotously entertaining duck and gun, if you will.
Just as contradictory as the arguments that surround the game, Gears of War is at odds with itself. It's a game with the most spectacularly beautiful backdrops and subtle graphical effects you've ever seen in a videogame, and yet within those incredible environments takes place one of the most pure, uncompromising, simple gaming experiences you could possibly have. The premise is as basic as it gets - shoot and try not to get shot by the determined Locust race that are hell-bent on killing every last human. As much as Epic tries to personalise the game with a cast of characters and some basic justification to your trail of destruction, it's about as relentless a shooter as we've played in years.
For the record, you play the disgraced war veteran Marcus Fenix, busted out of jail by his old pal Dom Santiago to aid the Coalition of Ordered Governments' (COG) desperate fight against the mysterious Locust race, thought to be a mutated version of Sera's native life form. The main problem with the lizard-like Locusts isn't just their determinedly violent nature and intent on wiping out all of mankind. No sir. What really makes them especially bothersome is that they reside in a complex system of underground tunnels deep beneath the mantle of Sera, making their whereabouts difficult to pinpoint and their arrival utterly unpredictable. Mere minutes after the game's kick-off, it's apparent that the Locusts can tunnel to the surface at will, making even the most straightforward journey across the planet's surface a hazardous one that's broken up into a regular face-off against them. Right there and then, Epic manages to explain away why enemies spawn out of the ground right in front of you, and it quickly sets the pattern for the game design.
And so, in true Bungie '30 seconds of fun' style, the same design ethos that served Halo so well is in evidence throughout Gears of War thanks to a combination of challenging-but-fair enemies, a forgiving recharging health system and a well implemented control system that puts an interesting twist on the familiar two-stick system that serves shooters so well.
As alluded to earlier, Gears of War's combat hinges on making good use of cover - something which fully justifies the game's use of a third person view. You'll quickly learn that even on the game's 'casual' difficulty that you can't just run around Rambo-style and expect to last more than about seven seconds. Instead, each and every door frame, piece of rubble and column becomes a vital ally in your ability to fight back - but also becomes just as crucial a part of the Locust's defence. With that in mind, Epic has devised an intuitive context-sensitive control system to simplify the process of taking cover and firing over the top or around the side of whatever you're hugging. Simply pressing A against any cover point (illustrated with an icon prompt to make it doubly clear) puts you in the appropriate defensive position, while squeezing the left trigger not only puts you in the over-the-shoulder aiming mode (think Resi Evil 4) but zooms in the reticule to give you the best possible chance of getting a bead on your relentless foe. Pulling out of cover is, again, a simple process of either pulling away from the cover point or giving a further press to, for example, dart between door frames or vault over the top of a low wall. Sprinting, again, is dealt with by holding down the A button while moving forward, allowing you to rush between cover points in a crouched position - complete with shaking war reporter cam view adding a touch of panic to the proceedings. It's a slick, almost perfect balance of functionality and usability that lets you slip into the game without spending more than a minute getting used to how to play the game.
Once you're clued up with the controls, the game quickly settles into a series of often-prolonged duck-and-cover sorties as the Locusts begin to rip Emergence Holes through the concrete all around you, and from start to finish Epic does enough to keep all ends of the spectrum happy. As with any shooter, the toughest problem to nail from developer's point of view is coming up with a set of enemies that provide the sort of challenge that's always fun and satisfying. On the one hand you don't want the enemy AI to be too predictable, but nor do you want your arse handed back to you every time you pop your head out from cover.
There's a temptation at this point to grumble that most of the grunts you meet in the early part of the game are a little too one-dimensional. We're talking about the type of enemies that are content to remain entrenched behind cover, and consistently provide easy opportunities to pick off their exposed parts whenever they peep out to return fire. On the other hand, even the DroneLocusts are extremely well defended enemies that can often withstand a decent amount of punishment before they'll go down. And while you'll often take the initiative to do the flanking, it's interesting when the same happens to you and you're suddenly ambushed because all your squad mates are lying incapacitated. All we'll say is, if you really want to enjoy Gears of War from start to finish, take the initiative, be careful and don't play it on 'casual'.
Where the game really starts to shine is when it does the decent thing and introduces a bit more gameplay and scenario variety, with different types of enemies, incredible new environments and some new toys to play with. Just as you're starting to get into a bit of a duck and cover groove, you'll find yourself up against completely contrasting foe like the blind Berserker that can charge through concrete, kill with a single blow and will be invulnerable to your puny firearms, or the massive multi-limbed Seeders that burst out of the ground and tower 30 feet high. Later, in perhaps the most exciting part of the game, Gears of War goes all Pitch Black on us and shows us just how much the Locusts love the darkness, with a swarming mass that rip you to shreds the very second you make the mistake of wandering into the dark. Sometimes, you might end up facing off against several types of enemies at once, all blessed with their own particular strengths, and collectively making complete folly of the tactic of being able to crouch smugly behind a wall and pick them off one by one.
But as entertaining as each of the five acts of the campaign mode most definitely are, it's all over before you know it. Compared with other blockbuster shooters in recent years, it's roughly half the size and clocks in at between eight and ten hours - or less if you're determined to ruin it for yourself in 'casual' mode. Admittedly the game's frequent branching paths make it worth playing through again, and mining the game for those Cog tags and achievements might take a while, but in terms of long-lasting appeal the campaign mode is unquestionably lacking - even with the unlockable 'insane' difficulty mode.
And when you're kicking back with a cigar, basking in the post-climactic glow of the credit rolling completion, you'll probably wonder whether Gears of War's really taken shooters forward in any significant sense. Does it do anything no other game has managed? Does it need to be innovative or progressive in any sense to be considered a must-have? Or is it just the gaming equivalent of a big budget Hollywood movie that's as much a showcase for the technical abilities of the 360 as anything else?
Of course, it's impossible not to be seduced by the sheer artistry of Gears of War's 'destroyed beauty'. Every now and then you have to stop and remind yourself that there was once a time when you could only imagine games looking this good. Sometimes the game does this for us, panning up towards a picture postcard view of an imposing cathedral standing proud among the ruins and affording us a few precious seconds to suck in the view. Other times, you're left agog by cut-scenes of such scale and ambition that they're worthy of Hollywood. On that level alone, there's no better game for demonstrating the wonders of widescreen high-definition gaming, and Epic deserves massive applause for taking gaming visuals to heady new heights. For almost the entire game you'll get immense pleasure out of seeing where Epic can impress next, just as Valve did with Half-Life 2 two years ago. Whether it's creeping through the rain-splattered darkness or venturing into the Locust's murky subterranean stronghold, it's a feast for the eyes. Populate those environments with ridiculously detailed giant beasts and layer on top some of the most convincing lighting and particle effects and it's hard not to be blown away. The fact that Epic keeps on blowing you away with changing environments and new challenges merely reinforces the sense of gaming tourism. Just as Halo did five years ago, Gears of War comprehensively sets the next-gen agenda for visuals so impressively that it instantly makes most other games look old fashioned by comparison.
But, let's face it, looks aren't everything. Cutting through the bullshit, on a purely gaming level Gears of War is not doing anything extraordinary or new on any level. A few novel camera and control tweaks aside, we're in pretty familiar territory with a broadly well-established load-out of weapons, fighting a familiar battle against enemies that for all their gloriously elaborate alien exterior might as well be humans for all the differences they represent in reality. These are AI routines we're well versed in, and familiar duck and cover tactics that we're used to from other games, and, yes, they work to good effect in Gears of War, but let's not pretend that we're wallowing in the future of entertainment. What we have here is an extremely competent action game that's as polished and refined as it could be, and is therefore very enjoyable. But if Epic had applied the same widescreen scope and ambition to the gameplay as it did to the engine we'd be much more excited than we are.
And even though the visuals are technically amazing, we've never been comfortable with the rather camp, beefed-up, grizzled marine characters that we're supposed to sympathise with. Maybe if you're into body builders and Gridiron players this is your thing, but there's something instantly dislikeable about the macho posturing that every character in the game seems to consider a badge of honour. They're like the worst kind of college jocks, with gigantic pulsing necks, arms that look like they're literally going to burst with muscle at any time, and a predictable contempt for one another. In the Unreal universe they'd do just fine, but here they're completely at odds with the noble, graceful architecture of Sera.
Despite all of that, the storyline's actually not bad, and the game's structure flows quite nicely to lend a sense of genuine purpose to all the bug-squishing. You're never left wondering what to do, where to go, or why you're doing it, and for that Epic really deserves credit for dragging gamers through the experience and never dwelling on any one section for too long.
Inevitably the multiplayer component of Gears of War is big news, but it's important to stress that until boxed copies arrive, we're limited to testing the offline portion of the game. When that time comes (expected to be next week) we will put that side of the game into its proper context and provide an update to this review to take all of that into account. In the meantime, be sure to check out our in-depth hands-on with all three multiplayer modes here.
In a sense, Gears of War lives up to expectations in that it's one of the most intensely beautiful-looking games ever made, but is one that plays by the rules in the gameplay stakes. If you want to gorge on a next generation audio-visual feast then Gears of Wars is a king's banquet. But what of the gameplay pudding that Peter Moore so often reminds us that he likes? The proof, he says, is in the eating, and in this case Gears of War sticks to a well-worn recipe.
8 / 10