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'.