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