By accident or design, Microsoft's triumphant X06 event last week managed to neatly bookend the two historical extremes of the modern run and gun shooter. First the audience had the rather unexpected news of Doom's welcome arrival into the Live Arcade fold, and was then treated to a typically bombastic hands-on demo from Cliffy B for Gears of War. The contrast couldn't be more incredible.
But despite underling the overwhelming strides made in 3D technology, AI and cinematic presentation over the past 13 years, both games have more in common than you might imagine. Just as Doom's unprecedented visuals and relentless hardcore shooting action convinced masses of gamers to buy PCs back in 1993, Microsoft is hoping that Epic's stunning visual tour-de-force will have a similar effect on sales of the 360 later this year.
But while its technical brilliance has never been in any doubt, a few concerns lingered over whether the gameplay could match the intense hype being thrown about over the 360's latest poster child. Would this be an atmospheric sci-fi masterpiece to recapture Epic's vintage Unreal days circa 1998/99, or GRAW with grouchy, steroid-pumped space marines? We were eager to find out.
Mankind's only hope!
The game 'stars' the traitorous Marcus Fenix, a ridiculously muscle bound freak (hey, this is an Epic game, after all) who's busted out of prison by his friend Dom Santiago in a last ditch attempt to turn the tide of humanity's battle against the Locusts. Apparently, you're "the only hope", etc, but that doesn't stop your bilious superiors from telling you how much they hate you at every opportunity during the game. We don't actually know whether he really was a traitor, but we're guessing that we'll be made to sympathise with him as you play through.
Escorted via chopper across the shattered remains of an architecturally stunning old city, you end up in Embry Square accompanied by Dom - the character the second player takes control of during the game's co-op mode. Once there, you meet up with the equally fat-necked old general Hoffman, who wastes no time in displaying his evident dislike for you while barking orders to track down a missing squad. No sooner have you had time to digest his cantankerous tone than you and your three man squad find yourselves under attack from a cluster of Locusts. In the now-standard seamless manner of gaming tutorials, you get instructed in the basic arts of shooting, taking cover and flanking tactics. Anyone who's played any major first or third or first person shooters will instantly feel at home with it, with a very swift learning curve.
Using the over-the-shoulder camera style employed to great success in games like Resident Evil 4 and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter, Gears of War's take on combat is very much the best of both worlds, offering the most cinematic view without the need to instruct your squad mates. As such, it works very much like a more focused Call of Duty, or a less fiddly Ghost Recon. It's squad-based, but only in the sense that you take orders and revive downed comrades (similar to the Conflict titles, albeit without the need to apply medipacks). The rest of the early levels we played were very much focused on intense, linear combat, using cover as wisely as possible, and throwing grenades to close up the 'emergence holes' that the Locust hordes kept spawning out of.
Do yooou want soooome?
The most important facet of any shooter is how it feels, and there's no doubt that Gears of War feels 'right' from the moment you pick up the pad. With no need to mess with sensitivity, lining up satisfyingly accurate shots is as simple as moving your reticule, zooming in slightly with the aim button and confirming the shot with the right trigger. Four suitably chunky and effective weapons are available via the d-pad at any one time - a pistol, machine gun, assault rifle and grenades - the latter lobbed with precision thanks to a transparent arc that allows you to make fine adjustments to the trajectory before you confirm the throw. As you might expect from a game with violence etched into its very soul, the blood and gore effects are completely over the top, with great gobs of ketchup spurting out of everything you shoot. It really does look like ketchup too, which is great news for fans of Heinz' most celebrated product.
Despite the sauce-ridden escapades, moving in and out of cover is as slick and easy to manipulate as you would hope, too. Pressing X ducks you behind any chosen cover point, and pulling the right trigger at your chosen target brings you out of cover long enough to squeeze a few rounds in their direction. Releasing your grip on the trigger ducks you back down again. Vaulting over cover is a simple and intuitive process, too, allowing you to move between cover points efficiently and with minimum fuss. In terms of delivering a simple, intuitive control and camera system, Gears of War doesn't try to reinvent the wheel, but builds on the best of what's out there along with a few little tweaks of its own, such as being able to pull off acrobatic forward rolls over and between cover points, and the swaying camera system which gives you the impression that you're being followed by an intrepid war reporter whenever you break into a sprint. It's a nice touch.
Occasionally your squad leader orders you to flank the opposition when they're too well covered to be taken out via the usual means. Far from being a scripted novelty, the quality of the AI in the version on show suggests that Locusts will use cover just as effectively as your own team, and working out a route to their weak spots will form a major part of your approach to combat from almost the first encounter in the game. In 25 minutes playing the opening portion of the game, it was apparent from the way you'd try to stalk enemies that Gears of War has a solid foundation for some epic encounters later in the game. Even in the early stages we'd find ourselves circling around a pillar, only to find the AI trying to do the same thing. Whether the Locusts work together to flush you out wasn't apparent, but they definitely liked to lob a frag grenade or two in your direction and chase after you when you tried to get away. If you do manage to get close enough to see the whites of their eyes, you can finish them off in some style - either with the gruesome chainsaw bayonet, or by shoving a grenade into their body, then making a run for it and taking cover!
As with most headline Microsoft games these days, co-op is a big part of Gears of War. Limited to two-players only, it will be playable over Live, system link or split screen, with one of you taking control of Marcus, the other Dom, and you'll be able to jump in and out of the full 10 hour story mode as you see fit. It should be a slightly easier way to play through the game, as you can revive your pal whenever he gets incapacitated - though if you both cop it, you go back to the most recent checkpoint. Elsewhere, Gears of War is promising two other multiplayer modes: Execution and Resurrection, but Epic's not talking about those at this stage, other than to reveal that eight maps will ship with the game, and that downloadable content will follow post-release.
The only thing left to report at this stage is to reiterate how incredible the game looks. The scenery, the explosive effects, the details levels are simply beyond anything anyone's managed to pull off so far, and have all been achieved with nary a twitch in the frame rate. Seeing the Unreal 3 engine finally being put to good use should wow casual shoppers the world over when it gets shown off on demo pods later this year. There are only a couple of nagging doubts: for a start, the pumped up character design instantly knocks it down the demographic scale, and the dialogue was positively eye-rolling in its testosterone-fuelled predictability. With any luck, the story might build into something more substantial as the game goes on - or it could just continually irritate and spoil the basis of a really great, uncomplicated sci-fi blaster. With only weeks to go to its full release, we won't have long to wait to find out whether it has the quality to become the must-have 360 title this Christmas.
Gears of War is due for release on November 17th on Xbox 360 from Microsoft. Check back soon for a full review.