There was a moment, many months ago, when Microsoft suggested that it might release Halo 3 to coincide with the launch of the PlayStation 3. As has often been the case recently, both sides were playing false. Sony couldn't deliver the PS3 on time, and even if they had, Bungie were never likely to deliver Halo 3 to match it. Fortunately, for Microsoft at least, an apt replacement has been found, in the shape of Gears of War. Although different in many significant ways, it's a game that will no doubt appeal to a similar breed of gamer - one whom Microsoft have successfully courted ever since they secured Halo for the Xbox. That Gears of War will be released in Europe and North America during the week of the PlayStation 3's launch (not in Europe of course) is a clear indication that Microsoft sees Gears of War as the game to fill the Halo shaped hole in its Christmas software line-up. Nothing, of course, will stop the PS3 from selling out, so while the gesture may be insignificant, the game probably won't be. When Microsoft invited Pro-G for some multiplayer fragging, well, we weren't going to say no.
Before we get to the multiplayer, though, a quick look at the single-player game. The game was hooked up to one big mutha of a wide-screen TV, and it looked fantastic. Gears of War is the first Epic Games developed title to use the company's third iteration of the Unreal Engine. The power of this engine is well documented, and Epic is certainly the most well placed to take full advantage of its capabilities. Indeed, still shots really don't do the game justice. They may look good, but seeing Gears of War in full motion is truly a sight worth beholding. It has the high-definition textures, the effects, the shaders, filters and all that other trickery, but what it also has is the artistry and attention to detail that sets it above ordinary next-gen offerings.
After an introduction to the controls it quickly became clear that, though this game is similar in appeal to Halo, it is a very different beast. The most obvious difference between the two is in perspective. Gears of War is a third-person shooter, and this lends it a more cinematic feel, with the camera looking over the shoulder - ala Resident Evil 4 - affording the player a good view of the scene. This over the shoulder view is also rather more intimate than the traditional third-person perspective. It feels like you're riding shotgun, sprinting along beside your character, rather than directing traffic like some omnipresent being. If you hold down the A-button your character will break into a brisk sprint, and the camera lowers down, accentuating the sense of urgency as it judders along to the movements of the brilliantly animated character. It's rather akin to the 'shaky cam' shots that have become popular in Hollywood action films of late. In films, though, its over-use can prove annoying, but here it's another example of what makes Gears of War such an exciting prospect.
'Unlike Halo, with its run and gun soul, Gears of War is a tactical shooter where fighting alone will lead to a swift and often brutal demise.'
Having been shown the ins-and-outs of the controls, we were now deemed ready to partake in some 8-player Team Deathmatch. Online multiplayer has been at the cornerstone of Microsoft's strategy for the whole Xbox brand and it's only fitting that Epic, the makers of Unreal Tournament, should have a strong multiplayer component to complement Gears' single-player campaign. Unlike Halo, with its run and gun soul, Gears of War is a tactical shooter where fighting alone will lead to a swift and often brutal demise - a fact which was quickly forced home, as an early and over adventurous foray forward ended in a swift exit from the first round. Whereas some games reward impetuous efforts to seize the initiative, Gears of War reminds players that such efforts are ultimately foolhardy in their daring. No, to succeed in Gears of War you need to be patient, calculating, and serpent-like in your use of cover. It's a fact that may well weed out some of the less appealing characters who populate Xbox Live, who may well find Gears' uncompromising approach not to their liking.
Getting down and dirty with the controls once again shows the attention to detail prevalent in all aspects of the game. They are tight, responsive and perfectly laid out. As mentioned previously, the A-button makes your character run, but it also serves a far more important role: it gets you in and out of cover, quickly. When in cover, a small diagram appears in the bottom right of the screen, signifying what kind of action you will perform upon pressing the A-button. So, for example, if you're crouched behind a low wall, pressing the A-button will make your character vault over it, or, if he's near another piece of cover, he'll make a beeline for it, diving or barrel-rolling toward safety. Failure to do this is fatal, so the fact it's so easy to do is vitally important. When in cover you have two firing options: you can fire blind to suppress your opponents or you can hold down the L-trigger to aim accurately. Each action has its own fairly obvious plus and minus points. The former is safer, but less accurate, whilst the latter is more offensively effective but puts you in danger of retaliation.