Reviewing Gears of War is a lose-lose situation for video game critics. If you say it's one of the greatest games ever made you'll be labelled a fanboy who has fallen for the hype, but say it's just a good action game and you'll be called clueless and an obvious Microsoft hater. I might as well stick my fanboy hat on then, as Gears of War is everything Microsoft wanted it to be. Contrary to some opinions, the next generation of gaming clearly starts when Epic says so. Game of the year? Quite possibly.
There's a war going on and the planet is in desperate need of soldiers to fight the Locust (a lizard-like alien species) army that has risen. The humans are completely outnumbered, but you work with an ever-changing squad of men that are more than up to the task of kicking Locust butt. These aren't any ordinary men; they're almost caricatures of beefed up soldiers, with biceps the size of trucks and necks that are ten-feet wide. The story is a simple one, but it's as dramatic as they come, with some stunning cutscenes and plenty of banter between squad mates giving you little glimpses into the back-story.
Despite Epic Games' pedigree in first-person shooters, Gears of War is a third-person shooter with a strong emphasis on cover. As the brute-like Marcus Fenix, a tougher than tough soldier, you must utilise the environment (and many conveniently placed concrete barricades) to stay alive. The 'A' button is the key to this, throwing Marcus into a wall if he's close enough, popping him out to new cover or for making him roadie run (a crouched run). It takes time to get the hang of, but after an hour or so you'll be throwing Marcus around with a swiftness that defies his immense size.
When in cover you have a number of options. If you're taking heavy fire from nearby enemies you can blind-fire, causing them to retreat to a more manageable distance, but the most effective technique is to peek out and take aim. This obviously puts you in danger, but Marcus is a strong guy and as long as you don't take sustained fire, and duck back behind cover after each spent clip, picking off distant enemies isn't too tricky. An excellent sniper rifle makes the job even simpler, and numerous other excellent weapons all have their uses, including a helping hand from up above and an under-gun chainsaw.
Your problem is that enemies don't remain in one place. The enemy AI isn't groundbreaking, but they'll attempt to flank you, lob grenades at you, and even charge right at you. The charge is perhaps the scariest thing that can happen in combat situations while playing Gears. You feel quite safe if enemies remain at a distance, but if they run at you, panic sets in. If a whole clip doesn't put them down, you're in deep trouble, especially if you fluff the reload.
Fluff the reload? Why yes, in Gears of War reloading is a skill in itself, with a correctly timed button-press reloading your weapon in no-time, while a miss-timed reload will cause Marcus to struggle, meaning you're left helpless for a few seconds longer. It's a simple concept, but it makes combat feel fresh. It's one thing being in good cover, but that cover isn't going to help when a Locust chainsaws you in half while you're faffing around with an ammo clip. The reload action itself is incredibly simple, but when the pressure is on it's remarkable how many times you stuff up.
Enemy variety is top drawer, with new enemies being introduced as you progress through the campaign. There are some real nasty buggers, and bosses aren't too pleasant either, often being quite large, and always incredibly powerful. Enemies generally emerge from aptly named 'Emergence holes' and if you can block these holes quickly (with a grenade) you can effectively cut off the threat before it's had a chance to develop. It's easier said than done though, as throwing a grenade leaves you pretty vulnerable, and unless you're quick the Locust soldiers will be on you.