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.
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.
During the session I had the chance to play two maps - the final game will ship with ten, though that number is bound to increase in the future. Both maps shared very similar features, albeit in different settings. Firstly, they weren't too large. In each case there was a point where both teams of four would naturally converge, and there was always plenty of cover for either side to utilise. Equally, there were natural flanking opportunities, with elevated areas and 'secret' areas which allowed either side to covertly slide by. Since no-one, apart from Microsoft's PR people, knew the maps the early encounters were fairly mediocre. As rounds continued, however, the assembled journalists began to get to grips with the game and things slowly improved. One does wonder, however, whether with more experienced teams, games could descend into stalemate. Not only were the maps we played quite small, they were also narrow, making it relatively easy for well versed players to cover most angles. That said, with teams restricted to four on either side, it could prove difficult to cover all those possibilities if numbers start to dwindle. Only extended play-testing will give us any indication of how games will play out.
In weaponry, Gears of War again tips its hat in the direction of Halo, with a similar attitude to restricting weapon selection. You are allowed to carry two front-line weapons at one time, with a side-arm and a small collection of grenades to go with them. By default you start off with a standard issue assault rifle and shotgun, though calling these 'standard issue' is slightly misleading. Every weapon has a secondary fire, activated using the B-button, and Epic has included one secondary option which borders on genius: a chainsaw! It was only last week that our very own Paul Devlin mused on the sheer joy of "plunging headlong into a room full of enemies" and he was right; it's very satisfying. So, knowing that the secondary weapon of your 'standard issue' assault rifle is a chainsaw should prove a boon. It's all the more brilliant since it isn't a last resort, but a serious addition to your arsenal. You might not be plunging in headlong, but nothing equals the satisfaction of sneaking up to an enemy and dispatching them with your chainsaw. There's also nothing more frightening than the sound of a chainsaw nearby.
It's another perfect example of the finer details Gears of War seems to have in abundance. It may seem like a cheap gimmick, but it actually proved very useful, and there are plenty of other small touches to be found too. Reloading, normally such a mundane task, has its own mini-game where pressing the button within a small time band will result in a quicker reload. Such a thing could prove the difference between life and death when faced with entrenched enemies, giving you the time advantage to put them under suppression before they can fire back. Occasionally, you may find that you are badly hurt but not quite dead - Epic call it 'bleed out' - which results in another mini-game-like mechanism where, by tapping the A-button repeatedly, you can help keep your heart pumping in the hope that a team-mate will come and revive you. If they don't you will eventually die, but it's another small detail in a game full of them.
Expectation can be a double-edged sword, and for better or worse Gears of War has it in spades. All those pretty screen shots and trailers have made Gears of War one of the most anticipated games of this year. Does it deserve the hype? Probably. The visuals alone make such a situation inevitable, but that said, there have been plenty of 'pretty' games that have played like complete dogs. If the multiplayer is anything to go by, Gears of War isn't one of those, but people who've wondered whether it's too derivative may have a case; though it undoubtedly does lots of things very well, there's precious little that's new in what we've seen so far. It's a tactical shooter, with a familiar premise and lots of gratuitous violence. Whether it's got that extra something to make the difference between a good game and a truly great one is something we'll have to wait to find out.