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.
You're constantly forced to move to new cover, and on occasion you simply can't take out certain enemies without running through a dangerous open section. Of course, your team mates help you when they can (although they're not that great and die regularly, and reviving them puts you in danger), but Gears really reaches another level of brilliance if played cooperatively with a friend. Playing alone is great fun, but at times (and due to some less than well thought out checkpoints) things do become a little annoying. When playing cooperatively all the little annoyances simply vanish, as another human player will give you cover, meaning won't die every two minutes.
Thankfully, Epic has allowed two players to play cooperatively via split-screen, using system link, and best of all over Xbox Live. It works remarkably well too, with some of the best net code the 360 has seen, which is no surprise considering Epic's history with the Unreal Tournament series. Saying Gears feels like a completely different game in co-op might seem like hyperbole, but it really does make that much of a difference, turning a great game into something that will help define the Xbox 360.
The campaign is simply one of the most enjoyable I've played, full of brilliant moments and a hell of lot of intense action. Areas are designed so well that you'll be involved in tactical battle after tactical battle, with numerous options available to outsmart the enemy. Throw in some brilliant small touches that really affect the gameplay, and it's hard to see how a third-person shooter could be better. Worries over a short campaign also seem unwarranted. As long as experienced players start on the Hardcore difficulty level (with Insane opening up after a single play through) Gears of War doesn't feel short at all.
Single and cooperative play through the main campaign would have been enough to place Gears in a league of its own on the Xbox 360, but the online Versus game modes are superb as well. Online matches are 4v4 affairs, with no every man for himself deathmatch in sight. Each map is designed around team play, and maps this good are rarely seen in console shooters. The most basic is team deathmatch, but you also get Assassination, in which you need to kill the opposing team's leader to win, and Execution (likely to be the game mode the majority of players stick to), in which fallen enemies need to be executed from up close in order to kill them.
Each map brings players together into a battle zone, but numerous routes allow for flanking manoeuvres. Making use of cover and working as a team is vital, and the small four-man teams make this far easier than in large-scale multiplayer shooters. You can learn to work as a tight unit, covering each other, and outthinking the enemy. Not since Halo 2 has an online console game been so enjoyable, and considering the huge sales that Gears of War is likely to enjoy, there should be plenty of people online for some time to come. The only problem with Gears' versus modes at the moment is the lack of a Halo 2-style matchmaking system. Halo 2 made playing with mates incredibly simple, and it's a mystery why new games aren't copying it.
And there's one other thing that needs to be mentioned. Gears of War looks absolutely phenomenal. We've had some good looking games on the Xbox 360 so far, but Epic's game chainsaws the visual bar in half, and becomes the new benchmark that all next-gen shooters need to compete with. Concerns over repetitive, dull environments can also be put to bed. You'll blast through some wildly different environments, in day and night, sun and rain, all the time at a nice smooth frame rate. It's bloody too, with the chainsaw causing more than a little red to spill onto the screen.
You'd expect no less than brilliant audio work, and Epic hasn't disappointed. The musical score is perfect, the voice acting is top notch, and while the script might be a little too 'action movie' for some tastes, I found the brutish comments by Marcus and his team to be suitably macho for their parts in the game.
Slight problems with the checkpoint system when playing alone aside, it's hard to see how another game could come along and better what Gears of War does. Played with a friend, on Hardcore, Gears of War is simply an astounding game. Yes, it has the best visuals ever to grace a video game, but it's how these are used to create an intense shooter that make it so good. Add in the best competitive online experience on the Xbox 360, and there's little doubt that Gears will be remembered as a true classic. And true classics only deserve one thing.