Many games over the years have been advertised as "Halo-killers." These so-called next-generation shooters proved to be only minor diversions in comparison to Microsoft's flagship game. Enter "Gears of War." This game got no hype before it was released—in fact, it was hardly on the radar. Now that it's been released, people are calling this tactical third-person-shooter the next big thing. They just might be right.
"Gears of War" takes place on Sera, a fictional planet with striking similarities to the planet Earth. For years, humankind has been fighting the "Locust Horde," a race of massive, hulking creatures that seem to love destroying humanity. Marcus Fenix was a "Gear," an elite government soldier until he was court-martialed and thrown in prison for attempting to save his father's life—against orders, of course. With the Horde inches from wiping humans off the planet, the military frees all prisoners and Marcus finds himself back on the front line. The storyline is acceptable but underwhelming. For much of the game, you feel like you're in the dark, but then, this is not the sort of game where plot is crucial.
The gameplay of "Gears of War" is a new take on a tried-and-true system. Players of games like "Halo" and "Resident Evil 4" will feel right at home with it; "Resident Evil" players for the over-the-shoulder-shooter aspect and "Halo" players for its fast-paced, high-risk combat. In "Gears of War," even on the least difficult level, it's quite easy to die. In fact, so much as poking your head out of cover may mean getting it shot off, which leads us to the most important part of "Gears": Cover.
Your character has an arsenal of moves, mostly assigned to the A button, which allow you to dive behind walls, cars, debris and anything else solid to avoid being shot. From such defensive positions, you can pick off enemies one by one (most of the time, you'll have a small squad to aid you in this). The difficulty comes in when enemies are constantly advancing toward your position, especially on harder levels. And if you don't use your tools well, they'll be right on top of you within seconds. You have to appreciate how every checkpoint, every area you must defend, is almost like a level within itself, with a different strategy required each time. Stay safe until you make a plan, and then destroy the hordes of enemies. It's almost a throwback to "Galaga."
The graphics are stunning. I'm still in awe at the level of detail the next-gen systems display, and "Gears of War" is a perfect example. When shot with heavy weaponry, enemies explode in a spectacular display of gore and gib. And the scenery is perfect. It's supposed to be post-apocalyptic, and by God, it looks like somebody blew up the levels, let them deteriorate for 50 years and then blew them up again. That kind of detail adds to the immersive quality of a game like "Gears of War."
The sound is excellent. It's scored with an orchestral track composed by Kevin Riepl, fitting the many battles exceptionally well. The actors all do their jobs, making each of the characters memorable. One of the most exciting parts of "Gears of War" was finding out that one of the main characters was voiced (and no doubt inspired) by legendary Office Linebacker, Terry Tate. That alone nets it an above-perfect score from me.
As far as replay goes, single-player mode can only offer so much. Big fans will want to play through on Insane mode once they've beaten the game, but even that gets repetitive after a while. Those with Xbox Live Gold, however, will be able to challenge dozens of their friends in online grudge matches, offering significant replay.
In the end, "Gears of War" is a powerful game, with solid gameplay, graphics and sound. The story leaves something to be desired, but with Microsoft's VP of Global Marketing accidentally letting the press know about the "Gears of War" trilogy, I think it's safe to say we'll find some closure down the line.