With Warcraft's Burning Crusade pushed back to 2007, the title for most-hyped game of 2006 must surely go to Microsoft and Epic's Gears of War. The Xbox 360 action title has been generating enormous amounts of buzz since its wicked showing at this year's E3, with some gamers elevating the game to almost Halo-like levels of fervour.
Not many games can survive such stratospheric expectations, but Gears of War not only survives it, but takes a chainsaw to the head of expectation and grinds it down to the bone. Gears of War is an awesome action game that is a must have for 360 owners.
Taking place in a typical sci-fi post-apocalyptic future, Gears of War puts you in the big and bulky shoes of Marcus Fenix, a soldier in the Coalition of Organised Governments (COG). At the start of the game, Fenix is in jail, but he's soon busted out by some squad-mates to help continue the fight against the Locust, mysterious beings who popped out of the Earth's crust and caused all the post-apocalyptic-ness in the first place. Action abounds from the get go, as Fenix and his team attempt to finish the Locust off once and for all.
Most of the game takes place in gritty urban environments which allow you to make full use of one of Gears of War's interesting gameplay additions -- the cover mechanism. The game world is strewn with ruined cars, steel pylons and conveniently placed slabs of concrete, and to take cover, players simply need to press the A button when close -- Fenix will automatically compress his body against your chosen barricade. From this position, Fenix can peek left or right, fire blindly or pop up to take a more accurate shot at enemies.
This whole "duck and cover" routine is prevalent throughout Gears of War, and is one of the key things that makes gameplay so intense. Enemies are extremely adept at picking you out if you're exposed, and they will similarly find the best cover in most situations. Most fire fights end up becoming exciting set pieces where players have to duck from one piece of cover to another in an attempt to flank the Locust hoards (or prevent being flanked by them).
Fenix can luckily take a bit of punishment. While there's no health bar as such, Gears of War uses a similar system as recent Call of Duty games. Get hit too many times in quick succession and a red skull starts to appear on screen. Stay out after that and you're toast. If you do get hit, simply ducking back behind cover for a few moments will restore your health.
Most of the Locust you'll come across will also take some beating to take down. The Locust are mainly humanoid looking creatures with differing weapons (such as typical grunts, shotgun wielders, grenade launchers, and more), with the occasional large boss-type character that takes quite a bit of effort to take down. The Locust for the most part sport some decent intelligence and will offer up some serious challenge on Hardcore difficulty and above.
The weapons in Gears of War run from your stock standard sniper rifle and shotguns to explosive arrows and grenades. Our favourite, however, is the Lancer, the standard issue machine gun of the game. Not only does it feature fairly good accuracy with rapid fire, it also has a chainsaw attached to its muzzle -- yes, that is as cool as it sounds. Another favourite is the Hammer of Dawn, a weapon limited for use in specific areas of the game. Using the Hammer of Dawn is simple -- paint a target with a red laser pointer, and wait a few seconds as laser death comes from an orbiting satellite above.
The single player campaign runs pretty short, with most players probably able to breeze through the game's Casual difficulty in about 10 hours. The offline fun doesn't stop there, however, as the entire campaign can be played as two-player co-operative using one 360. It's a great addition that adds a lot to the game.
Online is equally as impressive. Gears of War features several four vs. four matches, and with an enormous online community already present, there'll be no shortage of games players can join. And the game runs remarkably lag-free -- we played numerous sessions with opponents in the UK and the US, and experienced seamless gameplay throughout.
Gears of War is, without a doubt, the best looking game we've played on a next-generation console so far. The amount of realistic detail in Fenix's world is phenomenal -- the soldiers' weaponry and armour look appropriately rugged and worn, the environments are varied, and some of the camera work is plain fantastic. The shaky handheld style the game employs when your character runs is great to see the first time, and never wears thin.
Perhaps the biggest charge you could level at Gears of War is its lack of originality. The game, for the most part, is your stock standard action shooter with a sci-fi setting -- it's certainly not pushing any boundaries when it comes to gameplay or narrative. But the entire package is so polished, you'll soon forget about lack of originality and focus instead of the great gameplay at hand.