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Gears of War
MSRP: $59.99
Number of Players: 1
Developer: Epic Games
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

Rating:
*****
out of
*****

Since the release of the Xbox 360 in November, 2005, one game has been referred to as the system's Halo. That is, the game that will get people to buy the system just to play it and, in some cases, only it -- like Halo did for the original Xbox in 2001. That game is Gears of War. But, unlike Halo, Gears of War was not a system launch game. It would be a full year between the Xbox 360's release and the day Gears of War was available. Believe me, it was worth the wait.

Gears of War takes place on the planet Sera. Once, Sera was a beautiful planet, full of fantastic architecture and amazing natural beauty. Now, Sera is a war-torn shell of its former self. The buildings are bombed-out and dilapidated. The land is scarred and burned. The reason for the destruction is that a race of alien beings called the Locust Horde have emerged from the depths of the planet to wreak havoc upon the human inhabitants of the surface. The Coalition of Ordered Governments (C.O.G.) have sent in their best forces, known as Gears, to fight the Locust Horde, but the battle isn't going very well.

Enter Marcus Fenix, a disgraced Gear, who is released from prison to re-enter the fray and again tackle the Locust Horde. Fenix is the character you, as the player, will control as the Gears attempt to free the planet from the grips of the Horde.

Gears of War is not a first-person game, but a third-person shooter. This allows the game to be more tactics-oriented than, say, Halo. Instead of running and gunning to get through each of the single-player game's five acts, you're going to have to think in a much more strategic manner. See a Locust solider manning a machine gun? You can try to sprint through the fire he's laying down to get to him, but you probably won't make it. Instead, you're more likely going to have to find a way to flank him.

Tapping the "A" button will cause you crouch behind walls, furniture, rubble, and other assorted objects to use them as cover. Using cover effectively is the only way you will survive most of the game's levels. Although the game provides a plethora of unique weapons -- and you're probably going to want to try them out first before mastering the cover technique -- you will need to figure out how to use cover effectively. You need to know how to blindfire, that is, shoot from behind cover to hit your targets without exposing yourself as much to enemy fire.

Those aforementioned weapons include the Torque Bow, a bow and arrow with an explosive charge; the Longshot, a sniper rifle for inflicting headshots at long range; the Hammer of Dawn, a light-charged laser weapon useful for killing boss-sized enemies; and the Lancer Rifle, with its chainsaw bayonet, which is probably going to be the most-used weapon in the game. (The chainsaw bayonet is as fun-to-use as you may have heard elsewhere. It's certainly not the most practical way to eliminate an enemy, but it's certainly one of the most satisfying.)

Another unique aspect of Gears of War is the reloading system. Using what's called an "active reload," players have the opportunity to load their weapons faster and, if done correctly, deal out more damage for a limited period of time. This is done through the use of a bar located under the ammo counter on each weapon. As a line moves from left to right on the bar, the player can press the right bumper button when the line crosses a solid white portion of the bar to initiate the active reload. Done correctly and the weapon reloads quicker than normal and deals out increased damage. Done incorrectly, the weapon "jams", taking longer to reload and providing the Locust Horde more time to kill you.

Fighting the Locust Horde is incredibly challenging due to their fantastic AI. They will employ the same tactics you'll try to use against them, including flanking you, locating you when you're hiding, and responding to sounds you make interacting with the level's environment. Their tactics do not seem to be scripted either. If you're having trouble getting through a level, you're not going to be able to anticipate what the enemies will do the next time you attempt it. They'll do something different each time, which makes using the cover available to you more important than it would be in any other shooter up to this point. Other games have had the player use cover before, but no other game has seamless introduced it into a game as a tactic.

Much has been made about the graphics in Gears of War and rightfully so. They are, quite simply, the best of any game on the Xbox 360. Using the Unreal Engine 3, the game features amazing environmental interactivity, water effects, particle effects, and dynamic physics. If you don't know what any of that means, just take it from me that the game looks and feels just right. Thanks to the graphics and the control, the game makes it feel like you're in the middle of a warzone, fighting for your life against an enemy that inspires fear through their appearance as well as their cunning intelligence. You will die a lot as you learn the game's controls, which at first feel a little strange, but once you've got the game's first level under your belt, you'll be dealing death like a pro.

The single-player game takes about 8 hours to finish but Gears of War also includes co-op and multiplayer modes as well. The co-op mode allows you and a friend (playing on your system or through Xbox Live) to complete the game together, fighting as a team. The multiplayer modes are the usual deathmatch-type skirmishes that feature 4-on-4 battles between the C.O.G. and the Locust Horde. Similar to CounterStrike, once you die in a multiplayer match, you do not respawn until a victor is decided.

The game is not perfect, but it's damn close. There are a few nitpicks I have with it. First, the game's checkpoints tend to be placed before cinematic moments, so if you're forced to replay a particular area after dying, you're forced to see said moment again. (Although most can be skipped, some dialogue-intensive sequences cannot.) Second, it appears that a lot of effort was put into making the world seem like a real place, but the story doesn't provide many clues to why significant events you're playing through are significant. One area features a lab that's being kept secret but, even after finishing the game, I would be hard-pressed to explain why the lab even mattered in the context of the game. Third, the final boss battle seems a bit clunky and frustrating after the precise and exciting gameplay that leads up to it. These are, however, just nitpicks that do not detract from the game in any major way at all.

Gears of War recently passed the one million sales mark and deposed Halo 2 as the most-played multiplayer game on Xbox Live. These accolades are much-deserved because it is one of the best games on the Xbox 360, if not the best game of the year on any system.

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