Review by Tenshi No Shi
The gears of war are always turning...
While I wouldn't go so far as to say Gears of War was one of my most anticipated Xbox 360 titles (that honor went to Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and now belongs to Halo 3), I was certainly disappointed when it slipped from a launch title to a late 2006 release. Gears of War looked to not only reinvent the entire duck-n-fire subgenre of action-shooters, but showcase the power of the Xbox 360 as well. Now that the game is here, collector's edition in hand and many hours logged in playtime, I can safely determine whether or not the wait (and subsequent hype) was worth it.
The story starts off with you as Marcus Fenix, in prison for disobeying orders and deserting your squad during the Locust invasion. Branded as a traitor and coward, no one acknowledges that Marcus actually entered enemy-held territory in an attempt to rescue his father. Having failed at this, he returns to be put on trial and ultimately thrown in prison for a forty year sentence. However, Marcus is pressed back in to duty when the Locust invade the prison and a former squad mate rescues him, though he must battle his way to "freedom". From there the story unfolds as you play through several acts, though very little is actually revealed in the way of back-story. Instead, you have to read the instruction manual for more information, or if you were lucky enough to score the Collector's Edition, read the artbook for a far more detailed history.
So perhaps the most noticeable thing about Gears of War is its graphics. And when I say noticeable, I mean these are easily some of the best graphics on a next-gen console yet. Everything from the detail in the textures (of which there is much) to the animation of the creatures (and they way they interact with the environment) are so mind-boggling rich that you'll almost forget your playing a game as you are totally immersed in the game world. I am a firm believer that graphics don't make a game, but they don't harm anything either and Gears of War definitely stands out as a technical showpiece for the Xbox 360 in this capacity.
As much as Gears of War is a visual masterpiece, it is also an aural masterpiece as well- It is rare that a game gets the audio effects so perfect that you actually have to fight the urge to look over your shoulder when something in-game creates a noise off-camera, but somehow this game manages to so completely immerse you in the experience that you actually feel like you're in the game. It also doesn't hurt that the voice-acting is nearly spot-on and, more importantly, believable. The soundtrack, what little there is, adds a blockbuster movie-like experience to the overall package, neatly pulling the whole thing together in a way that is rarely seen outside of big-budget RPGs.
I really have to say that despite how pretty the game looks or great it sounds, for me the thing that I found most impressive about Gears of War was its controls. A tad difficult at first, once I started to learn all the little tricks it became second nature to use a doorway as cover, pop a grenade, roll through smoke and slam up against a column in a crouching position so I can blindly spray the area with my gun. The only issue I have with the controls is the fact that you have to first crouch against a low barrier before you can hop over it. Seems more natural if you running for your life that you shouldn't have to duck to jump, but since it only slows you down for a split-second, I won't complain about it too much...
By its design, Gears of War pretty much forces you to use any and all means of cover available to you. This is a good thing and a bad thing; Good because it forces a little innovation in to the increasingly-stale action genre that only seems to be making improvements graphically, but bad because it more or less confines you to a series of rooms and halls that, through cleverly placed sets of debris, force you to take specific paths through a level. Even the "outdoor" areas are really rooms with the ceiling removed. Honestly, this is the biggest complaint I have about Gears of War and considering the nature of the game, I understand why the environments were designed the way they were.
Sadly, the only thing you get for your efforts is a stack of Achievements. For some that may be enough, but I like a little incentive to replay a game since I am not terribly compelled to wave my e-wang around by way of having a high gamerscore. So really, the only bonus you get is if you bought the collector's edition, which comes in a nifty tin box, a bonus DVD and a beautiful art book that fills in a lot of back-story. Sometimes the extra ten bones is worth it folks.
While the main game doesn't take long to beat (it'll take most gamers 10-12 hours to complete), the experience is still worth your money. The multiplayer mode adds a lot of life to the game, so even after you beat it there's still much fun to be had. Quite simply, Gears of War is one of only a handful of choices that completely justifies your Xbox 360 purchase and a worthy addition in any gamer's library.
Rating: 4.5 - Outstanding
Product Release: Gears of War (US, 11/07/06)
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