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Thrills, chills for serious players

Globe and Mail Update

There is a lot riding on the broad shoulders of Gears of War.

The science-fiction action game is a pillar of Microsoft's strategy to fend off two new consoles entering the next-generation race next week. It is the latest from a renowned studio, Epic Games, and its resident design guru, Cliff Bleszinski, and has been generating buzz and speculation for more than three years in video-game circles. And last but not least in terms of reaping mounds of cash, it is a calling card for what Epic can do with a set of game-making tools called an engine, which the innovative company then licenses to other studios.

Thrillingly for hard-core players the world over, Gears of War delivers on all counts. It is a coding tour de force, a technical marvel that is breathlessly entertaining. It is so good, in fact, that it took every bit of willpower at my disposal to halt my "research" and drag myself to this cubicle to write about it.

Usually the next step in said writing would be relating the story, the set-up and the setting, but Gears makes that part easy by offering almost nothing original in plot terms or even dialogue (the developers obviously took the math-and-sciences path through the education system). As in nine out of 10 shooting games, aliens have invaded Earth, humans have destroyed their civilization to keep it out of the lizard-like occupiers' claws -- why do we always do that, and could it explain our current rush to overheat the planet? -- and a gruff crew of armour-plated soldiers is out to save the day with a wide assortment of weapons. Apparently steroid use is rampant in the future -- those human soldiers and the aliens appear to be moonlighting linebackers -- and the good guys all sound like virtual love children of Tommy Lee Jones and Lee Marvin as they snarl out militaristic jargon and one-liners.

The good stuff begins the second this "Delta squad" stops talking. Gears is set up to be a third-person action game rather than a pure first-person shooter. You see your character from the waist up and direct him toward cover points such as slabs of concrete and window ledges. Once you are behind that cover, holding the left trigger gives you a first-person view and the camera snaps forward and back as you fire at the aliens and duck out of the way of their volleys. With the press of another button, you can roll out of your safe position to another vantage point or jump over the concrete block and make a headlong attack, which I don't recommend. Use of cover is central to the experience and it works very well.

This camera and control system owes a huge debt to last year's Resident Evil 4, and so does the presentation and pacing in the story mode. It is very cinematic and the play is broken up into scenarios that force you to use the basic controls in new ways. A level with waves of alien attackers will be followed by one with a lone monster or one that requires some degree of stealth or exploration. Gears also mixes things up with a co-operative mode that lets two players advance through the game together. You can play sharing one screen or by connecting on-line using Xbox Live, and many episodes use this co-op option to great effect, allowing for deeper strategy as flanking the extraterrestrials becomes a necessity.

The emphasis throughout is on creating thrills and chills. One memorable scene has a blind creature called a beserker that you have to lure into daylight. You stand in front of a pillar holding up a glass ceiling, attract her attention -- yes, she, and this brute is one of the few female characters you will find in the testosterone-happy Gears -- and then dive out of the way before she crushes you. After that it's just a question of targeting the "Hammer of Dawn," a weapon that uses a satellite to unleash fiery mayhem.

I know, I know -- the phrase "Use the Hammer of Dawn!" drew some guffaws from my resident peanut gallery as I sat wide-eyed in front of Gears. No question this game was made by diehards for diehards -- people who have survived three Dooms and a Quake or two. It is over-the-top gory and has a chainsaw finishing move that coats your screen in bodily fluids (you can toggle this "extreme content" on and off in the settings).

This thing is definitely aimed at the hard-core constituency, the Halo-buying hordes who made the first Xbox a legitimate game machine and who are going to fall in love with the on-line multiplayer action available in Gears of War. But even virtual pacifists will be impressed by the visuals, the character movements and the artificial-intelligence on display here. All of these coding and programming components are part of the engine, called the Unreal Engine 3, that Epic has created to make its games and many others by proxy.

Gears of War is a blast, but it is one with a limited range outside of current playing circles. What I can't wait to see is where this engine could drive games in the future.

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