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Gears of War

Globe and Mail Update

  • Reviewed on: Xbox 360 (viewed in high definition at a resolution of 720p on an HP PL4200N 42-inch plasma television)
  • Also available for: N/A

  • The Good: Extraordinary presentation, including bar setting visuals, stylized art design, and a powerful score; refined action game play that involves strategic and innovative use of environmental objects as cover; diverse and addictive multi-player modes
  • The Bad: The single-player portion of the game is only about eight or nine hours long
  • The Verdict: The best Xbox 360 action game of year (cleverly released just in time to counter PlayStation3 mania)

I'm staring into the maw of an enormous bug that reminds me of those huge beetles in Starship Troopers. A fellow soldier sighs wearily as he scrambles for cover, muttering the word "corpser" as he moves.

Corpser, huh? Somehow that doesn't seem quite as imaginative as Killzone's Hellghast or Doom's Maledict—names that evoke menace while doing more than simply adding a suffix to an existing word. But don't be thrown off; the beast's name may be blunt and unsophisticated, the game in which it appears is not.

Gears of War is an indescribably intense experience; a supremely testosterone-charged shooter in which futuristic warriors with redwoods for necks and limbs to match do battle against the Locust Horde, a subterranean species that has emerged from the Earth's crust and lain waste to human civilization.

The prettiest chainsaws you'll ever see

Simply put, Gears of War is a bar-setting achievement in next-generation graphics.

Chainsaws are nothing new in the world of games, but they've never seemed quite as violent as the rifle-mounted rotating blades that cut enemies to pieces amidst a torrent of flying flesh bits in this game. Even the relatively common video game experience of taking a bullet has been turned into a grisly graphical spectacle that includes long tendrils of blood and sinew spinning off in all directions.

But there's a lot more to Gears of War's exceptional presentation than just extreme carnage.

The lighting borders on monochromatic, setting a cold and futuristic mood. A shaky, pseudo-documentary camerawork almost makes the experience feel more like a modern Hollywood war film than a game. The stone buildings and low-rise apartment blocks that make up most of the city ruins explored in the game are devoid of life but alive with detail. And the rousing, dynamic orchestral score adds a powerful emotional element to major battles.

However, it's the stylized soldiers—known as gears (like the cogs in a war machine, get it?)—that steal the show. Their musculature rivals that of the Incredible Hulk, and their battered, bulky, exquisitely detailed body armour makes for the sort of imposing profile typically reserved for characters in a Frank Miller graphic novel. These jarheads' mugs are covered by canyon-like scars and weather ravaged skin. Their squinting, darting eyes are those of men with a lifetime's worth of combat wisdom, while their big square teeth hint that, before the Locust Horde arrived, they may once have been good looking, All-American Joes.

Big soldiers make for big targets

Shockingly, these massive warriors lurch around the battlefield with relative grace. I expected such powerful looking characters to possess a sort of awkward invincibility, but they move—and, as already mentioned, bleed—like normal humans.

The fact that they can be easily killed means rushing into battle is a no-no. Indeed, cover is always your first concern upon sighting an enemy. At first being forced to take cover in a bold-faced shooter seemed like a bit of a bother, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover that moving to and from covered positions is actually the most entertaining—and coolest—part of the game. Your soldier will nimbly leap over low walls, spin SWAT-style as he moves from one side of a doorway to the other, and quickly slip around corners to advance position.

Even more impressive is watching your entire squad move through hostile environments together. Their remarkable artificial intelligence is evidenced by their ability to take up strategic flanking positions all on their own. Indeed, their value in most of the game's battles cannot be understated; players who take the time to learn the game's simple squad command system to order fellow soldiers to attack, take cover, and regroup will find some of the tougher fights go much more smoothly.

Sadly, it all comes to an end far too quickly. There are only five chapters in the campaign, and while each chapter lasts close to two hours the overall experience feels a little short nonetheless. Still, most players are likely to work through the single-player portion of the game multiple times—I'm already halfway through my second go-around on a harder difficulty level. Plus, expertly implemented co-op and versus multiplayer modes add more than enough value to ensure you won't feel short-changed.

Microsoft's PlayStation3 killing app?

The fact that the most polished and entertaining action game yet released for Microsoft's big white box hit retailers less than two weeks before the PlayStation3 should not be regarded as mere coincidence. Once store shelves are devoid of Sony's new console, it's not hard to imagine disgruntled Sony loyalists deciding that they'd prefer to come home with an Xbox 360 and a critically acclaimed game rather than leave empty handed. And if any game is likely to convert a Sony zealot, it's probably Gears of War.

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