I finish up my first looks with the game that stands head and shoulders above the 3 I played over the week: Gears of War. I could finish this first look by saying this game is a Must Own, but I need to quantify that somehow I think. Epic has created a game that will stand up with Halo and Halo 2 as killer apps of Microsofts console systems. In many ways Gears of War is better than either Halo (graphics, sound, gameplay). In other ways, such as multiplayer and story, it cannot hold a candle to either Halo game. In the end, this is how Gears of War will ultimately be judged: can it transcend the Halo games and stave off the upcoming onslaught of Sony and Nintendo's new gaming machines?
The story behind Gears of War isn't anything special. I think many reviewers and varied forum posters have said how sad the story is. The original Halo wasn't that great at story, but in the end it was a longer game than Gears of War is and therefore has more of a story behind it. Basically the story is you play a soldier who was put in prison by the alien Locust. Some Army guys bust you out and you spend the rest of the game following (or giving) orders and going through the motions of each checkpoint. The beauty in this game is that the gameplay is second to none in a 3rd person action game. I personally haven't felt like I was actually living through an action movie like I do with Gears of War. It is small on talk, but blows things up really nicely.
The biggest gameplay innovation here is the way you use cover. Cover means everything in this game; possibly even moreso than it does in the Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon games. I'm not big on either of those games simply because they are more squad based than Gears of War and it is far more strategic than GoW's run and gun perspective. From your cover you can look around or above you and aim (L trigger) and fire (R trigger) your gun. Blood will splatter as you shoot your enemies. The graphics are just fantastic and when you go into full-on run (by hodling down the A button while moving forward) the camerawork is exquisite and makes you feel like you're right there.
Gears of War obviously borrows a lot from the Halo playbook, but that's a really nice playbook to work from. There aren't as many enemies, although there are times you feel severely outnumbered. They also borrowed the health engine from Halo as well where if you stay still for a while your health will return to you. Much like Halo you can only have 2 guns on you, although you cannot double wield in this game. The cool thing about the guns is that your character switches them in and out with ease from their place on his back. This isn't a game where the player has tons of guns and no place to put them. Instead you actually see the guns on your character.
Another cool addition to the gameplay is the reloading of ammo. You can initiate it at any time with the R button. A little slide will go across and if you want to have a quick reload with extra power you have to hit the R button again inside the little sliver of white or within the section of gray. If you don't get it in either of those two sections the gun will jam and precious time will be taken away as you reload. You can also choose to just let the reload happen by itself and not try to do a quick reload. Quick reloads give you some extra power to your shots, so they are a valuable resource.
There is a minus to Gears of War though and that is the multiplayer aspect of the game. I think many people figured the matchmaking would be much like it was in Halo 2, but the story from Epic is that Microsoft built the Live play on the 360 differently than they did on the Xbox. I figure whatever problems there are will be rectified by the time Halo 3 comes out simply because they changed the way it worked when Halo 2 came out as well. Epic has talked about possibly fixing it themselves, but I would guess sales would be a good indication of whether they are going to take the time to work on it or leave it for Gears of War 2.
The multiplayer games I did get into were pretty fun, although there is really nothing akin to the Halo 2 game modes in this game. Basically it is a "one and done" type of situation for the games I played. You get picked off and you're done for that round. In many ways it seems a lot like the Splinter Cell games, but I think this game needs to have spawning going on and time limits. It's just one place where it falls well below the bar that Halo has set.
In the end I think this is easily a Must Buy and easily the first game where it is worth owning a 360 for. I certainly hope there are more games like this in the pipe coming up.