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Broke arse student, freelance games reviewer and rambling obsessive that I am, I currently seek work in mags and web sites throughout the world. If you're in a position to make that happen - and like what you see around here - let me know. I've published work with the likes of IGN and Gaming Steve.

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Does Gears of War Live Up to the Hype? Dig Says, "Shit Yeah!"
Posted by Diggler - 21/11/2006 11:14

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Since the Xbox 360 was first announced by Microsoft, Gears of War has been the one single title every single person's been salivating for. Years later, it's finally here...but does Epic's third person tactical sci-fi shooter of craziness actually manage to live up to its promise?
Curse you, Gears of War...you have ruined gaming for me! Since placing your shiny plastic disc amidst my 360's innards...all other games look like arse. Dated. Lifeless. Flat-out rubbish. Even cutting edge beauties like Call of Duty 3 and Splinter Cell have seemingly aged over night.

Needless to say, Gears is one sexy looking whore of a game. The detail, the animation, the camera work - each and every facet of these visuals is unquestionably the best we've ever seen. And I have to say, it's pretty damn nob-stiffening.

Remember the first time you saw Metal Gear Solid 4? How you instinctively knew gaming had ramped up a notch? How visual storytelling was changed forever? Gears dwarfs it. It's so damn good looking in fact, it makes one ponder if that infamous CGI-laden Killzone 2 trailer we all fell for back in E3 of yesteryear could in fact be a reality one day. One day soon, in fact, 'cos I'm telling you...Gears is pulling off all but identical visuals right here, right now. The cave level for instance feels less like a video game and more like some kinda priceless piece of Hollywood concept art...that's moving before your very eyes.

Not only does it look flippin' gorgeous, but in terms of performance it's also (perhaps somewhat worryingly) one of the 360's most solid to date too. There are no jaggies to be seen, no screen tearing, and pretty much zero slowdown...at all. Even when playing split-screen. The real-time cut-scenes are also rather startling, displaying super cool cinematic action scenes that you could happily watch for hours on end...yet the brilliance of Gears is how once those cut-scenes end, the actual game is just as pretty to behold, and just as exciting to boot. Wow.

Destroyed Beauty

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90% of the game's cut-scenes are pulled off real-time, in-engine, and look utterly mesmerising. It's a testament to the visuals that the gameplay looks just as good, then
Even the art design - subject to varied criticism over the years leading up to the game's release - pleasantly surprised me. As a futuristic third person shooter choc-full of machine guns and explosions, I was expecting your typical Unreal-esque metal girders and spaceships...but alas, Gears actually has more in common with the likes of Shadow of the Colossus than anything else. The world boasts that same beautiful, yet eerie, ghost-like feel to its architecture and vistas...the prime difference being Gears' world has been ravaged by war for years on end. It almost looks like someone took that castle from Ico and dropped an atomic bomb on it. There's a strong sense of history and grandeur as a result, yet one that's been worn away by decades of fighting. Pretty freakin' cool, really.

Character designs fare less well, coming across like bulky Warhammer rip-offs, somewhat mastodonic in their size. The character of Marcus whom you play for instance - a borderline mutated He-Man - looks less like a human being and more like a collection of tinned hams bolted together. Not that I'm complaining, mind...it's actually kinda fun to run around kicking arse as a half-human, half bicep.

Regardless of the Hulk-esque character designs though, it's genuinely refreshing to see a western game with a bit of flair and personality for a change. Say what you will about the gruff macho cavemen at the core of its story, you simply can't deny Gears' overall sense of art and style is at the top of its game. Just stop and look around once in a while as you play, 'cos there's so much to see and take in in Gears' beautiful world, that it's worryingly easy to miss the best bits with all the truly crazy action firing off around you.

Stop 'n' Pop

And how is that action, anyway? Does Gears have the gameplay to match up to the visuals? For the most part it bloody well does actually. As mentioned, you play Marcus Fenix - an imprisoned soldier who's busted out by his butt buddy Dom during the game's intro, to help him battle against evil, nasty aliens trying to take over the world. Actually, aliens isn't perhaps the correct term, as these evildoers come not from outer space, but from under ground. Named the Locust, they are similarly brutish, bad arse gun-wielding nut-jobs who mean serious business, hence Marcus and Dom set off holding hands, twatting Locust at every turn, determined to put an end to their raping of mankind once and for all.

You'll do that not by conventional means though - such as your bog-standard running around while spraying and preying - Gears is built fundamentally differently than your average shooter. Marcus and Dom can't withstand a huge ton of damage you see, forcing them into cover 90% of the time, while using more militaristic tactics to overcome their foes instead. This setup works really rather splendidly actually, with the "A" button essentially gluing you to the nearest wall or piece of cover at any time. From here you can slide left and right, peek your head out, and take pot-shots with a minimum of fuss, looking like an absolute bad arse in the process. It's not a realistic game per se - don't expect another Clancy title or a Counter-Strike here - but it does enforce some wonderfully sleek, if somewhat streamlined tactical gameplay that you wouldn't expect from a game with chainsaw-mounted machine guns.

True, cover isn't exactly a novel concept by any means, but I'd argue no mainstream game has used it so strongly and successfully as Gears does here. You'll be jumping from cover to cover and outflanking enemies almost subconsciously as a result...simply 'cos charging in head first will see you dead.

That is, on the "Hardcore" mode at least. The more dumbed down "Casual" (read: Easy) mode affords the player much more leeway with this whole setup, and my advice would be to fiddle around on this mode for no more than an hour or two just to get accustomed to the controls, before diving straight into Hardcore. It's really how the game was designed to be played, and is a lot more visceral and exciting too.

Eat Shit & Die!

This single player campaign starts out nice enough, but it wasn't until the end of Act 1 where I truly started to fall for Gears big time. As the more memorable moments and characters start to rear their head - not to mention the downright scary parts too - everything suddenly kicks into overdrive. It all just clicks.

It's a game that keeps on giving from here on out. As you progress through a day in the lives of these soldiers, the level design continues to surprise at every turn. I wanna tell you what happens when the sun sets, what lurks down in the caves, or how fucking awesome the gobsmacking battle with the Reavers is...but details would ruin what one has to experience first hand to truly appreciate.

I will say this though; in terms of sheer pacing, Gears is simply unmatched. Although you'll be crouched down in cover, battling the Locust from beginning to end, it continually throws up interesting new locations, varied game mechanics, and truly phenomenal boss fights that forever keep the action far from stale. Although the game is arguably pretty damn short, there's really very little fat here, with each and every room and location a memorable, smile-inducing moment in its own right. I exaggerate not.

Gears of Evil

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Chainsaws = laugh-o-rama
There's tons more I could spooge over too. Music is simply stunning for one, with a dark and beefy orchestral score that really bulks up the feeling that you're playing through a high-profile Hollywood horror action flick. Voice acting - while matching its barbaric characters worryingly well - is pretty friggin' good too, with John Di Maggio - aka Futurama's Bender - headlining duties as Marcus. His fellow squadies ain't bad either though, particularly Gus "Cole Train" Cole who actually had me giggling throughout.

Then there's those boss fights. They fucking rock. I can take or leave 'em normally, but Gears nicks a massive page outta Resi 4's book in that regard, boasting spectacular, epic and humungous showdowns that stick in your mind long past their climax. They're refreshingly quick too; once you suss out the underlying tactic to beat 'em, these motherfuckers'll typically drop in less than a minute, tops. No more long, drawn out duels that tire and annoy, Gears cuts straight to the point, then moves on to something else. More of this, please.

Finally there's the much-hyped "active reload" feature which I gotta throw some major love at, a simple yet wonderful concept which turns every single reload into a mini-game in which you must tap buttons at the right moment or your gun jams. Sounds frustrating? Well fuck you, it's a stroke of genius. It takes a relatively lifeless and non-interactive feature that we've been lumbered with in shooters since the dawn of time, and turns it into something far more hands-on and interesting. Nail your reloads spot on, and you're awarded more powerful shots and a couple extra rounds in the chamber - but jam it up in the heat of battle, and it can make the difference between life and death. The ability to nail these active reloads every time without thinking about it becomes a fine art only hone-able through hundreds of hours of play, and can ultimately make or break your success online.

I Can't Quit You, Dom

Speaking of online, Gears' multiplayer components are so fucking fab they pretty much render its entire single player mode redundant. Not that the single player mode is bad by any means - but my god - online is simply phenomenal.

The ability to play the entire campaign in co-op headlines that list of brilliance. With Marcus and Dom "on screen" for the entire story, Gears has a fab excuse to bust out this very best of multiplayer modes, and does it like no other. Covering each other, calling out positions, utilising flanking manoeuvres, and laughing as you both fuck up for the hundredth time is what video gaming is really all about, and forever hints back to those early years of wonder you probably haven't felt since the very first time you ever played a game. Yes, it's that good.

Not only is the co-op a splendid achievement in its own right though, it's then made all the more impressive by the Live implementation. Get this, at any point when you're playing the single player mode by yourself - with the AI controlling Dom and the rest of your squad mates - you can call up your buddy list and invite a friend in at will. You'll be playing happily while your buddy loads up in the background, then he'll take over Dom like some kinda Agent Smith wannabe, and off you go pounding arse together. No loading. No pauses. No hiccups. Nothing. There is literally zero difference between single player and co-op mode in that regard, it's simply full-on cinematic storytelling at all times, but one you can enjoy alongside a buddy at the drop of a button. And fuck me, it's good.

Live & Untouched

Here's the thing though. As big a co-op whore as I am (and you just know I am), it's actually the Versus mode which has sucked up the majority of Dig's time thus far. In fact, Gears is the first multiplayer game since the late great Medal of Honour: Allied Assault to actually evoke all-out obsession from me...I just can't get enough.

In the crowded online shooter world, Gears stands out with a truly unique and original flavour you just can't get elsewhere. It supports a meagre 4 vs 4 players at most, but fear not, as these low numbers are just perfect for Gears' more intimate and tactical play style. It ain't chaotic and random like your Battlefields or your Halos, here's a rare online game which truly lives up to the promise of team-work and socialising all but flawlessly. The sense of camaraderie as four of you head off into the battlefield time after time is really sorta unmatched in fact.

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Online mode may lack gametypes and a massive player limit, but in terms of sheer fun? It's quite possibly the best in its field
With minor variations on team deathmatch, Gears also uses the much-underrated round-based system to reinforce this concept. Dumb arse chargers who run in full pelt with a shotgun will more often than not find themselves decapped in the first 30 seconds, with them then forced to spectate for the next five minutes as punishment. The more vocal and intelligent squads however will work together to flush their enemy out, get around 'em, and even lay the odd textbook ambush. Brilliant.

That said, while the nature of the beast usually sees rounds starting out slower and more tactical along these lines, the underlying beauty of Gears is how it slowly but inevitably degenerates into a crazed adrenaline rush of chainsaw mash-ups and messy curb-stomps. It's pretty damn hilarious to see teams fall apart at the seams as you demolish them from all around and all hell breaks lose, and Gears is surprisingly different and unique in that regard. It's smart and intelligent one minute, then hilariously gory and over the top the next. I love it.

Extra special mention has to go to the net-code with that in mind, as my god, seldom have I seen an online game run so damn smoothly. Whether playing by yourself, split screen with a mate, co-operatively online, or with 7 buddies in a Versus match, Gears looks and handles just as smooth, just as polished and just as "next-gen" at all times. Words like "lag" and "stuttering" mean nothing here, it really is a stunning technical showcase in pretty much every single area.

If I have one complaint with the online mode, it's the ability to stick 'nades to peeps at point blank range and blow 'em sky high...where they can do nothing but squirm and cry. It's one of those super powerful moves that's hilariously awesome until it happens to you, and is unfortunately ludicrously out of balance right now.

Stop 'n' Plop

Any other complaints? Very few actually. Gears is one of those ever so rare, near-perfect gaming experiences where there's just very little to nitpick and criticise you see.

I guess if anything, the squad-mate AI is a little iffy in places - a negative neatly side-stepped thanks to the aforementioned co-op play. I also yearned for the ability to flip the camera across shoulders ala GRAW or Splinter Cell, but again, you can kinda side-step this anytime you jump into cover and peek around corners.

I guess if there's one single major flaw with the game, it'd have to be the story. It's not bad as such - in fact, an underground race emerging out of the earth to wipe out humanity seems like a kinda fun and interesting tale - but Gears' problem is that it almost goes out of its way to avoid telling it. We never really find out why Marcus was imprisoned, why the human survivors hate the Cog so much, what the Locust are exactly, nor who the hell that ominous female voice seemingly leading them around is. I was particularly miffed we didn't get any details on what the hell was going on during Act 4 especially, given the location in which it takes place. Sorta lame, this.

It's frustrating 'cos the game hints at some serious thought and depth put into its underlying story, and yet nothing ever comes from it. As a result, when Gears ends, there's a slight sense of..."huh?". The final level is incredibly climactic in terms of action, but you feel no real sense of closure regardless. Pretty much 'cos there's been no beginning, middle, nor end to precede it...just 7 or 8 hours of crazy insanity that's suddenly over.

Finally the limited edition bumper pack must be criticised for being...a bit rubbish, really. I've yet to see a genuinely impressive one of these for any game yet, and Gears does little to alter tradition. The tin box is pretty sweet, but the bonus DVD lacks content and won't be watched more than once. The "Destroyed Beauty" art book is a nice idea I guess, if for no other reason than it throws in some very minor hints regarding the story, but never really to any sort of satisfactory level, and ideally that info should have found its way into the main game anyway if you ask me.

System Seller

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Halo beater? Who am I to say. Microsoft have certainly bagged another killer classic in Gears of War though, and if there's any justice in this world it'll shift just as many copies as Bungie's crowd-pleaser in the up and coming years
When all I can find to rag on is the story and the freakin' bonus features though, you just know Gears has pulled off something rather special don't you? Epic's work of insanity has managed to do the impossible in many different ways, from the truly awe-inspiring visuals that tower over every single game ever made, to the fact it just knocked Halo 2 off the #1 spot as the most played game on Xbox Live this week. And with good reason.

Whether this is my personal game of the year - or even my fave 360 game - I'm not quite sure yet. It's all so new and sparkly right now, I need a bit of distance before proclaiming such monumental life-changing accolades. It's undoubtedly worth buying a 360 for, but will I still be caning this bad boy 6 months from now as I do GRAW? Does it have the depth and wealth of content to match up to an Oblivion? Heck, will it even hold its own against Sony's launch title extravaganza Resistance: Fall of Man? Time will tell on all accounts I'm sure, but right now I will say this...

GEARS IS FUCKING AWESOME!

(Pictures courtesy of Xbox)

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