Gears of War
Developer: Epic Games
Release Date: Q1 2006
Going into E3 2005, the game I was most excited about seeing was by far the very impressive Unreal Engine 3-based Gears of War for the Xbox 360, and it sure didn't disappoint.
The story behind Gears of War paints a pretty bleak picture for humanity, thanks to some really nasty creatures that will send chills up and down your spine the first time you see them, and many times after that as well. The setting is the planet Sera, which is very much like Earth, just slightly more advanced. The humans on Sera were living peacefully with each other and enjoying a renaissance of sorts with a newfound interest in the arts.
As cities started to expand, the need for new fuel sources grew. After some searching, a brand new type of fuel source was found under the planets crust called Lightmass Process. Unfortunately, the countries with this new fuel source did not want to share without causing an all-out war. This war, known as the Pendulum Wars, lasts for 79 years, with no end in sight. When it didn't look like things could possibly get any worse for humanity, a new race of creatures, the Locusts, bursts forth from the planet's crust and wipes out a large number of the population. This day, known as "Emergence Day," is when the battling humans put aside their differences and joined forces to engage the new foe, and this is where the game picks up.
You play the role of a Marine-like soldier named Marcus Fenix, who is a roughneck and all-around badass. He has a short fuse, miles of courage, and a great hatred for the Locusts. He leads a team of Gears, as they are known, but unlike other squad-based games that allow you to feed your AI teammates all sorts of commands, in Gears, you don't issue any. This is next-gen, and with that powerful hardware under the hood of the '360, you don't need to tell your AI teammates what to do. Epic has created some very realistic AI that knows exactly what it should do at all times. As you move through the levels, your teammates will take up positions behind cover and use real-life combat tactics to eliminate the enemy. The level of intelligence we saw was quite stunning; on one occasion, we saw the squad lay down suppressing fire, which drew the attention of the enemy Locust, letting you sneak up behind them for the flank! Throughout the two-level demo, we were continually blown away by just how smart the AI teammates were; they were reacting to things going on in their environment in such a way that they appeared to be controlled by actual human players. However, this was not unique to just your teammates, but also the enemy AI.
All of this made for some of the most amazing combat we have seen in a video game to date. Gears is played from a third-person perspective that really gives you full control over the action. This is not your typical run-and-gun shooter though; the main theme here is cover. The whole game is based around taking advantage of the cover provided in the environments, as well as creating your own. There are areas where you might burst into a room and hose down everything in sight, but most of the time, you will be popping up from behind cover. This makes Gears feel very realistic, along the lines of a tactical shooter like Ghost Recon, but nowhere near as slow. The pacing during combat is extremely fast, even though you are taking cover often.
One of the innovative things in Gears is the ability to modify your environments and make your own cover. One example we saw involved Marcus and some Gears pushing the flaming shell of a car down a slope as they walked behind it, using it as cover. The car picked up too much speed and took off down the street, leaving the team vulnerable. At this point, the guy playing Marcus shot a barrel of gas that was next to a concrete support column, which exploded and then toppled the column into the street, providing cover for them. Just because you locate cover, however, does not mean it's good or safe. At one point, Marcus and his team went inside a gas station that had all of its windows boarded up. We were expecting to see them regroup and move to a new location, but to our surprise, after a few seconds inside, the Locusts blew out the wood in the windows, making the team scramble for cover.
While making your own cover is an important part of the gameplay, it's not the only thing you can do with the environments. Parts of the levels are fully deformable, and in them, there are many different objects you can interact with. One of the coolest scenes we saw in our demo took place inside a two-story building. Marcus and part of his team were on the 2nd floor battling the Locusts while the rest of his team broke off and started fighting in the courtyard outside. After Marcus dispatched the enemies in the building, he and his team upstairs started laying down fire on the enemies outside to help your other teammates below. At one point, you see a few of the Locusts take up a position behind a statue, where your team does not have a good shot at them. This is when the guy playing actually shot the statue, which then collapsed onto the Locusts, killing them instantly!
What we could not get over is how all of the action just flowed together so seamlessly. Try to imagine some of the best action sequences from your favorite movies but put into a videogame with all of the slow parts taken out, and you will start to get an idea of just how intense this game is. Helping it along are the comments and suggestions you and some of your squad make during battle. Not only will they often suggest helpful things, but they also make some of the funniest comments ever heard in a video game. Unfortunately, none of them can be reprinted due to their "adult" nature, but trust us, they are funny!
Ever since Epic officially announced the Unreal 3 Engine, they have been releasing some stunning shots showing off what the new technology can do. Some of those shots showed off character models and environments that were easily CG movie quality. For a time, we just thought they were concept renders made to show off what the engine might be able to do, but heading into E3, we learned that most of those shots were actually in-game and real time. After getting a 30-minute demo of Gears of War where it was played before my eyes, I can confirm that this title looks just as good in motion as it does in the screenshots released thus far. At about the point when I picked my jaw off the floor, the guys from Epic informed us that this was "only" running on a top-of-the-line PC and that the final Xbox 360 version would end up looking at least 20% better than it does now.
There were a few problems with the game graphically though, but it is to be expected, as it's far from optimized and not even on final Xbox 360 hardware (or even anything close to Xbox 360 hardware, for that matter). The main problem we saw was some framerate drops during some of the battles that made things get a little choppy. Even in its current state, the framerate was not all that bad, especially when you consider the sheer number of enemies and effects on screen at one time and the fact that it was on unfinished hardware. Some things, like impact reactions from bullets, were not in the game yet so parts of it stood out, but the title still has about a year left in development, so this is all to be expected.
The outlook for Gears of War is extremely promising. We were pretty much blown away by what we saw, and to know it's only going to get better from here is a scary thought. As if all of the features we already discussed were not enough, Gears will not only support full online multiplayer over Xbox Live, but it will also allow for four-player split-screen co-op. At any time while you're playing the single player game, if one of your buddies picks up a controller, he can automatically take control of one of your AI teammates and play co-op with you, and you will also be able to play co-op online. Some of the other planned features that we did not get to see in our demo include many different types of vehicles that you will be able to control, as well as special melee moves that allow you to kill an enemy at close range in spectacular fashion. One such move was described to us as running up to a enemy Locusts and shoving a grenade down his throat, which will send his guts flying all over the screen.
After all was said and done, there is no doubt in my mind that Gears of War is going to be a killer Xbox 360 title. I simply cannot wait to get a copy of the final game, and I really wish this could have been a launch title, but if all goes well, it'll be available Q1 2006.
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