Epic Games makes their first foray into the next-generation console scene with Gears of War, an intense, palm-sweating, bloodshot eye-inducing, ear-ringing, cinematic, single-player and multiplayer third-person-shooter that is currently dominating the Xbox 360’s sci-fi sector. Gears of War takes place on Sera, an earth-like planet, which is overrun by the Locust Horde, a crude and violent species that nearly wiped out Sera’s billion of inhabitants. The game begins fourteen years after this event, and players are entrusted into the boots of Marcus Fenix, a former well-decorated soldier turned prisoner attempting to save his father. His long-time best friend, Dominic Santiago, busts him out of prison to join the desperate fight against the deadly Locusts. From that moment on begins your grueling mission.

The characters of Gears of War hold a lot of depth to their personalities. Baird and Cole are your other two main squadmates. Baird is the blonde fellow with glasses, and he’s the mischievous guy of the bunch; he is a bit wild his trademark in fixing anything comes in handy given the right parts. Cole is a former thrashball player (some intergalactic sport, but sounds similar to football), and he is the type that loves to taunt the enemy. He might talk a lot but he is definitely an excellent heavy shooter. Another character in the game that is worth mentioning is Anya. She is the only NPC (non-playable character) seen and heard in Gears of War. She serves as support from the other side of the battle—analyzing your strategic standpoints, mapping out locations, pointing out threats, and the usual combat updates.

Gears of War is unlike any other shooter in that it emphasizes cover. You can take cover behind couches, pillars, sandbags, and anything that will protect your family asset. You’ll quickly learn that running and gunning is not the way to go in this game. Your foes are agile, accurate, and as strong as you, so you’ll need to use your wits, especially when you’re only given up to 4 weapons (Grenades, two heavy weapons, and a pistol) to switch from. The developers have done a good job making the game revolve around one simple button: The A button. The A button is used for practically everything, from sprinting to hurdling over a massive debris, to crouching and defensive rolling. With the A button acting as a multi-function trigger, it’s less strenuous for novices to figure out what to press next. Players can concentrate more on the action and build an adrenaline edge of combat gratification.

One amazing thing you can perform in this game is “blind fire”, which allows you to shoot enemies without popping your head out of cover. The aiming is so good and accurate in Gears of War that the sure way to survive is to duck and shoot. You have to learn to be patient in this game otherwise you’re dead in a second. The AI is ruthless with every mistake you make, and the enemies will force you to think twice about your patterns of attack. Fortunately, you have an Active Reload system, which helps you fire back quickly in the heat of the moment. Active Reload is engaged simply by tapping the reload button. A bar will appear underneath your weapon’s ammo indicator with a sliding line, resembling a golf game’s swing meter. If you want to take advantage of this feature, you must tap reload again when the bar hits one of 2 zones. Hitting reload while it’s in the thinner, brighter zone nets you an instant reload, and the rounds added to your clip do extra damage. Tapping while it’s in the large, darker zone will net you a faster reload, but not as fast as the primary zone, and without extra damage.

Playing with the Active Reload system is something you want to master first, especially in the single-player campaign, where this technique is can be an added asset to your tactical advantage. The campaign spans five acts, each act has its own theme and it takes about three or four hours to complete. None of them drag out content for too long, leaving the experience fresh and exhilarating. The game provides three difficulty settings: Casual (Normal), Hardcore (Hard), and Insane (Ultra Hard, and locked at first). Each difficulty setting offers an insane amount of challenge, and frantic paced of action. However, the game becomes insanely unforgiving in the later sections, where you’ll face multiple one-hit-kill weapons, forcing you to learn about the AI’s behavior and visual cues ahead of time. The Y button gives you some edge in combat, showing where your teammates are and points of interest.

Taking an enemy down usually takes at least one clip of ammo with most weapons, especially when it takes them almost half a clip to shred you to pieces. Some cannot be hurt unless you use the Hammer of Dawn, an awe-inspiring targeting gun. This weapon of mass destruction only works outside, where you have to align it with the satellite to summon an ultra beam. The beam projects a staggering amount of light and burns whatever entity in its path. The execution of such move is grotesque and sickeningly awesome! One of the great features of Gears of War is the ability to play coop. You can play tag team online and offline. You can split up to take different paths or cover each other from different angles of the battlefield. There are also multiplayer shootouts between you and up to seven other people online or on a LAN—if you get tired of the game’s grueling campaigns and want to go for real human interaction.

Instead of multiplayer death matches that would just lead to a lot of repetitive mindless shooting, Epic decided to infuse team-based strategy. The game runs on team-only modes, which include Warzone, Execution, and Assassination. In all modes, smoke grenades are in. Warzone is similar to popular FPS titles such as Counter-Strike in that if you die once, you’ll have to wait until the next round to get back in. In Execution, the game is very similar to Warzone, but with a twist. Instead of dying when you’ve been hurt enough, you just get knocked down. You don’t die unless an execution move is pulled on you, which is interesting. Finally, there’s Assassination, where both teams have a leader. The objective is to score on the leader’s head any way you can. The twist in this mode is that the leader can pick up big guns (the Torque Bow, for instance) and drop them for their teammates to use, or use it themselves.

Epic has a reputation for overwhelming players with an incredible set of weapons, and there are plenty of them to be found in Gears of War. One of the weapons you’ll be using frequently is the Lancer, a hybrid assault rifle and chainsaw. This particular weapon can atomized foes with its intense rate of fire. Another cool weapon is the Torque Bow, a crossbow that shoots explosive darts. Charging it enough lets you shoot the bow so that it sticks into what it hits (for a one hit kill). In terms of squad AI, your teammate does a good job of taking cover, shooting back, lob grenades, response to commands, and more. Thankfully, these guys only die in rare occasions, but when they are hurt you can administer a remedy by pressing X next to them. Of course, your control over them is nowhere near the amount you have in Full Spectrum Warrior or Ghost Recon, but that’s more than acceptable.

Graphically, the game is impressive. This is one of the best-looking shooter to date! The cinematic “acts” play out well and stunning. The background presentation, from the cramped corridors of the factory, to the run-down final resting place of Alpha Squad, to the bright Fenix Estate is truly remarkable. They are all stunners, delivering their own unique theme and feel to the game. The level design is perfectly paced, too! After a few rounds of heated action, you’re given a breather and allowed to explore the amazing world of Gears of War. The weapons are unbelievably cool-looking as well, like the burst-fire rifle, shooting out red tracers. The enemies look freakish thanks to the tremendous amount of creativity placed behind them.

The blood is as impressive as the gameplay itself—there is so much of it to be found. It’s also quite evident that there is a great effort put into the animation. You seriously feel like you’re desperately shoving all your weight into a concrete slab to hide for cover given all the gadgets you’re carrying with you. One of the game’s great special effects comes in the middle of a firefight. Bullets fly by and take chunks of your cover out. This dust can sometimes obstruct your vision, a nice touch of realism there. In terms of camera views, the game does a good job of providing the full drama of the action, as if someone was holding a camera behind Fenix and trying to catch up with him. In the audio department, the incredible sound effects hit so close to home that they make the game that much more engaging. For instance, what should sound like a rocket being launched seems like the start of a storm, really! In firefights, you’ll always hear chunks of your cover being blown away and the roaring whiz of bullets overhead.

The music is top-notch, movie-crisp quality. The score of pounding soundtracks really make a battle feel like it’s going to be your last time on earth. The voiceovers are done extremely well, and John DiMaggio even lends his talents to voice Fenix. Your squad is so much optimistic that they’re always ready to take on more grunts with their wild yells of “Bring it on!” and “Who’s next?” Sadly, the sounds of the guns, namely the two types of assault rifles, when fired are roughly the same in every battle. You wish there is more variation in the way the guns project noise to differentiate their awesome firepower. Some of the guns don’t pack enough wallop, especially the Hammer of Dawn, which is almost completely silent even though it’s burning flesh and the ground beneath it. Other than these irregularities, the audio is flawless.

Gears of War is clearly one of the best-looking games in 2006 and it could even rival Halo 3 for the graphical achievements and awesome gameplay. It’s only a matter of time before it starts winning awards such as Game of the Year under its belt. For FPS fans, you really can’t go wrong with this game. It’s almost like a puzzle and shooter hybrid, relying on quick thinking and tactics. There is no other shooting game like it out there until Halo 3 comes out. It’s definitely worth the price and it has definitely earned respect among magazine editors. With such game coming out for the Xbox 360, Microsoft will gain momentum for market advantage. But it’s still early to tell with Sony delaying a few their good launch titles. Anyway, if you are looking for an intense FPS title for Xbox 360, then this is one game you shouldn’t miss.