If you've been waiting for the Halo 2 (see my review) of the Xbox 360, that killer, gotta-have-it game title, wait no more: Gears of War is the real deal, offering the best overall graphics and sound, and most immersive game play of any Xbox 360 game. It is, beyond question, the best overall game of the year, regardless of platform, and is quickly on its way to Classic status. Gears of War is a stunning, epic masterpiece. It is everything I expected of Call of Duty 3 (see my review) but often didn't receive. If you own an Xbox 360, you must get this game, and immediately. If you don't own an Xbox 360, get one now. And pick up a copy of Gears of War. It's that good.

What's interesting about Gears of War is that it embodies everything that everyone who loves and hates video games thinks about when they think about video games. To the detractors, it is mindless violence, yet another outlet for a generation of kids more concerned about their fantasy worlds than the real-life problems in Iraq, Africa, and elsewhere. But Gears of War is Art, with a capital A, a crowning achievement that proves, once again, that video games can transcend their humble technical lockboxes and achieve true greatness. Gears of War is immersive, gritty, and realistic, and offers stunning single player and multiplayer action, a plot that'd be right at home in a first class blockbuster movie, killer music and sound, and the best graphical presentation seen in any video game, on any system. It is available only on the Xbox 360--you can't play Gears of War on a PC or the PlayStation 3, sorry--and it makes the 360 all the more valuable and desirable. It is, in short, the best video game I've ever played.

It is, of course, not perfect. Gears of War is occasionally marred by minor bugs, a fairly-short single player campaign, and the rare lockup that seems to only occur when a game pushes the Xbox 360 to its limits.

Plot

Gears of War takes place on Sera, a planet that briefly achieved nirvana after discovering a nearly endless energy source called Imulsion, which resembles highlighter-yellow radioactive lava. The discovery of Imulsion was followed by a surprise attack by the Locust Horde, an evil enemy race that had been living secretly and silently below the planet's surface. The Horde emerged to destroy mankind once and for all, and with the war lost, mankind took its revenge on the alien race by using chemical and nuclear weapons to obliterate the surface of the planet. This almost completely destroyed the planet, and Sera's cities now resemble gothic versions of the bombed-out cities found in Europe during World War II.

That's where Marcus Fenix, the character you play in the game, enters the picture. A former military leader who was locked in a cell at the start of a war on trumped up charges, you are released and made a member of a four-man strike team that seeks to move deep into Locust Horde-controlled territory and, with some luck, take out the enemy at its heart. Over the course of the game, you become the leader of your not-so-merry band of soldiers and earn redemption by saving mankind. (Assuming of course you're up to the challenge.)

There are some unresolved plot points involving a woman you're apparently interested in and Fenix's mysterious and influential father, and whatever involvement he had in the affairs of the past. Presumably, these issues will be sorted out in an eventual sequel, which would be most welcome.

Game play

Gears of War is a violent shooter, but it's not a first person shooter like Call of Duty 3, F.E.A.R. (see my review), or Quake 4 (see my review), though it shares many similarities with those titles. Instead, Gears is what's called a third person shooter, in which the so-called camera view is behind and typically a bit above your on-screen character, who takes up a portion of the onscreen real estate. Normally, I'm not a big fan of this type of game--the most common example of a third person shooter is the Tomb Raider series (see my review of Tomb Raider Legend for more information)--but the developers at Epic Games pulled off quite a coup by making this system far more enjoyable than it is in other third-person shooters. They did this by pushing your character over to the bottom side of the screen by default, providing you with a similar view of the playfield to what you get with first person shooters. And when you target far-off enemies, most weapons include a sight of some kind that lets you zoom in or even use guidelines for range weapons like grenades and explosive arrows.

If you are used to first person shooters, the Gears control system will take some getting used to. In addition to weirdisms associated with learning the third-person shooter style of play, you'll have to deal with the fact that Gears uses a control system that is often quite different from that of typical first person shooters. That was one of the things I really liked about games such as Quake 4 and F.E.A.R.: You can pick them up and immediately understand how they work. But the Gears control system is a bit more difficult to master, though of course it's worth the effort.

Here's a typical example: In Gears, your in-game character can't jump, which is sort of unheard of in a shooter. (This rather strange omission is also present in Condemned: Criminal Origins [see my review] and is equally unsettling there.) You also can't crouch, a technique that is typically used to help you hide behind objects and fire in a steadier manner. Instead of these two commonly used actions, the green "A" button controls a number of actions which are used in their place. The most often used is Take Cover, in which you use whatever obstacle is in front of you--a rock, wall, pillar, or whatever--for cover. While firing your weapon, you're out of cover, and can be shot yourself. But when you reload your weapon, or just stop firing, you're considered in cover.

So I'm OK with that. The problem is that the A button does so much more and I often found my character unintentionally rolling across the floor, moving stupidly in and out of cover, or performing other unintended actions. When you hold down the A button, for example, you can run in bursts. But sometimes when I meant to run down a corridor--to avoid an enemy or grenade--I'd latch onto a nearby obstacle instead and take cover. Grr... These games are supposed to be easy to control.

That said, the control overloading on the A button--and the lack of simple jump and crouch options--doesn't really detract from the overall game, but it does take some getting used to. And many of the other controls work as expected, including the systems for movement, looking, and choosing and firing weapons. These are all logical.

The weapons are largely familiar as well, though I have to give Epic credit for adding a handy mini-chainsaw to the front of the workhorse rifle that's emerged as my favorite. It's perfect for firefights in which the enemy gets a little too close for comfort. There are various pistols, shotguns, grenades, and sniper rifles, just like any other shooter, and some interesting alien weapons (which always seems to provide little in the way of ammo). A satellite-guided Hammer of Dawn can bring down death from above on larger foes, but only when you're outside and the conditions are right.

The Horde come in various shapes and sizes, but with lots of overlap. There are animal-like Horde that attack on all fours like rapid dogs, and gun-wielding baddies that look like something straight out of a nightmare. These guys come in various forms, each more dangerous than the last, all leading up to a final mano-e-mano match against General Raam, who uses a rotating machine gun turret as if it were a handgun. He's tough.

Speaking of tough, as you move up through the game's skill levels--there are three, though the third, Insane, isn't available until you've completed the game on Casual or Hardcore--things get considerably more difficult on the higher levels. Enemies begin trying to flank you, which gets increasingly aggravating. Insane? I'll get there, but a brief foray in the training level convinced me to finish the game on Hardcore first. (At this writing, I've completed the game on Casual and am about 2/3 of the way through on Hardcore.)

The most interesting--and innovative--aspect of Gears' game play is the way it handles cooperative play. While some games do offer options for two players to simultaneously work their way through a single player campaign--or, as is sometimes the case, specially prepared co-op levels--Gears handles this capability in a way that is as rare as it is thrilling. At any point while playing the single player campaign, you can allow a second player to jump in on the action and help. This works via split screen (on a single Xbox 360), System Link (with two separate Xbox 360s), or even Xbox Live (over the Internet) and is a marvel. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that Gears is the first game in which the co-op play is actually the preferred method for finishing the single player game. It is an absolutely fantastic experience, assuming of course that your partner knows his way around a Lancer Assault Rifle.

Like other shooters, Gears alternates between cut scenes, third person action, and the occasional driving sequence, the latter of which, like similar sequences in Call of Duty 3, are the weakest part of the game. (There's even a "Temple of Doom"-like mine car sequence, go figure.) But these sequences are usually quite short and fairly easy to get through, even at the higher skill levels. The movement between cut-scenes and game play is seamless, cinematic, and first rate, and you can skip cut-scenes you've already viewed. (Bravo!) Best of all, most (but, annoyingly, not all) checkpoints are perfectly spaced, so you rarely need to worry about working too much before the game automatically saves your progress. This is a huge improvement over the broken checkpoint system in COD3.

Graphics and sound

Graphically and sonically, Gears of War is unmatched on the Xbox 360. This is the best looking and best sounding game I've ever played, and when you combine these traits with the stellar game play, involving plot, amazing play areas, and the overall presentation, you have the makings of a classic.

In Gears, Epic has created what it calls "destroyed beauty." The theory is that Sera was a beautiful, full-realized, and idyllic world, and you can still see this through the carnage and rubble of the war-torn planet. And sure enough, Gears provides a startlingly beautiful and utterly destroyed environment that, to my eyes, most closely resembles Stalingrad at the close of World War II: Buildings still stand, but they are hollowed out, and filled with dirty, evil things. Wind whistles, rain comes down in sheets, lightning flashes, and alien snipers train their sights on you from far-off windows. There are fires burning in barrels, swarms of killer birds flocking in the night, and Imulsion bubbling in deep caverns below the planet's surface. It is a believable place, a sad and dying place, and it makes the plight of your character and those around him all the more palpable. You buy into the world because of the rich environments, and care about what happens. It's an astonishing accomplishment.

The sound, of course, factors into this. You can hear voices in the wind. The Locust Horde taunts you and curses you. A rocket-wielding Horde known as the Boomer actually intones "boom" as he fires his weapon, giving you a heads-up to take cover. The music is militaristic, or scary, depending on the situation. Even the in-game chatter between the members of your team is decent, giving you a realistically earthy and even humorous backdrop between action sequences. The entire presentation is top-notch, a better remake of DOOM, from a presentation perspective, than is DOOM 3 (see my review).

Multiplayer

As I've done with Call of Duty 2 and will soon do for Call of Duty 3, I will review Gears of War's multiplayer experience separately in the coming weeks. But Gears multiplayer appears a bit limiting to me at first glance. Only team-based multiplayer games are available, which is sort of odd. (Though, truth be told, team deathmatch is actually my favorite shooter multiplayer format.) In Warzone, a team of humans and a team of Locust go at it. In Assassination, one player is designated the leader and must be killed by the opposing team. The Execution game type is a derivative of Warzone in which players can revive themselves. And ... that's about it. I'll investigate this further after I've completed the single player campaign a second time.

Availability

Gears of War is available in two versions, a standard version in the typical Xbox 360 game title packaging and a Collector's Edition version that costs $10 more but includes a special container tin with slipcase, a small hardcover "Destroyed Beauty" book that looks at the making of the game, and a second bonus DVD that features a number of short films and three game trailers. Whether this additional material is worth the extra money will depend largely on your status as a total fanboy. You know who you are.

Conclusions

I've rarely been this impressed by a video game. Gears of War--the single player campaign, at least--is a truly stunning and epic experience. The game is rated Mature 17+, so it's obviously not for kids, and the violence, language, and horror elements are indeed for mature audiences only. But the overall presentation in Gears of War is unsurpassed. It is a gorgeous, fun, and highly playable game, and one I'm eager to play again and again, especially in co-op mode. My complaints are few and all minor. The unique cover combat mode is fine, though the game overloads the controller's "A" button to a dangerous degree. The single player campaign is arguably a bit short, though the overall story is far more complete than, say, that of Halo 2. And there are minor bugs, though nothing as glaring as those in Call of Duty 3. Multiplayer appears to be a bit limited, though Epic could easily fix that with online updates. None of this really matters. You need Gears of War. You want Gears of War. Highly recommended, Gears of War is the game of the year.