Game of the Year - Gears of War (Xbox 360)
December 14, 2006 An epic story line, polished controls, amazing graphics and a furious (and incredibly addictive) multiplayer game make Gears of War the game of the year. Our games editor hasn't been very productive for the last week - here's his fairly detailed excuse.
Gears of War (Xbox 360) is set on Earth, after a particularly nasty species called the Locust emerged from underground and killed the majority of the world's population. After destroying the surface of their own planet with chemical weapons and particle lasers in an attempt to destroy the Locust, the survivors are launching their final attack. Players take control of Marcus Fenix and his Delta Squad, on a mission to save the world.
This really is the best looking console game I've seen yet. The level of detail is just incredible - and they've managed a gritty art style that really suits the post-apocalyptic story. The animation is fluid and seamless, and the framerate purrs along, even in the most intense moments there was never a hint of slow down getting in the way.
Epic have nailed the control scheme, managing to make the game even nicer to control with two analog sticks than Call of Duty 3 is with a Wii Remote. The battle mechanics are just beautiful - players can easily duck behind scenery by pressing the A button, and from there, moving around, taking shots at the enemy, and even choosing other nearby areas of cover to run to is all done intuitively.
There's no health bar and health packs here - take enough damage and a "Crimson Omen" (or red circle) appears in the middle of the screen, hide yourself from fire for a few seconds, the circle disappears and you're as good as new. If you go down, a team mate can revive you. These mechanics add to a nicely balanced learning curve - on the first levels you're only encountering very weak enemies, and you've got more than enough time to get used to ducking and weaving around the scenery.
Cooperative mode is fantastic, and works surprisingly well in split screen (even on a moderately sized standard definition TV set) and also over Xbox Live. If a friend comes online while you're playing single player, you'll get a notification and can invite him in to the game to give you a hand - a really nice touch. With the exception of a couple of levels, coop makes the game a lot easier and more fun - making the learning curve even shallower for anyone who is friends with a gamer.
While the single player campaign is impressive, it will take a maximum of a week of regular play to get through (of course, Halo veterans will probably manage it in a couple of sessions). Luckily, there's an intense multiplayer experience to be had. As of November 20th, 2006, Gears of War has been the most played game on Xbox Live.
At the time of writing, there were over 120,000 players in the rankings - and presumably a lot more who haven't yet played a ranked match - this means you'll have no issues finding a game at any time of day.
You'll want to finish the game on single player, and play a bit of VS multiplayer with a friend before even considering giving this a shot online. Gun spawn points are always in the same point on the map, and they're so sparse that it heavily imbalances the match in favour of the hardcore types who memorise this sort of thing within a couple of days of heavy play.
At first, I constantly found myself in games with kids who had no problems wiping the floor with me time after time, and letting me know quite vocally how much I sucked. A couple of very late nights later, I might've been called a few names, but I had my melee game down pat and was getting a few kills per match. This is incredibly addictive stuff.
If you're going to play it online (and you really should), make sure you grab a wireless headset with your copy - it's incredibly frustrating when you end up on your own, spot three enemies approaching, and can't call in backup.
Despite a couple of minor annoyances regarding the multiplayer game, this game is a masterpiece - the killer app for the Xbox 360, and a new benchmark for what can be achieved with our now current-gen game systems.