Gears of War E3 2005 Hands-On

We'll go out on a limb and call this the most exciting-looking Xbox 360 exclusive on the horizon. Epic Games' sci-fi tactical shooter looks hot. We even got to play an early build of it.

[UPDATE] On the first day of E3 2005, we didn't hesitate to rush up through Microsoft's mazelike, city-sized floorspace to see Epic Games' recently revealed sci-fi tactical shooter Gears of War. Demonstrated behind closed doors by lead designer Cliff Bleszinski, who incidentally confirmed that the game is being developed exclusively for the Xbox 360, Gears of War is a visually stunning game that will obviously appeal to Xbox fans biding their time for Halo 3. Bleszinski billed Gears as a "new big franchise" from the company that created the excellent Unreal Tournament series of shooters, and we can see why--prior to getting to see the game in action, we got to listen to Bleszinski quickly rattle off a lot of details about the game's premise. At any rate, when we finally got to see the game running, we were certainly impressed--running on a beautiful HD screen, Gears of War delivered some gorgeous-looking environments and spectacular firefights.

Gears of War looks like it'll be one of the best showcases of the Xbox 360's muscle.

We got to see a good 15 to 20 minutes of Gears of War in action. While we couldn't play the game ourselves (not until later in the week, anyway!), the gameplay was clearly being controlled right in front of us. Only single-player content was shown--two levels in particular--and Epic confirmed that Gears of War would primarily be a single-player-focused game. A versus multiplayer mode is planned, but Epic was mum on the details. However, we did learn that cooperative gameplay would be a significant feature in the title--we were told that a second player would be able to bust into the single-player game at any time, either by picking up a second controller or even via Xbox Live. When asked for specifics about the number of co-op players the game would support, Bleszinski noted that the company was considering allowing up to four players at a time.

As for the gameplay, it's intended to combine the best elements of tactical shooters and survival horror titles--namely, the vicious action and "weapon lethality" of the former, and the tense pacing and freaky moments of the latter. Use of cover will play an important role in the game, as you'll be able to duck your head behind anything in the environment that could help keep you from getting hurt, and you'll even be able to make your own cover by kicking over tables, toppling pillars, and so on. The firing-from-behind-cover mechanics in the game instantly reminded us of Namco's kill.switch, a game that didn't make a big splash when it was released a couple of years ago but did help usher in the concept of blindfire and context-sensitive cover into action gaming.

When we finally got to play Gears of War, we quickly noticed that the game's controls already handled the use of cover well. The main character would automatically duck behind anything we approach. Pulling away from the object would cause him to get back up and keep running. While behind cover, it's possible to weave side the side while keeping your head down, fire blind just by pulling on the right trigger, or take aim by pressing and holding the left trigger (when firing blind, there's no aiming reticle). Weapon switching is easily accomplished with the D pad. We liked the shotgun the most, due to the cool Terminator 2-style reloading animation. The main character's movement speed is noticeably slower than you'd expect from a typical first-person shooter, but seems realistic in the context of the game, what with all that heavy armor and weaponry being lugged about.

At any rate, Bleszinski concisely explained that Gears of War would be "stop-and-pop" instead of "run-and-gun." Players will have to rush (and dive) behind cover, wait for an opening, and cleanly take out their targets before moving on. They'll always get to fight alongside friendly soldiers, as well, which is intended to make the action more dynamic and to evoke a Band of Brothers kind of feel.

As cool as a lot of the gunplay was, what with all the bloody in-your-face shot-gunning and machine-gunning and grenade-tossing going on, it did leave us wondering what else was in store in terms of play mechanics. We specifically asked about whether we could expect any good up-close melee combat, since the main character Marcus Fenix looks like he could easily hold his own in a scuffle. Plus, the big, honking guns in Gears of War look like they'd be perfect for cracking some skulls. Bleszinski replied that melee combat, which wasn't ready to be shown at E3, would eventually involve struggles between Fenix and his foes. Quick minigames or button-pressing actions at certain times will cause Fenix to use his chain-saw bayonet against an enemy, crack its head against a wall, or maybe shove a grenade down its throat--sounds good to us. The description of these mechanics reminded us of recent hits like God of War and Resident Evil 4, which used context-sensitive minigames to make for some dynamic and great-looking combat...probably just the ticket that Gears of War is going after.

Speaking of Marcus Fenix, he's a hardened soldier and someone who Bleszinski called "an intelligent badass." He's someone who "could kick your ass in a barroom brawl, but would rather talk you out of it." Gears of War takes place on the once-peaceful Earthlike planet Sera, which fell into disarray not long after a powerful energy source called imulsion was discovered. Warring nations tore the planet apart fighting over it, and, taking the situation from bad to worse, imulsion seemed to awaken a sleeping menace in the form of the locust horde--a voracious race of monsters that bursts forth from the ground. The locust horde turns out to be the real threat, causing the citizens of Sera to settle their differences for a time and form the Coalition of Organized Governments, or COG. Its military arm, in turn, is called the Gears--hence the name of the game.

Marcus Fenix starts out in military prison at the opening of the game but is released because resources in the fight against the locust horde are running low. The rest of the game will focus on that struggle and will be filled with what Bleszinski calls "water cooler moments," suggesting that lots of surprises will happen virtually around every corner. "We're designing the game in 10- to 20-minute increments," he explained, so there shouldn't be a lot of monotonous corridor crawls or anything like that.

We don't get the impression that Marcus Fenix will be able to talk his way out of fighting the locust horde.

We got to see one level taking place in the daytime and one level taking place during the night. Each was set in a highly detailed, run-down cityscape, filled with tons of stuff that could be blown up or used as cover, or both. The first level instantly showed off the game's stunning good looks as Fenix and company touched landed in a fresh-looking combat chopper. The game seemed to be running at about 20 to 30 frames per second from what we saw, which was a very respectable speed for having this much detail onscreen--and we fully expect that the game's motion will be tuned to a consistent rate. As impressive as the latest Unreal engine technology is, though, it's the artwork for Gears of War that probably impressed us the most. The gritty, larger-than-life weapons and character designs give the game a distinctive appearance that's reminiscent of Aliens or Warhammer 40,000. In short, the game looks tough--there doesn't seem to be much room for humor in this dark and dangerous world.

Both levels featured a lot of machine gun and shot gun firing against the locust horde's drones, which are semi-intelligent warriors equipped with powerful weapons and capable of using cover and squad tactics to overwhelm Sera's military. When we got to play the game for ourselves, we weren't surprised to find that the enemy AI and mission scripting were still pretty early, but this is obviously an area that the developers will be very focused on. There was a lot of cussing in the dialogue too, and Gears of War's audio was probably the one aspect of the game that didn't really stand out--probably because the subwoofer in our demo room wasn't working. We hope those gigantic guns will pack a meaty punch. The first level we saw featured a lot of open-doors skirmishing and room-to-room combat, seamlessly transitioning between the two and affording the player with a fairly open road through the carnage. This level concluded spectacularly, as "something big" suddenly crashed through the walls. We're talking about a massive five-story monstrosity, which reminded us of the part in Starship Troopers when the gigantic tanker bug appears for the first time.

The nighttime level reminded us of another sci-fi horror movie, Pitch Black. Marcus and his allies needed to stay close to light sources, such as a burning car, in order to not draw the wrath of a huge, swirling swarm of locusts that could be seen zooming around savagely in the solemn sky. This seemed like more of a puzzle-oriented mission, as Marcus needed to push the car and follow its fire in order to stay out of trouble, and he eventually used a run-down gas station to trigger a massive explosion, covering his retreat.

While we got to see gameplay, we didn't get to see Marcus get hurt at all (thank goodness for god mode), which left us wondering what sort of health system would be in the game. The system would be "forgiving," according to Bleszinski, who confirmed that there wouldn't be any health packs to pick up or any such conventional contrivances. Instead, the health system sounds more like that of Star Wars Republic Commando, in which your squadmates can restore you back to health so long as one of them remains standing. In this case, you'll have a special medic bot offsite who'll jump-start your powerful combat armor should you be defeated, allowing you to get back on your feet and keep pushing forward.

Gears of War is probably the best graphical showcase we've seen yet for the Xbox 360, and we figure Microsoft must have lobbied pretty hard to make it an exclusive to the upcoming platform. Still, early adopters of the 360 will be out of luck, since Gears of War is slated for release sometime next year; Epic said that the build shown running at E3 was only about 30 percent complete. So there's a long way for this one to go, and we hope to see it shape up to live up to its already fleshed-out premise and fantastic looks. Stay tuned to GameSpot for all the latest on Gears of War.

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