Marcus Fenix disobeyed orders and got locked up, but in tough times, even a traitorous soldier is better than nothing.
The game's campaign tells the tale of a man named Marcus Fenix. He, like the other soldiers around him, is an extremely thick dude that very clearly doesn't have time to bleed. The game immediately sets an action movie-like tone, complete with an interesting post-apocalyptic world that's been overrun by a mysterious force called the Locust. Marcus is a former soldier for the Coalition of Organized Governments, or COG. Their soldiers wear ridiculously huge, bulky armor, but can't be bothered to wear helmets. They're just that tough. Or stupid. Either way, Fenix is a former soldier that's been branded a traitor and locked away, but he's busted out of prison at the opening of the game, to help in the fight against the Locust. After a brief tutorial level where you and Dom, the soldier that busted you out, make your way out of the Locust-infested prison and, yes, get to the chopper, you're connected with the other members of Delta Squad and sent out to find Alpha Squad, which is both missing and supposedly in possession of a device that could turn the tide of the war. The game's story isn't very deep, and aside from a very brief mention in the front of the manual, it doesn't really bother to fill you in on the details behind the conflict or the main character's incarceration. The lack of exposition feels like a missed opportunity to make the characters and the setting even more compelling, and there are parts of the game that seem like they were built specifically to make room for some kind of flashback sequence, but the gameplay is so sharp that you probably won't care.
You'll fight a decent variety of enemies in Gears of War. Most of the Locust are humanoids, with minor visual distinctions between the standard troops, ones with shotguns, and so on. Later on, you'll fight some different-looking humanoid-style enemies that are armed with explosive torque bows, and there are plenty of other critters to face--some small, some screen-filling. They all use slightly different tactics, but the same basic rule applies: Wait for them to pop their heads (or other weak points) out and attempt to shoot it off. The enemy response to your actions has its great moments, but it also has its problems. Enemies hiding behind cover tend to not react when they get hit. From time to time, you might catch the back of an enemy peeking just over a piece of cover, and if you start shooting it, he'll usually just sit there and let you drill him to death. But in spite of its few problems, the action is tense and extremely enjoyable.
Gears of War consists of a large series of pitched battles between your squad and the enemy forces. If you leave your fool head popped up for too long, it'll get shot off every single time, so the proper place for you is tucked behind a wall or some other piece of cover. The cover mechanics work very naturally, making it easy to stick to a wall, pop up or around to take shots at the enemy, and get back down safely. Moving between nearby pieces of cover is also very easy to manage.
This isn't the first time that taking cover has been a focus of gameplay--the mechanics work very similarly to a fairly obscure PlayStation 2 game from Namco called kill.switch. But no game has made this sort of gameplay quite so exciting. One of the greatest feelings in this game is that when you pop out to take a shot, you immediately feel like you're taking your life into your own hands, because the enemy is very good at opening fire the second they see you and you'll see those bullets heading your way. This formula remains thrilling from start to finish, though boss fights and a pretty neat vehicle section help to break up the action.
Thankfully, one shot won't kill you, in most cases. The health meter takes the form of a skull and gear icon that appears onscreen in pieces as you take damage. If it's completed, that means you took one hit too many and you're history. But if you can avoid getting shot for a few seconds, the gear fades away and you're restored to full health. It's a much quicker recharge than something like Halo's energy shields, and this helps keep the action moving while reinforcing that you really need to play cautiously.
You'll usually have three other guys in your squad, but they usually aren't much help. They're good for distracting enemies, and they'll take down a few here and there, but they also tend to get dropped a lot. You can revive them, if you can get over to them and hit the X button, but usually it's easier to just finish the fight yourself, which brings them all back without exposing you to the same enemy fire that took them down in the first place.
Gears of War is all about ducking, covering, and blasting your enemies whenever they give you an opening.
Gears of War offers two difficulty settings right off the bat, and a third unlocks when you beat the game. The game defaults to the easiest setting, called casual. On this setting, taking cover only becomes important when you're up against heavy odds or later in the game, when the enemies get tougher. The middle setting, hardcore, feels just right at first--you need to take cover, but you can usually pop up and take shots without immediate punishment. But near the tail end of the game, both difficulties ramp up quite a bit. Hardcore starts to get a little unmanageable. Casual gets to be about as hard as the hardcore setting is near the beginning of the game. And once you unlock insane, you'll find that it's aptly named, though not impossible. Overall, the difficulty feels like it could have used a bit more tuning, or another setting that finds the sweet spot between casual and hardcore. But since you can select your difficulty each time you load up your game, it's easy to set it down to casual if you get stuck at a certain checkpoint, then raise it back up once you've made progress. Making your way through the campaign should take most players somewhere from about 10 to 12 hours, depending on the difficulty.
The game has achievements for finishing each of the five acts on each of the three difficulties, and they stack, so if you beat an act on hardcore, you get the casual points, as well. It only seems to keep track of what difficulty setting you're on when you finish the act, so all this switching around won't cause any trouble on that front, either. The game's achievements are pretty good, with a smart mix of points you'll get for simply playing through the game and some more esoteric ones, like points for playing as Dom in co-op, points for perfectly reloading your weapon many times in a row, doing well online, and so on. None of the points seem that far fetched, but you also won't have the full thousand during your first couple of days with the game, either.