Gears of War could be more ambitious in its design, but its cover-centric gunfights more than make up for this.
Gears of War was the first Xbox 360 game I played - what an introduction to console gaming it proved to be. Oozing visual opulence, it belies the Xbox's mere 512 megabytes of RAM. It's more than a technical showpiece however, since the sheer weight of its combat and the intelligent cover system combine to make this the best shooter of 2006. It redefines the genre's parameters and its over-the-shoulder view (during combat) essentially incorporates the best aspects of 3rd and 1st person gaming.
Some critics might slam Gears of War for merely dazzling with its visuals - true, the graphics are its main attraction, but this isn't surprising. It's drenched in a bloom effect that creates an impeccable visual sheen. The character models animate superbly and the chainsaw effect is worth the price of admission alone. But above and beyond the graphics, the cover system is what really sells Gears of War's combat. The Xbox controller effortlessly handles a multitude of actions - lesser games would have bogged players down with unnecessary combos - whereas Epic has created something you can get to grips with in the first half-an-hour. Not that it'll be easy. It isn't the controls you find yourself struggling with, rather the tenacious enemy AI. Their flanking techniques cause real strife and, despite being fitted in a hefty amour-laden outfit, Marcus is no stronghold against gunfire. Thankfully, Gears of War runs the difficulty gamut without ever feeling unfair.
Co-Operative play is good fun and makes the combat a whole lot easier, though you do have to contend with a split screen, and it does seem a shame to deny Gear's graphics in their full, unrestricted glory. Never has a game presented a world in such a myriad of different grays, though, truth be told, you'll ultimately find the lack of variety in its visual output slightly quibble-some.
There aren't many weapons and enemies either, though this complements Epic's obvious intention of creating something scripted and tightly focused. It ignores over-indulgence and considering that each and every weapon has its place, you won't rely on one solely throughout the five-mission campaign. The scripted nature of proceedings means you'll never wander around aimlessly either and the obvious linearity is expertly masked by expansive looking locales.
The term "Next-Gen" is bandied about far too much for my liking. But given what the term supposedly means, it's easy to see that Gears won't have any visual disapprovers. Its gameplay design, on the other hand, can be viewed with a more critical eye. Extinguishing all bestial foes in a particular section does magically open doors - ala Serious Sam - but the absorbing, intelligent cover-centric gunfights are so very excellent that it successfully overrides this. Gears of War could certainly be more ambitious in its design, but would it benefit from it? I think not.
Ultimately Gears of War offers up a thrilling eight campaign and solid multiplayer. It may be somewhat marred by a lack of variety and staid design mechanics, but only slightly. This is still wholly worth sampling.