Microsoft has a dilemma. They've already pulled the pin on Gears of War, their most explosive grenade, by announcing the next generation's most spellbinding game will be available before the year is out. It's just a matter of when exactly they throw it out into the market. For our money, we'll see it sooner rather than later. Holding their grenade back to disrupt the PS3's November launch could blow up in their face. Because, you see, Gears of War has been earmarked as the game to define Xbox 360 in 2006, and to get the most out of it, it has to be established as the definitive experience in whatever it is that differentiates the 360 from the other consoles - and that's the quality of its online play. This month, we're going to take a look at the Gears of War online experience, and what it does that blows everything before it out of the water.
GOW's multiplayer mode is successful for the same reasons that make the rest of it such a tight, complete package. There are few ideas that you won't have seen before. But it's the way they've put it together; GOW has an assured swagger. It's a title that oozes technical confidence at every turn. From the outset, we've been pretty clear in stating that this isn't a re-invention of the genre - but it's a real re-enforcement.
The masterful execution makes GOW essential on two levels - both of which are in evidence in the multiplayer mode. Firstly, at the obvious level - the Unreal Engine is able to create a battlefield so drenched in tension it's almost tangible. Forget cutting it with a knife, you can practically pick it up and beat people to death with it. But the second, more subtle way is the most important. The level design is impeccable, one of the best examples of the importance of good design we've ever seen. There's not a brick out of place on the level we played, the placement of every single pixel serving to improve the gaming experience in some way.
The multiplayer mode we tried was a four-on-four Deathmatch, with one side taking the helm of Marcus Fenix and pals, and the others donning the slimy visage of the Locusts. The playable map was small and tight (although we're told to expect much bigger), and perfectly formed. Obviously the main focus point is the sheer amount of cover available to you - if it's there, you can hide behind it. A press of a will see your guy dive for cover toward the nearest shelter, with the only offensive capability available being to 'blindfire', spraying bullets over the top in a haphazard manner. Gears of War plays out like a violent game of hide and seek, with a 'who dares wins' feel about it. A tap of a when out in the open will see your chin-happy marine explode into a super-sprint, allowing you to dart from shelter to shelter in a heartbeat. It's a simple implementation that turns GOW into an exciting game of chicken, but it's the level design that seals it as something special.
Not only have the levels been perfectly formed to maximise the amount of tactical stand-offs you'll encounter during the duels, but they almost always force you into utilising teamwork. Go it alone and you're sure to be picked off, but the level design and cover system work in cahoots to encourage you to flank and support each other as a real war machine would. Handy practice too, if you plan to stage a coup sometime in the near future.
Then there are the little touches that go a long way. Weapons and power-ups are placed out in the open, making anyone foolhardy enough to rush out sitting ducks. They're placed intelligently in such a way that you will always be tempted, but never quite sure if it's safe or not. Believe us, you will go for it.