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Hands on: Gears of War

This first level was just a gentle intro. The next, a civic square under siege from Locust forces was much more intense, with the heavily armed brutes bursting forth from the ground with little in the way of warning. This gave us plenty of time to check out the basic machine guns and shotguns, plus a lovable chainsaw attachment that can be employed up-close to give another Locust git a messy end. Make no mistake: Gears of War isn’t about the glossy ‘combat evolved’ of Halo, but a brutal, bloody mix of smart tactics and sheer guts. It’s as close in feel to Call of Duty and Resident Evil 4 as it is to Bungie’s Xbox classic.

Multiplayer is something else. Epic has always promised Gears of War would offer a new kind of co-op experience, and it looks like they’re going to deliver. Missions and Locust behaviour will be different in co-op mode, and there’s a real sense that if you and your partner can’t be bothered to back each other up, then you’re not going to get far in the game. But if you cover him while he advances, then he does the same for you then who knows; you might both get to kick some Locust ass.

Yet the crowning glory of Gears of War at X06 was the team deathmatch sessions; four humans, four locusts, and a whole lot of mayhem. Like Counter-Strike, it’s played in rounds, with death sending you off to spectate and the team with the last man (or men) standing the winner. In fact, the weapon sets and emphasis on position and cover give it a similar feel to everyone’s favourite multiplayer Half-Life mod.

However, Gears of War has a faster, more hard-hitting pace and more than a few neat touches of its own. For one, downed players don’t die immediately, but can win a moment of grace in which team-mates can race in to revive them. For another, there’s an easy way to stop that sort of behaviour: finish them off permanently first. The game throws you extra style points if you can reach your foe and pull off a grisly Mortal Kombat-esque execution, and if bringing down your locust boot on a defenceless human head is, it’s still oh so very satisfying. In fact, the same goes for the whole experience. It says something that groups of cynical game journos went in umming about ‘what, more deathmatch?’ but came out buzzing and grinning thirty minutes later.

Obviously it’s still too early for any conclusions – we’ve only had a taste of the courses, not enjoyed the feast itself – but if Gears of War can maintain this quality throughout, the 360 might finally have found its signature game.

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