Xbox 360 Preview

Gears of War

Stevie elaborates on the potential makings of a 'killer app'

It's almost a year since Microsoft's Xbox 360 hit the retail scene and successfully pushed the boundaries of accepted 'next-generation'. However, while steadily laying down the console's roots of quality in the industry's unspoilt soil, safe in the knowledge that both Sony and Nintendo were still busily tinkering in the potting shed, Microsoft now finds its self lacking one vital and defining aspect to complement its latest piece of gaming and multimedia hardware: a killer app.

Some may say that the undoubtedly impressive Call of Duty 2 qualifies for the title of 'Xbox 360 Killer App', especially as it was the console's premium launch title, and has since become the system's best-selling title. They'd be wrong. Then there would be others who'd blindly place Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter or The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion atop the killer app altar, but they'd be wrong to worship at the feet of false idols. To put it simply, as good as these games are, they fall well short of achieving the same impact and following as garnered by Bungie's Halo.

And this is where Epic Games' tactical sci-fi shooter Gears of War may well 'emerge' as a genuine contender for the vacant killer app position. In terms of pressure, Gears of War has masses of critical and consumer expectation pressing on its shoulders; the hype bandwagon is rushing headlong beside its ongoing development, and anything short of gaming excellence upon completion will likely be crushed and pummelled (unfairly) from every quarter. But, despite the crippling burden of expectation, Gears of War just might be what we've all been waiting for. Gears of War

The planet Sera is under attack, under attack from within. Having risen from the depths of the planet itself, the Locust Horde, a mercilessly nightmarish enemy that outnumbers the combined forces of Sera's Coalition of Ordered Governments, is swiftly overwhelming the besieged human population. Assuming the role of Marcus Fenix, players join the war against the immense Locust Horde and become immersed in a "next-generation tactical combat system" while surrounded by "unsurpassed visuals and special effects." The game's narrative structure builds around Fenix and his ragtag group of soldiers as they battle to survive the Locust Horde's ceaseless onslaught, which will begin on Emergence Day - which just so happens to be the game's 12th of November release date.

Gears of War will be powered by Epic Games' impressive Unreal Engine 3, and current gameplay clips and trailers definitely portray an inbound videogame that boasts hugely detailed environments, frantic action, and tense atmosphere. If the final game showcases a similar feel from start to finish, then gamers have got a great deal to look forward to. "Imagine photo-realistic environments rendered in real-time, and you only begin to understand what this engine is capable of," exclaims the official Gears of War website. "After you see this engine in action and your gameplay evolve, you will never look at shooters the same way again." These are truly bold statements for a game not yet available on the market - and they've probably only fed the sense of hype and pressure - yet, Cliff Bleszinski, lead designer of Gears of War certainly believes that Unreal Engine 3 has been invaluable in the development process and the final result will be something special. "The fact that you're engaged in brutal and savage warfare as all of this beautifully crafted architecture is crumbling around you is a strangely enjoyable juxtaposition in Gears," says Bleszinski. "Just because you're doing a dark universe doesn't mean your environments can't inspire."

The basic gameplay premise in Gears of War generally revolves around urban-inspired fire team/squad-based combat - which is certainly nothing new - and yet Epic is intent on ensuring the game remains constantly fun, fresh, and challenging and never falls into a mundane 'rinse and repeat' rhythm. In order to achieve this, the developers looked at other major successful titles and assessed their cleverly integrated points of diversion. Where Halo had its excellent Warthog and Ghost vehicular levels, and God of War had its enthralling mini-games, Epic has opted to take the established squad mechanic and continually flip it. "I can confirm that we have a very unique and interesting twist on the driver/gunner formula in the game," teased Bleszinski. "Here, deal with fast tactical action...in the evening... with air piranhas circling overhead waiting to eat you if you enter the darkness. Here, deal with fast tactical action... but all of your cover is getting blown to smithereens," he continues, pushing home the point. "Now figure out how you're going to take down a 500lb Boomer who doesn't even bother to take cover... or the little Wretches that climb on the ceiling and try to drop down behind you."

Gears of War will also boast a wide array of weaponry, based on Coalition, Locust, and abandoned leftovers, along with massively destructible environments and a wide variety of covering objects for players to destroy and/or use as tactical protection - though it should be noted that Locust Horde A.I. isn't likely to allow for much respite, especially as destructible cover and detailing is a distinctly two way street. Even so, players will be able to utilise desks, tables, pillars, chairs, vending machines, pianos, benches, newspaper stands, stoves, pretty much anything in order to transcend the mundanely obvious corner-to-corner approach. And immersion levels will be further boosted through the pressing tension of the game's eerie surroundings. "We've got tons of variety in the game and some spectacular locations," assures Bleszinski, keen to avoid the gaming cliches of dull corridor-based interiors and laughable lava cave exteriors. "A forest at night [where it's] raining...and something's out there stalking you...or a homeless camp beneath a bridge that's huddling away from the terrors of the night," he adds tantalisingly. "Not to mention the first time you witness the threatening beauty of the underground of the planet - The Hollow. It's quite the ride!" The fact that Epic has taken generally simplistic environmental opportunities and infused them with layers of tension and suspense to evoke a much more tangible sense of interactivity is looking like the right choice from an authenticity standpoint - something oft ignored by other studios that pack in the standard checklist of visual accoutrements without ever stopping to think 'why?' Gears of War

Another interesting game feature in Gears of War, and one that could prove incredibly important in coaxing complete immersion from the player, is that the game will only load during the Xbox 360's initial boot, the rest amazingly streaming directly from the disc - regardless of how long it's played. Halo and Half Life work on a similar dynamic, though their collective levels, while incredibly expansive through active loading, do eventually 'come to a close' and prompt a fresh loading pause. But Gears of War's uninterrupted gameplay could well become one of its most compellingly invisible aspects.

One point of contention with those gamers mulling over the finer points of Gears of War emerges through the decision to use an 'over-the-shoulder' viewpoint when embroiled in combat. While navigating environments, the gameplay runs as a standard third-person experience, viewing the characters from the rear. However, when consumed by the heat of action, players will need to rapidly adjust to an over-the-shoulder POV (Point of View) that, perhaps worryingly, blocks off a portion of the available screen. Again, Bleszinski is quick to allay any fears concerning the game camera by explaining the unusual action POV. "Generally speaking, when you're targeting [in Gears of War] the character covers up a similar amount of screen space [than] that you see in your average FPS game [First-Person Shooter], the gun is smaller than your normal shooter, but you've got the character's head there," offers Bleszinski. "Now, that said, when targeted you have a very tight FOV and a limited periphery. This is no accident; you can target and see better/gain accuracy, but at a cost." So, yet another cloying angle of atmosphere to add to an already crammed action package?

But for all the gathered expectation regarding Gears of War, Bleszinski is only human after all, and certainly susceptible to the typically human effects of prolonged hype and pressure. "I've never, ever seen a new IP [Intellectual Property] hyped this much by the publisher, the press, and the gamers," he notes. "No pressure...right?" That said, Epic and Bleszinski believe so completely in the product that they're absolutely convinced it will be the game that inspires that lauded "show my friend what my HD set-up and 360 can really do." reaction in its audience. And that in itself points Gears of War distinctly into 'killer app' territory. Whether it arrives there intact remains to be seen, of course, and impatient gamers hoping for a Gears taster before Emergence Day via an Xbox Live demo will have to suffer the waiting game like all those without Live accounts. Epic recently dated a 'huge announcement' regarding Gears of War through Bleszinski's related blog, but when the announcement duly arrived and only revealed the game's official release date, and not the scheduling of a Live demo, the company saw some disgruntled flare ups amongst its expectant fans. Again, another clear indicator of 'killer app' status for a title not even on general release. Gears of War

Curious gamers looking to piece together a vision of developmental markers for Gears of War should ponder the fact that Bleszinski cited Resident Evil as direct videogame inspiration, while also offering up HBO's intense WWII mini-series Band of Brothers as another, and the city of London as the game's main environmental source. Also, fans of the Live multiplayer experience may be a little disheartened to learn that Gears of War will arrive as "70-30 on single player versus multiplayer," which means Epic has admitted going primarily for "building this enormous roller coaster ride of a cinematic single-player experience." Though not abandoning the multiplayer component in its entirety, Bleszinski hammers his colours to the mast with a bold closing statement that most gamers will likely agree with as the saliva begins welling up in the back of their throats: "People come for the single player and stay for the multiplayer and co-op. It's as simple as that, and a similar thing could be said about graphics. They come for the graphics but they stay for the gameplay." Here, here!

Gears of War will blast onto the Xbox 360 and make its challenge for the 'killer app' mantle on the 12th of November 2006.