'Gears of War' is next-gen at its best

The subterranean Locust race in Epic Games' "Gears of War" are on a mission to purge the planet of humans.
The subterranean Locust race in Epic Games' "Gears of War" are on a mission to purge the planet of humans.
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Less than one year into its lifecycle, Microsoft's Xbox 360 receives its first killer app — the kind of game that sells hardware. And the biggest surprise? Its name is not "Halo."

"Gears of War," a third-person shooter by Epic Games, delivers the first true next-generation experience. The visuals match anything the PlayStation 3 has to offer this holiday season, and it's on a system that is both readily available and whose high end model costs $200 less than the top-tier PS3 package.

"Gears of War" is a violent, bloody game. It's earns every bit of its Mature rating — the video game's industry's equivalent of the R — with buckets of blood and gore splashed all over the screen. Families looking for a communal game experience for their Xbox 360 are better served by Microsoft's "Viva Pinata," due out Nov. 9.

Gamers old enough to earn admission to "Gears of War" will find themselves trying to reclaim their planet, devastated after fourteen years of conflict with the Locust, a subterranean monster race.

The Locust, who rose from the core of the planet specifically to purge the planet of humans, are terrifying, brutal, and worst of all, plentiful. These creatures are stand-ins for the kinds of demons and devils that classical literature promises lurk beneath Earth's crust. And Marcus Fenix, the game's hero, must do whatever possible to save what's left of humanity.

Fortunately, human firepower is still enough to bring down these monsters. The best two weapons in the game are the Lancer, an assault rifle with a mounted chainsaw — a ridiculous concept that would never fly in real life, but makes for a great video game fodder — and the Hammer of Dawn, a satellite weapon that unleashes a searing attack from the heavens.

The action is seen from an over-the-shoulder perspective rather than the first-person view used in most shooters. This pulled back camera gives players a better view of the environment — crumbling metropolises and dank cave networks — which is integral for success.

"Gears of War" is not a run-and-gun style shooter, like "Halo." Running headlong into a nest of Locust is a good way to see Fenix drop to the ground with his insides on the outside. Instead, you'll need to look for cover — behind the safety of fallen stonework or bombed-out cars — before mounting counter-attacks. Epic terms this gameplay style "stop and pop," and its measured pacing works to create some fantastically tense moments. You'll find yourself weighing the odds between a desperate dive to a sure-fire shooting position and hanging back at a safe spot.

"Gears of War" offers online multiplayer gameplay over Xbox Live, splitting players into two teams in a variety of game modes. Warzone mode lets you destroy all the other players by any means necessary — a gameplay type known as "deathmatch."  Assasination mode tasks gamers with eliminating each team's leader and Execution mode awards a win to the team that manages to flatten every single member of the opposition at the same time.

You can also play the single-player portion of the game cooperatively with another player, which really changes the dynamic. Communication is the key to survival.

Hands down, "Gears of War" is the best-looking game for the Xbox 360 thus far — and it effortlessly matches anything seen on the PlayStation 3, due out Nov. 17. The ruined paradise of the human world and the nightmarish Locust are breathtakingly detailed.

"Gears of War" is the kind of escapism that can only be experienced via video games — to create this universe on film would break a studio's yearly budget. But after serving a digital tour of duty in "Gears of War," you understand why Hollywood's finest — Peter Jackson has a deal with Microsoft, Steven Spielberg is partnered with Electronic Arts — are so keen on realizing their visions in video games.

If you have an Xbox 360, "Gears" is a must-have. And if you're still sitting on the fence about which next-generation console to buy — Xbox 360 or PS3 — Gears of War makes the decision this holiday a no-brainer.