By Marc Saltzman
Gannett News Service
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Despite all the media attention surrounding the two new gaming consoles -- Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Wii -- the hottest action game of the holidays is a Microsoft Xbox 360 exclusive.
Selling more than a million units in its first two weeks of release, Microsoft Game Studios' "Gears of War" is an action-heavy sci-fi shooter that delivers an exhilarating and creepy experience for players 17 and older.
Unlike most other shooters, "Gears of War" cannot be won by aimlessly running through environments and unleashing firepower on the bad guys. Instead, this slower-paced thriller places a heavy emphasis on using items for cover and exchanging blows with the vicious alien race known as the Locust Horde.
While the story and dialogue aren't going to win any awards, the game's strengths lie in the tense action, incredibly smart artificial intelligence, and multiplayer modes on the same television or via the Xbox Live pay-for-play online service ($50 a year). According to Microsoft, more than 10 million "Gears of War" game-play sessions took place during the first two weeks of the game's release.
In "Gears of War," you assume the role of a futuristic soldier for the Coalition of Ordered Governments, who joins teammates to rid the world of nightmarish alien creatures through tactical warfare.
Played from a third-person "over the shoulder" camera perspective, you must carefully assess the indoor or outdoor areas for cover, find ammo and health packs to sustain the next fight, and then take on the enemies until the coast is clear to continue to the next area.
Weapons range from pistols and shotguns to grenades and assault rifles (complete with a chain-saw bayonet for a gory close encounter with the Locust Horde) to the Hammer of Dawn, a weapon that communicates with a satellite hovering above the earth and beams down a deadly laser strike that can level buildings.
Taking cover is as easy as pressing the "A" button on the controller when near a solid object; your soldier will crouch and press his body up against the car or stone wall. Press the analog stick to the left or right and you'll peek around to assess the threat. Press "A" again to re-enter the free-form mode to walk, roll and find another hiding place.
With dark levels and realistic weather effects, the game offers plenty of atmosphere, adding to the wonderful sense of anxiety and excitement -- especially while playing the game alone and with the lights dimmed. In fact, "Gears of War" is easily the best-looking Xbox 360 game to date, thanks to its photorealistic characters, detailed environments and special effects.
Gamers who prefer to play with others rather than against computer-controlled components won't be disappointed with "Gears of War."
Two friends can play the single-player game cooperatively on the same television (split-screen view) or via the Xbox Live service. A handful of head-to-head battle modes are also included in the game, including Warzone, pitting humans against the Locusts, and Assassination, where the goal is to kill the leader of the opposing team.
Xbox 360 fans in search of a gorgeous but gory game, and one that combines tactical action with horror elements, will love fighting though this challenging adventure. Play through the game once and it unlocks an incredibly difficult mode, with even meaner enemies.
While "Gears of War" costs $59.99, a limited Collector's Edition version can be found for $69.99, which includes an embossed metal box; a hard-bound art book; and bonus DVD featuring a Making of War" documentary, an "Art of Gears of War" trailer and the MTV program, "Gears of War: The Race to E3."
"Gears of War" features photorealistic characters, detailed environments and special effects.
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