This is the big one for Microsoft. Since there's no new Halo to be released in the near future, Gears Of War is the biggest game Microsoft will release this year. Mammoth in scope and beautiful to behold, the third person shooter is expected to sell well over a million copies by Christmas.
But beautiful-looking games have been clunkers in the past. Is Gears worth the high price of $60? At a recent Microsoft event in Manhattan, the first thing I did was to try the online multiplayer portion of the game. I wasn't any good at multiplayer, probably because I generally don't like shooters all that much. Still, I can tell when a game is a step forward, and Gears is just that. You won't get any clues to where your opponents are in multiplayer. That's part of what makes it thrilling. Also, Gears feels more real than most shooters. The vibration mechanism makes the controller shake with each shot fired, as if a gun were being held in your hands. At one point, you'll have to cross train tracks to shoot. But one critic at the event moved so slowly, he was killed by the oncoming train. Not only do you have to look out for online opponents, but oncoming traffic too.
When I played the single player story mode, I was even more impressed. Sure, your cartoon-y characters are oversized, as if everyone was cut from the mold of The Thing from The Fantastic Four comic books. And, sure, the script isn't all that well written, although it does give you a feeling of excitement. I do love the voice of the main character who's been trapped in a cell for years, Marcus Fenix. (Get it? Marcus is like a phoenix rising from the ashes.) He is a big-voiced but brooding tough guy, like Sawyer from the TV show Lost.
From the first moment in Gears, you feel terror and horror. You're trapped in a cage-like prison cell with monsters on the top bars trying to get you. When a fellow soldier frees you, you have the choice of going right into battle or training for the missions ahead. Even during training, Gears is not that simple to playyou'll jump at the fearsome sights you see. The music is often foreboding, like Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells" from the original Exorcist. At its best, Gears Of War is a kind of terrifying Indiana Jones adventure, a scary roller coaster ride that also happens to be a pretty darn challenging shooter.
As you play, you'll learn that the whole planet has been taken over by ugly monsters who've come from some forgotten realm under the earth. Members of the Locust Horde also look like The Thing, if The Thing married an ugly slug, that is. Spidery monsters, awesome in size as they fill the screen and dwarf you, are even more difficult to slay than the members of the Locust Horde.
Overall, this post-apocalyptic world is made up of teamwork with your fellow soldiers. After all, you can't fight these miscreants alone. And you do need help. It's the artificial intelligence programmed in the game code that bedeviled me and makes the game ever more challenging as I proceeded. That Locust Horde is very smart and canny. If you don't keep moving, and if you don't take the proper cover, and if you don't shoot to protect yourself, you will not survive. Finally, Gears is all about the cliché that most every adventure game is about: the goal is to save the world. Much of the time, and despite a weak-ish script, the makers of the game have twisted that cliché enough to make you believe saving the world is actually a new idea in games. Hillary Clinton. George W. Bush. John McCain. Nancy Pelosi. Here are the controllers. Now play. And make nice.
When I was a kid, Marvel and DC Comics were bastions of dreams. Not only were the superheroes amazing and like friends, so were the people who made the comics. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were larger than life, and when they'd write something in the letter columns of the comics, I'd hang on every word. Later, I read that Lee and Kirby didn't like each other much, and that Kirby didn't get all the money he deserved from Lee and Marvel. Marvel changed the world of superheroes, but it didn't transform one eternal maxim: money changes everything.
Still, the beauty of comic books is the same beauty found within all books. They may not be considered literary, but they do stoke the fires of your imagination. They let you dream the good dreams of power and ethics (and occasionally, the bad dream of vengeance) even as they offer over-the-top drama and adventure. If you love the world of comic books or simply want to remember the halcyon days of youth when comics made you believe you could be a superhero in real life, MARVEL ULTIMATE ALLIANCE is the game for you.
And if you're still a teen, I envy you. While you still love to read graphic novels featuring Marvel superheroes, Activision lets you play as Marvel's greatest characters in 3D in a story-rich, mission-filled game that reminds me of the roller coaster ride featured in the best episodes of TV's 24. Here, Dr. Doom and his super-villain minions have united to wreak havoc upon everyone from Thor to Spider-Manand the universe beyond. You and about 20 Marvel superheroes have got to stop this axis of evil. While it's not easy, you'll have a hoot of a time trying to thwart them in this game that will engage you for about 30-40 hours.
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