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TGS: Cranking the Gears of War

Though it wasn't playable on the Tokyo Game Show floor -- not even in the booth with other mature-rated games like Riot Act (Crackdown) and Dead Rising -- Microsoft was giving press a tease of Gears of War, their fall lineup's killer app. Alan Willard, a technical designer at Epic Games and a giant scruff of a man with a penchant for terse answers, walked us through a demo level gleefully pointing out areas of interest. For example, the gratuitous splattering of blood and gore that spits onto the screen after the equally gratuitous chainsaw-bayoneting was his handiwork. "I did that," he said proudly. And, if you're curious, it's a particle effect.

The game doesn't appear any more polished than its already shining E3 showing, though Willard insists they've been tweaking it, citing an increase of movement speed. We imagine the bulk of their time has been spent building levels and designing a great gaming experience to match the technical wizardry of Epic's own Unreal Engine 3. Indeed, the team spent what seems like a relatively brief (versus, say, Duke Nukem Forever) 18 months in full production and that included a switch from Unreal Engine 2 to 3. To further emphasize the quality of the engine, all in-game cinematics are produced in-engine instead of pre-rendered, giving the entire experience a cohesive feel.

He points out a clever reloading minigame, using a timed button press to save yourself a couple seconds and instantly reload. Time it perfectly, and you get a damage boost to go along with your instant reload. But, despite being a shooter, shooting isn't all you do in Gears. Cover is the name of this game. They've emphasized the cover mechanic for months, and continued to do so here. Even in the cinematic that opened the level, Marcus and crew were huddled behind a row of sandbags. The A button -- or, as Willard called it, the "all move" button -- handles almost everything: Seek cover, leave cover, run to cover. If that sounds simple, Willard illustrated the difficulty of the game, by dying several times in the demo ... and he continuously took cover when available. Guns-a-blazing won't get you far in Gears.

The demo revealed some interesting gameplay elements, including the ability to revive downed teammates. Like in EA's Army of Two, this is more of a necessity than an option, as the fights are tuned for a full squad. You'll need to follow the way-point and revive your teammate if you want to maintain a strategic balance. Like Army of Two, and Microsoft's vision of multiplayer gaming experience, Gears of War will have co-op play. The co-op experience plays differently for each character through the levels, creating a richer co-op experience, not to mention adding a significant amount of replayability to each level as well. Unfortunately, Willard only brought one screen/360. "What about split screen?!" Ooof, they only have one controller.

While we really would have liked to see Gears playable at TGS, they assured us the title would have a large presence at X06 this week. We're guessing Gears will be the bell of that ball, the way Blue Dragon was Microsoft's primary TGS title. We'll be on hand to let you know.

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