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Two new game consoles released in November–the powerful but long-delayed Sony PlayStation 3 and the motion-sensitive Nintendo Wii–dominated year-end media coverage of the video-game market. But in the eyes of many gamers and critics, the most important video game of 2006 wasn’t made for either of these machines. That game is Gears of War, made exclusively for Microsoft’s 13-month-old Xbox 360.

From a glance at the game’s packaging, this postapocalyptic sci-fi/horror adventure might appear to be merely the latest knockoff of Doom (1993) or Quake (1996), the early “first-person shooter” blockbusters. And in fact, the premise of Gears of War is familiar: a grim Rambo-like space marine and his squad mates battle a horde of homicidal monsters for control of a debris-strewn maze of rooms, corridors, and alleyways.

But this isn’t your older brother’s first-person shooter. Since the game’s November launch, publisher Microsoft Game Studios has sold more than two million copies, making it the fastest-selling game of 2006 and the fastest-selling Xbox title in the platform’s history. Dozens of gamer publications and communities, including Gamespot and IGN.com, have given it game-of-the-year honors. GameSpy calls it “the greatest looking video game ever made.” And under the hood, there’s a new software engine that promises to boost video-game realism across the industry, offering movie-quality action that may draw in new audiences wary of older games’ toylike artificiality.

After spending the past few days playing Gears of War, I’m starting to see why so many Xboxers have lined up to buy it. Epic Games, the title’s creator, has paid loving attention to the game’s graphics, which are the most jaw-droppingly luscious and crystalline in the industry right now, even compared with PlayStation 3 games. (For a taste, check out this Gears of War trailer and many other sequences from the game at YouTube.) The amazing graphics, together with darkly beautiful settings, compelling characters, realistically salty dialogue, and haunting music, are helping Epic transform the gratuitously violent first-person shooter into something more literate, elegant, even balletic.

Gamers who avoid shooters on principle, of course, may not be swayed. And this isn’t a game for the squeamish or for children–the Entertainment Software Review Board gave it an M rating, meaning you must be 17 years old to buy it, or even to view the game’s website. But it will certainly revive the interest of gamers who have tried, enjoyed, and eventually tired of other shooters.

Video games have come a long way in the 34 years since Atari’s Pong, but most still require a major act of suspended disbelief. Why can’t your boat sail past this invisible wall in the sea? Why can’t you crawl over that rock? Why does that slime-alien stand mindlessly in the middle of the hallway while you gun him down, only to have another equally stupid alien take his place? We aren’t supposed to ask such questions. The industry’s dirty secret is that the processing power added to consoles and PCs over the past several hardware generations has gone mostly toward shiny graphics because they’re easier to generate than fully navigable environments, realistic physics, smarter monsters, and interesting stories. So just shut up and enjoy the view.

But some gamers are beginning to question this bargain. “If the new consoles are built with a graphics-first mentality, how easy is it going to be to make games that stretch the boundaries of game logic and player freedom?” asks David Wong, author of the popular blog Pointless Waste of Time, in his widely read 2005 post A Gamer’s Manifesto. “We’re to the stage where it should be a minimum requirement in the game universe: rock should act like rock, air should act like air and humans should move like humans.”

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Tagged: Computing, Microsoft, video games, Nintendo Wii

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