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Thankfully, the Xbox 360 has enough power to handle both advanced graphics and realistic game play. The World War II shooter Call of Duty 2, the most acclaimed Xbox 360 title of 2005, is a marvel of photorealism, storytelling, and historical accuracy. (See “Cinegames,” March-April 2006.) With Gears of War, Epic Games has achieved something just as grand: a game that awes you with the former glory of a ruined planet and simultaneously makes you feel the pain of the soldiers forced to risk their lives defending it.

The graphics in Gears of War stand out in part because they’re rendered using Unreal Engine 3, a game development toolkit and graphics engine created by Epic specifically for next-generation game consoles that can project hundreds of millions of polygons per frame–meaning, right now, just the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. In video games, objects are actually complex meshes formed from hundreds of thousands of tiny triangles. The Xbox 360’s three 3.2-gigahertz central processing units (CPUs) and its 500-megahertz graphics processing unit (GPU) allow it to render 500 million polygons per frame. (The original Xbox, by contrast, had a single 733-megahertz CPU and a 133-megahertz GPU and could generate only 2.1 million polygons per frame.) The PlayStation 3 has eight 3.2-gigahertz CPUs and a 700-megahertz GPU and can render a billion polygons per frame.

Unreal Engine 3 leverages this impressive processing power to produce startlingly detailed environments and characters; in Gears of War, you can see the stubble on the soldiers’ chins. Because such minutiae can be rendered in real time, there is almost no visual difference between actual game play and the pre-rendered “cut scenes” that provide plot background and link the game’s missions together. The jarring contrast between movielike cut scenes and far cruder game graphics has been an industry bugaboo for years, with Square Enix’s popular Final Fantasy series as one of the biggest offenders. But now that an entire game can look like a movie, I wouldn’t be surprised if many nongamers who are underwhelmed by the cartoonishness of games like Super Mario Bros. were drawn into the market.

At the moment, Epic’s Unreal Tournament 2007 is the only other game on the market that uses Unreal Engine 3. But many more are on the way: Electronic Arts, Sony Online Entertainment, and several other game makers have licensed the engine from Epic. The PlayStation 3 (PS3) supports Unreal Engine 3 and has more than enough power to run Gears of War, but there wouldn’t be much point: despite the PS3’s processing advantage, it lacks a video-scaling chip like the one in the Xbox 360. This chip takes games such as Gears of War that are produced at 720 vertical lines of resolution and makes them look like high-definition movies on HD screens, with 1,080 lines of resolution.

Not all of the Xbox 360’s processing power goes toward graphics, of course: a good measure is reserved for game mechanics. In single-player mode, the player takes on the role of Marcus Fenix, a terse, muscle-bound former “gear” in the Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG) army, which is attempting to rid its bombed-out home planet, Sera, of a bloodthirsty subterranean race called the Locust Horde. Fenix is in prison for ignoring orders in an attempt to save his father’s life. But as the Horde overruns the prison, Fenix is sprung by an old squad mate and pressed back into action.

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Tagged: Computing, Microsoft, video games, Nintendo Wii

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