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Video-Game Realism Shifts into High Gear

Gears of War, for the Xbox 360, sets a new standard for stark beauty and authentic game mechanics.
January 2, 2007

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, 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.”

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.

The player can send Fenix almost anywhere in the game environment that a real marine weighed down with body armor and weapons could go, including scrambling over rubble piles and smashing through doors. But if the player is smart, Fenix spends more time diving for cover than traveling. Gun battles are the heart of Gears of War, and the best way to defeat the Horde is to put Fenix behind a concrete barrier, stick his gun–and as little of his head as possible–around the edge, pick off the nearest Locust drones, then dash to another hiding place. But the drones, too, are using cover, which forces the player to think carefully about the chesslike geography of each firefight. Snap decisions are also required, since the Horde can switch to charging, retreating, or flanking maneuvers as the situation warrants.

Technically, Gears of War is a “third-person shooter”: you have control over Fenix’s movements and actions, but you don’t see through his eyes. Rather, you watch him from behind, as if through a movie camera. That gives you a more visceral connection to the character, especially when your clumsiness with the controls gets him killed. (The Locusts literally blow him to pieces.) The third-person technique is put to more amusing effect when the player Fenix crouches and runs at the same time, a maneuver called the “roadie run.” The camera bumps along behind him with a shaky movement that has led some gamers to nickname the maneuver the “CNN run.”

Fenix’s weapons are standard issue, except for his delightfully malevolent Lancer machine gun, which has a built-in chainsaw for close-quarters combat, and the Hammer of Dawn, a devastating satellite-based particle beam that can be activated when Fenix is under open sky. While many video games are devilishly hard to beat even at a beginner’s difficulty level, these powerful weapons help Gears of War players of all levels make steady progress–as long as they don’t mind being killed and returning to the last saved checkpoint every few minutes.

While I’m not a rabid gamer and haven’t tested every title out there, I can honestly say that I have never played a more immersive, heart-racing, and pleasantly challenging game. Gears of War does for the first-person-shooter genre what HBO’s The Sopranos did for gangster shows, leavening the inevitable violence with new drama and intelligence, along with a big dose of old-fashioned adrenaline. It also raises the bar for the rest of the industry. Competing game developers will now have to figure out how to make their universes more textured, realistic, and responsive, while at the same time giving players more freedom to do what comes naturally–and to invent their own strategies.

An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the PlayStation 3’s output is limited to 720 lines of vertical resolution. In fact, it can play high-definition video with a full 1,080 lines of resolution. But on the PlayStation 3, games such as Resistance: Fall of Man that (like Gears of War) are produced with 720 lines of resolution are displayed at that same resolution, whereas the Xbox 360 contains a video-scaling chip called Ana that stretches 720-pixel images into HD-quality, 1,080-line images.

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