Although Halo 3 has been shrouded in rumour and mystery, what is certain is that Gears of War will be Microsoft's flagship title for 2006. Since its announcement a year ago there has been precious little information, but this year's E3 opens the gates a little wider and we've got all the juicy news and shots for you right now - the enemy classes of the Locust horde, the weapon control systems, team commands, how co-op play will work and what Epic is doing to reinvent the use of tactical cover.
For those new to Gears of War, it's a squad-based, third-person, sci-fi shooter set on the human-inhabited world of Sera. It uses the glorious Unreal Engine 3 and is developed by Epic, masters of that technology. Sera is a hollow planet and yes, it's a bug planet, but until now the alien Locusts have been contained beneath its crust. But during a world conflict over dwindling energy supplies (the Pendulum Wars) that reduces the beautiful cities of Sera to gothic ruin, the Locusts break through the crust. They swarm planetside, reducing the already ruined cities to a state of destruction rarely seen outside of Walthamstow and decimate the human population, answering anyone wondering how life could possibly get any worse.
You control Marcus Fenix, leader of a four-man Delta Company squad and it's your job to stamp out the Locust Horde as part of the COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments) forces. And that brings you up to date with practically all that was known until now...
It's becoming clear that Gears of War will be far from a run-and-gun affair and it sounds like we can expect a Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter balance of stealth and action. It's all about atmosphere, and creeping dread. Locusts can burst out of the crust anywhere, so strategy is the order of the day - constantly manipulating your squad and environment to survive an incredible variety of enemy types and situations. As Cliff Blezinski, Epic's lead designer tells us: "The enemy is bigger and stronger and you can't just take bullets in this game. You've got to earn your victories, which means moving while covered and wearing down your foe". First and foremost you have to learn to control your team, particularly in the heat of a firefight. Your almost constant companion is Dom, and often you'll be joined by two additional squad members. Dom will also be the character played by any friends joining you for the excellent cooperative play mode.
To control your squad you issue commands via a streamlined sequence that Epic hopes will quickly become second nature. Simply hold down the Left bumper on the Xbox 360 controller and hit context-sensitive buttons to issue orders. Blezinski reveals that you can order AI soldiers "to cease fire, open fire on a target, move to a location, or regroup." He goes on to explain the context-sensitive 'point of interest' operation: "If you press Y at any point in the game, you'll check on your squad-mates with a camera. If there's a point you should pay attention to - for example, if an AI squad-mate says, 'Marcus, get to that door,' then Y will turn your view to that door."
In practice this innovative mechanic simplifies the intense combat situations that typify Gears of War, and untangles potentially complex tactical commands so that you remain completely within the game, fighting for your life instead of fighting with your gamepad. Often you'll need to use team commands to operate flanking moves, sending in a soldier as a distraction while you sneak behind an enemy and crack open his slimy exoskeleton with your Lancer Rifle's secondary chainsaw mode.