The game has achievements for finishing each of the five acts on each of the three difficulties, and they stack, so if you beat an act on hardcore, you get the casual points, as well. It only seems to keep track of what difficulty setting you're on when you finish the act, so all this switching around won't cause any trouble on that front, either. The game's achievements are pretty good, with a smart mix of points you'll get for simply playing through the game and some more esoteric ones, like points for playing as Dom in co-op, points for perfectly reloading your weapon many times in a row, doing well online, and so on. None of the points seem that far fetched, but you also won't have the full thousand during your first couple of days with the game, either.
While the campaign is fine and good alone, it's even better when you're playing with another player. You can do so via a split-screen or over Xbox Live, and the good news is that you can continue the campaign from where you've played in the single-player, so you can use any mix of single or cooperative play to get through without having to replay missions. The second player takes on the role of Dom, and the game is both more entertaining and significantly easier when playing with a partner. That's because when players die in co-op, they can be revived, provided they haven't been blown to bits or their deaths don't take place during one of the few times when the team splits up, separating the two human players. Online, the co-op behaves quite smoothly, and the graphics in split-screen mode appear to be just as good as they are when you're playing alone. About the only negative aspect of co-op play is that if a player drops out of an online game, the other player is forced to quit back to the main menu. A more seamless drop-in/drop-out setup would have been cool.
The game's online options make for some really exciting team-based gameplay.
A big part of making any shooter memorable is the design of its weapons. Gears of War has some very satisfying weaponry that really make the game stand out. The machine gun you're going to use for most of the game is the Lancer, and in addition to it being a fast-firing death dealer, it also has a unique melee attack in the chainsaw bayonet. Yes, a machine gun with a chainsaw mounted to the bottom of it is just as awesome as it sounds, though since most of the enemies are content to hide behind cover and mow you down if you attempt to get close, you don't get to use it as often as you might like. But when you do, it's a terrific display of great, splashy blood effects. The other weapons in the game aren't quite as flashy, as you'll get a standard sniper rifle, shotgun, rocket launcher, some grenades, and so on. But you'll also get to use something called the Hammer of Dawn, which is an orbital satellite that beams down hot, fiery death from above when you paint a target. But the catch is that the satellites have to be lined up above your position and you have to be outside for it to work, so it's only available in a few very specific situations during the campaign. You can carry four different weapons, but you'll always have slots reserved for a pistol and for grenades, so you have to make choices about which two main weapons you'll carry around with you.
Another really cool facet of the gameplay is that there's a trick to reloading your weapon. By default, reloads take a set amount of time and aren't anything flashy. But if you look just below the gun indicator on the screen, you'll see a line sweeping across a bar with a couple of different colors on it. That's the trick. A button press stops the meter. If you stop it in the gray area, the weapon reloads faster. If you stop it in the tiny white zone, you'll reload and all the bullets you just fed into your weapon will do more damage. But if you miss and hit it in the black, the gun jams and takes even longer to reload. It's a fascinating risk-versus-reward scenario that isn't difficult to master, but when you're under fire in a tense situation, you're still likely to screw it up now and then.
In addition to the single-player and co-op play, Gears of War has a team-based multiplayer mode for up to eight players. The four-on-four action is also round-based with no respawns, though like in the co-op game, you can revive other players when they go down. On the other side, though, that means you need to pump a lot more rounds into your enemies after they go down, just to make sure they stay down. Or, alternately, you can run up on their downed body and hit the X button, which delivers a very satisfying life-ending boot to your foe's head. For as much fun as the weapons are in single-player, they're actually more exciting here. The Hammer of Dawn becomes a pretty hilarious addition to the game, and you'll get to use that chainsaw more frequently against unsuspecting players thanks to the way the maps offer multiple ways to get to the same location. The key to multiplayer is to never work alone so that you can always have someone around to revive you and vice versa. Two players rolling up on one player usually (though certainly not always) results in the single player getting decimated. One of the other players may go down, but that's nothing a revival won't fix. The game's 10 maps offer a good variety, and you can mix the action up a bit by changing out the weapons that appear in the map. You can play in three different modes. Warzone is a standard team deathmatch. Assassination puts one player in the leader role and the other three players must fight as protectors. Execution forces you to kill opposing players yourself--if you let them sit there and bleed, they can hammer the A button to revive themselves. With a good number of maps and exciting action, this game appears to have some longevity to it online. If you like, you can also play over a LAN via system link, or locally--though local multiplayer is limited to two players, which isn't too exciting.
A shooter is only as good as its weapons, and Gears of War has a couple of really outstanding guns in it.
Consider Gears of War to be the game that raised the bar for how console games should look from here on out. The character models are thick and look outstanding. The gray, war-torn environments are nicely varied throughout the game, and the game is full of amazing standout visual moments, such as a train sequence where you see that the sky is full of ink left behind by flying Locust enemies, blocking your view of the stars just enough to prevent you from busting out the Hammer of Dawn. Or, when you get to an underground mine and see a lot of molten, glowing lava all around you. Or, anytime you get to use the chainsaw on anything, ever. Or, the way the camera gets down low and starts shaking like a wartime documentary whenever you start running. It all looks absolutely amazing, from the animation to the game's over-the-top blood effects.
The game also runs at a very steady frame rate during gameplay. The cutscenes, however, are rendered in real time, and when the action really gets heated in some of the sequences, the visuals chop up. The music in Gears of War is appropriately cinematic and really helps carry the action-movie style that the game is shooting for. The dialogue also gives off an action-movie vibe, mainly because most of it is totally meatheaded. The COG soldiers aren't scientists--they're dumb, strong soldier boys that are at home when they're behind the trigger. As a result, almost all of the dialogue is appropriately gruff and filled with the sort of "let's rock!" enthusiasm that you'd expect from a team of hardcore shooters. The weapons are also enhanced by great sound effects. The squish of flesh being ripped apart by the chainsaw, in particular, is outstanding.
Gears of War is a game that capitalizes on all of the promises made by the next generation of gaming. It looks more than a few steps beyond what consoles have been doing to this point, and the gameplay is supremely fulfilling from start to finish in all of its various modes. While there have certainly been plenty of similar shooters before it, the game's great weapons, amazing graphics, and absolutely thrilling action make it stand out from the pack in a big, big way.