GameFile: 'Gears Of War,' A Game-Playing Ape, 'Drunken Mayor' And More

'Gears' to be flagship title of Xbox 360's holiday catalog.

Who leaves his stylish shades anywhere he wants and walks away, knowing they'll be there when he gets back? Game designer Cliffy B does.

Cliff Bleszinski — he of the fashionably messed hair and youthfully profane blog, and star of the spring MTV special devoted to the blockbuster Xbox 360 game he's overseeing, "Gears of War" — might just be that confident. Or he might just be that cavalier.

Which of those qualities makes a man not worry about his baubles? Maybe that's just how you get when, in a roomful of Christmas-slated Xbox 360 titles being previewed for reporters, your game makes the rest of the room's lineup look like it was designed for Xbox 285.

"I'm not shooting for 2 million," Bleszinski said at one point as he worked the room and came by to trash a recent 2 million-selling game that he didn't enjoy playing. "I'm shooting for 6 to 8."

"Gears of War" is so good that Bleszinski doesn't sound obnoxious when he says that. It also doesn't hurt that Cliffy B is a gamer's game designer, one who is so eager to talk about any and every game he's playing that his enthusiasm and bravado make him seem more like someone who's making it big than someone cashing in.

Bleszinski's game, designed by his team at Epic and due for release November 12, is set to be the flagship title of the 360's holiday catalog. It stars heavily armored future soldier Marcus Phoenix in a big gun vs. bigger alien game of third-person combat.

Little more needs to be explained about tone than the fact that a chain saw takes the place of a bayonet on some of the game's most pulverizing weapons. The game is designed to be badder and brawnier than any other game in a medium bulging with badness and brawn. And it is produced with a slickness that drops colors out of combat and drops the camera to a shaky knee-high position when the character runs really fast. It's got style and detail.

The game is red meat designed to be easily chewed. The controls are simplified, the A button triggering sprints, rolls and ducks for cover and, in multiplayer, keeping one's heart beating when the character is downed and waiting for an ally to provide medical support.

The gameplay pace is one thing at a time. Run. Take cover. Lean out from behind a wall. Fire away. Think not of frenetic chaos; think of controlled controls.

"There's not a lot of twin sticks," Bleszinski said, meaning his game won't require much simultaneous use of two controller thumbsticks, which often alienates gaming neophytes. Patting his head and rubbing his stomach to elaborate, he adds, "There's not a lot of this."

Months of polish await the game. And Bleszinski promises to address the complaint that the gray character tones, especially in the environment of a particularly dark and stormy level, make it hard to tell friend from frag-target.

But there's another thing that might be off about Bleszinski's bombastic showing. It's that talk of millions. Two million? Six million? The big figure of the holiday season might instead be 200, as in, why does the PlayStation 3 cost $200 more than the Xbox 360 when the 360 can do games like this?

That's the question Microsoft hopes gamers will find themselves asking come that moment when PS3 and Xbox 360 are both available in stores.

Even though Microsoft brought the original Xbox to market one year after the PlayStation 2, it brought its 360 a year before PS3, a move that at best dented but came far short of breaching the PS2 juggernaut. Releasing the 360 early brought new risk of getting outmuscled a year later by a theoretically more-powerful PS3. But Microsoft's 360 strategy was designed to exploit the gamer-friendly truism that developers squeeze better results from a console in each subsequent year of a machine's existence.

Seventh-year PS2 games boast graphics few gamers would have thought possible if they only had the first-year PS2 games to judge by. So maybe those second-year Xbox 360 games could look as good or even better than first-year PS3 games, even if the PS3 proves to have a better engine under its hood. That is Microsoft's gamble. "Gears of War" could very well be part of that payoff.

None of the other games at Microsoft's holiday preview presented as likely a distraction from PS3 as "Gears of War." That's not to say the rest of the lineup looked bad, just that "Gears" turned heads like nothing else in the room.

The Microsoft-published "Crackdown" looks like the most richly detailed "Grand Theft Auto"-style open-world crime game yet. That's a testament to the 360's power, as is the fact that this open world can be played by two players cooperatively. But that open-world sprawl requires the graphic detail to be spread broadly, keeping any single glimpse of the screen from eliciting a dropped jaw.

Microsoft's other big holiday titles for 360 will be the kid-friendly "Viva Piñata" and the racing game "Forza Motorsport 2." Third parties will support the system with heavyweight titles such as "Call of Duty 3," "Tony Hawk's Project 8" and "Splinter Cell: Double Agent," though many are expected to hit PS3 as well. E3 watchers who remember that Microsoft also showed off the role-playing game "Mass Effect" and the story-driven action game "Too Human" should note that neither were showcased last week and are not likely to ship until 2007 (see " 'Paper Mario,' Clumsy Sonic, Male Cheerleaders Among E3 Hopefuls").

So it falls onto "Gears of War." Maybe that's why Cliffy has to be so amped about his game, so confident and so cavalier. The dice have been rolled, and the bet has been placed. Microsoft placed it. And it's on him.

No pressure, Cliffy. And don't forget your glasses.

More from the world of video games:

Viral videos dot the Internet, but seldom are the stories behind them well-trafficked. Recently a video featuring an ape who could play "Pac-Man" did the rounds. Around 300,000 people watched it on YouTube. But who was that ape? A GameFile investigation reveals that the primate is a 25-year-old bonobo ape named Kanzi who now lives on a reservation at the Great Ape Trust in Des Moines, Iowa. The clip was extracted from an early-'90s Japanese documentary called "Kanzi: An Ape of Genius," which demonstrated the ape's linguistic skills, said to be equivalent to a 2-and-a-half-year-old child. Kanzi's official bio notes that he "has also demonstrated his musical skills, having played with Sir Paul McCartney and Peter Gabriel." What it doesn't note is whether scientists have determined whether his "Pac-Man" skills are also equivalent to those of a 2-and-a-half-year-old child — or to those of Paul McCartney. ...

An early candidate for 2006's most bizarre part of a video game has to be "Drunken Mayor." This is a mini-game in the fall PSP title "Work Time Fun," which is being shorthanded appropriately as "WTF." Borrowing liberally from the mini-game-stuffed "WarioWare" games from Nintendo, "WTF" presents players with a battery of simplistic challenges. "WTF" focuses primarily on activities that would not seem to make for fun mini-games, like putting the caps on pens in a pen factory or sorting chickens by gender. The game also includes an even odder set of bonus features, including a timer for cooking ramen noodles and a "Handy Light" mode that makes the PSP screen blank and bright so it can be used as a flashlight. Added to this package is that "Drunken Mayor" mode, which must be the first first-person mayor game ever, or at least the first in which the mayor is tipsy and must manage to stabilize himself for a day full of ribbon-cutting, followed by more and more drinking.

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