If you want to pose an uncomfortable question to a member of Microsoft’s Xbox team, ask them what they would most like the Xbox 360 to be remembered for: Gears of War or Kinect. On the one hand, Epic’s third-person shooter series has not only managed to sustain the machine’s relevance to a bevy of core gamers, it has also provided something of a developmental road map beyond Halo. On the other, the company wants the machine to pull in families whose gaming sensibilities are more likely to be informed by Farmville than Fenix.

Such is the tightrope Microsoft walks when pitching the Xbox 360 in 2011. Its Xbox Showcase event in San Francisco on Friday (NZDT) erred more on the gamer side of the equation – but not by much.

Here are some of the more notable titles on show.

Gears of War 3

No campaign content from Epic’s third installment in the Gears saga was demonstrated but showcase attendees got a first sneak peek at the multiplayer beta destined for public hands in mid-April. Unlike the scheduled beta which will offer four maps, six maps were available. Epic is currently soliciting votes to determine which maps will be included.

Map tastes are a subjective beast, but our favourite was Trenches – a tight, personal affair that rarely gives players the opportunity to hang back in the five a side matches. With clear shots typically unavailable at any significant range, players are forced to get up close and personal. What eventuated in our matches was a cover-leapfrogging war of attrition where players who mastered the sawn-off shotgun (one of the few weapons available) tended to prevail.

The map especially sorted the wannabes from the pros in this respect – the former resorting to kamikaze-like crabbing rushes towards waiting players and hoping to avoid incoming fire as they did so. The more skilled used equal parts aim and aggressive flanking to ensure engagements were conducted on their own terms. With the shotgun capable of dispatching a victim in a single shot, and a lengthy reload awaiting those who missed, the proficient didn’t always shoot first – but they did shoot straighter.

Melee combat is equally punishing on the inept. Like the shotgun, there’s an enforced delay between attacks, you won’t be seeing too many people chasing one another and flailing about like headless chickens. Character motions are ponderous and weighty enough that if you miss, your opponent likely won’t. A couple of good hits will put foes down, with the option of performing a gruesome finisher if you so please.

The finishers – and whether they’re used – plays a significant part in the game. On a superficial level, by performing them and gaining more experience you’ll unlock more moves. There’s a lot to be said for expanding your repertoire beyond merely ramming your boot through the skull of your prostrate adversary. Players can beat foes with their own limbs, attach frags to them, and generally do things bound to stir the interest of the censorship authority.

Other maps in the play rotation offered slightly more open play opportunities. The Thrashball level offered plenty of ambush potential for players who usually avoid short-range combat. With its attendant high killcount, the map quickly highlighted the wrinkles in the team deathmatch mode. Teams have a pool of lives they expend meaning the overly bold are as much a liability as the gun-shy to a team’s chances of success. Getting yourself killed a lot batters your team’s prospects, and some real tension creeps in once the life limit is reached and player numbers dwindle.

With two previous games in the series under their belt, Gears 3’s multiplayer certainly feels polished and balanced. The ballistics in game (how precisely you can bring the sights to bear, how long it takes to put someone down) appears to be tuned to a very fine degree.

However one legacy from the very first game, the sprint function, isn’t translating smoothly. Back in the first Gears, it was an atmospheric, cinematic addition – for campaign play. In multiplayer the ability to bear down fast in a straight line with minimal lateral motion is a bit of a liability. Not everyone would agree and some might even argue it’s a signature of the series, but in action it feels clunky and staccato: Charge; stop; correct course; charge; stop; correct course; repeat.

Homefront

Kaos Studios’ Call of Duty-inspired clone has seen no shortage of marketing investment from THQ abroad. However with the release looming, the game doesn’t look like it’s going to measure up to the hype.

The opening passages of the game borrow stylistically from Half-Life: you’re taken on a bus ride through an opening act that gives you ample visceral material to set aside any geopolitical discomfort and start killing the unified Korean invaders with abandon. It’s powerful stuff – at least for American audiences.

However Gordon Freeman’s fateful ride was a more subtle affair than this. From the moment you’re brutally assaulted and locked into your prison escort, the exposition is piled on thick. Everywhere you glance out the window, people are being held at gunpoint. A captive attempts to run and is gunned down before your eyes – a garish spattering of blood splashes on the screen in front of you. Driving past a corner you see two parents indiscriminately executed in front of their own wailing child.

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