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Gears of War is a third-person shooter that places emphasis on using cover to avoid taking damage while moving towards enemy forces. The game uses a number of weapons, but predominately featured is the Lancer Assault Rifle, which has a mounted chainsaw bayonet that can deal melee damage at close range. Playable characters can carry two primary weapons, grenades, and a smaller, secondary weapon such as the Snub Pistol. Weapons are reloaded with a tap of the RB button, and a second tap within a given time (active reload) rewards the player with a damage bonus. However, failing to perform the "Active Reload" correctly will cause the gun to become momentarily jammed while the player's character fixes it. When the player takes damage, the "Crimson Omen", a red cog representing the player's health gauge, will fade into the screen, becoming more defined with larger amounts of damage. The player can seek cover to recover their health, but if they take too much damage, they will become incapacitated. Once this occurs, a skull will fill the center void of the omen. The player can then be revived by a teammate, executed by an enemy, or remain incapacitated until they "bleed out", dying from blood loss.
The game features a five-act campaign that can be played alone or cooperatively with another player. The campaign focuses on COG Army soldiers Marcus Fenix and Dominic Santiago and their efforts in the Delta Squad to wipe out the Locust forces on their planet Sera. The player is joined by AI teammates that will help fight the Locust. Certain sections of the campaign feature two paths that can be taken as selected by the first player. If there is a second player, their character will automatically take the other. The campaign can be played at three difficulty settings in the first game. From easiest to hardest, these are "Casual", "Hardcore" and "Insane". The "Insane" difficulty is unlocked once the game is beaten on either the "Casual" or "Hardcore" difficulty.
Multiplayer Gears of War features up to four-on-four competitive gameplay, with teams representing the Gears or the Locust. Players must execute downed foes, otherwise these will revive after a time. In Assassination matches, the team's leader is the only one that can track the other team's leader and pick up new weapons, after which teammates can pick them up, with the goal to eliminate the foe's leader. An Xbox 360 patch added the "Annex" mode, which is similar to King of the Hill, in which players must try to control a shifting control point for a certain amount of time to win. The PC version of Gears introduced "King of the Hill", a mode not present in the Xbox 360 version, which uses a fixed control point but varies the conditions on which it is controlled.