Fans of war games seem to break down into two types: armchair generals and couch-bound privates.
The generals like to control vast forces as they sweep across continents, orchestrating the ebb and flow of rival armies over the course of years or decades. Most of them play computer strategy games like "Command & Conquer" and "Age of Empires."
The privates play from the grunt's-eye view. In video games like "Brothers in Arms" and "Halo," you control one guy — or perhaps a team of three or four — with a front-row seat to the bloodshed, and your goal usually boils down to just getting out alive.
Most video war games are more visceral than their PC counterparts, pumping up the adrenaline with a seemingly endless flow of life-or-death showdowns.
The settings may change, from a postapocalyptic future to World War II to the Civil War, but the game remains the same: Kill or be killed.
—"Gears of War" (Microsoft (MSFT), for the Xbox 360, $59.99): On the battle-ravaged planet of Sera, humanity is making its last stand against the vicious Locust Horde. These monsters come not from space but from underground, and it's always a shock when one emerges from under your feet.
"Gears" takes an interesting approach to combat, emphasizing the necessity of finding cover as you explore its blasted environments. Much of the time you're playing a high-tech game of hide-and-seek with your foes; players who are used to running and gunning won't last long.
You do get some very cool weapons, most notably the Lancer, an assault rifle with a chainsaw mounted on the barrel. Most enemies won't let you get close enough to use it, but it does create a satisfying splatter when you do.
"Gears of War" may not break much new ground in its genre, but it's the best-looking shoot-`em-up ever, and one that sets a new standard for the Xbox 360. Three-and-a-half stars.
—"Call of Duty 3" (Activision (ATVI), for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99; Xbox, PlayStation 2, Wii , $49.99): The latest installment of Activision's epic World War II series drops you right in the middle of the Normandy Breakout, the post-D-Day Allied campaign to push out of the Normany peninsula and into the rest of France.
Almost immediately, you're hurled into an intense firefight in the cemetery at St. Lo, with bombs exploding, ammunition flying and bodies dropping all around. It's bone-rattling, and it's worth the price of admission, even if the rest of the game doesn't quite live up to it.
Like "Gears of War," "Call of Duty 3" places some emphasis on finding cover; racing across an open field is a good way to get picked off.
There's a decent variety of missions, like rescuing hostages or identifying targets for airstrikes, but some of the new features — like an awkward hand-to-hand combat mode — aren't very exciting.
One has to wonder how many more World War II games the market can bear, but "Call of Duty 3" is a worthy addition. Three stars.
—"Civil War: A Nation Divided" (Activision, for the Xbox 360, $49.99; PlayStation 2, $39.99): It's puzzling that there aren't more action games set during the War Between the States.
"A Nation Divided," which sports an endorsement from the History Channel, may demonstrate one problem: It's tough to reload your musket while an ornery rebel is attacking you with a saber.
"Civil War" consists of 12 famous battles, from Bull Run in 1861 to Petersburg in 1865, divided into two campaigns, one for the Union, one for the Confederacy.
The dirty, bedraggled appearance of most of the fighters creates a sense of grim realism, but that's offset by the fact that your character is a nearly superhuman killing machine.
The goals in each battle are murky — a few times, after I'd slaughtered dozens of opponents, there were no hints to what I needed to do next. One-and-a-half stars.