Love it or loathe it, Gears of War has come to define what this generation of gaming is all about. Whether one extols the virtues of competitive gaming and the Xbox Live model that had Gears at its vanguard, or bemoans the slew of "brown and grey" shooters that Epic's blockbuster franchise paved the way for, one simply cannot deny that the series is a true icon.
Gears of War 3 is the long-awaited conclusion of one of this generation's most defining sagas, and Epic wants to end big. With more modes, more features, and a longer campaign than ever before, Gears of War 3 aims to be the ultimate way to end Marcus Fenix's journey through the Locust-ravaged world of Sera.
It's been quite the ride.
Gears of War 3 (Xbox 360)
Gears of War kept its multiplayer and its narrative campaign traditionally distinct, while Gears of War 2 blurred the lines slightly with its cross-pollination of Achievement progress. In Gears of War 3, the barriers have truly been broken down. As soon as the player enters the game, they start a "session," in which all progress is tracked, and all activity is registered toward the ultimate goal of gaining experience, leveling up, and collecting unique bonuses.
Whether one plays the campaign, a competitive multiplayer match, or one of the more exotic modes, all progress is combined, with a full "lobby" experience permeating the entire game. Unlike other titles that keep modes fenced off in their own neat little playpens, Gears 3 wants to make every little action part of one immersive, unifying experience, and it's a goal that has been achieved with total success.
Diving into the campaign sees players joining Delta Squad some time after the events of Gears 2, with the Locust apparently drowned in their warrens and the Imulsion-tainted "Lambent" mutants casting a dark shadow over humanity. To detail what happens would be to tread into major spoiler territory, as Gears of War 3's story ties up almost every loose end, not least of all the mystery of Marcus' father, Adam Fenix, and his unique relationship with the Locust. While a few questions remain unanswered, Gears 3's conclusion feels just like that -- a conclusion. Everything about the game, from its intense action sequences to its surprising and poignant moments, feels like the true end of a trilogy.
I'm one of the rare folks who enjoy Gears of War more for its narrative campaign than its multiplayer modes. While I enjoy the various deathmatches, I've always loved Gears' story as a simple, unpretentious action romp. It is with slight disappointment, then, that I feel Gears 3's campaign falls a little flat. It is by no means bad, but after two incredible games, Gears of War 3 feels like a comparatively less thrilling affair, and while I could name any number of memorable sequences from the first two titles, I am hard-pressed to name a truly standout moment from Gears 3. It's fun to play, tightly scripted, and decently paced, but it's lacking the special "something" that I found so endearing in the series.
Make no mistake, being the weakest entry in the Gears of War trilogy is by no means a horrible thing to be. Even as the least compelling game, it is still highly polished, consistently fun, and superbly put together. Certainly, the inclusion of four-player co-op is a very welcome addition -- although the lack of a game list and subsequent need to guess what level and difficulty setting people are playing is a big hassle -- and there are all manner of new toys, such a huge machete that slices foes to pieces and the Silverback mech suit that can rattle off machine gun fire or be used as a stationary rocket turret. One must also praise the big boss battles that occur throughout the course of the game, including a long-awaited rematch with the Corpser.
Truly, Gears of War is still a fun experience. Its biggest problem is that it had two very tough acts to follow, and while it does a most admirable job of attempting to meet its own high standards, it was perhaps destined to fall just a tiny bit short of the mark. It doesn't help that the game replaces the Locust as the core enemy -- instead choosing to focus on the aforementioned Lambent. While the Lambent act like Locust in many ways, their bizarre mutations and tendency to explode at any given moment changes the way they're fought, and not in a positive manner.
Once the Locust do show up, they feel like old friends rather than bitter enemies, and fighting once again becomes a joy. Whenever the Lambent appeared, however, I wanted to groan just a little bit. Every Lambent fight is a repetitive affair, as one must shoot tendrils that keep spawning new enemies, before focusing on the limited pool of mutant foes that are nowhere near as satisfying to fight as the Locust. You can't even execute them in as wide and sadistic a variety of ways, and they're infinitely less interesting as characters. The Locust are a special breed of videogame enemy that one just loves to hate, and having them relegated to second-string villains behind a less enthralling foe is something of a letdown.
These are perhaps nitpicks from a fan who cares too much, though. At its core, this is a game with a lot of heart, if not the same amount of energy that it once had. It's still a game founded on simple, good old-fashioned violence, with a commitment to meat-headed, audaciously masculine action that appeals to the caveman in all of us. From chainsaw bayonets to shotguns that can make entire torsos explode, everything that has made the Gears series concurrently fun and ridiculous has been preserved. Like I said, even a comparatively weaker Gears game is still going to be gratifying.
Any misgivings one might have about the campaign, however, are more than made up for with the sheer weight of accompanying content. As well as full co-op for the story, we get two modes built entirely around team-based play -- Horde and Beast.
Horde is an evolution of the mode found in Gears of War 2 -- a squad of five players faces waves of Locust opposition to see how far they can get. Gears 3 ups the ante by awarding players cash during rounds, allowing them to build fortifications, set up dummy targets, and construct bases in pre-set positions. These various structures are vital in giving players the edge against their foes, which get considerably brutal by the fifth wave. While the new additions aren't the deepest, they add some flavor to a mode that was already damn good, and fans of survival modes will find an incredibly refined experience on offer with what Epic is calling Horde 2.0.
Beast mode takes Horde and flips the entire situation around, instead giving players control of various Locust creatures with the task of killing CPU-controlled humans in a strict time limit. Each player has a certain amount of cash that can be spent on spawning a new creature, with more deadly beasts obviously costing more cash. Starting out with simple Locust such as Tickers, Wretches and Drones, players will eventually unlock new and deadly fiends, including Kanto Priests, Butchers, and Boomers. I have a hard time picking which of the two wave-based modes I like best, but the sheer variety and vicious amusement of Beast mode certainly gives it an edge.
For most players, however, the main event is the obligatory, genre-defining Versus mode. This is where that persistent leveling system comes into play the most, as it unlocks weapon skins, playable characters, and other items for use in the robust and varied competitive arena. While Epic has not fully conceded to Call of Duty and featured a full character-creation system with sustained perks, it has offered just enough personalization to keep players fully invested for a very long time. By focusing only on subtle loadout changes and aesthetic upgrades, Epic's done a terrific job of providing unlockable incentives without altering game balance. In fact, despite all the new playthings, Gears of War 3 keeps itself very traditional.
In some ways, this is a good thing, but it also means that old problems return. For a start, the idea of cover-based warfare is still an illusion, as Gears 3 is -- like its predecessors -- a game in which players roll toward each other, fire shotguns, and let luck determine who explodes first. In fact, rather than fix this element, Epic has seen fit to actively encourage it by including a brand-new shotgun of the sawn-off variety. This one-shot firearm is incredibly powerful at close range, giving shotty fans even more reason to reduce the entire game into a roly-poly simulator. I'm not a fan of shotguns in any game, myself, but even I found myself having to resort to the same roll-and-shoot tactics, as it's still the best way to get anything done.
There are ways to mitigate this problem, of course. All the old modes are back, and the classic capture-point gametype makes for more varied and less predictable play. The new Retro Lancer -- which has a conventional bayonet and lets you run-and-stab anything in the way -- is also an interesting countermeasure. In any of the straight deathmatch modes, however, the shotgun is still king, and it's an issue that has most certainly turned me off of the competitive side of Gears. I fully recognize that, to some people, this sounds like Heaven. Those people are horrible human beings, but they definitely have a great experience lined up.
For those less frustrated by the shotgun-flavored problems, there is a huge amount of entertainment to dive into. With a wide variety of maps, a ton of gametypes, loads of non-shotty weapons and plenty to unlock, Epic has gone all-out in providing its fans with as much stuff as it possibly can. In many ways, it feels like a love letter to the players, a way of both keeping them in the game and keeping them constantly rewarded. Yes, I am a little aggrieved by the way the gameplay turned out, but I'm still in awe at what Epic's brought to the table.
This is true for the whole game, as well. While I have my many niggling complaints about various aspects of the game, the sum total of what Gears of War 3 is remains undeniably remarkable. Lesser games out there struggle to give customers one robust experience, but Gears of War 3 has a nine-hour story campaign with four-player co-op, two engaging wave-based co-operative modes, and a fully-fledged competitive mode with multiple gametypes and bonus content. In terms of sheer value for money, there are few packages more worthy than this, and if fans are turned off by one mode, there's something else to keep their spirits high.
Let it not go unsaid that it's a beautiful game, as well. I mentioned at the top of this review that Gears of War 3 is considered a leader of the "brown and grey" shooter movement, but anybody who accuses the series of looking drab after this release is, quite frankly, an idiot. Epic seems to have gone out of its way to make Gears of War 3 a colorful and bright game (despite what these screens suggest), without sacrificing the war-torn grit that permeates the game's world. The sun is out and the grass is green, but things aren't so cheery that you'll ever forget this is set in a very unfriendly place. Throw in a terrific musical score and suitably shouty voice acting, and you have a game with production values that are very hard to beat.
Gears of War 3 is a great game indeed, one that fans will most assuredly adore. It does lack that unique, intangible spark that the past two games had, but that does not mean it's a poor game in any way. I have my disappointments, but I cannot claim I had a bad time. That Gears of War 3 doesn't quite live up to expectations is only a testament to how high Epic raised the bar in past efforts, and that it's still a superior encounter despite any setbacks speaks highly of its enduring quality.
No matter what you think of Gears of War 3 -- when it's all said and done, if you're a fan of the series, you'll leave the game with no doubt in your mind that Epic Games appreciates your love.
THE VERDICT - Gears of War 3
Reviewed by Jim Sterling