The Gears of War franchise will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most influential of this generation. Like it or not, the franchise was the catalyst for many of the gameplay standards now being used in the shooter genre. And while it is true that many of these standards were adapted from other titles, developer Epic Games deftly refined and assembled them into one complete package.
Like anything that reaches a stratospheric level of popularity, Gears of War has its detractors. Complaints have run the gamut touching on everything from the highly subjective aspects of the narrative delivery in the first game to the objective facts that multiplayer netcode was subpar in the second. When setting out to design Gears of War 3, Epic set out to address every nit that had been picked and deliver the best game in the series. And guess what? They succeeded.
Gears of War 3 picks up nearly two years after the events of Gears 2, the last human stronghold Jacinto has been sunk and much has happened since then. The Coalition of Ordered Governments has disbanded and the human race is now fragmented across Sera. The Lambent, a secondary threat touched upon only briefly in the first two games, has risen to take the role as the primary threat to the survival of humanity and once again, Marcus Fenix is tasked with saving it.
The franchise has always done a great job at portraying a strong sense of the world but it arguably struggled when it came to delivering its narrative and establishing characterizations. Gears 3 though improves upon these shortcomings. With the help of Karen Traviss, the writer of the Gears of War novels, the characters in the game are far more believable. They have a personality underdeveloped in the previous games and as such are more easily relatable. By focusing on the characters, the narrative is able to deliver a more personal, dramatic story. The situations Marcus and his squad experience in Gears 3 carry an emotional weight to them that is understandable by the player.
The refined storytelling is also evident in how the game plays out. For as much criticism as the original Gears gets it had a wonderful sense of continuous environmental flow for nearly the entirety of that game. Gears 2 attempted to be much more grand in scale which resulted in the game losing some of the natural flow making for a disjointed narrative. Gears 3 melds both of these concepts together, telling a sprawling story yet maintaining a degree of continual environmental flow.
Every game is defined by its moments and there are few games in the same league as Gears of War when it comes down to moment to moment excitement. From the excitement of the constant enemy encounters to the highly emotional story aspects, Gears 3 delivers on all fronts. There are moments in this game that will be remembered and talked about for years to come.
None of this narrative focus would work though if the game did not play well, after all Gears of War 3 is still a game. While many games struggle to find the right symbiotic relationship between narrative and gameplay, Gears 3 nails it. However, if you are not a fan of the Gears of War brand of cover-based shooter, then nothing in this game is going to convince you otherwise. Suffice it to say, Gears of War 3 plays like a Gears of War game. Do not take that to mean that Gears 3 has not refined or added anything to the formula though because a lot has changed in terms of the minutiae.
The main thing players will notice immediately is that the standard issue rifles have been greatly refined. The standard issue Lancer, a machine gun with a chainsaw bayonet, now can maintain a tight, steady stream of fire on enemies. The standard issue locust rifle, the Hammerburst, is now even more accurate and deadly with its iron sights. Best of all though is the introduction of two new weapons, the Retro Lancer and the Sawed-Off Shotgun. The Retro Lancer packs a ton of stopping power but has a wild kickback and the Sawed-Off Shotgun packs a devastating punch but only at close range. Each weapon has a strength and a weakness; learning when and where to use them is key to success in both the campaign and the multiplayer modes.
The most noticeable changes though come in the new multiplayer suite. Obviously inspired by what Bungie did last year in Halo: Reach, Epic has delivered the most robust multiplayer suite for any game on any system this generation. That may seem like a bold proclamation to some but one only has to look at the sheer amount of content Gears 3 provides, both competitive and cooperative, to realize nothing else is in the same ballpark.
For returning fans nearly all of the previous game mode shave returned. Everything from the classic Warzone to Guardian have made their way back and everything is playable on dedicated servers making gameplay exceptionally stable. The biggest addition to the competitive game though is undeniably Team Deathmatch. It is mind-boggling to think that a competitive game as popular as Gears has never had such a standard mode. Regardless Team Deathmatch in Gears 3 is not the traditional take on the mode, instead adopting a ticket based system ala Battlefield that breathes life into the old standby. Teams start out with 15 respawn tickets and once they are all used the players are left with only one life. This variation results in far more exciting, tension filled rounds of Team Deathmatch.
Competitive play may not be for everyone though and thus Gears 3 offers up a robust suite of cooperative multiplayer modes. Much of the cooperative multiplayer modes are returning favorites but they have been expanded upon in such a way that puts most other cooperative experiences to shame.
One of the biggest draws of the first two games was the cooperative campaign and it returns in Gears 3 but to steal a phrase from Gears 3 designer Cliffy B., it is “bigger, better and more badass”. The new co-op campaign supports up to four players, two more than previous iterations and players have the option of playing through the campaign cooperatively just as they would the single player campaign or they can add a competitive aspect by playing the all new Arcade mode.
Arcade mode, takes another page out of the Halo: Reach playbook, giving the campaign a scoring component. With the competitive component of scoring added, the campaign takes on a frantic new persona as players rush forward attempting to maximize their score. Additionally, cheats called mutators can be applied to the mode changing certain aspects of the game. Some of these mutators are just quirky adjustments that do not affect the actual gameplay, like having flowers explode from enemies instead of blood, but many of them can alter the way the game is played making the game more or less challenging.
Also reworked was the popular Horde mode from Gears 2. The original Horde mode popularized the cooperative survival against waves of enemy mode that has been adopted by so many of today’s shooters. Horde 2.0, as it is being called, redefines the concept completely. The new Horde mode gives players the option to construct fortifications to help in their defense. These fortifications range from simple spiked barricades and turrets to laser wire and silverbacks, giant mech suits that are basically walking tanks.
Of course constructing these fortifications is not free and now Horde mode features a currency system. Each player has a personal bank of currency and everything a player now does in Horde mode directly impacts the funds in this bank. If a player kills a locust they will receive a deposit of funds into their bank, this can then be used to purchase fortifications, power weapons and even ammo. That is right, ammunition is no longer a free spawn so if players want to keep their guns loaded they are going to have to contribute. The currency system forces players to think strategically. Laying down barricades in the early rounds of horde might seem like a good idea but is it enough to sacrifice possibly getting a turret when harder enemies start to appear including bosses.
You read that right, Horde 2.0 features boss battles. Every 10 rounds Gears 3 will throw a boss wave into the mix on top of the standard locust force and speaking from experience these waves can be extremely intense. There is nothing quite like being trapped in a tower with two teammates and trying to fend off a Berserker who has decided to join you there. To help make things a little bit easier though, players can ‘buy” back into a wave after being killed by spending a large sum of their earned currency.
On the reverse side of Horde mode is the brand new Beast mode. Taking on the role of the Locust horde, players set out to destroy increasingly more difficult waves of COG forces. Beast mode though is not just the offensive counterpoint to Horde’s defensive take. Rounds are timed and players have to build up to using the more powerful locust.
In the first round players will start out as low level locust like tickers or wretches and attempt to take out the humans. Killing a human or destroying one of their fortifications adds additional time to the meter and sets the player on a path to unlock the next tier of locust. As player progress through the 12, lightning fast rounds they will be able to access nearly all of the locust encountered in the campaign and playing with a full team of five sets is pure insanity. For a mode that seemed like a throwaway addition, Beast mode may offer the most pure fun per time played.
This review would be remiss if it did not at least lightly touch upon the visuals of the title. Simply put Gears 3 is the best looking of the series and is the new showcase piece for Epic’s Unreal Engine. Past Gears games have been criticized for looking overly brown, many of those criticisms are not entirely warranted but Gears 3 shatters any potential preconceived notions that might be had about the series visuals. The game takes place in a variety of different locations and nearly every one of them is vibrant and filled with color. Coupled with some inspired use of dynamic lighting the vibrant vistas give the game a look many probably did not feel Gears of War was even capable of.
Ultimately this review could probably keep going on and on about how great Gears of War 3 is but it is going to begin to sound redundant. Gears 3 is the best and most fully featured shooter to release this year on any platform so far and it is the number one reason to own an XBOX 360 this holiday season.
Pros: Emotionally charged campaign, more multiplayer features than you can shake a stick at, and one of the best looking games of this generation.
Cons: Competitive multiplayer will not be for everyone.
5* out of 5