It’s a rare game that not only reshapes a genre but defines a console.
When the 360 was in its infancy Gears of War did exactly that, combining unparalleled cover-shooting mechanics, intense, muscular gunplay, cruel enemies and brutal melee; all served with a bucket of innards, a syringe or two of testosterone and an ugly grimace. Its grimy aesthetic and commitment to sensory overload carried over to 2008’s inevitable sequel, which upped the ante further by refining the combat, expanding play modes, introducing more enemies and weapons, and pushing players through one of the most exhilarating final acts in shooter history - never mind its limp conclusion.
The bottom line is that Gears of War is the third-person-shooting series, and Gears 2 was its shining crown jewel.
Gears of War 3 is a better game in almost every way, even if familiarity and a patchier main campaign blemish the experience somewhat. It stands head and shoulders above any other game in the third-person shooter genre, perhaps with the exception of Vanquish, which it stands merely a head above.
Things kick off 18 months after the sinking of Jacinto, with the final pockets of humanity living on boats or huddled within tiny gated communities. Even for a Gears game things are looking particularly dire. Adding to Marcus and friends’ woes is the disappearance of COG Chairman Richard Prescott, which sparks a splintering of the COG forces. There is also some business around the possibility that Marcus’ father is still alive, but really the narrative is just an excuse to propel the impossibly beefy Gears around a few disparate environments so they can chainsaw some enemies and yell a whole lot while doing so.
So let’s get this out of the way first. If the story that should underpin the Gears 3 campaign is a flimsy sheet coating a ton of dull fetch-quests (and it is), then its delivery is downright insulting, even more so than any other Gears game. A muddle of action clichés, telegraphed twists, sub-Michael Bay dialogue and stultifying earnestness coupled with lame one-liners and full-noise one-note voice acting, the far-too-numerous cutscenes aim for a poignancy and emotional heft that is not so much unearned as it is comically unachievable when your world is populated by characters so one-dimensional and grating as these COG meatheads. Sadly, even the new female characters are thoroughly unlikeable. Epic desperately needs to find a writer who will bring depth to its heroes and shades of grey to their actions, and whose dialogue isn’t all written in curse-laden capitals.
Boss battles and vehicle levels (shudder) are also weak points for the franchise and that rule holds true here as well. Despite all the sound and fury within these sequences, player agency is vastly reduced, marking out these admittedly beautifully-presented moments as little more than glorified quick time events. Thank goodness they’re short and infrequent. The game also insists on splitting up players at points, which instantly more than halves the fun for either.
Fortunately, in most other regards the ten-hour Gears 3 campaign is superb. Four players may now simultaneously murder their way through the environs of Sera – environs that eschew the drab corridor template of Gears 1 and 2 in favour of wide-open outdoor Technicolor vistas which reward flanking manoeuvres and lend a greater sense of scale to battles. The level design is uniformly excellent, with much more variety not only terrain-wise but elevation-wise too, and plenty of nooks and crannies to explore, making the game seem marginally less linear than it actually is.
The already-slick combat of Gears 2 has been further honed to razor-sharpness too. COGs may now kick a hiding enemy over while vaulting cover, as well as immediately sprint sideways rather than having to turn slowly before dashing out of harm’s way. In addition, snapping into shelter and running between refuges works better than before, and Marcus and company respond to commands with a tightness not seen in the previous games. The roady run has also been slightly tweaked so now it doesn’t level the camera as aggressively, allowing players to look slightly off-centre while sprinting.
However, the biggest change in gameplay regards the cover itself, which is all destructible or at least deformable. Soft cover such as crates provide only a second’s worth of respite from gunfire before splintering, whereas walls hold but fray at the edges, allowing damage to be dealt to previously-hidden enemies if enough lead is pumped in their direction. This is a great addition, and along with the new digger launcher, cover-vaulting kick and grenades makes frequent movement out of cover a necessity, shifting the balance of the game away from ‘camping shooter’ towards a more pure action feel.
Thankfully with up to three AI teammates the player has a lot of covering fire, and the computer-controlled COGs are very competent, happy to press on ahead but rarely requiring much supervision. However, a micromanaging player is free to command their fire onto a single enemy should he or she desire. Unfortunately that same competence with the trigger doesn’t extend to the medkit, and it’s a roll of the dice whether a downed player will receive a revive or feebly crawl after a disinterested teammate as they disappear out of view. The two-revive limit of the previous games has in theory been extended to infinity, but a solo player will rarely get more than a second chance with such callous AI.
Being a Gears title, there are new weapons of course. The aforementioned digger launcher sends explosives burrowing under cover, the sawn-off shotgun is lethal at close range, the one-shot is a slow-to-aim sniper rifle that does what it says on the tin, the butcher cleaver is a slow yet kick-ass melee weapon, and the retro lancer features some hefty recoil and a bayonet instead of a chainsaw. Then there is the Vulcan cannon – a two-man death-dealing minigun – and incendiary grenades, which may be strategically deployed to engulf an area or enemy in flames. The only change to existing weapons is that the Gorgon SMG is now fully automatic, which should see it utilised far more frequently across all game modes.
The new enemies upon which to deploy such goodies are the Lambent, mutated Locust who come in a variety of flavours and all of whom explode upon death, making melee killing a riskier proposition than usual. It’s a credit to Epic that all the new enemies require a unique approach and are equally fun to battle – perhaps with the exception of the Armoured Kantus, a bulletproof dervish whose rolling attack instantly downs any player unlucky enough to be caught in its path.
All the old favourite lead-magnets return too, giving Gears 3 an impressive roster of things to gib, and it has to be said that however one does it, it never gets old. One of many things Gears has always done brilliantly is transfer a sense of weight and power from onscreen weapons to the user through meaty sound design and satisfyingly gory enemy animations. Only the stock snub pistol feels a tad impotent, but that just makes those desperate low-ammo last-second pistol headshots all the sweeter.
Gears 2’s longevity and some of its best moments were provided by play modes outside of the main campaign and the same is true here, with ten maps available across returning multiplayer modes such as Execution and Capture the Leader. Of course Deathmatch returns too, only this time with a pool of 15 lives per team. Horde is also back, this time including some welcome tower defence elements where cash is exchanged for more powerful armaments as well as decoys, barriers and player-controlled or sentry turrets. The Horde are more aggressive than before, and Boomers can climb over walls, removing the one exploit available to players in Horde 1.0, so expect to sink many hours in here before ascending to level 50 on any map.
The much-anticipated Beast mode (basically an inverse Horde mode where the player controls the bad guy) hinges on a time mechanic whose tightness makes solo play all but an impossibility, but with a friend or two onside, piloting an agent of the dark side against the stranded humans is great fun.
Finally, an arcade mode for the campaign turns on a scoring system which enables the players to turn on mutators such as big head mode, flower blood and big explosions. Unfortunately most of these require serious hours within the game to unlock – big head alone requires 1000 waves of horde to be completed.
Gears of War has earned its pop culture status; that is, it’ll sell millions regardless of what any vocal detractors might say. However, Gears 3 – with its excellent campaign and plethora of fantastic multiplayer options – is certainly a game that deserves success. It really is hard to find fault with the gameplay, so why try? Instead, just praise the Horde and pass the ammunition.
A curiously sleeveless yet monumentally awesome capstone of an incredible trilogy, this game demands to be played and replayed, at least until the new trilogy kicks off on whatever hardware Xbox replace the 360 with. The best shooter available on console right now, Gears 3 is an experience not to be missed.