There’s no question that Gears of War is a series that divides the gaming community. In some debatably rarefied circles, the franchise is synonymous with everything that’s going wrong with videogames: a shooter in the third-person starring two-packs-a-day sacks of magnetised mince that, as they move from one set piece to another, exchange drearily predictable banter.
But you can throw all the callously disparaging remarks you like, frankly, because there’s no arguing that Gears of War is a blockbuster.
Whatever your own sentiments on the title may be, there’s no confusion as to what Gears of War is. It wears its campy colours on its bandana and it doesn’t really give a f--k if you like it or not. Yes, seeing ads for it during reruns of Jersey Shore is a safe bet. No, it hasn’t advanced the medium of videogames by any conceivable metric. It never set out to do so.
Instead, it has proven to be a reliably polished and highly presentable cover-based shooter across two instalments.
Due next month, Gears of War 3 appears to show a new maturity not before seen in the series. It’s not Shakespeare – it’s not even Shortland Street – but it does go some way to filling in the empty barrel-chested husks we’ve been negotiating waist high concrete barriers with for the better part of half a decade.
The game returns players to the planet Sera where they resume the roles of the COG Delta Squadron and the devil-may-care Marcus Fenix. The human stronghold of Jacinto has been destroyed and the series’ iconic subterranean foe have been mutated by the Lambent.
As the game opens, the tattered remains of the COG now call the Raven’s Nest, a mobile city created ad hoc from the scraps of other ships, their respite. Our reintroduction to the characters brings with it fleetingly charming attention to detail. That Dominic Santiago is now tending radishes, a new cornerstone of the exiled Deltas’ diet, serves as both improbable humour and as a tidy inflection on the difficulties facing the COG. It’s subtleties such as these that appear to give the newest Gears game a more accurate emotional compass, and contextualise the larger part of bloodletting to follow.
Soon enough, Jace Stratton and Anya Stroud join Dom and Fenix, themselves conduits for a new feature in Gears of War 3, four-player co-op. Beyond adding a little more dynamism and camaraderie to the gameplay experience, it also feeds back into the narrative: more voices in cut scenes simply makes for more engaging storytelling. We hear many more voices in Gears of War 3, which brings much-needed fresh perspective.
Mechanically, the game is as sound as it has ever been. As the four battles back a sudden attack by the Locust a Lambent Leviathan begins tearing chunks off what remains of the CNV Sovereign.
Two of the crew jump into silverback mechs and do what they can to push back the creature. It’s ultimate demise, however, comes from hitherto absent friends who drop a deluge of explosives on the leviathan’s head.
Cut to Augustus “Cole Train” Cole, Samantha Bryne, Clayton Carmine and Damon Baird out on patrol to gather much-needed food. As the four progress from outpost to outpost, each housing tetchy stranded survivors from the fall of Jacinto, both Cole and Samantha brush up against their past before coming at the Leviathan encounter from a different perspective.
Playing through scenes from different angles certainly isn’t new to the series, but the tangential approach here adds substantial depth to the conflict. Cole, for example, isn’t so much battling with his former fame as a pro footballer as he is desperate to escape into his past.
It’s this more immersive approach that makes the next instalment in the Gears of War series more promising than a paint-by-numbers sequel. Certainly all the hallmarks of a sequel are present: a new arsenal of weapons to tool around with, bigger explosions, badder foes. But these are just the new bronze buttons on a more elaborate coat.
As we approach release, it appears unlikely that Gears of War 3 will win over staunch naysayers of the series, but for Epic and Microsoft, that’s hardly problematic. Fans of Fenix and company will slip into the title regardless of whether it has greater scope or not. When they do though, they could be pleasantly surprised.