Gears of War 3 (Xbox 360)
Developer: Epic Games
Release: September 20, 2011
Reflecting on the 25+ hours I spent on Gears of War 3, I’m left with this mildly nagging feeling that if this turns out to be the end of Gears of War as a game series, it might’ve ended too soon for some gamers. Unlike the film industry, videogames seem to have a better track record with their Part Threes and Gears of War 3 is the latest example of this, where all the lessons from the previous games and community feedback come together to create something special. It’s hard to blame Epic Games for exploring other projects, but they in fact end this trilogy on a high note, the kind that makes shooter fans want more Gears. Yet this kind of send-off is something that not many studios get to do, especially when considering entertainment media beyond gaming.
As evidenced in our recent chat with Gears of War lead designer Cliff Bleszinski and our own time with Gears of Wars 3, this third chapter in Epic's shooter saga is very much about 'coming home'. For franchise mainstay Marcus Fenix, the game series narrative has never shied away from his devotion to his father, Adam and Gears 3 takes this paternal connection front and center. Cole Train also has a chance to relive his glory days as a Thrashball player and we find out whether or not Dominic Santiago gets some much needed closure on the loss of his family.
Despite the plot's emotional leg-stretching, there's still enough 'Ooh-rah!' space marine bravado to go around. There's variety and a continual rotation with the playable cast supporting Marcus, including newcomer Jace Stratton (who previously appeared in the comic series) and yet another Carmine brother, of course. By the time Gears of War 3 reaches it final act, the game lends to an amped reunion vibe, not that all different from the last act of Metal Gear Solid 4, when many of the surviving characters from all the previous installments gathered for the final showdown.
So it’s only fitting that the Locusts, Lambent Locusts and new additions to the enemy roster gather as well to greet Marcus and Co. at every turn, cover spot, and of course from beneath the ground. They’re all that stands between Marcus, Adam and a revelation surrounding the Imulsion, the very substance that’s been at the center of this global conflict on the wartorn planet, Sera.
FIVE ACTS, COUNTLESS MOMENTS
The five-act structure that the series has used with each installment works especially well in Gears 3. The story beats are placed well enough to keep the game's emotional pull at or near the narrative’s forefront. As a finale, the overall pacing is fluid from beginning to end, while giving each act their own individual flavor. Act II involves an arduous trek reminiscent of the Sandsea journey in Final Fantasy XII, obviously at a much shorter length for a shooter than that of an RPG. Act IV makes for a very fitting moment of reflection on the consequences of war, clearing the way for the series' grand finale.
Some of the best moments in shooters like Call of Duty and the rebooted Medal of Honor are when the characters are found in last-stand scenarios, something that Gears of War 3 doesn’t hold back on. Better yet, there’s no sense that the COGs get a true upperhand in the middle of these Alamo-inspired situations, which resonates with the bleak ‘one step forward, two steps back’ developments that often occur in the Gears of War universe. It delivers a few “This is it.” moments that practically make Gears of War 3 the Day of the Dead of the trilogy.
BEAUTY IN DESTRUCTION
While venturing into the cavernous depths of the Hollow made the first two Gears feel more otherworldly, it's a refreshing change that Gears 3 only spends a few minutes in any kind of cave-like surroundings. Above ground, all three games have done their share in depicting utter urban desolation, but Gears 3 manages to crank up the devastation knob with a couple locales that vividly capture the Pompeii-inspired horror of wrought by the Hammer of Dawn tactical strikes.
Gamers who like to read into symbolism will get a sense of optimism from the breaking sunlight that illuminates many of the game’s chapters. More than Gears 2 and especially more than the monotonous graytones of the early parts of Gears 1, Gears of War 3 explodes with a much wider color palette. This vibrancy complements the added level of detail and polish to Gears 3’s graphics. Even something as ubiquitous as a sewer looks gorgeous in this game (although you don’t spend too much time in there). It’s the initial chapter that makes quite an impression. Set inside the ark-like Sovereign carrier, this ship uses familiar modern carrier/battleship interior designs presented with terrific lighting and superb detail. This naval vessel is one of the two settings in Gears 3 that emphasizes a strong nautical theme that wasn’t present in the past two games.
It’s hard to imagine anyone accusing Epic of selling out, but they did such a great job with the polish and even the glossy juiciness of the Lambent explosions that some players might actually miss the grittiness of the first two games. Typography nuts will also notice that Epic got rid of the dog tag font that made up the menu and chapter lettering in Gears 1 & 2.
Compared to Halo in being a universe beyond the games, the Gears of War franchise has truly excelled in cultivating its own world and history, particularly with the series' various novels. Often the most captivating war events are the ones that lend to compelling conflicts names like The Battle of The Bulge or fictionally speaking, The Battle of Hornberg from The Lord of the Rings. Not to spoil anything, but you can easily spot a number of moments in Gears 3 that will soon have similar designations, which speaks to how memorable these events were, especially in the scheme of a global conflict.
ENCORES ALL AROUND
As last hurrahs go, Epic fittingly squeezed in a host of subtle improvements, some of which will make many dedicated Gears 2 multiplayer fans transition to Gears 3 with little resistance. These include sights on the Hammerburst, changes in speed on picking up ammo, and more leeway in turning while sprinting. One standout improvement involves the series’ bread-and-butter cover system. Cover switching is somehow smoother and smarter where the game feels like it understands where you want to go. It’s no quantum leap over the original Gears but if a newcomer has the lack of sense to play the series in reverse order, Gears 1 would feel like a clunky challenge in cover mechanics despite how innovative it was at the time (kill.switchinfluence notwithstanding).
The much-admired weapon set of Gears of War makes for a very satisfying firearms roster in Gears 3. When trying out different weapons to suit certain situations, it’s often better when a shooter doesn’t design one gun as the “best” weapon to take down a particular enemy. The beauty of Gears of War (and other excellent shooters) is how different players treat the same situation with different weapons. I certainly had my share of Campaign scenarios where a buddy was in the zone with the iconic Lancer, while I was at home covering him and my two other teammates with a Longshot sniper rifle. It would not be unusual to find our roles reversed a couple chapters later. On a side note, the addition of the tandem-operated Vulcan cannon feels like an amusingly amped up version of the high-powered Mulcher. The Vulcan is certainly one of the more specialized weapons of Gears 3, appearing only a handful of times throughout the Campaign.
Epic does pay a bit of respect to the first Gears of War with an unsurprising, albeit fitting use of circular motifs. A prison break, Anya in her old pencil skirt, and even the revisiting of a certain song from a famous Gears commercial all help to frame the trilogy.
The series' Brothers To The End mantra has never been more fitting than in this installment, especially with the Campaign co-op. Adding to the list of the aforementioned tweaks, the AI buddies do a satisfying job in making an effort to run over and revive you when you're down. The ideal way to experience Gears of War 3’s story though is with three real life players. With the countless hours and mileage fans have gotten out of the series so far, it almost feels unnecessary to have Insane mode locked on the first playthrough because there are quite a few sections in the Hardcore mode that a team of Gears veterans will find to be quite easy.
The bigger drawback is the continually rotating playable cast creates a minor disconnect for the guests of a 4-player campaign. The departure of one particular character does fit in the scheme of the narrative, but it's unfortunate that the players do not get the opportunity to fully invest themselves with any particular COG. The host even has to take a break from playing as Marcus, though that particular change of pace is over with the end of Act I. At least the non-Campaign multiplayer lets you stay with a skin of your choice, provided it's unlocked, not that’s any true consolation.
It’s great that profile progression and the ability to unlock items is counted no matter what mode you’re playing, even in Campaign. It is with the non-story multiplayer that Gears of War 3 offers the majority of its replay value and are the best sections to quickly level up. Many of the aforementioned positives apply to all the Versus modes, Beast and Horde. Versus features a host of familiar adversarial modes including the ever-popular Team Deathmatch and the very tense one-life-per-round Warzone. The fan-favorite Horde is enhanced by taking a page out of the Halo: Reach playbook by adding fortifications, objects you can buy and maintain that are meant to slowdown incoming Locust. Beast turns the tables as the mode where you play as Locusts fighting against Stranded and famliar COG faces.
The pacing of Gears’ third-person, cover-based gameplay has often allowed for maps smaller than that of first-person shooter maps. Yet anyone curious on how Gears would play on larger levels have a couple opportunities this time around. The settings are well-varied, with some maps taking inspiration from locales in the Campaign.
WHAT NEW CONSOLE?
As endings go, Gears of War 3 concludes in a way that will leave many gamers with a satisfying sense of resolution. You’ve felt like you’ve seen this kind of ending before but at least it’s not overly trite. For the many who come primarily for the multiplayer, there is no shortage of content, let alone incentives to put in the same 200+ hours that many have spent on Gears of War 2. From a production standpoint, Gears of War 3 (along with Resistance 3, and hopefully with Uncharted 3 and Modern Warfare 3) offers us a rare glimpse on the excellence that can come about when a game series gets to grow on the same console generation it started on, making a compelling case for more prolonged console cycles.