9 Overall Score
- Gameplay: 9/10
- Story: 8/10
- Graphics: 10/10
Gears gameplay at its finest | Intense new enemies | Satisfying conclusion
Weak first act | Laborious final boss
I’ll get this out the way from the start: I love Gears of War. It was love at first sight, too. It singlehandedly convinced me the “next generation”, as they were calling it then, was worthwhile. I remember vividly my first roadie-run through a high contrast monochrome that at the time was genuinely stylish, rather than the cliché it is seen as now. I loved the gibs and gore, the heavy metal momentum of the COG soldiers and, of course, that chainsaw gun. I almost loved Gears of War 2 as well, but its insistence on funnelling you towards the next big set piece made it feel removed from the tactical, open combat arenas where I had so much fun. I was anxious starting Gears 3 whether Epic would continue in the direction of the second title or return to the gameplay that kept me entertained through countless couch co-op playthroughs. Hoping for the best, I pressed start.
It begins, as it did twice before, with a mission to save the world. Only there’s not much world left by the third attempt. The first game introduced us to Sera, a grand ruin of a planet emptied of life by a civil war and the brutal Locust horde. The second involved protecting humanity’s last standing city, before sinking it beneath the sea, along with the invaders. All this hopping from frying pan to fryer has left the soldiers of this hopeless war stranded on an aircraft carrier, while new volatile, fuel-infected monsters called the Lambent are free to destroy what remains with more savagery than the humans and Locust combined.
The Lambent are a ferocious enemy, exploding on death and morphing into forms far more terrible than even the ugliest Locust. They change the flow of battle considerably, pushing forward with a mindless determination and hurling arching projectiles that renders cover pitifully futile. Plus the horrific combination of Lambency and a Berserker results in the best boss fight of the game. The Locust have upped the ante as well, making full use of the new burrowing weapon, the aptly named Digger. They’ve also forgone predictable, frag-friendly grub holes and instead burst dramatically from the earth wherever they please. Either that, or rappel down from monstrous blimps that bombard you with cannon fire. They’ve also upgraded their top tiers, though I won’t spoil what terror that entails. You cannot keep still in a safe little nook taking potshots, you have to move, adapt, flee or charge as the battle evolves.
The mobility the game demands of you would have been an impossibility in the prior titles. Luckily, every annoyance that felt endemic of Gears has been quashed. The COG soldiers are significantly faster now, their animations have shed the awkwardness of the previous titles and the A button, which had always felt overworked, now never disobeys you. There’s some smart new additions too, like being able to break into a roadie run in any direction and knocking back enemies behind cover when you vault over. The highlight is the fatal twist added to the sprint, with the impossibly satisfying bayonet charge of the new Retro Lancer. Your joy when you first use it will be heard by the neighbours, I guarantee you.
More significant to the gameplay than either the new enemies or your enhanced abilities is the level design. The majority of your time will be spent mulching foes in good old fashioned, tactically generous, open combat arenas. Whenever I’d be killed (surprisingly difficult to do, with 3 comrades eager to revive you) and try a new approach I’d find a different hidden power weapon, a devious flanking option, or a high vantage point. This flexibility meant that whether sneaking, sniping, boomshotting or chainsawing, the level design never conflicted my interests. Both in variety and quantity the battlefields are a step up from the either of the prior games and the bombastic set piece moments all the better because of it; they’re the exception rather than the rule. Every sequence where freedom is limited for the benefit of spectacle soon followed by traditional Gears gameplay. This refined balance and pacing makes it very difficult to stop playing, even when all your senses ache from the relentless chaos.
Unfortunately, there are is a section that outstays its welcome. The first act, despite a strong start, ultimately suffers thanks to a latter half that follows Cole and Baird through the events that parallel the section just played. It’s a narrative technique that isn’t particularly successful, and isn’t repeated elsewhere in the campaign. You know what Cole and co. end up doing, but there’s no twist to how they accomplish it, and thus feels like a waste of time. There’s initially hints of depth added to Cole’s character, but those hints instead culminate in a bizarre and painfully bad sequence that instead of humanizing Cole, makes him seem genuinely deluded. It’s a dull punchline to a joke that was never very funny. This section would have been better off either cut, or significantly improved and released as DLC down the line.
Though the Cole escapade falls flat, the story is surprisingly well told. Gears has always served more of an example of games obsoleting the need for big-dumb-action movies rather than games as art, but this time around Epic have delivered some genuinely stirring moments without sacrificing the stampeding, high octane viscera. There’s a particularly powerful moment at the end of Act 3 that manages to be effecting due both to the tragedy of the event and an excellent use of music reminiscent of the very beginnings of the franchise. While much of the narrative feels padded out, with the characters seeming to spend most their time hunting down fuel, they’re at least hunting in environments that expand on the grim history of the universe and the scale of the Lambent problem. And despite Epic opting to finish the fight with an agonisingly repetitive boss battle, the end of the game is satisfying. No loose ends, no “to be continued”, this is a concrete conclusion to the story that started in 2006.
And it shouldn’t be underestimated the significance of this conclusion. This is a trilogy that was born in this generation, and has ended in it. Gears is to the 360 what Halo is for the Xbox brand. And it’s wonderful that the trilogy has capped off with its best game. With the addition of a score-based Arcade mode, stackable game-modifiers (similar to the skulls in Halo) and co-op bumped up to four players, this is likely to be my most played Gears campaign yet. But even greater than the urge to replay this game is the urge to replay them all; to experience the trilogy in its entirety. I’ll even be more forgiving of the extravagant middle game now, since I’m safe in the knowledge it all ends well.
But while Epic was busy perfecting the Gears formula, a student of the third-person-shooter grew into a master. I’m talking, of course, about the impossibly attractive, wise-cracking elephant in Epic’s room that is Uncharted 2. While Gears is far stronger in core combat, Uncharted 2 added a thrilling dynamism to the situations you fight in. I’d never suggest that Marcus should be able to leap around and shoot from a lamppost, but after gunfights in moving trains and collapsing hotel rooms, the levels in Gears 3 can’t help but feel restrictively static. It’s a technical masterpiece in terms of graphical prowess, as to be expected. It’s colourful too, the last act especially seems to involve Epic laughing in the face of the “grey and brown” naysayers. But it’s hard not to notice that beyond the gorgeous graphics, whenever the game erupts into something spectacular you’re rooted to a turret, or shown a cinematic. The Unreal Engine 3 seems to have grown some grey whiskers since Gears of War first astonished us with the power of the Xbox 360.
And that’s Gears of War 3 in it’s armoured, foul-mouthed nutshell. For fans, it’s a best case scenario; easily the highlight of the series, taking it as far as the boundaries of the concept will allow. But now those boundaries are more noticeable than ever, and while it’s a pleasure to see one of my favourite series of this generation wrap up with such polish and mastery, I’m aching to see what Epic will produce once they’ve moved beyond their own restrictions.
Note: In the interests of a fair verdict, multiplayer is not mentioned in this review. In the pre-release servers all anyone was playing was Team Deathmatch, which is only one mode of many. Until I’ve played the game in a way that is indicative of the way it will be experienced over the next few months, I’m in no position to review this portion of the game. What I can say from my games so far is that the multiplayer seems very, very good. I don’t reckon you need to be at all concerned, but for the complete multiplayer review check back on Thumb-Culture next week.