There is little doubt that Gears of War rests in the library of every shooter fan that owns an Xbox 360. When you see announcements that brag about 2 or 3 million copies sold, realize that Gears 1 and 2 combined has sold over 13 million copies. The first title delivered an experience unlike any we’d seen before, the second brought multiplayer that soaked up hours like a sponge, and I’m here to say that Gears of War 3 wraps it all up in a tidy package that sends a clear message – This is how you close out a trilogy properly.
The first item that made me smile was a little button flashing at me called “Previously on Gears”. This short movie gave me a quick look at the first two titles, giving me all of the highlights without making me replay the first two titles. It helps refresh the memory, and it gives new players enough information to to get up to speed for this title.
Gears 3 starts off 2 years after the sinking of the last human city, Jacinto. The world isn’t the land of fairy tales and rainbows that everyone hoped it would be. There are desiccated Lambent stalks jutting up from the landscape, and the cost of war is evident with every step. Cities have been reduced to rubble with the inhabitants scrounging for food and ammunition, simply waiting for their nightmares to begin again. Whether their lack of food supply or the Locust would consume them waits to be seen. As Marcus Fenix and his Delta Squad will soon discover, a new threat far worse than any they’d encounter thus far is on the horizon. To explain any further than this about the single player game would absolutely ruin the experience, but know that this final entry in the trilogy couldn’t tie things up with a tidy little bow any better than this. Your questions from the first two games will be answered.
“Yeah! Wooo! Bring it on, sucka! This is my kinda shit! “ – Cole
Ok, so if you were expecting Shakespeare out of guys that wield chainsaw rifles you are probably expecting too much. What you can expect is some absolutely amazing visuals. The folks at Epic Games have been responsible for the game engines of damned near every solid AAA title that has released in the last few years. Did you like Batman: Arkham Asylum and you are looking forward to the sequel? Both use Unreal Engine 3. Are you a fan of the Mass Effect series? You bet – it uses Unreal Engine 3. How about the criminally overlooked Mirror’s Edge? You got it – it uses Unreal Engine 3. Even the relaunch of the Mortal Kombat franchise was powered by Unreal Engine 3. The house that Epic built provides the incredible look for the best games on the market, and that’s not marketing push – that is a fact.
Now, just because I heap praise onto Gears for it’s visual appeal don’t suddenly imagine yourself in a world of bright colors – this series took the brown and grey movement from Quake II and ran with it in a big way. The game still simulates the broken world of Sera with a gritty and dirty pallet that still somehow manages to convey a great deal of flavor, despite the muted tones. The environments feature some eye-popping visuals even beyond the first two titles, which of course used the same engine. The lighting engine has received a massive overhaul, the animations in the game are vastly improved, and the overall level of detail has jumped an order of magnitude, and all weapons (including the new sawed-off shotgun and a new type of grenade launcher) now have their own gruesome finishing moves attached. Unfortunately two old friends return from the first two titles – framerate issues and clipping errors.
There are moments in the single player campaign where you’ll have the chance to kill some monster closets by simply revving your engine against the wall and watching for the blood. There are also a few moments where you’ll put your hands right through a wall by simply standing near it. It’s not detrimental in any meaningful way, but it does break the immersion. The other issue is that all of these graphical bells and whistles do indeed come at a cost to the overall framerate. While most of the time the game keeps up nicely, there are moments when things get very chaotic where the framerate suffers considerably. While it wasn’t bad enough to cause me to get killed, it was certainly bad enough to notice. Thankfully this is the exception to the rule, not the norm. I never did encounter framerate issues like this during multiplayer matches for whatever reason.
The last returning pain point is the checkpoint system. Somehow these auto-saves are still spread into some of the oddest places, leaving you to replay large swaths of the chapter at some points and saving every 30 seconds in others. It’s a minor issue, but an issue just the same.
“That smells nasty. What are these guys made of, shit?” – Marcus Fenix
As I said, you shouldn’t expect a sudden reversal of the character arc presented by the first two games. That said, the voice acting carries with it a certain level of gravitas this time around. Moments in Gears 2 that were supposed to pull me in left me flat, but with Gears 3 there are some genuine “Oh no….” moments. In fact, there are quite a few of them. For a game that features this much growling and yelling, it doesn’t jam these moments down your throat, instead letting the player suffer them in their own way. Simply put, this struggle is for the very survival of the planet, and not everyone is going to make it.
John Di Maggio returns as Marcus Fenix, Carlos Ferro comes back as a mentally shattered Santiago, Michael Gough still plays the rookie card for Carmine, Fred Tatasciore comes back to play tech expert Baird, and Lester Speight returns as the always-awesome (and loud) Cole. Claudia Black joins the crew as Sam, and even Ice-T turns in a solid performance as Griffin. Everyone from Gears 1 and 2 seems to make a return appearance but I can’t say more than that without revealing some plot points. Suffice it to say that the stakes have never been higher than in Gears 3, and it seems like everyone went and took some acting classes since the last title. No performances fell flat, and the writing seemed pretty tight throughout. It’s shocking to even write that as I can’t say I expected it on any level.
The musical score comes courtesy of a pair of very familiar names – Kevin Riepel and Steve Jablonsky. These two guys are responsible for the epic soundtracks to all three Transformers movies, Metal Gear Solid 2, The Sims 3, and even the 2013-slated Mortal Kombat movie relaunch! If you think of the iconic soundtracks for those movies and games, you can probably recall chunks of it without too much effort. These two write compelling soundtracks, and nowhere is that more evident than Gears 3. The music can make or break a tense or emotional moment, and Gears has both in equal measure. Similarly, the auditory experience wouldn’t be complete without a healthy dose of periphery sound effects like the iconic sound of the Lancer, the heavy concussion of the new shotgun, or the hearty thump of the Boomer. Rather than just recycle the sounds from the previous titles, it seems that even these small details might have gotten a little more polish.
“I’m coughing up blood that ain’t even mine!” – Baird
There is no doubt that Gears 2 had a fantastic multiplayer component, but it’s also true that people have a short memory. The launch of Gears 2 was absolutely painful, requiring several patches to bring the game to a serviceable state before things began to actually get ‘fun’. Unwilling to repeat the sins of the past, the folks at Epic kicked off a beta for Gears 3 multiplayer to ensure that everything would be smooth at launch. That effort paid off.
Before we dive headlong into the multiplayer, let me also mention that you can play cooperative multiplayer with three other players through the single player game. The bots do a great job of keeping up with you, flanking, covering, and reviving you as needed this time around, but it’s still far more fun with your friends.
Epic pulled out all of the stops with multiplayer last time around, and they are looking to enhance what works and drop what doesn’t. Competitive multiplayer types like King of the Hill, Deathmatch, Team Deathmatch, Capture the Leader, and King of the Hill make an appearance across the 10 included maps (look for the return of classic map Gridlock, but this time…in the dark!), but the real darlings are the returning Horde mode and a new mode called Beast.
Horde mode takes the originally presented system from the previous title and adds a little dash of change. This time around you’ll be earning cash for your efforts, and that cash can be used to deploy solid barriers, fences, decoys, gun nests and more in your efforts to hold back the tide of Locust assaulting your position. A larger change is that you’ll now be facing off against bosses every 10 levels on your rise to 50. If any of this sounds familiar, that’d be because you are already playing it on a micro level on your cell phone or in your browser – Horde mode just got a dash of Tower Defense. It breaks the run and gun gameplay into something smarter, requiring constantly shifting tactics to get the right emplacements up before the next wave.
Beast mode is a new five-player mode where you’ll play as the Horde, taking on C.O.G. soldiers in progressively tougher waves. While this sounds exactly like Horde but from the other side, it is not that simple. The Horde army comes in varying strength so you’ll be selecting from a variety of creature types including Wretches, Tickers, Boomers, and even Berserkers. The Horde is strong in an overwhelming fashion, so beating this mode is actually somewhat easier than the revamped Horde mode, so there is more of an emphasis on the amount of time it takes you to plow through 12 rounds. Think of it as a Horde mode that doesn’t require a cast iron bladder as you can clip through it in less than an hour.
I do have to admit that there is a certain satisfaction to one-upping your friends. Everything you do in Gears of War 3 is recorded for just this purpose. Your accuracy with every weapon, your fastest times in Beast mode, your kill to death ratios, and everything in between are recorded and displayed for the world to see. Levelling up grants players access to new weapon skins, new characters, 13 crazy game mutators (a nice throwback to the Unreal Tournament series), and a ton of medals and ribbons to earn along with your achievements. The great part is that, on a long enough timeline, all of these ribbons and medals are reachable, with the only exception being the Beta Participation medal – if you missed it, you missed out. All of these upgrades are 100% cosmetic, so you don’t have to worry about higher level characters dominating you unfairly. There are even items you can only earn by doing well in the first two games, so completionists may need to replay the previous titles. Another nice touch is the included game calendar. It’ll be interesting to see what Epic has in store for that little gem.
“Welcome back to Delta.” - Marcus Fenix
Aliens 3, The Matrix Reloaded, The Next Karate Kid, Jaws 3D, and The Godfather III all have one thing in common – they are (arguably) very weak third-movie sequels to otherwise great franchises. It’s so often that by the third outing both games and movies can lose any hope of a coherent storyline or sensible character arc. Gears of War 3 manages to dodge that bullet, ending up stronger than the previous two titles in every way. The solid multiplayer, a somewhat meaningful single player experience, an epic score, and the chance to share it with your friends is a compelling package. Very few games manage to close out a trilogy this well, but the folks at Epic have outdone themselves. While it isn’t without flaw, Gears of War 3 has cemented itself as a contender for Shooter of the Year.