September 15, 2011
It could be said that in the same way Halo made the Xbox what it is today, Gears of War did the same for the Xbox 360. Sure, Halo has contributed to the success of the current console, but not quite like Gears of War has. From the off it pushed the boundaries and set new standards, not only from a visual perspective, but from a gameplay perspective. Here we are though, four years later, millions of copies of the franchise sold to date, and with the third game finally upon us; Epic Games is bringing the console-shifting trilogy to a close and thankfully for us, they do so in style.
Picking up a few short years after the events of Gears of War 2, the threequel picks up with humanity on its last legs and Sera struggling to cope with the rise in Imulsion and the unsightly beasts it’s spawned. With Delta squad forced to hole themselves up on Raven’s Nest, a huge tanker in the middle of the sea along with the rest of the COGs, the story kicks off with the emergence of some shocking information and the return of a few characters to help give humanity a slight chance in their fight for survival.
As far as stories and wrapping up the inevitable conclusion goes, Epic can’t really be faulted for its conclusion to Marcus Fenix’s narrative arc, with the studio seemingly getting all of the requisite peaks and troughs in exactly the right places. Epic attempted to instil a bit of emotion into Gears of War 2’s campaign but it came across as a tad forced. however, with Gears of War 3 they have remedied that and managed to tell a story with a lot of meaning, emotion and tear-jerking moments, making it quite easily the best Gears chapter yet – the end of Act 3 in particular is a high point for the game.
With Gears of War 3, Epic has carved a story that not only makes you feel like you’re part of something big - a band of brothers and a squad of soldiers fighting for a noble cause - but they make you feel like you can make all the difference, giving you a reason to fight. It’s the togetherness and that sense of being part of a brotherhood that gives Gears’ campaign so much pull, and whether it’s the fragile state of mind of Cole or Baird who look like soldiers on the edge; or the sombre and macabre tones of Dom who lost his world in Gears 2 when Maria died; they all help add to the drama and tension of it all. It definitely helps that Gears 3's story feels tangible and believable, avoiding being overtly complex, while tying up most, if not all, of the loose ends… What else can you ask for? The comedy element, you say? Baird, Cole and Sam have you covered there.
Thankfully for players, Epic seems to have shaken the set-piece mentality that they got obsessed with in Gears of War 2, replacing it with a more action-orientated one. However, it’s not all plain sailing and if there was one criticism we had to level at the campaign, it’s that maybe Epic got the pacing all wrong, opting to offer players no real let up in action – ultimately resulting in difficulty spikes towards the end of the game – and a real intensity about things that can often become a little too much.
Gears of War 3 isn’t just a case of more intensity though with no real innovation. Epic has done that by not only offering a new selection of standard weapons, but also with a new enemy subset that revolves around the Imulsion. With the Retro Lancer, the Lancer and the Hammerburst, Epic has given choice to the player in terms of what ranged combat they partake in; same with the shotguns – the Sawed-Off and the Gnasher. That said, the Sawed-Off, which is the most powerful of the shotguns, having a much wider spread but less reach than the Gnasher, can tend to be a bit of a cheat against the AI, rendering you almost invincible with it equipped. Quite why they chose to make the Longshot a power weapon now, meaning ammo crates don’t replenish its stock, I’ll never know. In terms of new weapons though, aside from the above, players can expect to have fun with the Digger, the One-Shot and more, as Epic instils enough crazy weapons into the third in the trilogy to satisfy our bloodlust.
The Imulson in Gears of War 3 has allowed Epic to create a whole new race of enemies that range from the crab-like Polyps to the hulking Lambent Berserkers. Not all of them are takes on various Locusts either, with the Drudges for instance being able to mutate into various different stages. However, the explosive Imulsion makes the Lambent a damn sight trickier to chainsaw with the Lancer or splatter with the shotgun, mainly because of the resulting splash damage their explosions cause. Fear not though, the Locust are still here, but after the events of Gears 2, they’re more savage and less organised than ever before. In terms of bosses, Epic has taken cues from Japan here, creating bigger and more intense boss battles as the game goes on. You’ll be thankful to hear as well that the final boss is a hell of a lot more interesting than that Skorge fella.
Of course, this is a four-player co-op campaign if you want, so it’s important that the balance of the levels and environments are spot on… and that they are. The mini-battlefields that Epic has crafted are more akin to Gears 1 than Gears 2, in that they’re much more wide open and there’s less of that claustrophobic corridor shooting, so to speak. A couple of these new environments are very 'un-Gearsy' too and that right there is a breath of fresh air in itself, generally making the ride a much more enjoyable experience.
Obviously ammo conservation and running out of ammo can be an issue in co-op, so you’ll need to work together. Yes, that means that you should be spotting enemies to make your whole lives easier as well (like in Battlefield). If you’re playing alone, fear not, as your AI buddies are more than competent and will always help you when you're downed. In fact, we’d go as far as to say it’s ten-times easier in single-player than it is in co-op.
Thanks to the Arcade mode as well – allowing you to go back and play the campaign with certain mutators (like the laugh track, which treats your experience like a soap opera in front of a live studio audience or the big head mode) – there’ll always be a reason to go back. So whether you want to go and make the campaign easier, harder or more random with some fun mutators - hell, you can use it to show your friends you’re the best and can outscore them - it adds another element to Gears’ already impressive package.
Speaking of adding another leg, making Gears more of a quadpod than a tripod, one of this year’s big additions is the Beast mode, allowing you to play as the Locust and take down a series of AI-controlled human survivors. Fighting against a one-minute clock in each of the 12 waves, players are tasked with taking down the various humans on the map, with them getting progressively harder as you get further in – taking on Chairman Prescott and the nimble Onyx Guards in wave 12 – and being rewarded with time boosts along the way. The COG troops may have fortifications, turrets, barriers and other such stuff at their disposal, but the more you earn, the more Locust you’ll have access to, ranging from Tickers on Tier 1 to Armoured Kantus on Tier 4. Our only grumble is that Beast, although fun and a great little addition to the franchise, doesn’t really feel like a fully-blown leg of the franchise like Horde does and is really only a temporary distraction if anything.
As far as Horde goes, the phrase, “If it ain't broke, don’t fix it, but if you can make it better, go nuts!” comes to mind here and while it’s largely untouched – you fight 50 waves of Locust and Imultibots (trademark pending) on a map – the new tweaks change the mode for the better. The main addition is the chance to earn cash throughout every round, which you can then spend on fortifications so you can dig your heels in and really fight off the horde. With the ability to purchase (and upgrade) barriers, decoys, sentries, turrets and even purchase a Silverback – the mech from the single-player campaign – you should be able to back yourself into a corner and really defend a spot on the map. In the category of “additions-but-not-quite-so-big,” every 8 waves, players will now have a bonus objective – kill 7 Locust infantry with a turret, for instance – to earn extra cash and every 10th wave is a boss wave. Yes, you’ll be able to fight a Brumak on the Checkout map, which is rather odd considering its size.
There does seem to be a few balancing issues with said boss waves though, in that the Brumak is easy to take down, but fighting four Berserkers is not, especially when they bring the new Armoured Kantus – who are essentially bulletproof – in with them. That however, is only a minor quibble, and thanks to the new changes, Gears of War 3’s Horde mode is as good and addictive as it’s ever been.
It’s the competitive Versus multiplayer that’s had the most tweaks though, and not only does it have a new mode called Team Deathmatch, where each team shares a pool of 20 deaths, but the other modes have been refined as well. Well, most of them, as Warzone and Execution remain largely untouched – changing them though would be like changing the rules of football! Capture the Leader in Gears 3 is like an amalgamation of the Guardian and Submission game types from Gears 2, while King of the Hill is like King of the Hill fused with Annex from Gears 2. Oh, and Wingman is now 8 players, rather than 10. They are refinements that actually make sense though and each mode is all the better for it.
With 10 maps, including the return of Gridlock, it’ll take players a while before they’re craving some new maps we expect. Epic is the king of balancing multiplayer maps and seems to be right on the money here, even taking feedback from the beta to change around a few of the maps that were played by the general public – Trenches and Trashball especially. Everything seems to be that much more stable online too, no doubt as a result of the beta, and while Gears of War 2’s launch from a multiplayer perspective was a bit of a mess, there appears to be no such issues here… For now, anyway. What it’ll be like with 3 million people on at once though, we’ll have to wait and see. Early signs are positive though.
No matter which way you look at it, there’s something for everyone in this package: four-player co-op campaign, a campaign that can be played solo without having to worry about stupid AI, an arcade mode version of the campaign with mutators, competitive versus modes, and two co-op modes in the form of Beast and Horde. With the events calendar, ribbons being awarded for doing various tasks in the game (killing 10 enemies without dying for instance), medals of varying degrees offered for more long-term goals (get thousands of kills with various weapons for instance), hugely detailed stats and a much more detailed achievement diary, there’s not one area of Gears 3 where you can really criticise Epic.
Well, maybe the achievements, which have about as much originality and innovation in them than an episode of Dragon’s Den, USA. The vast majority of achievements you’ll get by just going through the motions in every mode – complete the campaign on Insane, doing it in co-op, doing that in arcade mode, completing every chapter - yes, there are 26 achievements just for completing various chapters *yawn* - completing Beast, completing Horde and so on. Then there’s the infamous “Seriously 3.0” achievement which Epic seems to have gotten carried away with, which certainly is a shame. Asking players to get to level 100 – across all modes, of course – and earn all of the Onyx medals (which range from completing Beast on Insane without failing a wave to killing an insane amount of people with the various guns in the game) is a steep ask for even the most ardent Gears heads, and it’s an achievement that probably only 0.01% of Gears players will get. A step too far there? Me thinks so.
Much like Halo: Reach, the sheer value of content on the Gears of War 3 disc is undeniable. Everything seems to have been polished to the Nth degree too – so much so you could probably see your ugly mug in the reflection on Marcus’ ball bag if you tried hard enough. As far as trilogy closing acts go, Gears of War 3 is the epitome of sequel progression, taking everything that slightly irked us with Gears of War 2 and rectifying it all for a much more enjoyable ride. With plenty of emotion embedded throughout the story, a more than satisfactory wrapping up of the events on Sera, more modes than you can shake a Lancer at and an insane amount of polish, Gears of War 3 won’t just be vying for the best Xbox 360 game come the end of the year, it could very well be in the running for best Xbox 360 game in the console’s lifecycle in a few years time. Bold words indeed!
Epic has nailed the audio in pretty much every sense here, from the guns and the original score all the way to the emotion conveyed by some of the manliest bastards in the video game sphere. 'Bodycount' playing during the end credits was a particularly special moment too.
Epic has gone against the grain for Gears of War 3 and actually instilled a bit of colour into some of the environments and it’s a better-looking game because of it. Its visuals don’t have the same impact now as they did 4 years ago, but they’re still up there with the best in the industry.
It’s hard to fault Gears from a playability standpoint, so we won’t.
A 10-12-hour campaign that can be played in co-op, Beast mode, Horde mode, Arcade mode, an events calendar, in-depth stats and an addictive Versus multiplayer mode; now that’s what I call value for money. It’s a shame the pacing was off in the campaign, otherwise it would have been 100.
It’s a list that does nothing wrong really – well, apart from Seriously 3.0 – but then again, it does nothing right either. Boring, uninspiring and completely devoid of inspiration.
Gears of War 3 is an unmitigated triumph for Epic, not only finishing off the trilogy in style, but doing so while expanding upon already sturdy foundations. It’s a game that tugs on the heartstrings at times, raising more than a few laughs, offering undeniable value for money and boasting production values of a Hollywood movie. Gears of War 3 is the very definition of a killer-app and is shaping up to be Microsoft’s new Halo.