Not even Cole's hometown is safe from the Lambent threat.
The Gears of War franchise is no stranger to criticism. Issues with lag or lack of weapon balancing have raised multiplayer concerns in the past, but Epic is seeking to rectify those problems and then some. In numerous interviews, Cliff Blezinski guaranteed the biggest campaign Gears fans have ever seen, though gamers have been made promises before with haphazard results – I’m looking at you Peter Molyneux. Anyone hesitant to read the four novels released since the series’ inception will be thankful for the brief narrative recap, too. Believe me when I say Sera has gone through hell the past two years.
With the resignation of Chairman Prescott, the Coalition can no longer pretend to be an organized government. The COG has disbanded, leaving the remnants of humanity to fend for themselves in a world slowly succumbing to the Lambent infection. These mutating “glowies” don’t make survival any easier, as each death reverberates throughout the dwindling population. Even the down-but-not-out Locust are stranded now, flooded from their homes after the sinking of Jacinto. Marcus, however, our Gears of War poster boy with daddy issues, is living aboard a reconstructed battleship with the rest of Delta when he learns his father may still be alive. Furthermore, Adam Fenix might be able to cure the planet. After failing to save his father years before and being tormented by endless nightmares, Marcus sees a chance for redemption.
Helmets are nigh useless in the Gears universe.
Gears of War has never been known for an award-winning storyline like Mass Effect, but neither is it a convoluted mess with plot details hidden away in collectible journals. In hindsight, bringing on Karen Traviss to pen the latest Gears’ story has only helped the narrative. Some of the dialogue is cheesy, but the characters have chemistry. Their humanizing revelations illustrate that even the most steroid-infused soldiers are not immune to the effects of war. A certain protagonist's death should have resonated with me far longer than Dom's euthanizing of Maria, yet the grizzled voice acting that immediately follows lessens the emotional trauma. That annoyance aside, Gears of War 3 serves up a cohesive, emotionally appropriate conclusion to the heroics of Delta Squad.
Speaking of Delta, all the testosterone-oozing combatants that weren’t killed off in Gears of War 2 are back. Baird and his signature brand of smartass comments are humorous, and everyone’s go-to optimist of pure adrenaline, Cole, is still the same laughable hero. Despite their facades, though, the endless fighting has taken its toll mentally and physically, and mankind is living on borrowed time. In a decisive three-way war for Sera, even the women must fight for humanity’s survival, as combat-ready Anya Stroud and Samantha Byrne suit up alongside the gruff-talking men.
Delta Squad has changed since their last outing.
In a game of over-the-top, unrelenting, cinematic firefights, the set-pieces are simply unyielding, and dozens of new enemy types transform the battlefields into unbridled chaos. In the first act alone I fought Lambent stalks, juked Lambent Drudges in a decaying Thrashball stadium, and detonated a Lambent Leviathan. The campaign is ten hours of large-scale encounters and challenging boss fights that could easily serve as an epic conclusion. Marcus and company are no strangers to peril, but holding off a Brumak while a massive aircraft carrier slowly sinks into sea, going toe-to-toe with a Lambent Berserker in a secluded military fort, or defending an abandoned gas station while Lambent and Locust scale the roof is nothing short of climactic.
Of course, what would a title with the “Brothers to the End” moniker be without cooperative gameplay? The entirety of the story can be enjoyed with three other friends. Battling miniature Corpsers, Savage Boomers, or Lambent Drones proves all the more harrowing when the difficulties begin to stack, and Arcade mode adds more replay value to an already comprehensive experience with competitive scoring. The more kills and assists the team earns, the greater the overall point multiplier. Should your teammates become incapacitated, though, the multiplier will drain continuously until you revive them. Mutators can be toggled on or off, too, provided the prerequisites have been met for unlocking these game-changers (imagine Halo 3’s skulls). Suddenly, engagements turn into frenzied free-for-alls, as friendly fire and enemies running around like decapitated chickens necessitate different play styles.
And this is just the first boss fight.
As you may have already surmised, gameplay is energetic, exhilarating, and violent. Initially, control switches between the various characters of Delta to provide different perspectives on the action, past and present, but the concept has already been introduced by the novels. Nevertheless, new mechanics, including mantle kicks, weapon swapping, and executions, encourage experimentation. Remember the Locust arm ripping execution that was deemed too graphic for Gears of War 2? It’s here.
Now Gearsheads are no strangers to unique weaponry. Gears of War 3 does well to expand its arsenal of deadly tools while keeping them believable in the series' context. The Siege Beast is a massive grasshopper-turned-catapult, the Digger Launcher fires a burrowing critter (strapped with explosives) underground toward its victims, the Hammerburst has been modified with iron sights for long-range encounters, and the Sawed-off Shotgun instantly gibs multiple enemies. But of all the fresh firearms, the Retro Lancer remains the most notable. With shoulder-breaking recoil, this Pendulum-era rifle will drop the most formidable Locust or Lambent without much effort, and a quick Retro charge will impale any unfortunate soul upon the affixed bayonet.
The Vulcan Cannon turns any and all enemies into a mist of blood and bone chips.
Horde mode, better known as the sole reason any game released in the last three years has cooperative wave survival gameplay, also returns in full force. In Gears of War 2, Horde was a simple matter of killing a Mauler, grabbing his shield, and planting that shield in a doorway to block the Locust’s advances. Now the tower defense aspect has been directly implemented into Horde 2.0. Murdering enemies rewards players with money, which feeds upgrades to the multitude of barriers, turrets, and decoys littering the battlefield. You’ll need all the help you can get, too, because a random boss will ruin your day every tenth wave. Moreover, each battle requires a particular set of tactics to overcome. While the lumbering Brumak may have trouble bending its missiles around cover, the Lambent Berserker will leap over said cover and pummel players senseless, a startling surprise that elicited a fair share of laughs and high-pitched screams from my teammates. Death can be a heavy price in Horde 2.0 as well – approximately $1,500 to be precise – and that amount only increases. Bringing four friends into the fray will help even the score, but friendly AI bots are sadly absent.
Beast mode, though, directly opposes Horde 2.0. While Horde focuses on hunkering down, building defenses, and surviving the onslaughts of Locust and Lambent, Beast mode emphasizes speed, pure and simple. Across 12 waves (much too short in my opinion), the Locust must destroy enemy fortifications and slaughter the COG’s mightiest heroes. A round timer signals the start of the wave, but damaging adverse emplacements will add crucial seconds to the clock. Variety is the spice of death, and Beast mode is no exception. Instead of blockades, players spend cash to control diverse Locust infantry. Nearly every Locust is playable as well, from the weaker, insignificant Tickers to the formidable Boomers, Corpsers, and Berserkers.
The enemies in the foreground are the least of your worries.
If any Gears fans told you why they have invested weeks of their lives into the franchise, however, I’m sure the multiplayer would be their answer. While Call of Duty-style ranks and progression easily remains the most copied formula, it’s not always the most balanced. In Gears of War 3, the only advantage higher ranked players have is more in-game experience. Ribbons and medals are the equivalent of Modern Warfare’s challenges. If there’s a way to kill your opponents, there is likely an experience bonus, yet only the truly persistent will max out their Onyx medals and earn the coveted Seriously 3.0 achievement.
And as one of the truly persistent, I have heard about every excuse in the Gears handbook for why someone lost a shotgun duel, whether it’s host advantage, abysmal lag, hacking, cheating, etc. Lag was an unfortunate familiarity of Gears past, but the community asked, and the developers answered. Not content to repeat their previous mistakes, dedicated servers promise to keep the online experience lag free, and breathe longevity into an already astounding package. Remember that word "promise"? In my five-year history of playing competitive Gears, the multiplayer has never been this smooth, nor this accessible; the shotgun spread remains consistent, and the hit detection makes headshots a breeze. Veterans will feel right at home wallbouncing, hip firing, and quick scoping their ways to victory.
I'm sure that Locust will be fine.
Still, there are plenty of options for less competitive players. A robust tracking system accumulates points earned from the campaign, Horde, Beast, and Versus, ensuring that anyone who wants to spend their time playing Horde rather than Warzone will never feel penalized experience-wise for playing their favorite modes.
If there is any game that could also sell a nonbeliever on the Xbox 360’s hardware, that game would be Gears of War 3. Gears of War 2 set the console bar in terms of graphical benchmarks three years ago, but Gears 3 takes that bar, beats the prequel over the head, and curb stomps the corpse. Sera remains populated with the usual apocalyptic shades of brown and gray, but a varied color palette makes the visuals pop. Vegetation now encloses buildings abandoned before the Hammer of Dawn strikes, and Stranded attempt to rebuild amid the squalor of a world gone wrong. Dynamic lighting changes while Delta navigates the environments, smoke seeps around pillars and chest-high walls, and the Lambent explode in a fireworks fashion, too, though the Unreal Engine still has its limitations. Minor hiccups halt a near-faultless presentation when textures load slowly, or when the rare enemy glitches through a wall.
In a flawless blend of blood, sweat, tears, and devoted community feedback, Gears of War 3 provides closure to Delta Squad’s story, a concept that has become more of an afterthought this console generation. I have no doubts gamers will see more content set in the Gears of War universe, and with two million pre-orders, the future looks bright for Gearsheads. Whether you’re a fan of epic (pun intended) campaigns, solid cooperative play, or hectic multiplayer battles, Gears of War 3 is crammed with limitless replay value. Minor technical blemishes hold back Epic Games' masterpiece from absolute perfection, but Delta Squad’s final journey is an unforgettable swan song and a blockbuster conclusion to a trilogy that must be played.
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Epic Games
Release Date: September 20, 2011
Number of Players: 1-4 (Campaign), 2-5 (Cooperative), 2-10 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed)