Preface: Feelings of disappointment pervaded the gaming world when it was announced that Gears of War 3, originally slated for an April 2011 release, was delayed to September later in the year. Without a doubt, Microsoft was looking for a major Xbox 360 exclusive title to have in store for the holiday season, and subjected Gears to take that spot. To appease the rightfully downtrodden fans, Epic Games used the extra time on their hands to run a beta test for the online multiplayer. This gave people a taste of the visceral gore and combat that they would be in store. Not only that, but the extra months that Epic was afforded to work on the game allowed them to spruce up and polish Gears of War 3 to a level of standards that would again raise the bar in the industry.
Story: Although novels connect the end of Gears of War 2 and the start of Gears of War 3, fans that solely play the games will still be able to understand everything so far. Conveniently, there is a “Previously in Gears” option for players entirely new to the series that recaps everything up to this point. Two years have passed since the end of Gears 2, where the last human stronghold Jacinto was drowned. Effectively, the humans lost their home, but so did their enemies, the Locust, whose tunnels were flooded by the ensuing torrent. At the start of the game, the homeless humans now live a life at sea aboard cruiser ships. A new threat arises that poses a danger to Locust and human alike – the Lambent. These infected variants of the Locust grow vibrantly in orange and yellow and viciously assault the human ship at the start of the game.
Protagonist Marcus Fenix receives a message from his father, whom he thought dead. He has a message for him but part of it is encrypted, sending Marcus and friends on a journey to uncover the mysteries behind both the Locust and the Lambent. While the story has its fair share of shocks and high impact moments, the truth is that more questions are raised than are answered.
Setting: While the entire series is known for its perceived proliferation of clouding many modern video games with the dull and washed out color scheme of brown and grey, Gears 3 drastically turns things around. The first two games spent overbearing amounts of time underground, where the dark and gritty atmosphere could be almost overwhelming at times. In Gears 3, expect a whole plethora of varied environments. From the surprisingly bright ship the game starts on, to forests, trenches, dockyards, submarine bays, towns, secret bases, and one exceptionally luxurious and colorful hotel, expect a wild ride in the Gears 3 campaign in respect to background locations. The game’s multiplayer maps draw similarly from varied environments and in particular there is a sandy, sprawling beach level called Sandbar that I find other players in the lobby scrambling to vote for immediately as soon as it comes up as a choice.
Gameplay: The tried and true third person gameplay of the Gears series makes its triumphant return, with some excellent refinements. For the uninitiated, the game as a whole has a relatively weighty feel to it. Shooting a continuous stream of bullets into a target and hearing the feedback noises of the piercing of flesh via brutal sloshing noises is simply a satisfying moment of reprieve. In order to achieve these moments, the game encourages that players take cover to avoid getting shot, and peer out to fire your own shots when the right times arises. Every iteration of the game has expanded upon this concept. Getting into and out of cover, and mobility in general, has become smoother and cleaner over time. An example of additional refinement is that in Gears 3, hopping over a piece of cover while an enemy is directly on the other side will cause your character to kick theirs on the way down, momentarily stunning them and allowing you a chance for the kill.
When it comes to variety in game modes, Gears of War 3 is the total package. There is the obligatory campaign, of course, but it changes things up with the addition of four player co-op. Now, up to three people can join you in wiping out the Lambent and Locust alike. The result of constantly having four different people in the fight reflects in the campaign as seen in how nearly every instance of combat takes place in more spacious environments than ever before. This allows every player the room to freely maneuver and engage in flanking or cross firing tactics, adding a new layer of depth. An important thing to note is that enemy variety in Gears 3 absolutely trumps that of the previous two games. With the addition of the Lambent and plenty of new Locust variants and domesticated species, enemy variety is on a level I’ve never seen before. Set pieces and more importantly, boss battles frequently shake up the pace. Boss battles are admittedly one of the aspects that the previous games faltered in. But in Gears 3, they are here and better than ever – that might not be saying much but it beats having no bosses at all.
Aside from campaign, there are the co-op modes of Horde and Beast, essentially two distinct opposites. Horde, returning from Gears 2, is a mode where five players team up to play as the humans. They bunker down and choose a piece of the map to buy defenses and fortifications, similar to popular online tower defense games. The fortifications range from physical barricades, decoys, turrets, and the extremely powerful Silverback, a walking mech armed with a devastating machine gun and rockets. The mode boasts fifty waves, with each wave consisting of a finite amount of enemies. The enemies vary each time you play, but of course as you move up higher within the waves, they get progressively more difficult. Enemy variety is carried over from the campaign, making every time you play an unpredictable experience. Every tenth wave becomes a boss wave. In these waves, bosses from campaign and beyond choose to crash the party flanked by regular enemies. As players defeat enemies, they earn money that in turn can be used to build and repair fortifications.
Beast mode, on the other hand, boasts the ability for five players to assume the roles of the Locust beasts. Whereas Horde games emphasize defense and can be played at hours for a time, Beast emphasizes offense can be completed within 20 minutes. With only twelve waves, the players pick from a handful of different Locust creatures to become, and use them to attack and kill humans. Killing humans and breaking their defenses earns money used to purchase units to control. The higher tiers, of course unlocked via more killing and barrier breaking, allow players to become menacing centipedes, savage spiders, hulking Berserkers, and other destructive creatures previously thought to be unplayable. In this mode new to Gears 3, players can rid their frustrations of the enemies that terrorized them in campaign, and harness their power to do the same to the computer controlled humans.
Multiplayer: Last but not least, is the meat and potatoes of gaming in general to many. The sharpness of the multiplayer is easily noticed and has come about as a result of the beta. Lag has become an almost non-issue thanks the presence of dedicated servers. Versus multiplayer is generally fought 5 vs. 5, with one side being humans and the other being Locust. Neither side has any advantages or disadvantage – humans and Locusts play the same, since players can only choose the humanoid types of Locust. A respective blue and red color scheme make identifying friend from foe a non-trivial task. Gears 3 includes several match types, including the tried and true team deathmatch that nearly any gamer would be familiar with. In gears, though, limited respawns are allotted and shared between the whole team. The game’s balance, however, is a slightly questionable issue. In previous Gears games, most multiplayer matches boiled down to players getting up close and duking it out with the Gnasher Shotgun – the loser would more often than not explode into a pile of meat and blood. Using rifles like the infamous chainsaw equipped Lancer to shoot enemies from afar was rather futile, since smart players would simply take cover to heal the damage. That’s why close combat became the definitive method of making sure your opponent would not even have the opportunity to heal. In fact, this type of play could arguably define the Gears multiplayer experience overall. And the same rings true for Gears 3, for the most part. However, rifles have become more relevant thanks to damage boosts and the addition of the new Retro Lancer, a a more close range oriented rifle.
Regardless, shotguns continue to dominate – especially the newly added Sawed-off Shotgun. While the Gnasher required a degree of skill and aiming, or just luck, to be able to dispatch a foe in one shot, the Sawed-off is meant for newer players. It can instantly kill effortlessy by getting close to an enemy and pulling the trigger without even trying to line up the shot thanks to its massive range, especially horizontally. Thankfully, it has its drawbacks. It only has one bullet in the chamber, an incredibly high reload time, and the range to kill a player in one-shot is basically within touching distance. It loses out to the Gnasher due to the fact that it has eight shots before needing to reload and a faster firing rate. In the end, the decision to include the Sawed-off is understandable as it gives newer players a fighting chance against veterans that have mastered the Gnasher. Players using the Sawed-off will also begin to understanding the basics of close quarters combat with shotguns and can eventually transition to the Gnasher themselves if they would like to. Add in the fact that players who have never played a Gears game before get grouped up with each other in matches before eventually being allowed to play with everyone else, and Gears of War 3 solidifies itself as the most beginner friendly game of the series. Veterans can expect more of the same gruesome, up close gameplay with less lag and less frustration due to dedicated servers.
Conclusion: When it comes down to it, Gears of War 3 has everything that one would be looking for when deciding whether to shell out that crucial $60. However, if you’ve played a Gears game before and didn’t enjoy it, the latest iteration has likely done nothing to change your mind. Yet, for a gamer interested by the hype that this sequel has generated, you would be doing yourself a disservice by not playing the game. Overall, Gears of War 3 is a well-polished shooter with truckloads of content and is a serious contender for game of the year.