Next to Halo, the Gears of War series is the most popular Xbox 360 exclusive title. Following in the footsteps of the 2006 original and its 2008 sequel, the inevitable Gears of War 3 is finally here. The third-person "duck and cover" shooter doles another healthy heaping of single and multiplayer chainsaw and machine gun ultraviolent action, as supersolider Marcus Fenix and his COG army are once again fighting to rid planet Sera of the murderous Locust Horde.
How does the third installment of the trilogy compare to its predecessors? And is this one worth your $60 (or even more, if you're opting for the Epic or Limited Editions)?
I'll admit I wasn't initially excited to get back into Marcus Fenix's boots for a third (and possibly last) time. The Gears of War franchise was beginning to smell like Halo to me; a handful of games that, for the most part, all play and look the same.
But Gears of War 3 makes some significant evolutionary steps, well beyond the game's face-lift that reassures it as one of, if not the, best-looking game on Xbox 360. Rest assured, Gears fans: Gears of War 3 is the most brutal game of them all, with a long campaign littered with plenty of jaw-dropping moments and a multiplayer component that has the polish and accessibility to stand on its own.
While Gears' basic gameplay remains untouched, there are few changes worth mentioning. In addition to a general fine-tuning that makes aiming, shooting, and reloading smoother than ever, there are a few new melee animations and abilities as well as new weapons.
But where I was really floored came in the form of Gears of War 3's fantastic multiplayer effort. Matchmaking implementation is tremendous, and players easily slide in and out of co-op in real time. It's also much simpler to set parties up, something past Gears games struggled with. Of course I've been playing without hiccups the entire week before public launch, so I'll be interested to see if the silky smooth performance continues on Tuesday.
Beast mode and Horde 2.0 are an absolute blast to play with friends--the latter really taking up the majority of my online time with the game. The wave after wave and purchasing barricades and weapons layout is an addictive formula that'll have Gears veterans drooling and will definitely appeal to gamers who may not have looked past the single-player campaign in previous Gears titles.
In terms of storytelling, Gears 3 will probably induce a handful of eye-rolling moments, but it also does a respectable job at conveying a comprehensive plot. This is even further enforced by Epic Games' tasteful "last time on Gears" video sizzle reel that we encourage gamers old and new to the franchise to sit through before starting a new campaign. Gears 3 successfully presents the Gears universe better than any game in the franchise.
While it's probably a no-brainer purchase for the Gears faithful, those apprehensive gamers who may have been hesitant on pulling the trigger should know that Gears of War 3 definitely delivers on multiple levels--well beyond my expectations. In a market where it seems console exclusives are going the way of the buffalo, Gears of War 3 will make plenty of Xbox 360 owners glad they own one.
For a franchise that, let's be honest, hasn't messed with its formula too much since day one, the Gears of War series concludes (for now, at least) with a surprisingly strong experience in Gears 3.
In a way, it's a bit like the iPad: the actual specs seem a bit rote on paper, but it really shines in person. That's what makes interactive entertainment such a thrilling medium to spend time thinking (and writing) about. Like a good genre move, the end result can sometimes, if rarely, end up being far more than the sum of its parts. This is, we should note, an especially hard trick to pull off for the second sequel of a best-selling money machine, no doubt focus-grouped to death and under great corporate pressure to perform at the video game equivalent of the box office.
Sure, the color palette here is largely the same as Gears 1 and 2, as are the stock gruff-sounding characters, cliched dialogue, and soap-opera plot twists, as well as the basic duck-and-move mechanic, which sees players taking cover behind conveniently placed boxes, crates, and low walls (thank goodness the people of the planet Sera weren't aesthetic minimalists). Here, at least, the action is fairly varied, taking you from sea to land, and switching character POV fairly early in the game for added variety.
So, why does the Gears of War series succeed, where other post-apocalyptic action franchises (Killzone, Resistance, etc.) struggle to hit mediocre? Maybe it's that while Gears may not have invented the cover-fire mechanic for action games, it certainly mainstreamed it in a major way. Before the original Gears of War, running headlong into a fight, guns blazing, was your only option in most games. By adding some light strategy to the mix, and taking the "camper" pejorative out of ducking and hiding, Gears felt like one of the first truly grown-up action games (writing and acting aside, of course). Sure, nearly every game has some version of the cover mechanic now, but Gears 3 reminds you who really owns the idea.
In the binary system of classifying games as either storytelling experiences with some interactivity or as highly developed game mechanics with a little narrative window dressing, Gears 3 falls firmly in the latter category. For evidence, one needs to look no further than the four-on-four multiplayer matches, which are even more fun than the game's plot-driven campaign. That's the duck-hide-shoot formula distilled to its base essence, and one of the most addictive multiplayer experiences we've had all year.
It manages to be both less cerebral than Deus Ex: Human Evolution and less heart-pounding than Dead Island, two recent favorites--yet, for what it's worth, it's been nearly impossible to put down Gears of War 3 to return to either of those other games this past week.
Sometimes, a good video game feels like eating a good mac and cheese. Yes, there are many decent mac and cheeses around, but a great one is still worth going out of your way for. I consider the Gears series to be superior shooter-action comfort food: excellent in execution, easy to slide into, and utterly addictive. That being said, if Gears is a phenomenal mac and cheese, it isn't advanced molecular gastronomy. The third game in the series--and the last--plays out like many shooter and science-fiction cliches, both in terms of pacing and of tone. When the admittedly impressive Gears single-player campaign tries for extra shades and depths of emotion, the result feels like Muppet Hamlet.
But--and this is the important part--few games can match the single-player, multiplayer, and co-op package that Gears of War 3 brings this holiday. I loved how seamlessly my single-player gaming suddenly turned into late-night co-op with Dan Ackerman. The graphics are a step above previous Gears games, even though you can sense that this final Gears is scraping the ceiling of current-gen. This is an ode to the Great Studio Game as we've known it from 2006 to the present, and should be celebrated.
Gears 3 doesn't seem as playful or as surprising as Gears 2 did when it came out. Nor does it seem quite as relevant. The apocalyptic story elements and stock characters encountered at times feel like Fallout, Borderlands, or any one of a dozen other games. Still, this Gears franchise has influenced shooters as we know them--and possibly all action games. And, it's still a great play. I'd rather have more-unusual or -experimental games to play, just like I prefer odd indie movies to the action-packed Hollywood blockbuster, but I can't think of many Xbox 360 must-haves bigger than this one.
Gears of War 3 is available in the U.S. starting today. The game is rated M (suitable for those 17 and older) for "Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, and Strong Language."