Between the Unreal technology pushing its bulky, meaty visuals and the easy-to-adopt cover-based firefights, the Gears of War series has made an indelible impact on the Xbox 360's community over the past 5 years. Both celebrated as a fan-favorite and, for some, a benchmark, the series' influences can be felt throughout the industry when comparisons are made of a game's visual quality, gameplay systems and artistic style. Not to mention, besides the ever-popular and -populated Halo and Call of Duty behemoths, it's one of the top franchises played on Xbox LIVE.
For those not totally compelled by overly gratuitous fleshy explosions however (myself included), the series has always been a bit shallow to warrant more than curious exploration to see what all the fuss was about—and by that time, without dedication to learning particular rhythms or accepting the dodgeball-like scramble for on-field weaponry, dropping into competitive online games around Sera only made such displays all too frequent. The story never went as deep as the Locust hid, and the cover mechanics, though well-executed, could be described more as a reliant gimmick than strategic element. Epic Games has been able to show how adept they are at utilizing their own technology, but with only feigned attempt at capturing more than heavy action.
Fortunately, this middling direction manages to take a surprising turn with the conclusion of the three-part Fenix saga. Though still driven by the cover-shoot-move content of the series' history, Gears of War 3 exhibits more than an idle attempt at characterization and tries fresh ways to explore dramatic struggles. By and large it's still a successfully action-centered game with more than its fair share of expletive laden dialogue, but Epic also give us glimpses at the effects of tragedy and illusions of more to do than just pull a trigger or use a chainsaw bayonet. The most interesting changes to the Gears formula are almost entirely front loaded, both in game and at the main menu, but at points throughout 3, there's smart, interesting implementation of the now four-player cooperative campaign. Some other additions and tweaks might not be as revelatory for the series, but they round out what plays, overall, as a solid experience.
Picking up 18 months after Gears of War 2's final moments, 3 once again puts players in the boots of a Delta Squad COG, this time as part of a group trying to outpace the emergent threat of the infected Lambent and pursuing Locusts. Throughout the campaign, various characters grab the spotlight from poster-boy Marcus Fenix and longtime companion Dom as efforts to survive both factions of enemies take the story from battleship to beachhead, ruined city to secret locale. The settings are beautifully varied, bringing you from one expertly rendered and fully crafted environment to another. Outside, far-off distances are painted with so much more than a mere haze, while indoor passages shy away from the tired industrial habit of other shooters.
The story that unfolds throughout these vistas and in the mix of corridors might not be equally as impressive, but the moments in which the game tries to elevate itself from being more than a pure shooter, few they may be, are indeed engaging. Pathways staggered with half-board walls and other waist-high obstructions become overt signals to an inevitable precipitation of that familiar Gears combat, but it's while walking amongst the Stranded when revisiting the defunct hometowns of Delta Squad's past, sometimes interacting with objects, where I was able to feel some sort of emotion.
Inconceivable? The tradition for shooters to be little else than causeways of hellfire might make 3's few evocative qualities contradictory, but they're there. When Cole returns to the city where he's known as a beloved professional thrasher ball player, known as “Cole Train,” and flashes back to his glory days, holding a ball instead of a lancer and wearing pads instead of body armor—these are the kind of instances where Epic use their graphical prowess to create something. The emotive qualities diminish the longer you play through the game, becoming more contrived without being afforded proper set up, but their inclusion is appreciable.
Nonetheless, when Gears 3 falls back on its established violent conventions, it's no less accomplished as either of the series' predecessor. New, bigger and more destructive weapons work their way into the mix, along with the debut of enemy types to wield them, but ducking behind cover with a Snub pistol at the beginning of the game isn't much different than with a Gorgon pistol at its closing. A few on-rails stages in new armaments break up the monotony of going cover-to-cover with enemies, and the inclusion of the infinitely ammo'd Silverback mechs (with its deployable cover while planted) break up the footrace between showdowns.
Yet the wealth of the time spent uncovering what happened to Adam Fenix revolves around predictable leapfrog battles that play out similarly, only now they can be done with three other companions. The either/or decisions made throughout the game still carry little impact—you just take the high route rather than the low, or vice versa—but with buddies, regrouping carries more tangible camaraderie. A couple of sections even require teamwork when one partner jumps in a mechanical suit to transport heavy cargo from a starting position to a goal.
No matter who you play with however, Epic fall prey to the easy cop-out adversary when the Lambent's presence becomes more prevalent. While going into more details ventures too far into spoiler territory, let's just say the result of their inclusion isn't all that different than when the Flood took over in Halo.
Gears 3's campaign is easily more accomplished and engaging when compared to the series' preceding installments, even if the brightest points only get the quick touchstone treatment, but it's a story that knows how to get on with it at the right points and doesn't drag on. It's not perfect, but it's good.
The same goes for the seamlessly integrated multiplayer functionality. Certainly, if you haven't been at least somewhat interested in the Gears Versus setup by now, this sequel won't be the driving force to convince you otherwise. The competitive options stand as simply refined versions of their previous iterations, not revolutionary or completely unique attempts at changing things up for the finale (deathmatches with respawns and capture a team leader instead of a flag, for example)—but it all works well in its own idiom, especially if you're an already initiated COG. Those shotgun-on-shotgun roll-around gambles remain a desperate vehicle to victory, but it's typically those most skilled at capturing on-field weaponry who wreak havoc against others.
While the four-player co-op extends into a play-for-points Arcade story mode, players can also battle together in an enhanced Horde mode that builds on the revered survival scenario and outshines a newly instituted Beast mode. The big change for Horde 2.0 is an in-game currency system. The twist of earning money from fending off attackers and spending that cash to build and upgrade stronghold command posts in predetermined points of an arena creates a kind of tower defense mini-game. Barriers, decoys, turrets and the like can be erected to slow encroaching enemies, creating more varied strategies when successively harder waves come at you. In this case, survival isn't just a scramble, it's also resource management.
Less interesting is Beast mode. Instead of battling off Locust infestations as humans, choosing to play Beast mode allows you to take control of different Locusts to decimate human bastions in quickly timed intervals. With one-minute countdowns replenished by destroying those same fortifications that help you in Horde mode, or massacring groups of Stranded, there's a tension of urgency. Another currency system also restricts which types of Locust you can spawn as (stronger variants are parceled out as you progress through the levels) balancing how deadly a creature you can use with how often you die. If the thought is new content is a requisite for sequels, Beast mode is a check is that box, it just doesn't steal the show.
Everything comes together as one connected, stat-tracking package though; there isn't a feeling of disparate systems. From completing acts in the campaign to capturing rotating control points online, everything you do accumulates to unlock content. Commendations and medals compile to rank up your profile in a way reminiscent of Halo's interconnectedness, even when playing locally with friends. Parts to the final entry of the Gears trilogy might not completely reach the heights they first allude to try and fulfill, and not everything new is especially awesome. Nevertheless, there are two ways to look at Gears of War 3: it's the best of the series; and, it's not a disappointing ending.
Good job, Epic.
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