The Gears of War saga is one that has captivated a generation of Xbox gamers. Epic’s series has been almost single-handedly responsible for cover-based shooting mechanics, the “roadie run” and the revival health system. It’s also partially responsible for the “hulking muscle-head space marine” caricature we’ve seen in so many titles since Gears 1, but we’ll excuse it that last one.
The hype train for this title went faster than the Cole train in a Thrashball game, and no matter how good a game is often it can fall victim to its own hype with unrealistic expectations from fans. With the weight of a gaming world on his shoulders, can ‘Cliffy B’ and his team deliver?
Ever since those first notes of Mad World played out in its trailer, the Gears of War series has had an element of melancholy to it. To look at the game in action it wouldn’t seem so, but the storyline Epic has crafted throughout these three games is one of struggle, loss and overcoming insurmountable odds. Even just looking at the characters, it’s clear they are showing the effects of the endless battles, both Marcus and Dom’s faces looked wearied and even the perma-rookie Carmine now displays the scars of battle.
The final part of the trilogy sees the planet of Sera overrun with the imulsion infected Lambent, as Marcus, Dom and co attempt to find a way to destroy this new threat as well as finish off the remaining Locust. It’s a twisting storyline that ties up some loose ends from as far back as the first game, and yes, there is a similar moment of sadness to that of Dom’s wife in Gears 2. Tissues may be required.
True to series form, the visuals are among the best the 360 has to offer. Textures are amazingly detailed, and not just the obvious things like enemies and vehicles. Even the smallest objects and debris that litter cramped rooms to open expanses all have the same attention to detail applied. After another firefight has ended with the familiar gong sound, I found myself zooming in on items and continually being impressed at the obvious care and attention that shows through. The Lambent creatures are particularly a beautiful creation of neon horror and really are quite repulsive to look at (before quickly blasting them away).
The Gears games have always set a visual bar on Microsoft’s console, the lighting has always been particularly lovely, but in this third installment there is a fresh variance in the locales. It almost feels like Epic has let their level designing artists use the rest of the colour palette that isn’t grey, brown or black. Without spoiling the story, there are some incredible scenes set by dominating scenery. The locations literally do span from the clouds to under the sea.
The introduction of the Lambent stalks adds a different strategy compared to fighting regular Locust. Given the combustible nature, it isn’t advisable to get in close. Also, as the Lambent are ‘born’ from the pods that drop off of stalks, players will find themselves going between crowd management and trying to pre-emptively stop reinforcements by shooting the pods still attached to a stalk.
It isn’t simply a case of unloading a clip from the Lancer into these creatures either. Many mutate after taking so much damage and need to be hit in certain weak points. Even after hitting these weak points certain Lambent still make a desperate last-gasp attack with their bodiless heads snaking along the ground. The first time this happens it evokes the same feeling of fright and dread as the similar scene in John Carpenter’s The Thing.
As ‘Cliffy B’ recently put on his Twitter feed, Gears 3 isn’t a one-gun-game anymore. He may have been referencing the game’s multiplayer balancing, but it’s very apparent in the single-player campaign that proficient use of most weapons is required to perform well. My previous reliance on a shotgun and sniper combo was quickly put to the test as there are areas of the game where the ammo just isn’t available, thus the game coerces you into broadening your ordnance horizons.
It’s a brilliant design choice as the weaponry here is so individually unique and satisfying to use. The Hammerburst can be adapted into a mid-range headshot machine, the retro-Lancer acts like Pulse Rifle from Aliens, and the Torque Bow still gives me a ridiculous grin whether I’ve used it once or a thousand times. Simply put, he guns in this game are just damn fun to use. Add in a sprinkling of mecha and vehicular violence and it’s clear this is a game with variety at its core.
The multiplayer options Epic have given the player are vast, not quite ‘Halo-vast’, but commendable all the same. Each player has a unique profile where stats, awards and medal are all tracked through both the campaign and multiplayer modes. One criticism I levied at Gears 2 was that I found it difficult to just jump straight into a quick warzone match, far too long was spent waiting to find a game. This has been dramatically improved in Gears 3 and it is merely a matter of seconds to enter a quick, unranked game.
The ranked options are also improved, as are the range of game modes available. The new Beast Mode allows the player to see things, quite literally, from the other side of the conflict, playing as the Locust. It’s completely different from playing as a COG soldier, and there’s nothing else in the game quite like that first time you get to play as the Berserker. This game will eat months of peoples’ time.
Along with the new competitive modes are 4-player online co-op through the campaign. I played through the campaign in split-screen with a friend and both of us were impressed with how the visuals and frame rate held up, especially as some bosses are positively giant. Add in smoke effects, muzzle flashes and explosions and a lot can be going on at once, I’ve yet still to see the engine stutter.
Gears of War 3 is the Xbox’s blockbuster event of the year, a game that manages to pay fan service to veterans whilst evolving the core mechanics enough to keep it fresh and exciting. You’ll buy it to see what happens to Dom, Marcus, Cole, Baird et al, you’ll keep it because quite simply it’s one of the finest games on Microsoft’s console. The word epic is thrown around all too often when it comes to videogames, on this occasion the adjective is certainly merited.