Review: Gears of War 3
The Gears of War series is the Die Hard of gaming. There is a meaty chunk of McClane in Fenix as he angrily cajoles himself over sloppy reloads before gun-sawing another grub with his tree trunk arms. It’s just reams upon reams of silly, gaudy action with no concerns over reason, context, or genuine storytelling. How much story is required to regale about four seemingly steroid-happy dudes with presumably compensatory weaponry? You just sit back and enjoy the ridiculous ride.
Yet, and it’s a subtle yet, Gears of Wars 3 is not the beast that came before. We’re not talking about Excellence in Writing awards or anything – it’s still a rollercoaster of nonsense – but where Gears of War didn’t give a proverbial beyond the next monster to dice, Gears of War 3 at least wants me to care about how it’s all going to end. It tries wary hands at emotion, directorial creativity, and most significantly at detailing the context of the post-apocalyptic Sera. It doesn’t really succeed with the first two. Even when it tries to be profound it comes off as unknowingly cheesy, but that’s OK.
What makes the final campaign my favourite of the series is that it perseveres at the third, over and over with a procession of different backdrops of battered civilisation. The first act takes me from a gloopy, discoloured dream sequence to defending a landing ship being attacked by an aptly-named Leviathan before carting off on a trek to the Cole Train’s old Thrashball stadium. There I play as the former star, guiding him through a hallucination as he imagines he’s back on the field running the ball to a touchdown, except that in reality the ball is a Lambent bomb that nearly kills him. Again, it’s ridiculous to the extreme and barely succeeds at poignancy, but that’s really not the point.
The point is that the welcome array of colourful backdrops, most of them quite reminiscent of Epic’s other major 2011 release, Bulletstorm, are the frame that Gears of War 3 uses to mix up the action and maintain that rollercoaster feeling. From the start to the finish the campaign is balls-out and go, go, go, but it is different kinds of go from one to the next. It’s still a heck of a lot of run-cover-and-kill, but there are natural transitions into decent stealth, siege, and defence sequences too. One particularly enjoyable chapter could almost be described as survival horror. Well, no, not really when you have shotguns as devastating as the wide-ranged sawn-off, but at the very least the chapter oddly comes across as a loving homage to Resident Evil 4 – and I wouldn’t expect that of a Gears game. Coming out of the corridors of browns and greys has allowed to the finale to really breathe.
What I do expect of a Gears campaign is uniquely testing action, and Gears of War 3 does deliver it more often than not, although the boss fights are erratic in their quality. As with the previous Gears, one or two sadly trade that backs-to-the-wall satisfaction for superficial scale and spectacle, but without a doubt I’ll say that trying to take down the demonic Incredible Hulk that is the Lambent Berserker in anything above Hardcore on the new (and well implemented) four-player co-op mode is a wonderful bit of toil. Firing shots into it up close before dodging its furious charges while being mindful of its devastating toxic trails is as thorny as it is intense. It’s a shame that the final fight doesn’t match its quality, but this doesn’t dampen things too much. It’s also a shame that the AI players are ostensibly more buffed than human players, hence the Berserker fight being significantly less satisfying in single-player when the AI trundles over invincibly to revive you each time you fall.
Of course, the new campaign also brings new weapons and enemies with it, but the best place to take them for a whirl – yes, the enemies too – is in multiplayer. If the single-player campaign can be summarised as taking as needed a more thoughtful approach to more of the same, then the online multiplayer is far closer to that old Gears 2 mantra of “bigger, better, and more badass.”
This all comes with the proviso that the matchmaking isn’t once again broken, of course. So, full disclosure: I’ve had no connectivity troubles so far with Epic’s new dedicated servers for the Team Deathmatch and Wingman modes, but other modes I’ve had to play in private because it seems the servers aren’t supporting them yet. I don’t see there being problems given how much effort Epic put into the Gears 3 beta and how well that ran, but it would be a very foolish man to say never.
If it all works smoothly then Gears fans are in for a treat. On the majority of the 10 maps the game is launching with, Team Deathmatch has a lovely pace to it. Shotguns in close quarters are devastating, but it barely takes a few seconds of rifle fire to take foes down so players shouldn’t be intimidated by double-barrelled dodgers even in close quarters of the supermarket-based Checkout map. Meanwhile, clearing out cover-happy combatants is not only aided by the likes of the Hammer of Dawn and the mortar, but by the quickly depletory incendiary grenades and in particular the Digger. Though it takes some practice to master, sending the digger explosive underground before releasing it next to a witless victim is so satisfying to pull off, just picturing the sudden realization and despair.
The map design is appreciably varied but for the most part within limits that keep matches balanced and enjoyable. Maps like Hotel and Thrashball let players tactically circumvent a central area of carnage, while the convoluted alleys, tricky hiding spots and winding gradient of the ransacked vista that is Old Town make it a great team-based map for communicative players to exploit. Not every map is so finely tuned, though. For example, the high ground in Overpass comes with a turret overlooking the action below. Once a few players take control of the platform under cover and behind the pillars they become very difficult to budge, which can be frustrating. As for Drydock, a map of a small dockside area, the narrow raised platform in the middle isn’t conducive to more than chaos around the two prized weapon spawns on the sides.
Overall, though, the team versus team multiplayer is a blast. There are few games that make a frag as satisfying as Gears, especially now with the humiliation of the new individual executions – there’s nothing quite like battering that guy who camped the weapon spawn with one of his detached limbs. The returning modes of King of the Hill, Wingman, Warzone, and Execution provide the spins, and the new Capture the Leader mode in which players use the opposing team’s leader as a meat shield fits in nicely to what’s on offer. Could it all be a bit more expansive? Maybe, but as long as it works fine I can’t see too many people complaining; progress is progress.
Of course, this is all forgetting the new and improved Horde mode with the new tower defence angle. As players defend against waves of both Locusts and Lambent they’ll gain money which they can spend on fortifications like spikes, turret, and decoys.
As the waves become ever more ridiculous and players are forced to defend against silly numbers of the toughest enemies like the machine-gunning grinders and lumbering, shielded mace wavers that are the Maulers, having the distraction of the electric barriers which enemies have to slowly grind through proves absolutely vital. Also detracting from the grind of defending 50 waves are bonus objectives to earn cash, things like making a certain number of headshots in a wave and so on.
The new Horde mode will, predictably, own many a life of a Gears fan. The other mode, Beast, isn’t quite as likely to. While the idea to play as the enemy attacking the defending human stranded and heroes is in principle a very good (if not original) one, the mode just isn’t as satisfying. As with Horde, players earn money as they progress by killing and demolishing the area, as they progress they can unlock new enemies. You may start off with things as lowly as a ticker, but you can progress up to regular grunt-like grenadiers and all the way up to the Lambent Berserker. Now, don’t get me wrong; it is as entertaining as anything to play as the Berserker with its muddled vision, always present maddening screams, and sheer ability to run and break through just about anything and everyone. Sadly, compared to everything else on offer – even the armoured Kantus which can only be taken down by explosive weapons – it’s just so powerful that even at higher cost it’s way too powerful to overlook given how the money will most likely be made back and then some. It’s a heck of a lot of fun to go around as a living wrecking ball, but with the limited number of waves in Beast anyway I suspect players will find more traction in the new and improved Horde mode.
The quality and extensiveness of the big-hitting multiplayer games like Call of Duty and Halo places that pressure on a fellow big name with troubled history in the field to deliver in every area, but I think Gears of War 3 will satisfy in most places where earlier entries did not – including the single-player. That’s not to say there aren’t issues, and that’s also not to say that in general what you’re looking at isn’t really more of the same because overall it really is, even with the subtleties in the campaign. Nonetheless, Gears of War 3 ticks the important boxes before sawing violently through the paper they were on. 2011′s fourth quarter is shaping up to be one of the biggest gaming has ever seen, or contrastingly one of the most hyped, so it’s promising that it kicks off with as satisfying a game as Gears of War 3.
Review: Gears of War 3 Results
What we liked:
Constantly variable and high-octane single-player
Multiplayer is balanced, pacey, and satisfying
Horde 2.0 comes fortified with strategy
What we disliked:
Beast mode isn't all it could be
Cheesy attempts at poignancy are still cheesy - and clumsy