The End Of An Epic Trilogy
In the same way that Halo helped to define the original Xbox, Gears of War, as a series, has been quintessential in defining the Xbox 360’s character. Epic’s Gears of War trilogy provided an excellent answer to the question: what can Microsoft do for me that Sony can’t? Despite the various criticisms thrown at it over the years (too much brown, ridiculous muscle head characters, a too-close-for comfort bromance between the two main characters) the series has endured and thrived. Games like Killzone and Resistance, while popular and good in their own rights, just have not been able to compete with the colossus that is Marcus Fenix and his band of merry murderers. Well, Epic recently released Gears of War 3, the end of the saga, and, like the previous two games, it has sold record numbers in just a couple of weeks.
As such, most of the fans of the first two games will have already purchased Gears of War 3, and probably would have done so regardless of review scores. As such, this review is not for them. There is no point in preaching to the choir, particularly a choir that almost certainly pre-ordered the damned game. Instead, this review is for those of you who are on the fence, who maybe didn’t like Gears 2, are generally not big fans of the series, or have never tried it at all. As someone who did not particularly enjoy the first two Gears games, I can say without any hesitation that Gears of War 3 is a fantastic shooter experience that even non-Gears-fans should enjoy.
Incremental But Significant Advancements
The original Gears of War helped to define what made a good third person shooter. Oh sure, third person shooting had been done before, as had cover mechanics (see Kill.Switch), but Epic really hit on a key formula when it made the first Gears game. Despite this, I could never seem to get into the gameplay of Gears. The gun play felt sluggish and boring, I did not enjoy fighting the Locust or closing emergence holes, characters moved too slowly for my tastes, and I really hated the Kryll. Even in the second game, once some improvements were made (and the Kryll, thankfully, disappeared for good), I tried but utterly failed at enjoying the gameplay.
I am happy to say that Gears 3 was a completely different experience for me, in terms of enjoying the gameplay. I am not sure exactly what they did to improve the way that the game flows, but I suspect it is a combination of many small things. For one, characters move quicker and seem to control tighter. Throughout the entire campaign I never struggled once with moving to and from cover. Moreover, the gun fighting seemed snappier and generally more enjoyable. The guns felt great to shoot, had good weight and heft, killed things quickly and efficiently, and there was a decent amount of variety when it came to ordinance.
Epic also went out of their way to keep the gameplay varied and interesting. One of my biggest issues about the first two Gears games is that they kept on devolving into bland shootouts in various arenas or corridors. Oh sure, Gears 2 had a few vehicle turret sequences, but it wasn’t enough for me. Happily, the action in Gears 3 moves at a great pace, and never feels monotonous. From exploring Char, to reliving Cole’s past glories on the thrashball field, to defending a fortress from an army of approaching Locust, the game just never settles for bland corridor (or courtyard) shooting. Gears 3 actually does a great job of presenting great set-piece action sequences while avoiding the Disney-ride feeling of many modern FPS’s like Modern Warfare.
Then, of course, there is the Lambent. In Gears 3, they are so much more than just deformed exploding Locust. Instead, they really are a whole new class of enemy, complete with various sub-types, each requiring different strategies to effectively defeat. While there are no emergence holes in Gears 3, the Lambent arrive via massive stalks which can shoot up (alarmingly) anywhere at any time. These stalks have pods on them that have to be destroyed to prevent more Lambent from spawning. It’s similar to emergence holes, but far more fun and visually interesting. The stalk mechanic also allows situations to get wonderfully hairy when three or four stalks shoot up from the ground all at once, just when you thought you were able to handle the six Locust you were already fighting.
Generally, the enemy AI is fantastic. Lambent and Locust all fight differently, and even at the normal setting (which will likely be too easy for seasoned Gears veterans), they fight smart. You will be flanked, and you will need to move from cover in order to prevent from being overrun. Likewise, your allies AI is actually decent. I found my computer-controlled teammates did a good job, generally, at taking out enemies and avoiding getting killed.
My one complaint in this area is that the friendly AI is not great about reviving you if you go down. More than once, I found myself slowly dying, crawling towards one of my teammates, who was entirely preoccupied with shooting an enemy that posed no threat while I bleed out literally at their feet. This isn’t a game-breaking issue, but it was annoying.
Finishing The Fight
Considering that I was not a Gears fan and only had a passing familiarity with the narrative from the first two games, I was worried that I would find the story in Gears 3 either unengaging or at least too complicated. After all, who wants to walk in to a movie 2/3 of the way through? Well, it was not the case. The writers did a great job at presenting the backstory of the first two games in a succinct and engaging way, right as the game first takes off. They left out a ton of detail, and according to Jeff they retcon’ed quite a bit, but considering I had almost nothing invested in the original two games, this was fine with me. Frankly, the story of Gears 3 actually does not require much knowledge of the events of the first two games. Most of the events, character motivations, and twists make sense in context.
It is always tough to end a trilogy. In many ways, Gears 3 is a more focused and personal narrative, having less to do with the overall struggle of humanity and more to do with Marcus in particular. Oh sure, humanity’s fate is dealt with as well, but only as a byproduct of Marcus’ own personal story. Specifically, the main focus in GOW3 is on Marcus and his father. As the game begins (slight spoiler here, but deal with it) Marcus receives a message from his father, long presumed dead, who tells him that not only is he alive, but that he is being held prisoner at an unknown location and may have a solution for the Locust/Lambent problem once and for all.
From there the story takes Marcus, Dom, Cole, Baird and their pals to a variety of locations, and most of the characters get a good chance to shine. The first chapter is particularly notable because, for at least half of it, you will not play as Marcus at all, but rather as Cole, as he revisits his home town. This leads to one of the cooler sequences in the game. Of course, I can’t talk too much about the story without getting into deep spoiler territory, but I will say that it accomplishes, largely, what it sets out to do. It provides a great framework for setting up conflicts, twists, and sacrifices. It has weight, and it does wrap up the overarching narrative in most respects.
That being said, there are some gaping plot holes that are never filled, and I am sure the Gears forums will be on fire about these for years. If you do decide to play this game, understand that it will not answer every question, and at least one major plot point at the end is irritatingly never dealt with. Even so, I was satisfied with the story and the ending.
Brothers (And Sisters) To The End
The rest of it is pretty simple. The game is fun to play, it tells a good story, and frankly it looks and sounds great. The game is more colorful and varied than the previous two Gears games, and the voice acting is spot on. Marcus, Dom, Cole and Baird all sound like you remember them, but my real praise goes out to the actresses who portrayed Anya and Sam.
Gears of War has taken a lot of flack for being too dude-bro, but I am happy to say that the two main female characters are interesting, entertaining, and (thankfully) not hyper-sexualized. I don’t know if this is a terribly sad thing to say, but I think Epic deserves some credit for portraying female soldiers in a respectful and semi-realistic way.
So here we are: I did not like Gears of War or its sequel, and yet I found myself anxiously playing GOW3 all the way through to the end. I also spent several hours on both Horde and Beast modes and found them to be a blast. If you are anything like me and were reluctant to try GOW3, you may want to take another look. It is a marked improvement and a lot of fun. Plus it just may be the best third person shooter ever made.