Developer: Epic Games / Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios / Price: $59.99 / Rating: Mature [Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language] / Played on: Xbox 360
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For Epic, Gears wasn’t big enough. Two blockbuster games with constant online play from a devoted fan base still didn’t cut it. The intent in this third go-around was to make the game bigger and more accessible. So hitting the right notes of furthering the story, appeasing an expectant fan base, and presenting an accessible entry to newcomers was not going to be easy. Yet, incredibly, Gears 3 absolutely nails those three key areas, resulting in the best game in the franchise, and one of the most compelling action games of the year (and yes, I know Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3 and Batman and… others are still to come). But Gears 3 is class, top to bottom.
Picking up this story isn’t necessarily easy if you’re not already committed to Marcus Fenix’s plight and progress. Festering Locust emerging from the ground and plagues of the Lambent is all you really need to know. Fortunately, your Delta squad buddies are some of the most effective AI cohorts I’ve ever seen. Your crew is remarkably skilled, taking care of your business if you can’t, reviving you if you’re down, and allowing you to return the favor and feel like the hero if they’re hammered.
The war is the meta-game enveloping Marcus’ personal situation involving his presumed-dead father. While it’s a well constructed tale, well acted, with dialogue that absolutely understands what the game is and who’s playing, it’s still at its heart a big-ass bug-hunt. The bigger the bugs, the more epic the set piece situation, and the more memorable the encounter. Familiar faces like Dom ensure a consistency with the previous games as all the characters’ stories are rounded out, with the focus on Marcus’ presumed-dead father .
Cover, crouch, run, and fire-fire-fire. That, in essence, is the Gears motif and this installment doesn’t deviate. With your squad in tow you face waves of Locust and Lambent creatures and use a creative array of weapons to cap ‘em all. The Lancer and its Retro throwback, shotgun, longshot, cleaver, hammershot, digger, Hammer of Dawn, and more add a touch of strategy to facing down marauding bugs. The range, reload speed, and availability of each weapon illustrates a deep-dive detail awareness, where no action is taken for granted, no situation presumed, and the collective effect is consistently different encounters that can easily go a number of different ways.
Like any good action game, you fight your way to major boss encounters, and here Gears shines. You always understand what you need to do through dialogue and instructions. And I’ve a sense that the game truly understands how good of a gamer I am. Nothing is worse than failing at a challenge, but I rarely felt that with Gears 3. Whether it’s ideally timed checkpoints or assistance from your squad, unless you’re playing on Hardcore difficulty level (or Insane, which is unlocked after completing the game), it’s entirely winnable. Though I cringed a little when it seemed like the story was heading off into all-too-familiar zombie territory, damn if the encounters weren’t gameplay gold.
If you remember the original Gears, and recall the awe many of its epic scenes inspired, you’ll get a kick out of seeing how far it has progressed. In many instances, the scenery is phenomenal. Details on each squad member in cut scenes are excellent and each crazy Lambent creature is expertly animated (though a couple of them seem to be refugees from Dead Space.)
But we’ve come to expect this from Gears, and though the weapon designs are typically top-notch and the locations detailed, even vibrant, it all feels familiar. Definitely high quality, but not necessarily bar-raising.
Gears online play may have been squished by devotion to Call of Duty among hardcore action gamers, but the introduction of the new Beast mode, and a fresh take on Horde mode will likely bring many back to the party. What would it be like to play as a ticker? Now you can find out. Taking on the role of the bugs really is fun across the board, firstly for letting you see the action through their eyes, and secondly for offering a totally unique angle on multiplayer encounters.
The new Horde mode adds a significant strategic element to the simple concept of defending against waves of Locust. You earn points for kills and assists and spend them on defensive barriers, static gun emplacements, and more as you work with your team to protect your Command Post. What seems like a simple strategic addition adds a significant level of depth, and makes a wave-after-wave process so much more compelling.
The full suite of multiplayer modes, and no doubt incoming DLC additions, give Gears tremendous legs that should prevail even a few months from now when the mother lode of big holiday releases hit the consoles.
Two key points: If you missed parts one and two, Gears 3 is still accessible. That in itself is impressive, helped by the “Previously on Gears” video that provides a quick reminder of who did what to whom, where, and why. Second, if you’re a veteran, you’re likely diving online immediately, and those modes are very impressive, fun, and likely to help keep this turn in the trilogy in your gaming rotation for some time to come.
I got the sense that Gears 3 was very self-aware, that it understood its history with gamers, and what fans and newcomers would expect. The dialogue between super-buff macho military dudes (and dudettes) isn’t corny. The moment-to-moment action is consistently entertaining, even when the pacing requires a slow-down while you take in the situation before being buffeted with more enemies to shoot.
Adding features to an established franchise can cause awkward bloating, but with Gears 3 it really feels like a refined evolution. There are key additions in the multiplayer, but no specific revolutions to the core gameplay that has proved so popular. And that’s why it works, and why Gears 3 is certainly the most accessible game in the series, and shouldn’t be overlooked even if you passed on parts one and two.