Gears of War 3 Review
Back in late 2006, Microsoft was getting a little concerned that their five-billion-dollar-baby might fail. They had launched the Xbox 360 a year before, and the Xbox division of the company was billions of dollars in the hole, and there just wasn't much to show for it. Sure, dedicated gamers who could get their hands on the difficult-to-find 360 were extolling the virtues of the first true HD gaming console, but the low number of exclusive and well-reviewed games and high cost of the console and accessories kept many gamers at bay. Worse, Halo 3 was nowhere in sight. But when Epic Games debuted Gears of War, we first started to get sight of what the Xbox 360 was capable of. I don't just mean the console itself or the powerful hardware it contained (or at least, powerful back a half-decade ago), but I'm also talking about Microsoft putting its bankroll and huge marketing horsepower behind an original creation of one of the industry's hottest developers.
Since then, Gears of War 2 was released and wound up being a pretty big hit, but gamers quickly shied away from it; somewhere in the campaign, Epic lost people, and the lackluster multiplayer modes seemed to hammer home everything that was wrong about playing online on 360 (the Xbox Live trash talk, the imbalanced weapons, the lag, and more), rather than everything that was right about it.
Epic has had some time to work on Gears of War 3 - nearly three years after Microsoft gave them a bonus six month extension - and unlike what we saw with Bungie mostly sitting on Halo 3: ODST from the May 2009 completion of development until the September release date rolled around, Epic took their time to further polish Gears of War 3 as well as run a multiplayer beta and tweak everything surrounding online play for the final release. The end result is something that's not only fun and emotionally impactful in the campaign (after all, how many games can get away with setting an action sequence to a solo piano tune or even a full-orchestra score?), but it's also ridiculously fun to play with your friends, too.
The game starts out with Fenix waking up on an old tanker, slowly barreling through the sea just off of the mainland that the first two games took place in. The human city of Jacinto was flooded to try and kill off the Locust swarm, Chairman Prescott has abandoned the COGs and the whole outfit has broken up. The Lambent have been harassing what's left of the small pockets of humanity on Sera, and there's no organization, no command, no supply lines to fall back on anymore. In one mission, Augustus Cole is leading his squad to an old grocery store simply to find some food. Our intrepid warriors have their classic muscle-man physiques, armor, and an arsenal of weapons, but that's all they've got; when the fighting stops and the adrenaline fades, these guys are now just as homeless and hungry as the rest of the populace. Well, it's not that the fighting really stops for long enough that we can reflect on it all, because the game starts out with a long, complex fight and only gets more desperate and frantic as the game goes on. Amongst all this, Fenix, Dom, Cole, Anya, Baird, and the rest uncover a conspiracy about something that could end the war once and for all.
Gears of War didn't invent the "cover shooter", where most combat seems to play out from behind the cover of a low wall, but this game certainly did bring it into the mainstream. This system has spawned its fair share of imitators but also plenty of criticism, and in my opinion, nearly all of it has been valid. While cover-based shooting is still here in Gears 3, Epic has also been able to rework the battlefield to keep you on your toes, keep you moving, and make sure that you rarely know exactly how a fight will go down when you walk into a new area. New enemies on both the Lambent and the Locust sides, new weapons, and a battlefield that often shifts and falls apart all work together to make this the most dynamic and unpredictable Gears of War yet.
But it's not just the fighting that does this, either. With four-player cooperative campaign that rotates the series' best characters in and out, you'll see the perspectives of all of your favorite characters from the series, and the game even indulges some quieter moments for several of them, too. I don't want to spoil any of the fun, but these parts are some of the most interesting and unique. I quickly found myself playing not for the action, but to see what happens to our COGs around the next corner. Sure, once we get to the action, it's exactly what Gears fans are hoping for: just as before, but now it's a little more refined, a little less predictable, and a little more satisfying. If there's one disappointment I can dig up, it's that the action simply hasn't improved or changed enough since the first Gears. The environments are more detailed, but the fights are only marginally bigger, even in the most hectic battles. It's hard to fault Epic, as the Xbox 360 hardware is really starting to show its age; I'm reminded of how Halo: Reach involved a war over a whole planet, but we never got to participate in the full-scale battles that we knew were going on just out of sight or over an impassible hill.
It might seem silly to lament the lack of innovation in the action with a game like Gears of War 3, especially in a series like this where the combat has had so much praise heaped on it in the past. But the fact is that players will be spending most of their time locked in fights with the Lambent and Locust, so the issue, however minor, can stick with you through most of the game. There are some nice things too, though. For one, Fenix and crew are now the ones giving out orders rather than taking them, and this is a refreshing change after all those military shooters where orders are simply barked at you all the way from introduction to conclusion. Beyond that, the environments you'll tread through are a lot more diverse than just urban ruins all day, and Epic Games have done a great job in the last couple years tweaking the Unreal Engine to deliver slightly sharper textures, bigger special effects, nearly non-existent loading times when run from the 360's hard drive, more life-like and detailed versions of our favorite characters, and quite a bit more. Gears of War 3 does not revolutionize how the franchise looks or plays, but it brings it to a near-perfect evolutionary conclusion - especially considering the venerable and long-in-the-tooth Xbox 360 will be entering its seventh year of service this coming November.
For those that aren't the biggest fans of Gears, I think I can guess what you're thinking. You're looking forwards to Call of Duty, Skyrim, a little Battlefield 3, and maybe some Forza 4 this fall. You really enjoyed the first Gears of War back in the day, but the sequel didn't really impress you, and you're not terribly hyped for the third game, especially not with all that's coming out this year. I felt the same, but that all changed once I got my hands on this: I quickly became excited to keep soldiering on and see this trilogy reach its conclusion. Sure, the combat has barely changed since day one, but nearly everything else has in some way, and that makes it worth jumping back in one final time, getting together some friends, and going in full-force in cooperative mode at the least. After that, there are the coop-capable Beast and Horde modes, and of course online competitive play with a bunch of modes to play under. I haven't done much of the competitive play yet, but things do seem much more balanced and polished this time around. Of course, I hadn't played more than an hour of Gears since the second game was released so I was a bit rusty and wound up getting my ass handed to me, but nothing stood out as being broken. Time will tell if that stays true as people complete the campaign and competitive multiplayer ramps up.
I knew I should have been excited about the conclusion to the Gears of War trilogy, but I just couldn't muster up the motivation. Now that I've had a chance to go through the campaign and try some of the new modes out, that's all changed, and I wonder why I ever doubted Epic and their ability to finish out this series on a high note. Gears of War 3 takes us to new places and tells us some great stories, and while the shooting action might feel just a little tired for veterans of both previous games, it's still very much worth the price of admission - especially once you start digging into the online modes.