Gears of War 3 – review
In light of the way Microsoft seems to be falling over itself to produce Kinect exclusives to attract the casual gaming audience, Gears Of War 3 seems almost decidedly retro.
Here is an Xbox 360 exclusive that is resolutely hardcore. It comes packed with visceral gun-battles, ear-splitting explosions, bucketloads of blood and you use a good old-fashioned control-pad to play it. Oh, and it's also one of the best games released all year.
Committed gamers know what to expect from the Gears Of War franchise, and Gears Of War 3 will tick all of their boxes. Chainsaw bayonets and blood spatters: tick. Hulking space marines: tick. Chest-high walls and new and interesting ways to blast the Locust troops: tick.
But there are signs here that Epic want to entice the casual gamer too. The campaign mode contains a short clip of the game's backstory to ground the uninitiated. It also offers a "casual" difficulty setting which allows players only interested in seeing how the story develops to breeze through its 10 to 12 hour-long campaign.
WARNING: possible spoilers ahead
The story picks up right where the last instalment left off. Marcus Fenix and the rest of the COG soldiers of the planet Sera have been scattered after the destruction of the last human city, and now eke out a Spartan existence aboard giant sea-barges.
Their situation has been made even more desperate by the emergence of a new enemy, called The Lambent, a feral strain of the Locust Horde that have been mutated by Imulsion (the glowing liquid power source of Sera). Not only do these enemies mutate on the fly in battle, they also have a nasty habit of exploding when killed.
The Lambent have proven to be such a substantial threat, that they've even succeeded in driving the Locust above ground, turning some confrontations into three-way battles. The plot gets rolling after the arrival of the effete COG leader, Chairman Prescott, who provides Marcus with proof his father is alive and being held captive by the Locust. In short order, Marcus – along with his Delta Squad stalwarts, Dom, Baird and Cole – venture into the hostile terrain of Sera to rescue Fenix Snr.
Epic has maintained all year that, while Gears Of War 3 may not herald the end of the franchise altogether, it will certainly end the storyline that has played out over this and the previous two games. Because of this, the developer has pulled out all the stops for Fenix and Delta Squad, providing players with the longest and most layered Gears Of War campaign to date.
The action set-pieces in the game are, if anything, even more impressive than in the past two instalments; the introduction of the Lambent has given the designers increased scope to hurl all manner of mayhem at the player.
The story is also a marked improvement. Epic's Design Director Cliff Bleszinski has always said that "Gears isn't Shakespeare", but it's clear he and the rest of the talented folk at Epic wanted to hit a couple of emotional notes in Gears of War 3. Between the bangs and bloodletting, the plot finds enough time to peek into the lives a couple of the COGs had before the war with the Locust tore Sera apart. The tone of these moments is also handled more consistently than in Gears Of War 2; when the emotional payoffs arrive, there's no jarring gearshift in mood.
The voice acting and dialogue is also a cut above previous instalments. The way in which the COG soldiers trade quips and reflect on the apocalyptic wasteland of Sera with grim gallows humour, lightens what could have been a dour and incredibly downcast gaming experience altogether. To reveal further details of the plot would be to do a disservice to anyone waiting to play Gears Of War 3, but suffice to say Fenix and his cohorts are in for their roughest ride yet.
Of course, while the Campaign's first function is to spin a decent yarn (and it does this admirably), its second function is to familiarise newcomers with its controls and veterans with the new weapons, and then point players in the direction of the Multiplayer. To that end, every kill in the Campaign the player scores results in their overall profile leveling-up, ensuring that they are placed in an appropriate skill level in the Multiplayer by the game's matchmaking system. Players who took part in the Gears of War 3 Multiplayer Beta earlier this year will find that Gears Of War 3 recognises their skill-level and any content they unlocked when they sign in.
There are three main multiplayer modes: Versus, Horde and Beast. Versus is the mode that fans had a taste of in the beta earlier this year in which up to 10 players – five a side – can have it out with each other across a series of maps in a variety of match-types.
All the match types from the beta are present and correct; there's Team Deathmatch (which does what it says on the tin), Capture The Leader (in which players win points for their team by capturing the opposing team's leader and hanging onto them for as long as possible) and King Of The Hill (where players have to take control of an area that sporadically moves around the map).
On top of that there's Execution, (in which kills can only be scored by "Execution"-style kills — like curb stomps), Warzone (Team Deathmatch , but with no extra lives per round) and Wingman (in which teams of two try to eliminate the opposition).
Then there are the co-op modes: Horde and Beast. Horde is a suitably beefed up version of the same mode that appeared in Gears Of War 2 (and which has appeared in a ton of other games under numerous monikers since then). Once again, players work together to fight their way through 50 waves of increasingly difficult foes. However in this new variant, they face a boss battle every 10th wave, which can be anything from a Lambent Beserker to a series of adolescent Corpsers, to a gigantic Brumak.
To aid their survival, players earn cash for every kill they score, and (presumably to encourage teamwork) every teammate they revive. They can then spend their hard-earned cash on fortifications, gun turrets and remote canons.
They can also pool resources to upgrade any of their equipment, or buy items that are slightly out of their price range – like the rather expensive Silverback battle mech. Every other wave they're also given tasks – such as accumulating a designated number of kills with their chainsaw bayonets – which, if they accomplish, will earn them ammo and weapon drops.
Beast mode is similar to Horde, except players take on the role of the Locust monsters, and their objective is to kill all the human bots on the map. They begin by using low level infantry – such as the claw-wielding Wretches or the suicide bombing Tickers – but will eventually unlock and end up controlling Kantus (who can heal other troops) and Beserkers (essentially walking tanks).
Players who prefer the multiplayer to campaign mode will also be delighted to hear that Epic has dedicated servers in place for Gears Of War 3's online play.
Gears Of War 3 is a robust gaming package. Aside from the multiplayer and campaign modes – the latter of which can also be tackled in co-op or in arcade mode – this game is filled to bursting with unlockables; ribbons, skins, weapons – everything players need to establish their online shooter credentials.
If Gears Of War 3 is indeed this franchise's swansong, Epic can rest easy knowing their world-conquering series ended on something of a high note. It really is one of this year's essential titles.