Gears of War 3 knows exactly what it is: a badass simulator.
Developer Epic Games strives to bookend the Gears trilogy with the most definitive third-person shooter gameplay of this generation while attempting to tidy up any and all loose story ends and shoehorn a bro-motional lump in your throat in the process.
At the former, Gears 3 ultimately succeeds, especially in its rich suite of multiplayer content. Even the singleplayer campaign somehow manages to feel fresh despite rather conservative changes and a palpable sense of deja-vu coloring the majority of the campaign. As for the latter? Shakespeare this ain't, and Gears 3 struggles at times with its forced attempts at heart-string pluckery, but I can forgive it as much; gore-starved guns adorned with toothy chainsaws easily atone for any cheesiness suffered along the way.
Destroyed beauty, hope runs deep, brothers; to the end. Part poetry, mostly marketing slang, the Gears 3 story continues with what amounts to a blood-drenched tale of woe, suffering, loss and absolution, cathartica that stands out in harsh relief when framed by the '80s era Schwarzenegger-ness of most of the dialogue. Cue the attendant grimaces, bro-vado and non-stop X-TREME one-liners. Translation: Gears 3 delivers exactly what you'd expect on the story side, ironically good news for longtime fans. For the rest of you, roll your eyes, chuckle and carry on. It's not Gears of War and Peace, people!
Things on Sera have gone from really sucky to really-really-sucky in Gears 3. The Coalition of Ordered Government, aka COG, has all but disbanded and fallen even farther out of favor with Stranded and survivors alike, if that were even possible. The action follows Marcus Fenix and Delta Squad's last stand against the Locust and every garden variety of Lambent, creatures that have become infected by Sera's yellow glowing Imulsion fuel.
Drama aplenty ensues, along with lots of surprises for all your favorite giant macho dudes. Dom sports a scruffy playoff beard and overalls, Cole faces a serious mid-life crisis, bad guys spurt out from the ground like Locust geysers (gone are the Emergence Holes, replaced by the aforementioned geyser action and troop-spewing stalks), there are more Carmines and wouldn't you know it, Marcus' dad is alive. WTF, Epic?
Everything about Gears 3 exudes polish. On the surface, it easily outperforms its two predecessors. Crisp visuals, fractured lighting and billowy smoke effects bring the world to life, giving this final and ever-decaying vision of Sera a tangible sense of place. The sound design creates one of the more cohesive combinations of music and sound effects in any game, fashioning an immediately recognizable experience.
At its heart, Gears tells a story of survival. Everything you do over the course of the five-act story revolves around endurance. You'll go from escaping ambushes to scrounging for supplies to scavenging fuel to using ammo-less Retro Lancers in nasty-ass bayonet fights. Everything feels solemnly desperate and dire, a motif the designers use to great effect throughout the campaign.
Delta Squad has grown and changed, bringing the total number of playable characters to eight, adding the now-armored Anya Stroud, Samantha "Sam" Byrne and Jayson "Jace" Strattonplus to the ranks alongside Marcus, Dom, Cole, Baird and, of course, Carmine.
Gears 3 feels exactly the way you'd expect it to feel, but better, as everything's been overhauled and fine-tuned. The roadie run feels faster, snapping into cover works better and combat has been tightened-up. Plus you can kick fools while you vault over cover, which seriously rules. There's a ton of new implements of doom with which to shoot, impale, gouge and chew up your enemies with, including weapons like the Digger, a gun that allows you to fire a grenade underground for sneaky AOE kills, and the Silverback, a sweet power loader outfitted with chainguns (YES!!!) taken right out of Aliens.
Overall, a few keg-o-rator moments (who gathers around a watercooler to talk about Gears?) will stick with you from the campaign. Nothing quite as iconic as the first Berzerker encounter from Gears 1 or the Brumak rodeo from Gears 2, but rest assured, you'll want to start the slow clap around the midway mark of the game during a sequence that features arguably the best use of music in a game since the finale of Red Dead Redemption.
All that said, the game definitely lives in the shadows of Gears 1 and 2, screaming retread at every giant shiny-handled door that needs opening, every split-path decision and with every cut-and-pasted sound cue. I suspect Epic planned as much. Yes, there are new weapons, new enemies, and new multiplayer modes, but it's clear that Epic didn't want to stray from the path too much. It seems like the developer instead opted to take the universe as it stands and work within the already established boundaries to bring the trilogy to a close instead of reinventing the cog. Yes, the game is better overall—arguably the best of the series—but it's still the same stuff we've done and seen before. This becomes especially apparent during the boss fights, and specifically the final boss encounter, which felt completely predictable. This left me wishing Epic would give something as rote as boss fights the same overhaul they've so successfully used to subvert other clichéd gaming tropes, but no dice.
It's also worth noting that while the game looks super slick, the framerate will often collapse under the crush of a multitude of enemies on screen, or too many bullets fired too fast while using ironsights. And like other Gears game before it, Gears 3 doesn't really give a flock about collision in the environment, a phenomena that mostly occurs in single-player. Just try and run along almost any wall, and your weapon and hands will go right through them. Ostensibly, a small trade-off for the fidelity and level of detail we're treated to elsewhere.
The checkpoint system still confounds in spots, causing you to repeat more game than required during a few bottleneck moments. I also found it curious that a game like Gears puts such an emphasis on collectibles. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy finding COG tags and unlocking the Achievements that accompany them as much as anyone, but with bullets flying fast, music pounding and enemies screaming, drooling and hissing, it feels odd to simultaneously search high and low a widget or a wingding. What about survival? Do we really care about a lost statue?
Gears of War 3's five acts should take you around 15-20 hours to complete depending on how much you search and scrounge, and what difficulty you play it on. You can rush through it fairly quickly if that's your thing. I spent the better part of 14 hours on my first playthrough (solo, on Hardcore, trying to go for all the collectibles). The campaign can be played with up-to 4-players in co-op; I played both solo and in 4-player co-op and I definitely recommend playing with friends (it's way faster), though I will say the AI is generally better and more helpful in a fight than most bots you'll play with. And the multiplayer content alone could keep Gears fans busy until the holidays and beyond.
Gears 3 multiplayer has a lot to prove given Gears 2's rocky, beta-less start that required multiple title updates just to get into serviceable shape. The Gears 2 multiplayer changed things up largely for the worse, with many frustrating results. Tough-to-navigate menus, poor matchmaking, slower movement, wonky cover system, multi-second stuns from grenades, a bevy of weird exploits… it all added up to a giant meh, certainly not what anyone expected from the follow-up to the much-loved multiplayer of the first game.
After running all of the modes and maps through their paces, we're happy to report that the multiplayer content has received ample attention, easily outdoing Gears 2 in both matchmaking performance and new features. Horde 2.0's currency system tasks teams of up-to five players with managing your cash to build reinforcements, blurring the lines even further between traditional Horde and true tower defense. Beast mode turns the tables, casting you as the Locust in wave-based challenges where you earn tokens to unlock more powerful creature types. Versus comes with 10 multiplayer maps, including an updated (and night time) version of the Gears 1 classic map, Gridlock, and features a full suite of multiplayer modes, including standbys like Warzone and Execution, the Meatflag-esque Capture the Leader, along with a well-paced Team Deathmatch. The latter doles out 20 lives/respawns to each team which, once depleted, switches over to a last man standing format that's tense down to the last kill.
Most of the multiplayer sins of the past have seen serious TLC, with a new emphasis on movement. You won't want to cover camp for long as the arsenal your opponents have at their disposal will pick you apart if you don't stay agile and alert. It's more hop and pop than stop and pop, a fast-paced return to the action of Gears 1. You'll still need to watch for those obnoxious kids that shotgun roll; the Retro Lancer's charge attack (hold B for a timed kamikaze run) makes for a serious deterrent for those who abuse the shotty.
Gears of War 3 represents state-of-the-art design and gameplay where you become the king badass among a gory world of bad-asses. Every third-person, cover-based shooter from here on out will likely be compared to Gears 3, and it provides a fitting and poignant-- if sometimes cheesy -- closing chapter to the trilogy.
The noted hitches, design decisions and ‘been-there, done-that’ feel of much of the content colors the overall experience, but it certainly didn’t keep me from having one hell of a good time. I imagine you’ll feel the same.