Gears of War 3
Developer: Epic Games
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform: Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Release date: September 20, 2011
Price: $59.99 (Available HERE)
Anyone that owns an Xbox 360 console will have no doubt heard of the Gears of War series. It is one of the few video game franchises in existence that has spanned its entire story-life or series over the span of the single console generation. In that awkward halo-free time period after the initial release of the Xbox 360 and the subsequent release of Halo 3 in 2007, hardcore gamers had to tie themselves over with something, and the very first Gears of War game most certainly filled that void. It sated the bloodlust of the shooter-loving gamer, and yet was original and innovative for its time. And while Halo still stands as the major Xbox 360 exclusive series, Gears of War most certainly brings up a very close second, and is often considered the modern standard to which third-person shooters are held.
The appeal of the Gears of War games has often been attributed to many different things. The deep, engaging storytelling, the gritty visual style, the polished flow of gameplay, the dark sarcastic sense of humor, and not to mention the sense of pure satisfaction that comes from tearing an enemy limb from limb with your gun-mounted chainsaw. The events of Gears of War 2 showed players a new side to the Gears Universe that had a dramatic impact on the story and the whole war, but left some loose ends hanging. And after that voiceover teaser left at the end of the last game, there was no doubt that at least one more game would be needed to finish things. With the introduction of so many new in-game elements and the calls of the fan base for yet another instalment, Gears of War 3 has come into existence. So exactly how well has this latest addition to the Gears family stacked up? And has it learned to evolve as an ongoing series is expected to?
The ending of Gears of War 2 was a bittersweet one for many players. Following the final battle in which the heroes of Delta Squad sank the last human stronghold on the planet Sera, Jacinto, it appeared as though the war may have been concluded. The human COG forces were successful, Delta Squad survived the encounter, and the water was flooding down through the planet to wipe out the Locust forces as well as the emerging Lambent. However, a severe harrowing was found to be leaning over every player as the game concluded. The Locust Queen was no doubt still alive, and the Lambent were not going to be disposed of so easily. The final part of the game features a voiceover by Marcus’ father, asking for his help.
It is now two years later. The human race of Sera has been reduced to wandering nomads. Civilisation has all but been abandoned. The COG forces are now even fewer in number, and survival in the world is a day to day challenge. Although the Locust horde was more or less defeated, the mutated more vicious Lambent have arisen to take their place. Forced to separate their numbers for the sake of survival, the COG forces have split into two groups. The military centred COG forces have taken to the sea, while the civilian population has made an attempt to recolonise on mainland areas. One of the game’s leading characters Anya Stroud states that the whole world is now “Stranded” making reference to people who must fend for themselves in order to survive.
It is at this point that we see our protagonist, Marcus Fenix, receives a strange message from a former superior officer. He learns that his father, whom both he and the players assumed was deceased, is in fact alive and being held captive by the Locust, and that he has discovered a way to destroy the Lambent. However, the message is damaged, and with Baird, the team’s engineer out on a recon mission, Marcus has to wait for his return to decrypt it. However, it is at this point that their ship Sovereign, is attacked by a large Lambent force, in what can only be described as a full scale invasion of the surface. As the players, we knew it was coming eventually. With the Locust mostly out of the way, the Lambent have nothing standing between them and the surface world. For humanity to have any chance at surviving this new war, it may all hinge on Marcus finding his father to put a stop to everything.
So once again, Marcus must join up with Delta squad members Dominic Santiago, Augustus Cole (Cole Train) and Damon Baird to take the fight for survival back to the enemy. However, this time, they are also joined by their former advisor Anya Stroud, and several new COG troops, namely Jace Stratton, Samantha Byrne and Clayton Carmine. One of the interesting features of Gears 3 is in fact, the existence of TWO teams. One led by Marcus, the other by Cole. Within the opening stages, many players going through the single player campaign will be happy to learn that they will not be stuck as playing as only Marcus for the course of the game. It is also interesting to note that the developers also put a vote out to the public prior to the game’s release regarding whether or not the new Carmine should die, as is Gears tradition. The results of the vote were never officially released, but a play through of the game will reveal to players the result of that vote.
The story does a very good job at picking up where everything was left after Gears 2. Although two years have passed in the story of the Gears Universe, players are still able to see that their much loved characters have tried their best to get on with their new lives. It feels like very little time has passed at all in the universe, as the main characters still tend to have the same mannerisms and abilities that they had in the previous games. And while some small visual touch ups have been made to the character models, it still feels like coming back to see some old friends. The story itself focuses on the loose ends intentionally left at the end of Gears 2, to not only expand the player’s view of the Gears Universe, but to also conclude the saga of Delta squad. The delivery of the story is performed incredibly well in a balance between both well polished cut-scenes and gameplay sections. Doing so allows the players to feel that they are more part of the story, and that it is not simply being lectured to them. This is how Epic Games has immersed players successfully in the past, and it’s heartening to know that the same has been achieved here.
Gears 3 features a multitude of different game modes to appeal to both story-driven, achievement driven and competitive gamers alike. The campaign mode itself features both a stock standard story mode, where players can experience the newest chapter of the Gears Saga, as well as Arcade mode, which the player is able to rake up points for kills to put towards achievements. This is also useful as a competitive tool. This game mode differs very little from the story mode, other than the fact that it will allow players to obtain achievements. Being put that way, why wouldn’t you choose arcade mode? It should also be mentioned that Gear 3 is also the first of the Gears games to allow for 4 person co-op within the campaign. This is a feature we have seen implemented in Halo, Borderlands and Left 4 Dead before, and has often paid off for players looking for a great co-operative story.
The core gameplay, as the genre suggests is dominated by third person combat, which, for the most part utilise ranged weaponry and explosives. For veterans of the Gears of War games, everything will thankfully feel like familiar territory. A few new weapons and features have been added to the mix, but ultimately the combat has still managed to retain its gritty and brutal nature. Many of the functions have been retained over time, including the character bleed-outs, wall-stick cover movement, the quick-snap reload, targeting functionality and “Press (Y) to look at stuff” mechanic. The opening stages of the game are also kind to newer players, offering not only a well functioning tutorial system, but also a brief documentary style video where Anya explains the events of the previous 2 games.
Players will find that they spend a large proportion of the game running from cover to cover and scrounging for ammo drops. One of the slight drawbacks that must be said for the game is that entering combat situations has become glaringly obvious. Whenever a player moves into an area with a strange abundance of chest high walls, then it’s a pretty safe bet that some form of action is about to take place. That said however, there will be many moments of combat flow that will surprise the player in a similar fashion to the previous games. One might think that the combat nature gets repetitive, but no matter how many times a firefight breaks out, the game continually entices the player to push further and further into the story. Nailing those short, controlled bursts of combat driven fun is what has helped define many of the modern shooters of this day, and Gears 3 pulls it off just as well as it’s predecessors. No matter whether it’s the 1st, or 1000th time you face off against the grubs and glowies, it never stops being fun. And let’s face it, no matter how many times you do it, the Lancer chainsaw is still satisfying.
The only real issue that I had with gameplay in my play through was to do with a few small glitches. In my first play-through, I had joined into a co-op match with a workmate and we proceeded to breeze through Act 1 on hardcore difficulty. However, every now and then, something strange would happen. Between short bursts of cinematics, I would totally lose my ability to take cover. I tested my (A) button on the menu screen and it worked fine. But for some reason the game refused to register my cover action. And this became a small pain on hardcore difficultly, as I didn’t particularly wish for my character’s body to occupy the same physical space as several hundred bullets. (OK, maybe while I was Baird…) Either way, it became something of an annoyance. Once a cinematic was hit however, then the glitch would disappear. I have only run into the problem twice in early stages. The glitch doesn’t affect the core gameplay to a huge degree, but on the harder difficulty settings, it will be the ire of many. Another minor glitch I experienced was the game’s flat out refusal to engage in a cut scene at one point. The cut scene was apparently necessary to proceed through the campaign, so a quick checkpoint reload was required. Thankfully afterwards the cut scene played without drama. Again, not a game breaking issue, but one which I can’t help but feel should have been noticed. Hopefully a successive Xbox live update will amend these issues.
It could be argued that the gameplay mechanics are guilty of remaining static over the course of the series. Very little in terms of combat has altered from the original Gears of War game, and the flow of gameplay has not really evolved. That being said, I think the real question gamers should ask themselves is do they WANT it to evolve? For a series that has spent its entire shelf-life on a single console generation, it is understandable why certain elements have been kept the same. Too many alterations to a much loved series could create just as much criticism as keeping it stagnant. Achieving that balance between series faithfulness and innovation is a VERY difficult chord to strike. And while it’s true that some gamers would like to see a little more originality, for most of us, myself included, will be happy to play through Gears 3 just as we have with the previous instalments. Gears 3 has innovated to a small degree, such as including mechanised walkers and silverbacks to gameplay, but ultimately it still feels like we’re playing a Gears of War game.
AUDIO / VISUAL
In a very similar fashion to gameplay, the audio elements could be accused of not adhering to Darwinism, to an extent. For the most part, the soundtrack and sound effects have remained just as they were from Gears 1 and 2. The same musical tones for the end of combat and new objectives are utilised, and the effects joined onto the menu screens still retain the same feel. The game has also retained many of the musical scores featured when fighting certain Locust and Lambent enemies. However, a few more soundtracks have been added to the mix to help players develop a sense of identity for newly introduced enemies and combat scenarios. My opinions on the voice acting is mixed. While we all know that Marcus’ gravelly voice is something of a trademark, and Cole Train’s “WHOOO!” is pretty much patented, some VA work will end up having the “Slippy Toad” effect of voices. The worst offender is Sam on Cole’s Team. A clear attempt has been made to manufacture a strong Australian accent. The keyword being “ATTEMPT”. Again, a minor issue and nothing game-breaking, but still irritating to a degree. Any otherwise, the game’s voice acting is well written and well appropriated for both action and dark humour.
The visuals on the other hand have clearly undergone an evolutionary change. One of the major criticisms with Gears 1 and 2 was the degree of eye strain that was caused by the running effect against the backgrounds. Additionally, many players had issues with how combat could easily descend into an unbalanced, luck-driven cluster of explosions and bullets. The developers have no doubt taken those notions on board and revamped the visual styling’s of the game. Not only have enemies and characters themselves undergone a visual touch-up and makeover, so too have the environments and special effects. The game does a great job of portraying this distopic view of an alternative future where civilisation is limited and savagery runs amok. However, the best visual touch ups have been done to remove the eye strain from the player. The problem with the brown and black ambience that was layered over previous game environments was that it differed very little in palette from the character models. Attempting to follow character movements over such backgrounds became a challenge and adjustment was required. This time around however, the visuals are now better distinguishable. While the landscape still retains the brownish hue, everything visual now seems to flow more smoothly. A job well done on that I must say.
While 4 player co-op has been added to the campaign, it should also be mentioned that another, entirely new game type has been added to the mix in Gears of War 3. Now starring alongside the campaign mode, competitive versus mode, and the survival oriented Horde mode, Gear of War 3 has introduced the brand new Beast mode. And no, this has nothing to do with Beast Wars. Essentially Beast mode is the antithesis of Horde mode. Rather than controlling several COG troops to survive against waves of Locust and Lambent enemies, players can take on the role of the various Locust races to hunt down and kill human survivors. This particular take on the war will no doubt leave many players like myself grinning and laughing maniacally as they shoot, smash and stab their way through the piles of puny pathetic humans. Each match of Beast lasts for 12 rounds, each time increasing in difficulty, but each time providing the player with more Locust races to utilise for destruction.
On the other side of the fence, Horde mode now feels even more intense and high-stakes than it did in Gears 2. New forms of traps can be set for enemy hordes, and the addition of new weapons to the gameplay mix has allowed for many players to come up with new and interesting survival methodologies, whether they be offensive, defensive or explosive. Just as with Beast mode, Horde mode is a great co-operative oriented multiplayer gametype.
For players really looking to test their third person shooter skills, many competitive gamers are likely to grace the online arenas to duke it out over Xbox live. The multiplayer gameplay in versus mode still retains a very similar feel to that of previous games, and still involves the old “random-matchmaking” feature to find a appropriate game for players of different skills.
Overall, the multiplayer feels solid. In my experiences online, Lag factors have been kept to a minimum, and the online gameplay in both competitive and co-operative game types is still raw fun. And while you’ll no doubt get a little peeved at the 12 year old kid screaming profanities in your ear, the multiplayer options now available in Gears 3 provide many of us with the chance to scratch that social itch.
Gears of War 3 is an insanely enjoyable experience regardless of whether you’re playing single or multi-player game types. The small glitch factors are easily overlooked when it comes down to making a final judgement. As one of the few series that can claim exclusivity to the Xbox 360, Gears of War 3 has performed very well in delivering a well paced third-person shooter experience. It is kind to both veteran and newbie players alike, and the delivery of the story is well executed. It has innovated to a limited extent to retain a degree of gameplay originality, but at the same time remains faithful to the roots of the series. For many gamers who own an Xbox 360 console, regardless of whether or not you are already a Gears fan, Gears of War 3 is definitely a must have title.