Review by Gruel
The Lancer is already revved and waiting, and it promises to deliver!
The hype for Gears of War 3 was insurmountable. Gears was never announced as a trilogy like other new gaming IPs this generation such as Mass Effect and Too Human, but I always had that lingering feeling while playing the first two games that developer Epic Games always wanted this to play out as a three-part classic. The initial game introduced the gaming world and popularized the cover based shooter trend. Part two fleshed out the story of Marcus Fenix and his Delta Squad cohorts, the Locust and debuted a new threat. This new installment gives a sense of closure to the adventures of Marcus Fenix and Delta squad, but I definitely see gaps that Epic can revisit for future installments.
Speaking of gaps, there is a year and a half gap between what transpired in the second and third games. When we last left Delta squad, the Coalition of Organized Governments (COG) ordered the sinking of humanity's last stronghold, Jacinto in hopes of flooding out the Locust and the new Imulsion infected Locust threat, the Lambent. Fast forward 18 months, and the remnants of humanity are scattered pockets of Stranded on the planet Sera, and what is left of COG and Delta Squad is on a naval ship abroad at sea. However, after receiving new orders and a visit from an unexpected guest in Gears of War 3's opening act, Marcus Fenix and co. venture out on a new quest to save humanity....again.
I only had some minor gripes for how the final act of the saga of Marcus Fenix plays out. Four new playable Gears make their debut. While I am familiar with Anya from past games being your advisor over the headset, and am now use to there being a new Carmine brother in the mix in each Gears game, I am completely unfamiliar with Jace and Sam. I understand that Jace has been a regular in the Gears comic books, and I presume Sam must have appeared in some past comics and novels as well, but there is no hint to their pasts, or what they are fighting for, it just seems they are along for the ride. Epic is promising more story based DLC missions, so maybe that will help remedy their mysterious pasts, but while playing the game I felt a disconnect at times with those two in particular. Additionally, if you are not keeping a keen ear to some dialogue delivered during heated gunplay, then you will miss the payoff to some major plot points that have been dangling from the past games.
In the grand scheme of things, I felt Gears of War 3 had a pretty good amount of closure, but I also felt I would not get the complete picture unless I read the books and comics. As a matter of fact, I am currently halfway through the first of four novels, and it already helped introduce some back story and development to two minor non playable characters that debuted in this game. Ultimately these are just minor points that I am obsessing over in the Gears lore, and if you have no desire to seek out the books then these points will be some little red herrings that will only cross your mind.
For the first time in the Gears games, there is four player online coop. Traditional two player split screen coop also returns. Considering the sheer amount of explosions and chaos that its predecessors were known for, I was surprised that I did not recall a single moment of lag during online play. Just like the previous two games, if you have the option open then you can have easy jump in, jump out coop. I was playing with two friends online, and while the AI is pretty reliable for health revives and sticking to cover, I felt better secured when a random Xbox Live player joined us as our fourth player, and one random player actually helped communicate with us to help overcome one of the tougher bosses in the game.
There are four levels of difficulty like in Gears of War 2, and when playing in standard story mode each player can play at the difficulty they are the most comfortable with, but if one player bites it, you must restart from the last checkpoint. The new Arcade mode is a little more forgiving. Each player must play at the difficulty the host selects, but as long as one player is alive, a fallen player will respawn back into action. It is definitely worthwhile to invest a second playthrough in Arcade mode because each player will competing over kills for points and better placement on friends leaderboards for a seemingly endless amount of categories. There are also unlockable mutators that can also be applied, which are essentially like skulls from Halo which make the gameplay tougher, and adds a slight comedic twist with mutators that turn the enemies hostile against each other and even adds a laugh track throughout the game.
Epic did not make any earth-shattering changes to the core gameplay of Gears. This is still the same stop 'n pop action as before. A few new weapons helps diversifies gunplay with a sawed off shotgun that pack a meaner punch than the default one, but suffers a painfully long reload after each shot. The new Retro Lancer is also a handy addition to the arsenal with more firepower and a nice charging bayonet melee kill. The only real complaint I had with the core controls before was that it was easy to get stuck into cover when I did not want to be since the A button was assigned to nearly everything. Now a couple functions previously assigned to the A button like picking up downed opponents as meat shields are thankfully assigned to the X button to make it slightly less cumbersome on going in and out of cover. I still found myself sticking to cover at times when I wanted evade roll out of gunfire.
Gears of War 2 was a big step up in online multiplayer compared to the first game, but there were still rampant complaints about host advantages and other exploitable glitches. Epic went all out in response, and got the ok from Microsoft to be one of the few non-EA published games to have dedicated servers on 360. It shows too, because matchmaking is probably three times as fast than in Gears of War 2 and I only ran into lag if only a handful of times from the many hours I have invested into online gameplay. Most of the competitive multiplayer modes return from before, while others like Annex and King of the Hill got merged into one, and Submission got a few slight tweaks and is now Capture the Leader. The new Team Deathmatch is a welcomed addition to multiplayer for those too impatient to wait out a round of play after the single life, elimination style Warzone/Execution modes. Warzone/Execution matches progress faster too and are now best of five affairs, instead of best of nine like before.
You are rewarded for XP across all game modes, and there is countless ribbons and medals to be earned for extra XP bonuses too. With the aforementioned friends leaderboards popping up in all game modes, and a wealthy amount of weapon skins, mutators and characters to unlock, it just feels damn good there is this constant sense of progression for unlocks and better score you are working for throughout any playtime.
I would be remiss not to address the return of Horde mode. For some people it was all they played in Gears of War 2 with it being one of the first games to make popular the trend of adding a wave based survival mode to their game. Epic made some serious changes to Horde. It is still 50 rounds against increasingly tough waves of AI, but now with a tisch of tower defense strategy thrown in for good measure. There is a thirty second pause between each wave to purchase ammo, and add defenses like decoys, walls and sentry guns. These changes proved to be a hit with my friends online because it only encouraged to us to play better as a team and strategize our defenses in a certain section of the map instead of us going all lone wolf and getting massacred out in the middle of nowhere on our own. The new Beast mode is a fun distraction. It is essentially the opposite of Horde mode, where you control increasingly powerful Locust units as you rack up more kills against initially helpless Stranded, while they add better defenses and more powerful hero units as you progress through the 12 waves. It seemed to easy to breeze through this in no time however, and after playing through it a couple times already, I do not have that much of a desire to go back to it. It feels a few tweaks away from being a must play mode.
Gears of War 3 lives to the pedigree of the previous two games of having some of the best graphics and set piece moments on the 360. This installment seems better capable of larger environments and cramming the action with more enemies and nonstop action than before. Each returning member of Delta Squad appears a little more detailed and finer animated than last time around, while the stages of war the Gears traverse through are as rich and varied than ever before. It is greatly appreciated to finally see a smidge of rich forestry in a game once dominant of post-apocalyptic environments.
That familiar orchestral score returns for another go around, and it kicks in at all the right moments throughout the story, especially during the climatic finale. There are a bevy of varied sound effects for the endless amount of gunfire that only helps punctuates the destruction that surrounds Delta Squad throughout their journey. Make sure to experience this in surround sound or you will be missing out. The voice acting is right on the money again, as all the actors do a fine job delivering their lines. The new female Gears make for a slightly lesser gruff trash talking Gears experience, and probably for the better too since the last two games were quite heavy on the testosterone.
Gears of War 3 not only met its heavy expectations, it surpassed them. Yeah, I have a few nitpicks as I would with any game, but in the end the game as a whole easily overshadows them. It is the definition of a complete package: campaign supported by four player coop that gives a (mostly) gratifying sense of closure, in addition to vastly improved competitive and cooperative online coop and countless unlocks to invest in with several DLC packs already announced for the future. Hands down, you are getting the best $60 deal this year with Gears of War 3.
Rating: 5.0 - Flawless
Product Release: Gears of War 3 (US, 09/20/11)
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