Few games have grown to such lofty heights in as short a time as Gears of War, having began and ended in a single console generation. In the space of five years Epic Games has revolutionised the third person shooter genre and brings the series to a close with the best Gears to date. When they promised Gears of War 3 to be bigger, better and more badass than the prior titles, they weren’t joking around.
Gears of War 3 is undoubtedly bigger as this can be seen right from the main menu with four fully fledged game modes on offer, over the previous three and two of the previous titles in the series. These are Campaign, Versus, Horde and Beast modes, and each returning mode has been significantly beefed up.
With the series iterative approach to improvement it’s undoubtedly better too. Significant improvements have been made to the storytelling (which initially was transparent) through to improving core complaints, such as the often broken lobby system, and even fleshing out previously loved aspects making them even better, like the Horde mode, which now has currency and base building.
Last of Epic Games mantra is being more badass. The campaign has this in spades with easily the most action packed and intense of the three to date. It’s refined upon the brilliant gameplay of the first and improved upon the variety of the second, thrown in a plethora of fantastic cinematic set pieces and managed to cram in a story with a wealth of new characters too.
With a ‘Previously in Gears’ cutscene the large gaps in storytelling from the prior titles have been covered up, and starting the action with a flashback from Marcus’s past you’re thrown right into the thick of it. Kicking off with memories of Marcus’s father’s demise you’re then rudely awakened by pesky locust and lambent knocking at your door. Right away the action is turned to maximum and it rarely lets up from start to end, with each chapter unravelling more of the mystery that surrounds the locust's origin, the effects of lambent and the truth regarding your father's past – all of which culminates to a conclusion that fittingly ties up a good chunk of the loose ends and sweeps away a few unanswered questions.
It’s certainly a different beast this time around, with a heavy focus on building a back story for the various characters and bringing the story to a close whilst attempting to clear up all the loose ends. Dom in particular provided numerous laughs throughout the campaign, with his introduction having him tend his crops looking like he’s put down the weapon in favour of becoming a heavily bearded farmer, and as always Cole is as fantastic as ever stealing the show every time he’s around – particularly half way through the campaign when you get a taste of his stardom in a flashback that relives his former glory. It’s fantastic to get a sense of personality with the old favourites, whilst building upon the C.O.G. cast with new characters that you control throughout the campaign. This frequent mix up only strengthens the playable line-up and means that any character is expendable at a moment’s notice.
The game is split between five main acts, with plenty of chapters splitting each act up. All in all it’s easily a ten hour strong campaign, as well as an additional point based arcade mode, with a handful of challenging boss fights throughout (particularly on four player co-op, where the difficulty ramps up). The core gameplay of constant cover shooting is as present as ever, but its simplicity is covered by a wide variety of returning along with new enemies to take down as well as a range of weapons to choose from. It’s rare to have so many various enemies in a single game, having now built up quite a catalogue over the years. The new lambent off breed of locust offer a new challenge as they explode upon death and often mutate into everything, from flailing arms to flame thrower appendages.
Taking them down is a blast though thanks to the new additions to your arsenal, from the one shot Sawn-off Shotgun with extremely long reload times to the Digger which fires a grenade through the floor at enemies, but without a shadow of a doubt the highlight comes with the Retro Lancer. Easily my personal favourite weapon of choice in the Gears of War series, the Retro Lancer is similar to the normal modern day Lancer but packs more of a punch at the expense of heavy recoil with each shot... a fair trade off. The real beauty, however, comes with the replacement for the chainsaw attachment, a simple wide bladed bayonet which comes with the ability to charge at enemies and spike them into the air, refusing to get old even after the 100th spike.
Graphically this is the Unreal Engine at its best, showing off much need foliage and impressive lighting effects that make the Gears of War universe appear like never before. The glistening sun hitting the desert swept landscapes is reminiscent of Uncharted, with some stunning background scenes looking out into a distant chaos. It’s certainly one of the best graphical experiences available on the Xbox 360 to date, and whilst it still can’t stand up against offerings on both the PS3 and PC, Xbox gamers will appreciate the eye candy and learn to forgive the texture resolution, jaggies and pop-in blemishes.
There’s no holding back the audio either, which delivers stunning orchestral backing music that fits brilliantly with the intense action scenes coupled with the sound of gunfire and literally continual explosions. When background music is done well you barely recognise it, whereas in Gears of War 3 it’s so spectacular you’re made fully aware of it and this only ever aids immersion instead of hindering it, be in the heat of a battle or over a dramatic cutscene. The voice acting sits alongside this level of quality thanks to some household names voicing the game’s various characters, brought to life with the witty and cheese dialogue typical with the C.O.G.’s.
Versus mode sees the return of modes familiar with returning players, and whilst nothing appears different on the outside there are considerable tweaks and changes behind the scene. Most noticeable is the new lobby system that manages to successfully get you into a game without problems (so far), a roaring success coming from Gears of War 2. Weapons have been given a balancing overhaul too with the shotgun having been brought back in line, and the addition of many new weapons adding much needed variety to everyone’s arsenal.
Horde is almost unrecognisable, the mode has been overhauled with currency that is earned from your performance (most noticeably kills) that can be spent on outfitting the environment with defences such as laser fences to Lancer turrets, or even spent on ammo and weapons throughout the map. This adds the much needed strategic element that was previously missed, no longer clinging to shields for safety but instead building up, repairing and restocking defences at various choke points on the map. And trust me these defences are sorely needed, as every 10th round is no longer a walk in the park with the addition of bosses, from charging Berserkers that refuse to die to Corpsers that’ll continually tunnel underground striking you from surprise.
The last mode is the new addition to the series, Beast Mode, which has you playing a similar game to Horde but with the roles reversed. Once again your performance rewards currency that is used to purchase which beast you’re going to play as, from a cheap tiny explosive Ticker to the midgame rocket wielding Boomers, or late game Armoured Kantus that is almost immune to bullet fire and can revive teammates. The mode is certainly a lot of fun and a welcome addition to the series, but with only 12 waves and only A.I. opponents it feels like somewhat of a missed opportunity and more of a prototype of huge potential that could have been.
Outside of the game modes the menu system and side objectives have received a lot of attention. There are statistics and leaderboards throughout every game mode, along with a long list of medals and ribbons to achieve. The achievement and collectable tracking is back and improved, and a plethora of unlockables from weapon skins to playable characters in multiplayer (some of which require cold hard cash). Whilst outside of the gameplay it makes a huge difference in both rewarding playtime and tracking your progress to give a sense of accomplishment, something which more games really need to take note of. Heck there’s even an event calendar so that this time around you don’t miss that bonus XP weekend or a Horde infested Ticker Tuesday.
Gears of War 3 is undoubtedly the ultimate in the series, made especially for the fans with the formula, story and characters they’ve become to love grown and polished to brilliance. When it seems like all other trilogy series are reinventing themselves, Gears of War 3 stays true to its roots and has, as promised, just become bigger, better and more badass. If you’re not a Gears fan, you were never really invited to this party anyway.