Review: Gears of War 3

Muscle-bound men, smears of blood and guts, and giant, glowing monsters are all stock-standard for the Gears franchise. But this time around, something's different.

NameGears of War 3
Summary:Bleak, bloody, and bold - but emotional enough that you'll wonder who's been cutting onions.
Games Info:Developer: Epic Games; Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform:Xbox 360
Test Platform:Xbox 360

Muscle-bound men, smears of blood and guts, and giant, glowing monsters are all stock-standard for the Gears franchise. But this time around, something’s different. Where Gears 2 lacked any real emotional depth, Gears of War 3 not only hits the nail on the head, but hammers it straight into your heart until you’re leaking blood and tears all over the place (much like a wounded Locust).

For the first time, developer Epic Games has lived up to its namesake. Gears 3 really is, well, epic.

The planet Sera has all but been destroyed, but small groups of humans are struggling to survive in any way they can, anywhere they can. The now ex-COG soldier Marcus Fenix is hiding out on a ship with familiar faces Dom and Anya when he receives a communication from his supposedly-dead father. So begins a story that bubbles along beneath the surface of the action for hours. We catch glimpses of it in the many short cut-scenes dotted between fast-paced firefights, until suddenly it’s kicked up a notch about halfway through. By the end of the game, the story becomes easily more satisfying than Gears 2, and makes Gears 3 one of the Xbox 360’s crowning achievements.

The action itself hasn’t changed much, but that doesn’t mean it’s not ridiculously fun. It is. It really, really is. One thing Gears has always excelled at is mixing up action sequences so you don’t feel like you’re just running into firefight after firefight. At the core of the game is cover-based combat, but there are also mech suits, rocket turrets, stealth missions, and a couple of new weapons to keep you busy. One such weapon is the difficult to wield Butcher Cleaver, which is ludicrously large and awesome. Then there’s the One Shot, which is like the familiar Longshot sniper rifle – except you don’t have to hit an enemy in the head to kill them with a single bullet.

Gears of War 3 pushes the Xbox to its graphical limits. At first glance the graphics may not appear much better than Gears 2, but the lighting has been significantly improved, which makes everything a little less drab; a little less brown-and-grey. The wide array of environments also helps to keep the backgrounds interesting, and the game seems to get more colourful as time goes on.

What really makes these environments come to life, though, is the music. Not just during the cutscenes – although there is one particularly stellar use of a well-known song halfway through the game – but throughout the whole game. And I've never felt like more of a badass than near the end, when the Gears theme loudly struck up as I was gunning down Locust after Locust with my Lancer – the franchise’s classic chainsaw gun.

It’s unbelievely hard to fault the campaign of Gears of War 3, but there is one thing that doesn't zing like the rest – for about an hour in the beginning of the game, you wind back time and play as former sports star Cole Train. During this section, you find out what Cole was doing while Marcus was fighting the first fights of the game. It seemed while playing through it that Cole's character was being developed further for some storyline later in the game, but nothing eventuated. I can only gather that the point was not to get us to know Cole better, but to get to know the new characters with him, the sarcastic Samantha Byrne and the new Carmine brother, Clayton. Despite this minor flat note, some of the best lines in the game come from that sequence – Cole, Baird, and Sam seem to always have a joke up their sleeve, even when their lives are at risk.

One of Gears’ most important features is the ability to play the campaign co-op. Previous games have only allowed for two-player co-op, but now gamers can play with up to four. Splitscreen co-op requires some serious squinting – as usual – but otherwise works well for those people who prefer to be in the same room as their buddy while they play. Four-player co-op I’m not so sure about – four people are now competing for ammo and other resources, and at the beginning you’ll all have to cram into corridors. The game does open up later on, however, and quarters aren’t so tight.

Those who played the multiplayer beta for Gears 3 will already know about its ‘regular’ multiplayer mode, which includes Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill, Capture the Leader, and Warzone – which is similar to Deathmatch with the twist that once you’re dead, you don’t get to respawn. We would have liked to give the finished online multiplayer a real go, but unfortunately it’s hard to do pre-release when there are almost no New Zealand/Australian players online yet. Finding a match is just too hard, so we’ll post an update in a couple of days’ time to talk about the new multiplayer modes.

I did manage to get together with a couple of fellow game journos to try out the new horde mode, Horde 2.0, and its flipped version, Beast Mode. Both are ridiculously fun. For those not familiar with Gears, in horde mode you and your COG friends fight off waves of enemies with increasing difficulty. This time around, you earn cash for dispensing of foes, and spend that cash on collecting ammunition and upgrading your environment. For example, you can set up a decoy, a turret, or razor wire to protect an area of the map, and do all your fighting from within that area. That doesn’t make horde mode easy – the game is very well-balanced, and we had to restart waves several times.

Beast Mode is similar to Left 4 Dead 2’s Versus game type in that you play as the monsterous enemy and try to defeat the waves of humans. Again, cash is the economy here – you use it to purchase different types of Locust and Lambent to fight your human enemies with. Stronger fighters are more expensive, but you earn so much cash that it’s hard to run out. There are civilian enemies, soldiers, and main characters like Marcus and Dom. To kill the game’s main characters, you have to execute them after gunning them down to complete your kill. In early rounds, there are only one or two of these ‘hero’ characters, but in later rounds there are up to eight. Funnily enough, we found the earlier rounds of Beast Mode more difficult than the later rounds, as you eventually unlock stronger Locust and Lambent to fight your battles.

I’ve played a lot of games so far this year, and Gears of War 3 is one of the best – maybe even the best. It’s never going to be everyone’s cup of tea – some people don’t like shooters on a console, some won’t be able to stand the gore – but if those things that make others recoil from a game get you excited, then you’re going to love Gears 3. It’s action-packed, mechanically sound, has plenty of replayability, and is surprisingly emotionally charged. Go forth, Xbox gamers, and curbstomp.

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Tags Gears of War 3MicrosoftgamingGears of WargamesXBox 360Epic Games

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Siobhan Keogh

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