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Gears of War 3 is an epic swan song

Epic Games had to pull off a hat trick with the concluding chapter of Gears of War.  First is to bring new visual and gameplay tweaks that are prerequisite for a sequel to be a hit with the fans.  Second, they needed a way to recap the story for newcomers. Finally, they needed to wrap up the story in a way that is satisfying for a trilogy that was designed to end with the third installment.

Epic pulled it off with style and grace, as Gears of War 3 exemplifies exactly what a sequel should be. The campaign outdoes its predecessors while breathing more life into the setting and offering greater diversity than the first two installments. It ups the visual ante, and most importantly, delivers a concluding story that does the series justice, and with real emotional impact. Epic Games has crafted their best game to date, and brings the adventures of Delta Squad to an inspired and, dare I say, respectful close.

The Gears of War 3 story continues the adventures of COG soldiers Marcus and Dom, now holed up on a COG ship on the planet Sera, as humanity struggles to survive after the events of the second game.  With Locusts and Lambent fighting each other and humans, the world is a mess.  If you’ve never played the earlier games, that’s okay, as it does a good job of recapping the story, while not bogging things down for the returning player.  In this way it works much like a ‘Previously on…’ TV opening.  Some people hate spoilers, so I won’t touch on plot points.

The characters, which have always been hit or miss for me, actually come across better fleshed out.  While they’re still cut from the “Writing Action Heroes 101” cloth, new writer Karen Traviss (who’s written a few Gears novelizations) has managed through dialogue to infuse them with more individuality.  There’s enough meat on the characters’ bones to put them in the same category as the Colonial Space Marines of “Aliens”.  The high cheese factor is still present in much of the dialogue, but as the story progresses, there’s actually some subtlty.  For a game in which even the female soldiers have more testosterone pumping through their veins than the average real life mixed martial arts fighter, that’s no mean feat.  One example is the aside scene with Augustus Cole reliving his glory days as a football hero, which some have called corny.  While I’d agree with that, I actually quite liked the diversion.  It’s indicative of the character, and makes the player care more for him.  These little touches are scattered throughout, and solidify the game’s tagline “Brothers to the end”, which comes into play by the end of the story.  I was involved enough that I was actually choked up before the campaign was all done.

One of the other appeals for me when it comes to the Gears franchise is that while obviously a military sci-fi shooter, it has steered more towards the classic sci-fi styling, and stayed away from trying to infect it with ‘gritty realism’.  I’ll take sci-fi military escapist entertainment straight up, as opposed to spiking it with Tom Clancy geo-political army recruitment fantasy nonsense any day.

That does raise an interesting point about the overarching story of Gears of War though.  While the Locusts may be mean and ugly, they’re just trying to survive on their planet.  After all, it’s the humas who’ve settled on Sera.  During the course of the game, some of the non-player characters actually raise this sticky moral point, but it really doesn’t go anywhere.  Maybe it’s because I recently re-read the Enders Game series of books, but the moral quandries of human settlement of worlds playing host to an intelligent species of their own stood out to me.  In Gears 3, expect the outcome to be more Ender Wiggins the Xenocide as opposed to the Speaker of the Dead.

To that grisly end, the player will be taken on a more expansive world tour on this outing.  While Gears is still a very much linear experience, travelling half way across the planet gives Epic a chance to show off a much wider variety of level designs.  The earlier games featured some great architectural designs, giving cities an authentic lived-in feel.  In Gears 3 this kind of design philosophy is applied to the world of Sera, making it a living breathing place.  The colour palette and overall aesthetic feel very much inspired by Epic’s game Bulletstorm (co-designed by People Can Fly), and like that game showcases some of the features of the latest version of the Unreal engine.

This makes Gears 3 visually the best looking of the series, as is to be expected.  While the main characters haven’t changed much from the earlier installments, the textures are better, in-engine asides and cut scenes are smoother (with a few framerate drops here and there),

When the first Gears of War launched in 2006, a single conceit was the linchpin to its success.  That’s the cover mechanic.  Although there are a number of games that precede Gears with cover controls, the franchise showed the world how to do it right.  And other developers paid attention.  Now, if your shooter doesn’t have a cover mechanic, or worse, a really crappy one, players notice it.  In that sense, I’d argue that Gears of War is probably one of the most influential games in recent years.  I was originally going to say ‘most influetial shooters’, but when cover mechanics now play important roles in RPGs like Mass Effect and the new Deus Ex, it’s gone beyond that.

While the basic controls remain unchanged, like the environments everything is more polished.  In particular, the cover mechanism is less sticky compared to the original.  The AI is much improved as well, although that comes with an unintended price.  Your teammates are almost good enough that they don’t need you except to eliminate key bad guys when playing on the lower difficulties.  There were a few times when I ran off to a corner to get a COG tag or artifact, only to have most of the locusts or lambent eliminated.  I thought Cole Train and Dom were holding out to let me put the bullet in the enemy stragglers.  If you’re an experienced Gears player, you should be starting on hardcore, which will give you a challenge.  Insane mode, which is unlocked after completing the campaign once, is just as the name implies.  Make sure you don’t veer too far away from your teammates on Insane mode, or you’ll be mashing that A button for revival quite a bit.

Any good sequel will throw some new enemies and weapons into the mix, and Gears of War 3 brings some good one.   The new snipers are a particular pain in the ass, as they’re damned good shots.  Luckily there’s a warning beep when you’ve been locked onto, and if you can get to cover in time, you’ll be safe.  If not, you’re nothing but scattered bits of meat in a single shot. 

I haven’t had a chance to sink my teeth into multiplayer yet, beyond some two player campaign co-op (which is great by the way) and some Beast mode. Beast mode takes the Horde mode that Gears 2 popularized, and gets you to play as the Locust, trying to take down an ever more powerful team of COG soldiers.  You start out as lesser creatures such as tickers, and as you rack up kills, you earn tokens that allow you to upgrade to more powerful Locust beasts.  It gives you a chance to play with all new strategies outside the norm for Gears multiplayer, as it’s not all reliant on the COG shoot and cover paradigm.

The more traditional forms of competitive multiplayer are all intact as well.  Seeing a team of players who know what they’re doing in Team Deathmatch is always a blast.  I’ve been turned off of ‘real world’ military shooters for a while, partially because of the way various in game perks are handled, and Gears 3 luckily hasn’t fallen into that same trap.  It boils down to two teams of players with similar equipment trying to take out each other, the way it should be.

If you’re a new players signing up for duty with Delta Squad, Gears 3 won’t leave you scratching your head.  For those players who were on the fence in the earlier installments, they might find that Gears 3 will win them over.  Our own RebelScum, who had played some Gears previously but never cottoned to it, came by to check out Gears 3 for a few minutes.  An hour in and he said he’d be picking it up.

For those of us who’ve been there since the beginning, Epic games have put out a grande finale, with an emphasis on grande.

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