An Expansive And Refined Package
It's no secret that I held mixed opinions on Gears of War 2. It felt like the game took the whole "darker sequel" thing a little too far, injecting a somberness into characters and worlds that frankly didn't deserve to be taken so seriously. With Gears of War 3 Epic has finally hit that sweet spot between darkness and bro-ness that the first two missed, and tuned their gameplay and graphics engines to a T to boot. The resulting game is not only one of the Xbox 360's finest games, but one of this generation's most engaging shooters.
Gears 3 picks up several years after the ending of the last game. After Jacinto sank, humanity fled to the relative safety of the sea while the rest of the world was swallowed up by lambency. Now, what's left of the COG eke out a precarious life aboard a large boat, growing their own food and crafting their own weaponry. But when news arrives that Marcus' father, long assumed dead (although players always knew better,) may still be alive, it's time for another globe trotting adventure with the Gears.
Story has never been Gears' strong suit, so it's probably for the best that Gears 3 keeps its plot interludes minimal and brief. What wisp of a story there is works just fine to propel the narrative forward, and naturally incorporates several incredible setpiece battles, such as an underground Corpser fight and a desperate last stand against dozens of Locust troops. The game's initial focus on the Lambent as the main antagonists is quickly swept aside in favor of more Locust battles, but both parties feel like a real enough threat that neither seems like it was tacked on to the game. Functionally, it would have been nice to see a bit more of a difference between the two factions, as both tend to pop out unexpectedly and shoot at you until they die. A little more divergence in enemy AI behaviors could've gone a long way toward differentiating the enemies, but enough variety remains in the enemy types that it's hardly a big deal.
Several new allies are introduced as well, although the game does a poorer job of explaining who exactly these people are than should be expected. In fact, the game seems to assume that everyone has read all of the books and comics that have spun off of the Gears universe, as many of these characters seem to have originated there and it's not explained who they are or why Marcus and co. are suddenly friends with them. As I said earlier, story has never been Gears' big selling point, so this ambiguity is pretty much par for the course right now.
New weapons will slowly reveal themselves as the campaign wears on, and alongside the old guns they make for a large and intimidating arsenal. The retro lancer sports a regular bayonet in place of the chainsaw, and by holding down the B button Marcus can charge into a group of enemies, impaling the first one he comes into contact with. Then there's the oneshot, a gun which, as the name implies, will take down just about any enemy in one shot after a lengthy charging period. There's also a new chain gun that requires a little bit of cooperation to use, as one player must hold the ammo box and be constantly mashing buttons to feed ammunition to the controlling player, who aims and fires the gun. These new additions to the arsenal fit right in with the old weapons, and make the Gears weapons some of the most diverse out there.
All of these guns are put to good use in multiplayer, which has seen a similar overhaul. The key change here is the addition of dedicated servers for the game. Basically, these new servers are all the difference between the broken and glitchy online gameplay of past games, and the silky smooth gunplay of Gears 3. Multiplayer can still be frustrating with so many one-shot kills available (the oneshot, lancer, retro lancer, mortar, and longshot can all take players out in one hit) but it feels far more balanced now than before, and there's no "host advantage" to speak of in any of the servers. Couple this with some fantastic map design and tons of levels and unlockables to attain, and Gears 3 is a game that can and will be played online for a long time to come.
Despite the great competitive multiplayer, my favorite Gears 3 experiences have been cooperative, not competitive. Epic has added in a new co-op mode called Beast, in which players take the role of Locust soldiers, and they've totally revamped Horde mode while they were at it. Between these two modes alone, I can see myself playing Gears 3 well into next year. Horde in particular is wickedly addictive, and I can't wait to get a great squad together to plow all the way from level 1 to level 50 in one sitting. There aren't many games that make me want to sit down and play for the five or six hours that are supposedly required to play through all of Horde in one sitting, but this is one of them.
The appeal of the new Horde is mostly due to the tower defense mechanics that Epic has layered over the shooting. Horde in the last Gears was a straight survival game; it was fun for a while, but ultimately shallow and lacking in strategy. In Gears 3, players have much more leeway in how they want to build their defenses. Multiple command posts exist on each level, each of which must be bought with currency earned through killing enemies. After purchasing a command post, it's possible to plant decoys, build turrets, and craft barbed wire fences around them. The more cash a player earns, the better equipment they can build, as each of the defenses can be upgraded multiple times. What began as a simple turret, which could be manned and fired by a player, can be upgraded to a sentient defense turret that fires on enemies on its own accord.
These upgrades have to be unlocked by leveling them up before they can be used, so the more a player helps out his team by building defenses, the better those defenses get. To me, there's nothing more satisfying than cooperating with four other players to build up a nigh-impenetrable base. It combines all of the strategic appeal of a tower defense game with the pixel perfect shooting of the competitive multiplayer. Even the strongest of bases will fall eventually though, as Horde's difficulty ramps up steadily and consistently. Every ten rounds is a boss round, during which the quintet of players will be challenged with a random wave of super-strong enemies, supplemented by waves of normal enemies. These rounds are always intense, nail-biting affairs. Berserkers, Brumaks, and Gunkers are just a few of the deadly possibilities during these thrilling waves, and any player who makes it out the other side alive is both lucky and skilled. Even after the boss waves, the coast isn't clear. Every tenth wave, the enemy forces will gain some sort of perk, such as increased damage or defense, making them even harder to kill. After a while, the game will start introducing different poisons that will damage the Gears in some way while they make their stand. Making it all the way to round 50 won't be easy, but it's a challenge that I readily accept, as Horde mode is by far the most addictive thing I've played this year.
Then there's the aforementioned Beast mode. While it's far from the narcotic addiction that is Horde, it's still a solid way to kill a few hours with some friends. Essentially, Beast is the reverse of Horde. The AI take on the role of the COG, and will set up defenses to keep players away. As a Locust soldier of their choosing, players must identify the best grub for the job and set out to murder all humans within the time limit. Tickers are good at one-shotting enemies, as their explosions have a wide radius, but of course the explosion will kill the Ticker as well. Non-explosive Tickers are great at deconstructing fortifications; their sharp claws can carve right through barbed wire. Eventually players will gain access to even more powerful Locust troops, with some of the bigger ones being absurdly entertaining to control. Playing as a Berserker is fun, but even that isn't the coolest of the different classes in Beast mode.
Gears of War 3 is such an absurdly expansive package it's hard to imagine anyone picking it up and not being satisfied with at least one part of this thrilling whole. The campaign is great, with friends or alone, and makes some tonal shifts that allow it to be more fun than the last two campaigns were. Then there's the multiplayer which, if past games are any indication, will see continued support throughout the next year. It's fun and has tons of variety, and for once in the Gears franchise, death comes (mostly) fairly. The real selling point for me and many other players, however, is the suite of co-op modes. Horde mode is simply thrilling, and Beast is too interesting to dislike. All things considered, there is something in this package that should be worth the sixty dollars to just about anyone. Epic has managed to not only polish their storied gameplay mechanics to a blinding shine, but has incorporated them in new and interesting ways that competitors will be ripping off years from now. It's about as close to perfect as a shooter can get.