Gears of War 3 is Epic Games at its best. Having nothing to prove, their task this time out was to provide a satisfying finale to their blockbuster game series, and it shows. With all the pressure off — Gears 3 was a guaranteed success before it was even begun — Epic was able to execute the most confident release of their career.
To that end, you’ll find that every action, every control and button press has been enhanced in all sorts of subtle ways until the entire interface is tweaked to perfection. There are a heap of new weapons to play with, but none of them feel all that necessary; the existing weapons still get the job done just fine.
Gears 3 finds the COG soldiers of Marcus Fenix’s Delta Squad barely holding on to the embers of a shattered, decimated planet. The Gears series is as bleak as bleak can get, and this hopelessness and tragedy is a feeling Epic has always excelled at hammering home. Two years after the sinking of Jacinto, there are no major cities still standing in which to take refuge or rally the troops, so what little that’s left of humanity is living here and there in clumps of recycled disarray. The COGs aren’t trying to win the war anymore; they’re nearly extinct and just hoping to survive by staying one step ahead of the Locust and the Lambent.
As much as you’ll recognize Gears‘ trademark duck-and-shoot gameplay, things are different this time out, because the Locust has gone into hiding and your main enemy for much of the game is the Lambent. These unpredictable adversaries don’t value their own existence, so they have no desire to duck behind cover. They’ll just come at you straight-on, lumbering forward like tanks. They also have different moves and tactics; some of them leap out of their enormous stalks, high into the air, before slamming back down to hunt you down.
The level design is more balanced than ever, providing just the right mixture of gunplay and brief breathers before the next intense battle begins. And there are some seriously intense fights in Gears 3 — the most vivid and violent of the trilogy. The campaign is a good 10 hours at least, making it the longest of the series. The game’s fuller color palette is a welcome change. Don’t take that to mean Gears has suddenly gone Rainbow Brite; the colors are as muted and high-contrast as ever, you’ll just notice more of them.
The Gears of War games have always set the high bar for graphics on Xbox 360, and this entry has the best of the bunch, with enormous outdoor vistas and insanely detailed interiors. I can still remember the first time I saw the original Gears running on a high-definition television, way back at E3 (2005, I think). Those eye-popping visuals represented a watershed moment for me, because the level of sharp detail surpassed anything I’d ever seen in a game before — on any platform. Gears 3 sees Epic’s Unreal engine utilized to its maximum potential with the best graphics of any game you’ll play in this generation — and outstanding, gut-crunching audio, too.
Gears 2 worked hard to mix up the play styles, putting you in lots of different vehicles or gauntlets that had to be run, but Gears 3 takes the variety of level types to grand new heights. That said, a bizarre section early in the game where you play as Cole instead of Marcus left me stymied. By far my least favorite character in the saga, I find Cole’s over-the-top characterization to be painfully clichéd and flat-out annoying. This sequence went on far too long for my taste, and by the time I finally got to play as Marcus again, I was ready for the focus to return to his growling, Jack Bauer-on-steroids persona.
This Cole-centric sequence was also presented out of order from the rest of the game, showing us how a team commanded by Cole caught up with the rest of Delta at a key moment in a major battle. This marks the first time the series has presented a sequence out of linear order — an interesting development for a series that has never placed much focus on plot. The game experiments with storytelling in other ways too, such as presenting a pair of surrealistic, dream-like flashbacks for two major characters that you get to play through. The first of these was more effective than the second, but both offered a glimpse into the world of Sera before E-Day, and who these characters were back then so that we can appreciate just how much they’ve been changed by the war. There’s one particular set piece a little over halfway through the campaign that delivers drama and emotion in a way so potent that it leaves all other moments of drama attempted by the series in the dust. It’s a genuinely moving piece of tragedy that even the most hardened soldier will be unable to look away from.
The addition of female COGs is long overdue, and adds a much-needed balance to Delta Squad. Anya — who until now has been nothing but Delta’s radio voice, delivering news from HQ — finally dons some armor and joins in the fight, along with a British-accented woman named Sam, who has eyes for tormented widower Dom. The women bring a kind of companionship and inner strength to the group dynamic that you didn’t know was missing, and are more than capable of handling themselves in a fight. Twig-like Anya has even gotten a size upgrade so that she and Sam can match up to the COG men’s caricature-like proportions. (By the way, is there a reason COG soldiers are giant bricks of meat? I mean, I understand it’s probably just a stylistic choice by Epic, but you can’t watch these hulked-out guys interact with ordinary civilians or even just the new female COGs, without taking note of the dramatic, and rather silly, contrast in size. This has always bugged me about the series. Are these guys genetically modified when they enlist? What’s the deal?)
Steve Jablonsky’s movie-worthy orchestral score tops even his outstanding work for the second game, and I’ve always appreciated that he goes in a musical direction more “epic action” than “sorrowful survival.” Downcast music would be enough to send the whole game into a downward spiral of depression, but Jablonsky’s score is so good I’d play the last two games again just to listen to it.
Hardcore fans will notice that the fate of the latest Carmine brother — a running gag of sorts in the series, and voted on this time by the fans as to his survival or death — is teased repeatedly. I’m not going to spoil it, but I tell you this much: you’ll have to wait until the very end to find out if he lives or if he takes a dirt nap beside his brothers.
The ending provides a surprisingly poignant, appropriately understated coda that leaves you fulfilled, with long-awaited revelations delivered at long last. But I won’t pretend that there aren’t questions that remain unanswered. (If you’re hoping for an explanation as to why the Locust Queen is so human in appearance, you’re gonna be disappointed.)
In addition to the campaign, you’re going to find plenty to love about the revamped multiplayer modes. Epic really took its time designing these new modes, taking note of the shortcomings of past games’ multiplayer successes and failures, and creating smart solutions. The ingenious new “Horde 2.0” is the headliner, and it’s surely destined to win over the faithful with its clever new take on tower defense. A number of robust additions to the online modes of play, such as the leveling and matchmaking systems, are designed to put Gears of War‘s popularity on the same level as Halo or Call of Duty.
Gears of War 3 is a highly polished gaming experience that’s executed as close to perfect as any game may ever achieve. It’s a must-have.