FutureFive NZ - Game review: Gears of War 3

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Game review: Gears of War 3

Gears of War 3 brings to a close the story of the Coalition of Governments Gears unit, Delta Squad, in particular that of Marcus Fenix and Dominic ‘Dom’ Santiago. Together with their battle-weary companions, they face new threats and revelations as their battle to save the Earth-like Sera from the subterranean scourge of the Locust reaches its conclusion. 

Many would consider the Halo series to be the Xbox 360’s flagship franchise. As genre-defining as Master Chief’s adventures are, it was on the original Xbox that we experienced Halo for the first time.  It’s the run, duck and cover gameplay of the Gears of War series that the Xbox 360 can honestly call its own. Sure, Marcus Fenix and his motley crew did have a brief foray into PC-land, but Gears 2 and now Gears of War 3 are exclusively available only on the Xbox 360.

The Gears of Wars series is set on the world of Sera. The planet’s golden age of enlightenment, running on the miracle-fuel of Imulsion, a glowing liquid running though the planet, is shattered on E-Day, Emergence Day. From beneath the planet’s surface a horde of creatures, the Locust, attacked the peaceful world. The first game was set fourteen years after the conflict began, with many of the world’s cities in ruins due to self-inflicted damage from orbital defence platforms, denying the Locust of any spoils of war. The last vestiges of the human race fled to the city of Jacinto, founded on rock so hard that the Locust were unable to burrow their way up. The first game climaxed with the detonation of a lightmass bomb in the Hollow, the Locust’s tunnel system. Gears of War 2 took the battle from the surface into the Locust’s underground domain, ending with the sinking of Jacinto and the flooding of the Hollow. Gears 2 also introduced the Lambent, a mutated form of Locust caused by over-exposure to Imulsion.  

With mankind scattered, the plot of Gears of War 3 takes a more post-apocalyptic tone. Previously the goal was clear: to win the war. Now, with nothing left to save, it’s all about survival. This actually works in the game’s favour; I for one have always found the Gears series lacking a bit of depth, the story seemingly a necessary evil in the designers’ eyes, a way to lead players from one fire fight to the next. Gears of Wars 3 takes players on a more personal, emotional journey this time and for the game’s protagonist, Marcus Fenix, it’s about more than just killing grubbs. 

Marcus receives news that his father, Adam Fenix, who he had believed was dead for years, is still alive and has a plan to stop the Lambent plague which will eradicate the Locust in the process. He is trapped in his lab on the secret government base of Azura, constructed as an idyllic haven for scientists and the social elite to escape the Locust invasion. And so the series focus shifts from the on-going conflict to a personal quest for answers and resolution.

Previously, Gears of War fit quite nicely into the space opera genre, compared to the more robust science fiction narrative of the Halo series. Indeed, the two have sat so far from one another that it’s like comparing Gears of War’s Michael Bay to Halo’s Arthur C. Clarke. With Gears 3 Epic have decided to expose us to a little more of the conflict’s human sacrifice, taking things beyond soldiers simply fighting a war.

The casualties of the Locust war are poignantly illustrated as Delta Squad make their way through the ruins of a devastated city. Players see the eerie, ashen remains of men, women and children, frozen in time since the day the hammer-strikes fell. It’s a disturbing parallel with the victims of Pompeii, only this macabre record is of a disaster caused by human hands, the bodies locked in the final moments of their lives – lives taken from them for the greater good by their own people in a vain attempt to stop the Locust. 

At its heart Gears of War 3 still plays the same as its predecessors- which is a good thing. To depart from such a winning formula would be unnecessary. Players control Delta Squad leader, Marcus Fenix, via an over-the-shoulder third-person viewpoint. There is a short sequence early on where the game-play focus shifts to ex-thrashball lineman Augustus "Cole Train" Coleball, providing a neat bit of exposition via flashback rather than cut-scene dialogue.   Instead of the run-and-gun gameplay of your usual shooter, the Gears of War series encourages active use of cover. Pressing the A button on the controller makes Marcus do his famous hunched "roadie run” allowing him to quickly get behind cover. Keep the A button down and he’ll stick to the cover and get out of harm’s way.  This dynamic makes for very satisfying fire-fight situations where careful use of cover and tactics can enable victory over insurmountable odds.

Epic are no strangers to the need to provide players with the right tools for the job. Each Delta Squad member is equipped with the Gears trademark rifle, the lancer; accurate at distance and, with its chainsaw attachment, deadly in up-close-and-personal melee situations.  There are also the usual shotguns, sniper rifles, a host of different grenades as well as the weapons of the enemy to try out. The four weapon slots available are never enough. But it’s all good fun and guaranteed to leave a gore-encrusted bloody mess.

Gears 3 sees the return of many familiar Locust troops as well as a few new ones; there’s a particularly tricky armoured grubb that needs a steady aim with explosives to bring down,  and is guaranteed to give players a run for their money. The biggest new addition is the Lambent-infected Locust that appeared late in Gears 2. These Imulsion-mutated creatures often appear from huge stalks that erupt from the ground. The first thing to do is destroy the stalks’ pods; once they are all destroyed the stalk will die and no more Lambent will spawn. Lambent also have a tendency to go out with a bang, spaying toxic Imulsion everywhere.  The addition of the Lambent is a nice way of offering a bit of variety for the third and final outing.

I’m not sure if it was down to the better pacing of this instalment or if Gears 3 has been toned down a bit from the frantic rate of its predecessors. At no point did I really feel any sense of urgency in the proceedings. I know the scale of the plot is intentionally tighter than before, what with the more personal quest this time out, but Gears 3 seemed to lack the epic-ness of Gears 2 and the odds that were so heavily stacked against Marcus and co in the first game. I’m not saying that it suffers for it, and perhaps it is the only way to gently bring to a close such an adrenaline-fuelled romp without it ending in a thud.

Graphically, Gears of Wars 3 is simply without peer on the Xbox 360. My only criticism is that whilst the depth of field cunningly evokes a sense of scale, with the backgrounds reaching deep into the scene, the absence of any discernible anti-aliasing in the foreground results in everything having that "staircase” jagged edge. This is particularly grating, especially as the character models are much crisper and well defined this time around.  Apart from the lack of anti-aliasing, a problem that befalls most if not all console games, the visuals are not that far off those of decent PC rendering. The lighting, using a high-end technique known as global illumination, creates a visual realism the likes of which we don’t really get to see on the Xbox 360. Epic’s Unreal engine must be wringing every last bit of power from Microsoft’s now (sadly) aging console. 

Epic have, once again, outdone themselves whilst sating their fetish for fantastic digital architecture. The incredible attention to detail in the building is a series hallmark often overlooked in other games. It’s clear that they had a lot of fun creating the beautiful glass palaces of Azura, filled with classical statues- all there ready to be blown to bits.

Everything you do in game, online or off, counts towards your player’s career, awarding XP and opening up unlockable characters and weapons. The entire campaign mode can also be played in 2 player co-op, either in standard or in an arcade mode which allows the use of unlockable game-changing mutators; something seasoned players will remember from Epic’s Unreal Tournament games. The classic Horde mode makes a return, where players must fight off waves of increasingly difficult attacking Locust. Gears 3 also sees the addition of Horde’s evil twin in Beast mode. The inverse of Horde, Beast mode has players taking the role of the Locust attacking human opponents manning a command post. 

The game comes complete with a full range of competitive multiplayer modes, all featuring the Gears trademark cover system. Warzone returns, encouraging players to eliminate all members of the opposing team with one life per round. If you don’t fancy waiting out the round, the new addition of Team Deathmatch plays the same as Warzone, but in a move that will make it more popular for new players and upset the hardcore in equal measures, introduces a limited amount of respawns to get players back into the fight. Execution, as before, required players to dispatch opponents via the game’s gratuitous execution set pieces, while Capture the Leader invites players to hunt the leader of the opposing team whilst protecting their own. King of the Hill is a Gears version of the popular domination-style game, players being tasked with capturing and defending various hold-points. Finally, Wingman has four teams of two players all out to eliminate their opponents. These modes are fought across some of the most well perceived multiplayer levels I’ve played. The level design encourages both long and short range fire-fights, as well as featuring plenty of different routes that’ll catch out even the most seasoned players.  

The multiplayer game is as slick as one would expect on its third time out. But Gears of Wars 3 still appears to remain a niche multiplayer pursuit, especially it seems in New Zealand. Even when trying to connect to primetime matches of the most popular Deathmatch mode, after several minutes searching, games seemed overpopulated with bots. The online player stats suggest the reason why” 60,000 playing globally compared with 800 in this region (Asia-Pacific, I assume). Compare that with Call of Duty: Black Ops’ 200,000 globally. Still, it’s early days yet and I’ll be interested to see just how the multiplayer community develops. Whilst there will, no doubt, be a hardcore player element migrating from the previous game, I hope that the multiplayer game will still accommodate new players that join later on, something that I felt the previous games never did. 

Gears of War 3 offers up the most polished gaming experience of the series. It just oozes style from the intro screen to the closing credits – set to the subtle tones of rapper Ice-T’s recently dusted off band, Body Count, performing a titular rendition of their song Gears of War. The game’s high quality production vales illustrate the reverence that the developers, Epic, have for their flagship series. This is no by-the-numbers effort and a game that every Xbox 360 owner should have in their library. 

Gears of War 3 provides fans of the series with a fitting end to a grand opus. Whilst this may be the final chapter of this particular tale, no doubt we will be returning to Sera in the next few years. Maybe to take a step back in time, Halo: Reach style, to experience exactly how the Locust shattered the peace on Emergence Day. Until that time, Gears of War 3 will, with its multitude of different game modes both online and off, provide tons of replay value that’ll keep you coming back for more. 

Graphics: 9.5

Gameplay: 9

Sound: 9

Lasting appeal: 9.5

Overall: 9.5

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