Name: Gears of War 3
Genre: Third-person cover shooter
Platform: Xbox 360
Price: £37.99 from Amazon
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Gears of War is back for a final tour of duty in the conclusion to the blockbusting trilogy. Can Epic Games raise the bar for cover shooters once more, or should this sequel be thrown down one of the series’ own deadly emergence holes? Read on to find out.
Gears of War 3 kicks off two years after the events of the second game in the series. After being forced into destroying one of humanity’s final strongholds to quell the growing threat from the underground Lambent forces, the burly, wisecracking, gun-toting members of Delta Squad eke out a meagre existence aboard a sea-faring battleship. On the run and on a planet slowly killing itself from the inside out, the Gears must make one final all-or-nothing push for survival.
The scene is well set then for an epic finale to a much-loved franchise. Thankfully, Epic Games deliver with buckets full of blood, bullets and boomtastic explosions aplenty in what’s sure to be this year’s best Xbox 360 exclusive and a strong contender for Game of the Year.
Three games in and it’s become easy to forget that not only is the Gears of War cover system tight, accurate and most importantly fun, but also how innovative it was in the first Gears game and how influential it’s become. From Uncharted to Mass Effect, plenty of this generation’s best titles owe their bread-and-butter combat mechanics a hell of a lot to Gears. In this respect, Gears of War 3 doesn’t try to fix a system that isn’t broken; you’ll still snap behind shelter, pop off fire towards a few baddies, then “roadie-run” to the next safe object to hide behind.
Where Gears of War 3’s campaign mode shines then is in how Epic consistently shake up this now tried-and-tested formula.
Take the vast variety of enemies your Gears now face. As well as closing up Locust emergence holes, you’re now tackling the explosive Lambent forces introduced in Gears of War 2 from the outset too. The glowing nasties, filled with the volatile immulsion goo, tear up through the ground in massive, tentacle-like “Stalks”. Each Stalk has a number of pods on it which spawn the Lambent forces and must be destroyed to halt their advances. With the pods stuck anywhere around the circumference of the Stalks, you’ll be forced to move into dangerous positions to destroy them, rather than simply lobbing a grenade in their general direction like you can get away with when it comes to emergence holes.
Lambent foes themselves are tougher too. While the Locust remain doggedly persistent bullet sponges, the tougher Lambent (many resembling the aliens from Dead Space) have glowing weak spots that have to be specifically targeted. Add to this extra challenge the fact that Lambent blow up as they die causing caustic splash damage and you’re looking at a far tougher challenge. This is before you consider environmental hazards, enemy artillery strikes, mobs of suicide bombing spider-like creatures or a handful of superb, suitably epic boss fights.
Variety extends into all aspects of the campaign design. For starters there’s a more refined balance between open, expansive battlefields with fire coming from all sides, more linear, claustrophobic corridor sections and one off set-pieces, all of which are a joy to play through. You may have to extinguish fires on your home battleship while other Gears lay down covering fire at one point, then shepherd vital food and resources into a chopper whilst riding in a mech suit the next. You never know what’s coming up, and you’ll never be bored as a result.
With the challenge ramped up a notch or two, it’s a good job your AI buddies are up to the task. They can handle themselves very well during gunfights, while also keeping an eye out for your safety, intelligently reviving you or fallen allies at only the most opportune, sensible moments.
Practically the whole campaign sees you flanked by three other Gears, which leads on to the fact that this campaign can be tackled online by four players co-operatively. It’s a great game in single player, but it’s an absolute riot with three pals along for the ride. The added levels of organisation and communication needed to succeed make for a far more tactical game, and an even more satisfying one to boot. Nothing says “fun” like synchronised chainsawing with your friends, and nothing says “funny” like your dumb pal’s suicidal “Leroooooy Jenkins” head-first sprint into certain doom.
It’s a pity then that some of the supporting cast that you’ll play as over the course of the campaign feel a little shoehorned in. Maybe it’s because the usual Gears suspects Marcus, Dom, Baird, Anya and Cole have become so fondly appreciated that new cast members like Jayce and Sam don’t get much back-story love, but at least none of them are annoying and all feel like believable Gears in their own right.
That’s not to say the story is poor. Far from it; it’s the best Epic Games have penned yet. We learn far more about Marcus’s past, his relationship with his father and his responsibility to his squad mates. We see Dom coming to terms with the harrowing events he endured during the course of Gears of War 2. We see Cole pine for his Thrashball superstar “Cole Train” past, a life he’ll never get back in world now so near to utter destruction. Gears of War as a franchise has always had the blood and the explosions; now it’s got the heart and the tears too. Needless to say, it’s a visual tour-de-force throughout, with detailed textures, gruesome kill animations, beautifully crafted rubble strewn streets and not a hint of slow down in even the most chaotic of scenes.
Just as Epic have delivered the best campaign mode to date, the multiplayer suite is stellar also. It seems the extra time spent refining this area with the summer’s beta testing period has really paid off; maps are wickedly crafted to encourage constantly inventive tactics, with a finely balanced arsenal of weapons catering for all types of play. Dedicated servers now allow for speedy matchmaking, and also combat the “rage quitting” cheats who host a custom game and duck out rather than face a loss.
Team Deathmatch is now the “default” match type, with a set amount of respawns given to each team before their squad numbers fall permanently and concede the match. If you’re after a less forgiving match, Warzone removes respawns. Tacticians should give returning favourite King of the Hill a try, or Capture the Leader, where you have to prevent your invulnerable team captain from becoming a meat-shield for too long.
Beginners stand a better chance online this time around too. “Beginner Assistance” options scan a player’s hard drive for previous Gears experience, and if none is found then grants them a boost to energy and damage levels until they’ve reached their first 10 kills, at which point they’ve presumably got a hang of things. Even veteran players will benefit from the ability to “self revive” on the battlefield in all matche modes but Warzone now too, providing they can avoid being finished off long enough after being downed by opponents.
As well as being excellently crafted on a technical, balanced level, maps are also a little more quirky in Gears of War 3 in terms of overall design. The Thrashball map has a giant score board which can be made to drop and kill those standing below it; Overpass randomly sinks into the ground, mixing up the viewing angle and the way in which you have to aim; Trenches is hit by periodic sandstorms that cut visibility levels dramatically. Again, greater variety leads to greater fun in Gears 3.
All the weapons from Gears of War 2 reappear, but are joined by newbies such as the Retro Lancer (a powerful machine gun with poor accuracy), the Sawed-off shotgun (dealing massive damage at close range, offset by incredibly slow reload times) and the flame-spewing incendiary grenades amongst others. New weapons like the “Digger” come into their own online; there are few multiplayer kills more satisfying than by firing off a living bullet that burrows through the ground before bursting out underneath a foe and eating them ass-first, causing their heads to explode. It has to be seen to be believed.
Add to these the endless of waves of progressively more menacing foes in the returning Horde mode and the new Beast mode (which plays out a lot like Horde but from the Locust perspective, giving you control over a variety of monsters, unlocking progressively more dangerous foes to kill the COG with as you build up cash for more units), and you’ve got masses of great gory gaming to get through.
Bigger. Better. Gorier. Funnier. Sadder. Faster. Prettier. If previous entries into the Gears of War series had the odd failing here and there, Epic Games have patched them up, and as an apology added ten great new things to make your jaw drop at every turn. It’s the best campaign the developers have ever made, paired with one of the most fully-featured multiplayer offerings on the Xbox 360, be that co-operatively or competitively. If this is to be the last Gears of War game, then it’s one hell of a high note to bow out on. To quote the Cole Train himself: “Bring it on, sucka! This is my kinda sh*t!”
By Gerald Lynch | September 14th, 2011