With the exception of Call of Duty, there is no other franchise that encapsulates the present console generation as neatly as does the testosterone-charged Xbox 360 exclusive Gears of War, writes Lance Harris. With its crusty, buzz-cut space marines, grimy visuals and cover-based firefights, the Epic Games shooter has been every bit as influential this hardware cycle as Halo was in the last.
Here’s the thing, though. Much of what made the first game in the series so great was the clever simplicity of its design. It was a game that stripped the third-person shooter down to its skeleton and then rearranged the bones in a new frame. With its smart but sinewy core mechanics, Gears of War 1 already largely perfected the franchise’s single-player and multiplayer gameplay.
Much like a three-chord punk single, Gears simply doesn’t benefit much from more complexity. When producer Cliff Bleszinski tried to make Gears 2 “bigger, better and more badass”, he simply succeeded in making it flabbier, floppier and more flaccid. Gears 3 brings little more focus back to the franchise and concentrates on refinement rather than expansion.
The game picks up on the war between the human and the locust forces on the planet of Sera at the point Gears 2 left off. The game once again focuses on the “Delta” squad, a rag-tag collection of battle-hardened soldiers fighting for the human Coalition of Ordered Governments (Cogs).
Gears 3 is made up of three main components: campaign, competitive and cooperative gameplay. These elements are neatly woven together with rewards such as medals and unlocks earned for achieving kills and other goals across all three components. Shared right across the game is its light tactical gameplay, which emphasises calculated use of environmental cover, choke points and flanking manoeuvres.
There is much that is pleasingly familiar in Gears 3. Its sense of weight and motion is still unmatched by any other shooter. The way that the camera judders as you roadie-run between cover, that satisfying thud as you skid into a wall and the sickening crunch of a locust’s head under your boot give Gears a physicality. It’s immersive in the sense that it grabs you by the shoulders and dunks you head-first into the game world.
The core gunplay mechanics remain largely unchanged, though they have been tweaked to be more intuitive and responsive. Now, it’s rare to get caught on cover when you roadie-run or to stick against a wall when you don’t mean to. The weapons, including some exotic new options like the digger, are finely balanced and fun to use, though I found myself relying a lot on the classic guns from Gears 1 for much of the campaign.
The campaign wraps up the saga started in Gears of War 1 as well as the personal character arcs of Marcus Fenix, Dominic Santiago and the other members of the Delta crew. The story is fairly silly, but characters have a lot of gruff charm and the war-ravaged world that they move in is brilliantly realised. There are even a few poignant moments in the campaign that reveal Gears to be a little more subtle than it is sometimes given credit for.
Though the campaign offers many thrilling moments when played cooperatively with an online squad of human team mates, it is a little less successful as a single-player experience. Veteran Gears players will breeze through the campaign on the hardcore difficulty level when playing on their own.
The hyper-efficient team AI sometimes tears into the enemy hordes with such enthusiasm that you’re occasionally still getting a bead on a target when the firefight is over. Hopefully, Epic will do a little balancing and tweaking of the single-player campaign in a software patch.
Gears 3 cuts back a little on the boss fights and vehicle sections that were so numerous in Gears 2, but there are still too many on-rails segments with half-baked mechanics. None of the boss fights are as well designed as the berserker encounters or the climactic battle with General Raam in Gears 1.
But when the game focuses on the stuff it does well — straightforward cover-to-cover skirmishing — it is unbeatable. There are enough new weapons and enemies to keep the fundamental Gears gameplay fresh and exciting. As in Gears 2, you’ll spend a lot of time fighting “lambent” creatures — locusts infected by an illness that makes them even more vicious and causes them to blow up when shot.
The campaign is fairly lengthy — a good 10 hours on hardcore — though there are a few tedious sections it could have done without. You can also play an arcade variant on the campaign with a scoring system and “mutators” that make the game easier or harder, adding to its longevity.
Gears is a multiplayer staple on Xbox Live with good reason: it’s that rare shooter that is both deep and accessible. The competitive multiplayer is stacked with options across its six game modes. Though the game suffers from a couple of weapon balance issues and a few lacklustre maps, its intimate close-quarters warfare is as satisfying as it ever was and those problems will probably soon be fixed with patches and map packs.
One welcome change is the addition of dedicated servers to the game, eliminating the hated and dreaded host advantage — that split second of extra of reaction time the host of a multiplayer match had to split your head open with a shotgun.
I struggled at some times of the day to get into public multiplayer games but found the experience less laggy than earlier ranked Gears games when I did get into a match. Private matches are still hosted peer to peer, offering lower latencies if you’re playing with other South Africans.
As good as the competitive component is, it’s the cooperative gameplay where Gears 3 really shines. The best thing about the otherwise disappointing Gears 2 was its horde mode, where you team up with a few friends to hold back waves of successively tougher and more numerous monsters.
Now that nearly every big shooter features a “horde” or “zombie” component, Epic has upped the ante yet again with a new “beast” mode as well as a vastly improved “horde” mode. Now, in horde mode, you and your teamies can set up turrets, barbed wire and other defences between waves using limited cash reserves you earn from kills.
It adds new layers of depth to an already popular gameplay mode. Beast mode — sadly, it’s disappointingly brief — flips the formula on its head. You can take the role of various classes of locust soldiers and beasts as you seek to wipe out the humans. Both cooperative modes are frantic, taxing and rewarding to play.
Gears of War 3 trailer (via YouTube):
Designed to showcase both the latest features of Epic’s Unreal Engine as well as the graphical prowess of the Xbox 360, each new Gears of War game sets a new visual benchmark for Microsoft’s console platform. With Gears 3, Epic manages to wring better graphics out of a gaming system that many of us thought had reached its peak.
Many of the glitches and artefacts of earlier versions of Unreal Engine and Gears of War are completely gone. The lighting looks more natural than ever — somewhat sterile lighting was always a weakness of Unreal Engine — and the particle effects are stunning.
There are entire set pieces in the campaign that seem designed entirely to show off the nonchalant way that the latest version of the Unreal Engine on the Xbox 360 can render impressive swirls of smoke and dust without dropping a frame.
Gears of War 3 is the first game in a while that squeezes some more visual performance from the ageing Xbox 360 hardware.
Gruff voice acting and a suitably bombastic score. The sound effects are as gratifying as ever: revving chainsaw bayonets, the rasp of the locusts’ voices in the wind, the wet splat of a head split by a sniper round, that discreet chime when an area has been cleared of enemies.
The core mechanics of the game are fantastic – especially in multiplayer – but some of the campaign vehicle sections and boss fights are ill conceived.
With six competitive modes, a wealth of cooperative options and a lengthy campaign mode, Gears 3 is brimming over with content.
The patchy campaign is a bit of a let-down, but the competitive and cooperative multiplayer is some of the best in the business. This polished and accomplished game is must for any Xbox 360 owner with access to Xbox Live.
The Gears universe was built around the notion of “destroyed beauty” — think of Pompeii overrun by angry monsters rather than loud tourists. The most visually arresting parts of the game are the ones that stay true to this aesthetic. When the game slows down for a moment to let you soak in the ruined world of Sera, it can be both beautiful and haunting.
But as in Gears 2, Epic has expanded the world of the game to include more vibrant environments such as verdant jungles, perhaps to silence critics of the desaturated look of Gears 1 for good. Though the visuals don’t always feel as cohesive with the Gears universe, they’re uniformly gorgeous.
Gears 3 doesn’t have quite the same impact as Gears of War did when it first landed, but it is a successful refinement of the formula and a fitting conclusion to a trilogy. It’s a well-produced game that offers plenty of content and many reasons to come back for more over the months to come. — Lance Harris, TechCentral
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