Developer: Epic Games
Publisher: Microsoft Games
Release Date: Out Now
Players/Online features: 1-2 split-screen co-op, 2-8 online multiplayer
The arrival of games like Gears 3 has become somewhat of an event. On launch day you tend to see people gathering outside the big highstreet retailers at opening time with used games and old consoles in hand to trade in for the new boss, but is he the same as the old boss? Well no, not really, Gears of War 3 does just about everything the preceding two did only with more drama, style and polish.
It’s been eighteen months since the COG government sank the city of Jacinto in an attempt to drown as many of the underground enemy, the Locust, as possible in a classic Pyrrhic victory. The survivors of Jacinto migrated to the island of Vectes to settle and rebuild somewhere where they thought it would be impossible for the Locust to tunnel up through the ground and emerge again. After a period of peace on the idyllic island however, the other subterranean creatures, the ‘Lambent’, discovered in Gears 2 began to emerge. The Lambent are infected with Imulsion, a strange glowing substance that gives the creatures immense strength and causes them to mutate. The COG decide on flight rather than a doomed, outnumbered fight and board a fleet of ships to divide and escape to form smaller, separate communities. Marcus, Dom, Anya, Sam, Baird, Cole and the rest of Delta squad are travelling on the "Raven's Nest" naval carrier when the dubious former COG head of state Chairman Prescott reappears and informs Marcus that his father is not only alive, but may have discovered a way to save humanity from both the Lambent and the Locust...
Gears 3 doesn’t mess around and within the first hour or so you’re going to be fighting a leviathan the size of Barnsley using a new mech weapon platform, the Silverback, (demoed at E3 this year) and even playing as Cole, previously only an NPC in the Gears games. We also get to blast a host of unfamiliar Locust enemies, including new Savage variants, the Digger Boomer, a Locust Siege Beast and the heavily-armoured hedgehog-like Kantus Knight, as well as new Berserkers, baby Corpsers and new Lambent Stalks, Drudges and spider-like Polyps.
Ironically the new weapon set for Gears 3 includes some old ones; the Retro Lancer (which being obsolete technology has a slower reload, a smaller clip, a bayonet instead of a chainsaw and much worse recoil that the familiar model but still manages to be fun to use), the Vulcan cannon (can be used by one player but can only be moved by two players with the second carrying and feeding the massive ammo belt!), the Oneshot (named because it splatters anything smaller than a truck in one shot), smoke and incendiary grenades. There’s also a sawed-off shotgun, but although this is devastating at close range it’s useless for any target more than a few metres away and has a reload time longer than the development time of some games, highlighted by Gears active reload system which, if you’re new to the series, works by pressing ‘R1’ twice with precise timing required on the second press to perform a perfect reload, anything else will reload the weapon but be slower, or even cause a ‘stoppage’ delay if the timing is way out. There’s an enhanced cover mode (you can hug side walls now too) and you can switch weapons with squad mates and share ammo with other players, a very handy feature as ammo is realistically at a premium even on the default difficulty setting. The level designers even cruelly taunt you with some ammo crates that you can’t actually reach, but you’ll always muddle through, somehow. The new weapons mean new executions (hold ‘Y’ when near a crawling, injured Grub), and you can still use a downed Grub as a ‘meat shield’. In a game with this much carnage it’s only right that the blood ‘n’ gore effects have been upgraded too, and are now really quite good, especially if you think back to Gears 1’s comic book blood splatters.
A dramatic story is linked with plenty of cut scenes that load seamlessly, even mid-level loading is hidden by the squad opening a door or crossing barbed wired together, keeping the action going and driving the story onward. The banter between the squad achieves quite a difficult thing; unlike most games that attempt to do the same thing and fail miserably, it’s both almost constant and amusing/believable. Some of the wisecracks the characters come out with are laugh-out-loud funny and despite having several moments that will bring a lump to the throats of Gears veterans, the game never takes itself too seriously. You have to smile at Baird’s love/hate relationship with Sam and when the mighty ex-Thrashball star Cole picks up a dropped weapon and shouts “dibs!” with almost childlike glee.
The typical squad shooter problems arise however as the AI frequently gets in your way, steals the best cover spots or annoyingly sometimes ignores your cry for help when you get knocked down. On occasion they’ll even jump in front of you to “steal” an execution on a downed Grub. Weapon switching could also be slicker, and reloads interrupt weapon swaps, sometimes you’ll think you’ve swapped weapons and you haven’t because of the sluggish response of the D-pad. Another minor problem arose because the ‘Y’ button is dual-purpose (‘execute’ and ‘point of interest’) and this can cause problems if you’re trying to execute an enemy when a point of interest (like a downed squad mate or important event) occurs. But executions can be fiddly anyway as you don’t always get an immediate response when the prompt appears. A couple of gripes that we’ve had with the weapons since Gears 1 are still present in that you can’t cancel a Torque bow shot once you nock an arrow, and the Longshot sniper rifle is still extremely inconsistent to use; a weapon that takes that long to reload and re-aim should be a one-shot kill or knockdown on everything but the biggest, ugliest Grubs and Lambent.
The game features a wonderful 4-player drop-in/drop-out co-op (AI takes over if someone drops out) which makes it even more friendly and fun to play than Halo 3, ODST and Reach. You can also play the campaign through in split-screen co-op, which is impressive in itself when you see how much is going on. As usual you’ll need a big TV to appreciate it though.
The Gears 3 campaign has a new Arcade mode, with a “co-opetitive” scoring system similar (unsurprisingly) to Bulletstorm’s. Gears 2’s Horde mode was a huge favourite but its TDM (Team Deathmatch) multiplayer mode was criticised for several reasons, not least being the fact that it favoured the hosting player lag-wise and rewarded team camping, causing games to often dissolve into ridiculous standoffs or slaughters depending on the individual players’ characters and abilities, and basically spoiling what had been so good in Gears 1. Gears 3’s multiplayer seems to have cured a few complaints, whilst still rewarding campers, but at least now it runs on dedicated servers and there are a number of new modes, including an enhanced Horde mode.
Versus has Team Deathmatch, Warzone, Execution, Capture the Leader, King of the Hill and Wingman (5 teams of 2 against each other) modes for up to 10 players. Latency still seems to be an issue even with dedicated servers and you’ll be furious when you flank a camper who’s using the Deadeye sniper rifle, blast them in their oblivious ear with the Gnasher shotgun and they don’t even get knocked down, they then usually just one-shot you with the un-scoped sniper weapon. It’s annoying when it happens once, possibly game ending when it continually happens to someone. In the main when playing we had a lot of fun, and I was amazed how the addition of smoke grenades added a lot to the tactical feel of the objective-based games.
In general deathmatch gameplay seems more balanced, although a lot of veterans seem to complain about the Sawed Off Shotgun giving ‘noobs’ too much assistance and levelling the playing field because it has such a wide field of damage, but then, they would wouldn’t they? As with Gears 2, you can set up a game with bots, choose the AI level and have a game all on your own if you wish-and yes, for all sorts of reasons there are gamers out there who want to be able to do that, so it’s a welcome and rare, almost unique feature. Initially there are 10 maps all using familiar scenery from the campaign; Checkout, Drydock, Gridlock, Hotel, Mercy, Old Town, Overpass, Sandbar, Thrashball and Trenches. If you’ve never played the Gears multiplayer game before then I urge you to try it, this third iteration is a good place to start as it’s so easy to get in to; you even get a chance to see where the extra weapons (if there are any) spawn on the map. Even if you get fragged you’ll probably enjoy watching the spectacular action from player cameras or swooping around with the go-anywhere ghost camera. At one time there was a suggestion that third-person shooters don’t make good team deathmatch games, but I suspect Gears 3 will put that argument to bed once and for all. Aiming is quick and accurate, movement equally so (although this varies from character to character). Objectives are well-marked and easy to understand, and if you’re in a party, voice communication can make the difference between winning and losing.
Horde is a survival co-operative mode that has been copied by just about every shooter out there: players fight off increasingly difficult rounds of the Lambent and Locust enemy forces. The new Horde mode has been significantly improved from Gears of War 2 with a “currency for kills” system that allows players to equip their command post with manual and automatic turrets, various barricades, decoys and even a Silverback mech. Every tenth wave sees the arrival of a boss creature that will severely test the team’s skills. To sum this mode up; new Horde has raised the survival co-op sub genre bar so high that only Halo and CoD can come close.
New for Gears 3 is the third co-operative way of playing the game; Beast mode, in which players actually play various types of Locust, the object being to kill all the armed civilians manning a command post within a time limit. Fail and you’re destroyed by the Hammer of Dawn. Players are given a pool of money with which to spawn one of the various Locust available. As you progress you earn the right to spawn more powerful types of Locust. I was amazed how much fun it was running around as a speedy little Ticker, and how much damage you could cause, but playing as all the various type of Grub puts a nice flip on the Horde concept.
The game is divided into five acts with 5, 6 or 7 chapters to each. It’s a substantial campaign that’ll take 12-15 hours to complete and certainly bears a second or third play-through. There are a large number of collectibles to keep all those collect-aholics out there busy; these vary from Cog tags to all kinds of memorabilia, personal letters and possessions etc, and the game keeps detailed record of what you’ve found and where so that it’s a fairly straightforward task to identify the ones you didn’t find and complete the task if you so wish. It’s a shame all games don’t make their achievements so trackable.
The game looks, almost invariably fabulous with amazingly detailed characters, vivid, tactile scenery and explosions that shake you to the core and blind you with their brightness. The enemy creatures, weapon effects, smoke etc are all superb. The lighting effects are so damned good that your character will actually shield their eyes if you stare into the sun! The story even takes Delta Squad underwater in a submarine level, and with no word of a lie, the sub-aqua effect is better than anything I’ve yet seen in a game. You actually have to look quite hard to find fault with Gears 3’s graphics, but if you do you’ll notice some bad clipping (characters disappearing into scenery) and some horribly low-res backdrops (that could have come out of Half Life 2) and King Raven helicopters’ wheels being hexagonal. We also had an odd occurrence during a 2-player XBL co-op session when the 2 other AI characters only appeared on the host’s game and were invisible to the other player, but this only happened once and quitting/rejoining the session cured the missing squad mate problem. The vehicular levels of the previous games have gone too, there are a couple of ride-along sections but no driveable ones. Although the driving bits in Gears 1 and 2 were no great shakes and not as integral as say Halo or Battlefield Bad Company, I missed them. However, given the awful, impractical design of the vehicles in Gears 3 maybe it’s just as well...
So there you have it, Gears of War 3 is without doubt the best all-round game of 2011 (so far). A cracking campaign story that made me whoop, laugh and almost cry too. Eye-popping visuals are backed up by tweaked gameplay, and while the AI is still all over the place it all ends up producing some of the best shooter/melee combat you’ll play for a long, long time. I still don’t think the adversarial multiplayer game is as good as it should be, but that's probably because for some reason while I have a good amount of success at most other shooters, I struggle at it unless I play with friends as a tight team. Regardless of that, Gears 3 is the total package. So... is it Brothers to the End? I don’t think this’ll be the end somehow.