Gears of War. The Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG). The Locust. Brumak. Immulsion. Dom Santiago. Marcus Fenix. These and many more have become signature phrases of the current generation of gaming, and for good reason: originally a glorified tech demo for the Unreal 3 engine, the first Gears of War mashed unlikely favorites Kill.Switch and Resident Evil 4 into a close-quarters shooter game that took off like a rabbit in a dog race. Six years later the series has culminated into a trilogy, and Gears of War 3 is not a bad way for Epic Games to show off their development skills and gamer savvy. Not a bad way at all.
Right off the bat, Gears 3 shows you it means business. Epic has dropped the trademark ”typewriter” menu fonts in favor of a more streamlined title menu - from here you can start your local, online, or system link party, check your unlocks and Achievements progress, change your multiplayer character/weapons preferences, or even delve straight into Horde or Beast modes. Choosing a mode of play (Campaign, Horde, Beast, Versus) takes you to a corresponding sub-menu where you can choose connectivity options. Your party is visible and editable from any of these screens.
Campaign progress is written to one of three actual save slots, but these are really just to save the weapons that your character is holding, your ammo count, and your checkpoints. If you lose your save file (as I did after Sunday’s pre-release title update) you can still start at the beginning of the last Chapter you were on, with the default weapons. For obvious reasons this can be life-saving, and it also answers the question of whether or not your co-op friends will keep their progress when playing on your saved game: they will, at least to the beginning of the last Chapter started.
The Campaign is a meaty 30 chapters long, and took me about 12 hours to complete on Normal difficulty. It’s a surprisingly hefty amount of gameplay, and a satisfying variety of scenarios to try in four-player co-op. I couldn’t believe how many different environments were showcased, especially in comparison to Gears 2, which I thought was pretty bland overall. There are a lot of subtle ways that Epic shows off the updated Unreal 3 engine, such as ashen statues that crumble if you touch them. And as far as controls and environmental interaction go: tried-and-true gameplay is here, with some tweaks such as player movement speed and the ability to tag enemies (in both co-op and versus), Battlefield: Bad Company 2 style. The story of Gears 3 takes a lot of elements straight from Karen Traviss’ paperback Gears novels without remorse, so don’t be too concerned if it takes a couple of chapters to catch up on what’s going on; there’s a lot to take in, and the game doesn’t slow down much.
Environments are varied enough to feel like a complete story, and graphics/effects are second-to-none. The overall arc is once again a Star-Warsian rendition of Homer’s “Odyssey”, consisting of constant travel and constant epic monster battles. On paper this may seem like a boring ride, but in practice Epic has managed to inject enough interesting detail to make Gears 3 a true standout game, not only in gameplay and co-op but in story and substance. Short dream sequences, the obligatory handful of shoot-stuff-from-a-slow-moving-vehicle-platform (including underwater), several unique boss battles, split paths...the campaign alone feels like the end product of master storytellers giving players as much as they can on one disc.
In the interest of technical information: the campaign supports two players in splitscreen, or four players via Live or system link. If two local players want to play over Live from the same console, it is possible, but for the first time in the series both players are required to have Live Gold subscriptions - no guest players online. Each player can choose their own difficulty; a nice touch.
Like the rest of the game, the Campaign is chock full of reasons to play it again and again. An Achievement is available for playing through in either of the two easier difficulties (Easy, Normal) and another is available for completing one of the harder difficulties (Hard, Insane). Another Achievement is available for playing through in co-op (two to four players), and yet another for playing through in four-player co-op, specifically. If all that wasn’t enough, an Arcade mode makes things a little more raucous by pitting the squad against each other in competition for the best score.
So, obviously I’m quite taken with the co-op campaign. But I can’t undercut Horde mode - not in good conscience. Gears 2 introduced us to the magic of this five-player survival mode, and it’s back with a vengeance. Now each time you fire up a round each player generates cash, which can be spent on fortifications and obstacles. While on one hand this adds a layer of ease to your survival, on the other hand ammo can only be replenished via cash purchase - so how you save/spend your monies is a new factor in individual and team strategies. I thoroughly loved my short time with the new Horde mode.
Beast mode, surmised by many to be the “opposite-of-Horde” mode, is actually very different than expected. Like Horde, it also thrives on cash earned while playing, but unlike Horde the cash is not spent on ammo and obstacles. Each time you spawn, you’re given a choice of class to play as - each of these has a relative cost. Considering that you are much more expendable in Beast mode (as part of Locust wave attacks), it’s more important to use your short life efficiently than to worry about long-term survival. And if you spend all of your cash on the most powerful class available each time, then you could find yourself resorting to a lowly Ticker when the rest of your team is coordinating a Boomer/Grenadier combo assault. Getting to the last round of Beast mode will definitely take some tips from experienced players...and a small degree of team strategy. Also: watch out for chainsaw bayonets around every corner.
Versus multiplayer retains Gears 2’s ten players per game for all modes minus Wingman, which has been dropped back to eight (four teams of two). The player count for your online party is also ten, an odd sight but a welcome one. “Mute” and “kick” options are all present, including a single-button command that will mute all players in the party that aren’t already on your Friends List. King of the Hill mode is back, as well as Wingman, Execution, Warzone, and Team Deathmatch. Capture the Leader combines and replaces Guardian and Submission. If these don’t mean anything to you, then I apologize. Just know that there’s a full buffet of multiplayer gametypes, should you tire of the co-op buffet. I had no issues connecting to any games, and if anyone dropped from the match in progress an AI bot took their place without so much as a hiccup.
Lambent polyps are Gears' version of "The Flood". And these aren't the only surprises.
Gears of War 3 will pit you against enemies new and old, and to combat them Epic has added some new weapons. First is the sawed-off shotgun, which fires both barrels with one pull of the trigger. It’s a devastating close-range weapon. Then there’s my personal favorite: the retro Lancer. Its bullet capacity is lower, but the rounds do more damage if you can control the recoil. And instead of a chainsaw bayonet the retro Lancer has an old-school fixed blade bayonet - holding “B” allows you to charge into battle with it held forward. The results are a shish-kabob of underground alien guts.
There are several other new weapons in the game, but I won’t spoil them. The sawed-off shotgun and the retro Lancer are the only new weapons available to set as default for multiplayer.
Also new for the third installment are Mutations - game modifiers that work like Halo’s skulls. There are 15 Mutations to unlock, five in each of three tiers: Hard, Easy, and Fun. From big-head mode to no ammo pickups to friendly fire activated...each one makes a significant change in gameplay that will pander to some players’ strengths and detract from others. The Fun tier has no XP modification, but the rest do and are relative to the way they affect the game. Mutations are unlocked by performing certain tasks within the game and can be used in the campaign, Horde mode, and custom versus games.
Gears of War 3 is not without its grounds for some complaints, but these are mostly unrelated to gameplay. At least half of the gun skins that you can apply to your weapons are only available via MS Points expenditures. Certain character skins are only available to players who have participated in the limited multiplayer beta test or have accomplished certain Gears 2 tasks, which to me is tantamount to pre-order ridiculousness. The ability (from Gears 2) to take in-game screenshots is gone without explanation. And, of course, there’s the aforementioned lack of guest player support for splitscreen online play.
Nonetheless, I feel like I got the long end of the stick with this game. A campaign that’s twice as long as most shooters and can be played with three friends. A beefed-up Horde mode and the spin-off Beast mode, both with five-player co-op. And finally: the award-winning versus multiplayer package. What few faults I can find with Gears of War 3 are quickly swept under the run by the sheer amount of irresistible and player-friendly content. If you enjoyed the previous Gears titles in any capacity, don’t miss out on this one.