“Brothers to the End”. That’s the tagline of the last instalment of the Gears of War trilogy. And yet, despite that fact, there are clearly some sisters in the game as well. That’s a large, misogynistic oversight there. Still, that can be forgiven if the game is any good. Ah, who am I kidding? You already KNOW the game is good; but do you want to know just HOW good? Find out after the jump.
Of COURSE I’m going to start with a short, yet hopefully amusing history lesson. This becomes important later, so you may as well pay attention. There will be a quiz afterwards. Gears of War crashed into gaming back in 2006 in a big way, and is fondly—and oh-so-wrongly—remembered as one of the first brilliant cover-based shooters. Except it wasn’t. Not even by a decade. To be fair, the previous number of years had seen the ascendancy of first-person shooter games—such as Halo—that emphasised agility over cover, and it had been a long while since we had seen a really decent cover-based combat game. Some of you will already be nodding your heads sagely and saying, “Yes, yes, we know…Kill.Switch“. Or even WinBack. Older gamers will be scorning those who recall Kill.Switch as an early cover-shooter, and thinking, “No, you younglings. Time Crisis. Back when we used to spend our money in video arcades!” An even smaller number of you are thinking, “Maybe Bonanza Bros?” One of you, probably you with the beard, the cognac in one hand, joystick-cane in the other, is more correctly thinking: “Space Invaders. 1978.” And even then, it may debatably go yet further back, to an obscure 1975 game.
Cover-based shooting has, of course, come a long way since 1978, but in 2006 it was such a rarely-used mechanic, that by the time Gears of War arrived, it had largely been ignored as a part of gaming. Which brings us neatly to 2006′s Gears of War. When the game arrived on the scene, it was an instant hit; the dark, gritty atmosphere, the impossibly huge muscle-bound characters, the multiplayer aspect, the dynamic cover-based system, all of it was praised. In fact, Gears fore-runner Cliff Bleszinski cites Kill.Switch, Bionic Commando, and Resident Evil as inspiration sources for the game. The game itself was a massive success, and spawned a sequel, surprisingly titled Gears of War 2. It must have taken the naming committee months to work that one out.
In the meantime, however, Gears of War became a franchise, and soon we saw graphic novels, toys, board games, and more importantly, books based on the game. The books were penned by author Karen Traviss, and the first book, Aspho Field, was both a prequel and a sequel to the first game, since events in the book took place both before and after the first Gears of War. The second book, called Jacinto’s Remnant, takes place almost immediately after the events of the second game, and the two sequels, Anvil Gate and Coalition’s End, take place just before the events of the game under scrutiny, Gears of War 3. The point of all this is that Traviss’ novels are considered canon, and after the publication of the books, Traviss was hired by Epic as head story writer for Gears 3. “What do you mean, ‘canon’?” I hear you yelling. Just this: if you haven’t read the books, don’t be confused about the confusing storyline in the main campaign. “But this means I’ll have to put down my controller and READ!” I hear you protest. Too bad. Suck it. Or live with the confusion. Right…let’s chainsaw this thing open and dig into the meat and guts of this review, shall we?
The events in Gears of War 3 take place two years after the end of Gears 2, and if you have not read the books, this is going to be one confusing ride. The government has collapsed, and it’s pretty much every man for himself. The familiar faces of Marcus, Dom, Cole, and Baird are still there, but they’re now joined by Anya (remember her as communications officer from the first two games? Yeah, she carries a gun now), Samantha (remember her from the books?), Jace (books), Clayton Carmine (another one of the Alphabetical Carmine Clones), and Dizzy (Gears 2). The squad now live on a ship of sorts (books) and the planet is beset by lambent stalks and polyps (books). Chairman Prescott, who has been missing for a while now (books), suddenly returns with news of Adam Fenix, Marcus’ father, who has somehow managed to find a way to stop the Locust horde, both lambent and non. So off they traipse to go find the man and rescue the world. Despite the fact that the world belonged to the Locust before Humans colonized the place, but that’s utterly beside the point. We’re here to kick Locust butt!
If you’ve played any of the previous games, you’ll find very little here that’s unfamiliar, and in my eyes that’s a good thing; why fix something that works perfectly well? The guns are mostly the same, the interface is the same, the controls are the same. Sequels shouldn’t make drastic changes without a really, really good reason. I’m looking at you, Mass Effect 2. The environments are even more lush and beautiful than before, and the chaps at Epic have done a wonderful job on the maps. I just wish they’d move off the brown end of the palette. It makes the entire game look poop-stained.
One of the best things that Gears 3 introduces to the series campaign is four-player co-up, either locally or via Xbox Live. That’s right! You, the lucky person with three friends of your very own will get to play this game with them! I honestly suggest you do it this way, because competent player AI is still a ways off, and there’s more fun to be had by playing the game with a bunch of friends (or random strangers you find on Live, if that’s more your style). Another addition is the ability to mark a target for your allies to concentrate their attacks on. This opens the game up for more tactical decisions than the simple “scream, aim, fire” approach of the prior games. In addition to the standard campaign mode, Gears 3 now also introduces an Arcade mode, which, everything else being identical, assigns a score to kills. If nothing else, it’s good for those who want to do the campaign better than all their friends.
I was quite pleased to see that whatever experience you gain in the campaign (either mode!) carries over to the multiplayer modes, and that you now have one persistent character profile that updates over the course of your Gears of War career. And mean it when I say “Gears of War“, and not just Gears 3. There are several unlockable items, for example, that you can only obtain by having played through Gears 1 and 2. It’s a pity that reading the books nets you get nothing more than sweet, smug satisfaction and a somewhat-clearer-than-mud understanding of the story.
Gears of War, of course, lives, breathes, eats, poops, and dies-from-overpoop on its multiplayer features, so I braved the harsh waters of online matchmaking to play with some random strangers on Live. Some of the same multiplayer modes from Gears 2 return (such as Annex renamed as King of the Hill, Wingman, and Execution), while dropping support for original King of the Hill and Guardian. Submission has been changed slightly and renamed Capture the Leader. Horde has been changed to include money to build fortifications to make it difficult for the enemy to get in, and you get money based on the kills you made. What makes this awesome is that a flat “scream, aim, fire” mode has been improved with the addition of some tactical decision-making. For example, you can build fortifications only between waves, and you’re left with the decision of whether to build new structures, fix existing structures, or save the money for later.
The exciting new addition, however, is Beast-mode, which can be thought of as a role-reverse Horde. In essence, you take the part of the Locust. You receive an allotment of money and a short amount of time in which to kill off the humans guarding the area. Each kill grants you a little more time. You can start out, for example, as a ticker and try to take out enemy fortifications, and then when you’re inevitably blown away in a flurry of locust-shot, you choose another Locust species to try killing humans with. The only limits, of course, being the aforementioned money and time. Beast is best played with friends–it can be devilishly difficult on your own, and I didn’t see any options for adding bots. With friends, however, it’s an awesome little mode, and a great addition to Gears multiplayer.
Overall, Gears of War 3 is a worthy ending for this trilogy, despite the fact that it relies a little too much on the multiplayer experience. It’s been an awesome ride throughout the series, and…well, you’d be an idiot not to find out how the story ends, wouldn’t you?
Score: 9 prawns out of 10
Developer: Epic Games
RRP: R599 (Xbox 360)
Release date: 20 September 2011
Age rating: 18