Gears of War has always felt as though it was built with metaphor in mind. The slam of a clip locking into place; the thudding, oversized boots of a COG soldier. The pinwheeling spokes of combat, lines of engagement moving in two opposing semicircles; the rev of a chainsaw's motor.
These are games filled with weighty, important-feeling things, any one of which could stand as a symbol of the game in its entirety: Gears of War 3 is as satisfying as a clip slammed into a lancer assault rifle, as sturdy and as unweildy as a man in 200-pound mechanical armor, as unsubtle as a chainsaw to the sternum. But beyond those metaphors, it is simply a burly video-game concoction, one that doubles down on its core mechanical design, pushing its own personal avalanche down, down, until it crashes into the earth.
Gears of War 3 is the purported conclusion to Epic Games' Gears of War saga, a series of Xbox 360-exclusive action games that take place on the earth-like planet of Sera. For years, humanity has been locked in a genocidal war with a heavily armed lacertilian race of cave-dwellers known as the Locust. Players shoot through the game as a man named Marcus Fenix, a soldier in the Coalition of Ordered Governments, or "COG." COG soldiers are, appropriately enough, known as "Gears," hence the game's strange-sounding title. Fenix leads Delta Squad, an elite, colorful team of COG soldiers; over the course of the first two games Delta has been at the forefront of humanity's effort to repel and destroy the Locust threat.
Gears of War 3 is also the end result of five years of post-release iteration since the first game's release in 2006, and it shows. This is fundamentally the best-playing, tightest, and most "Gears" Gears of War game yet made.
That fact comes as no surprise, given that Epic Games' design director Cliff Bleszinski is a renowned tinkerer with an ability to capture that ephemeral quality that makes a game feel "right." When I spoke with him last week, he told me, "Making games is great, but you spend all your time playing a broken game that's not as fun as it should be. When it's not broken and it's a lot of fun, then you give it to everyone to enjoy." The refinement born of that design philosophy permeates the entirety of Gears of War 3.
The Gears games revolve around the act of taking cover: run fully exposed towards the enemy's line and you'll be cut down quicker than you can say "Revive me!" After years of tweaking, the act of taking cover has never been snappier or more forgiving. And just as importantly, pulling away from cover is fluid and rarely disorienting. Even the chaotic imprecision of the Lancer assault rifle has been tweaked and perfected—tiny aids and aim-assists lend order to the chaos and keep the heavy-metal gameplay from becoming too cumbersome or unwieldy. Well, most of the time, anyway.
At times, Gears of War 3 feels a touch like an elephant trying to tap-dance; years of evolution have made it highly (if not overly) specialized.
That Gears-y heaviness permeates the entire experience, for good and for ill—while nearly all aspects of combat feel better than they ever have, movement and environmental interaction still often feel ungainly. The influences of other games—from Bioshock to Uncharted to Mass Effect—can be felt, but they serve mainly to highlight just how ill-suited those oh-so-refined Gears controls are for any game other than Gears.
At times, Gears of War 3 feels a touch like an elephant trying to tap-dance; years of evolution have made it highly (if not overly) specialized. Take the late-campaign segment in which I was forced to roadie-run my way up stairs, around corners, and out the front door of a building… while a timer ticked down towards instant death, should I fail to escape. Gears of War's "roadie run" is one of its defining, enduring tricks, but the move was designed to quickly ambulate over short distances from cover to cover—the roadie run is all momentum and no maneuverability, and its end-goal is to stick the player to a wall. "Clearly," the game seems to be saying, "we need an 'escape the building' sequence. But we lack the ability to let our players simply 'run.' Guess we better work with what we've got." The entire segment is reduced to a frustrating try-die-reload section, and it should have been cut entirely.
Segments like that one serve to highlight Gears of War's ungainly specificity. Fortunately, those moments of clumsy overreaching are few and far between; the bulk of the game is spent happily diving into fraught, cover-based firefights in a variety of superbly designed, lovely-looking battlegrounds.
Gears of War 3's story picks up a few years after the events of Gears of War 2, which ended as a group of desperate humans flooded the Locust's subterranean lairs with a toxic fluid known as Emulsion, effectively causing an ecological apocalypse while giving rise to a new threat: Emulsion-infected zombie-Locusts known as Lambent. As Gears of War 3 begins, humanity has been reduced to living as nomadic scavengers, and the men and women of Delta Squad have relocated to a floating city aboard an aircraft carrier.
While it doesn't begin to approach the comically clusterfucky depths of Halo's mythology, Gears of War's storytelling has still taken on a bit of bloat over the years. The economical, terse staging of the first game still stands as the best Gears story of the three, insofar as it felt genuinely tense and left a good deal to the imagination.
But the more the writers at Epic show me of the Gears universe, the less I care about it. It's something of a video game paradox: the very iteration that has allowed Gears of War 3's mechanics to become so finely tuned has proven anathema to its storytelling. Most video game sequels play better than their predecessors. (How many of our favorite games are sequels?) But as writers are forced to juggle and expand to keep things going, their stories almost invariably suffer. (How many of our favorite films are sequels?) This is very much the case with Gears of War 3—its game-y elements have hugely benefited from five years of post-release iteration, while its filmic, storytelling aspects have suffered.
Even after all those ads filled with all that moody pop music and eerily silent gunplay, I have never been able to invest in Gears of War's apocalyptic gravitas to the degree that I sense Epic wants me to.
That's not to say that the story is unbearable or anything: given the ham-fisted way that both lead characters have been portrayed, I continually find myself surprised at my affection for Marcus and Dom—I genuinely like both men, and I'm not alone. Among the game's fans, their gruff bromance has become one of the defining aspects of the Gears of War franchise.
But my unlikely enjoyment of some of the characters doesn't blind me to the fact that for the most part, Gears of War 3's story never rises above the level of hackneyed genre fiction. Lead writer Karen Traviss has crafted a suitable series of reasons for Delta Squad to make its way from location to location, but the whys, hows, and wherefores of their journey are woefully half-baked.
Furthermore, Gears of War's overserious, emo bent remains a mystery to me. Even after all those ads filled with all that moody pop music and eerily silent gunplay, I have never been able to invest in Gears of War's apocalyptic gravitas to the degree that I sense Epic wants me to. There simply hasn't been enough consistent character development over the course of the series to support the kind of catharsis for which the games clumsily reach.
Marcus's relationship with his father never sees any sort of meaningful examination; what was an interesting subext in the first game becomes a by-the-numbers "save the important princess/scientist/family member" conceit. I've never been given a sense of what Sera was like before Emergence Day—why should I care about these people, this world? It's a classic video game storytelling shortcoming: in the down-and-dirty heat of combat, everything in front of me matters a great deal… and so nothing beyond my ironsights needs to matter at all.
It's a shame, because early in the story, Traviss's script takes some refreshing risks, introducing harrowing dream sequences as well as some effective timeline/character-hopping. Both tricks feel intriguing and fresh, but they're unceremoniously dropped after the first act, and the rest of the game played out as a linear story with few surprises.
By and large, Gears of War 3 spends most of its campaign doing what it does best: guiding players through an escalating series of highly enjoyable firefights. Each fight's pacing is sculpted with great care, and encounters move from one arena to the next with remarkable fluidity. The campaign may seem repetitive from a distance, but while I was in the thick of it, I never tired of charging into a new room, slamming up against cover, and cutting my way towards the enemy's flank.
While the gunplay is parceled out with admirable discretion and control, the campaign's broader pacing does falter from time to time. This occurs most notably during vehicle segments and boss battles. These bits seem designed to break up the fight-rest-fight rhythm of the campaign, but more often than not they move too far from the game's core and expose its limitations.
Only one of the boss battles—involving a certain gigantic female rageoholic—is what I would call genuinely "good." Others are far less so. During a battle against a giant, tyrannosaurian Brumak, the beast simply stood still at the edge of the battlefield, impotently shooting rockets as I hid behind a train car and gradually whittled down its health until it keeled over. Vehicle segments are similarly uneven; blasting away at Reavers from the bed of a pickup truck is good fun, but a late-game submarine mission is (perhaps fittingly) the nadir of the entire campaign. The story screeches to a halt, and players are forced to spend fifteen minutes shooting incoming torpedoes out of the water using an imprecise, frustrating sea-cannon.
From a difficulty standpoint, Gears of War 3 is easily the most accessible, welcoming game in the series. The first two games' brutal difficulty spikes have been smoothed out, and what spikes remain are hugely mitigated by the presence of two additional teammates, each of whom is capable of reviving you if you go down. I'm not particularly amazing at Gears, but I played through the campaign on "hardcore" difficulty and never really felt challenged or overwhelmed; in fact, I could have maybe done with a bit more difficulty.
And let's talk about those additional teammates for a moment: unlike past Gears games, Gears of War 3's entire campaign is playable by four players in co-op. That means that even in single-player, players are accompanied at all times by three sidekicks. The constant large-party atmosphere undercuts a lot of the potential for tension, so Gears of War 3 never quite reaches the intense, survival-horror feel of the first game.
Marcus' three fellow party members are constantly rotating, which keeps things feeling fresh while letting us get to know a handful of new soldiers. Old favorites Baird, Cole, Dizzy and Dom return for much of the campaign, but newcomers Jace, Sam(antha), and Anya provide a welcome bit of variety. It was a pleasant surprise to see just how much the presence of female characters added to my experience—Dragon Age: Origins and Uncharted voice-actor Claudia Black gives a welcomely wry performance as Sam, and Nan McNamara does a fantastic job reprising her role as intelligence-officer turned chainsaw-wielder Anya Stroud. Both characters are well-drawn, strong, and (almost) never lapse into feminine clichés; when Baird gives Sam crap, she dishes it right back, and Anya was my boldest AI teammate, wading into even the most impossible odds, waving her chainsaw around like it was on fire as the rest of the team struggled to keep up.
Maybe it's the fact that over the course of my life I've spent so much time adventuring alongside my sister, but something about fighting in the trenches shoulder-to-shoulder with a couple of kickass Lady-Gears hugely improved my experience with the game. And forget about my experience, female Gears fans the world over will finally be able to have a woman represent them onscreen. Everybody wins!
"Brothers to the end." That marketing catchphrase for Gears of War 3 is a suitably weighty fraternal invocation, four words that imply so much: the camaraderie that comes from having been in the shit together, from having watched one another's backs, lived through triumph and defeat, pulled one another from harm's way. If it were purely a reference to the overwrought drama of the campaign, it would work well enough. But as far as I'm concerned, "Brothers to the end" has less to do with any pre-written narrative and much more to do with the game's greatest achievement: its fantastic multiplayer.
In Beast Mode, "slaughter" and "laughter" finally rhyme.
The breadth of Gears of War 3's multiplayer options is staggering—this game has been designed from the top down to be a comprehensive, perpetually connected experience, and every part of it is better with a friend. For starters, the entire story campaign is playable cooperatively by one to four players, and each level can be played in "Arcade Mode," which allows players to compete for high scores as well as add "mutators" to make the game easier, more difficult (the difficult ones offer XP bonuses), or just goofier (one mutator enables a laugh-track that plays along with the game). It's a fantastic addition, and gives those who have completed the campaign an excuse to go through it again (and again) with their friends. Probably best to skip that submarine level, though.
The brand-new "Beast Mode" offers players a chance to play as the Locust Horde, raining bullets and death down upon a platoon of AI-controlled human soldiers. Every Locust character in the game is available, from a tiny fence-chewing ticker to an atomically savage, tank-like Berserker. It's brilliant fun; in Beast Mode, "slaughter" and "laughter" finally rhyme.
Gears of War 3 also offers the standard host of competitive multiplayer options, running the gamut from deathmatch to capture-the-leader to king of the hill. But the thing I've never liked about versus-mode multiplayer in Gears of War is that the traditional Gears rules do not apply. Combat does not revolve around strategic cover-based shooting, but rather frantic close-quarters encounters chock-full of somersaulting and shotgunning, like the world's worst Cirque du Soleil routine. The pleasurable, meticulously designed rhythm of Epic's combat system is dismantled by the evolutionary necessities of deathmatch, and new, strange mechanics take their place. Gears of War 3 presents what must be the most refined version of this particular cheeseburger, but while it will provide a lot of meat for longtime players, versus-mode continues to be my least favorite type of multiplayer.
All of these multiplayer modes are good fun, but none of them can compare to the joy of Horde Mode. The original Horde Mode was something of a surprise hit in Gears of War 2—up to five players would team up to fend off wave after wave of increasingly difficult Locust attacks, with a maximum (and barely attainable) level of 50. The new Horde, dubbed "Horde 2.0," is both a refinement of that initial conceit and a brilliant extrapolation.
I'm not entirely sold on the way the game "gamifies" itself by adding layers, unlockables, and even microtransactions, each of which feels designed to hook players and keep them coming back.
Horde 2.0 combines the original Horde's ever-increasing difficulty with some light tower-defense elements. Players build a base and establish defenses around it, and a currency system rewards kills with money, which can be spent between rounds to upgrade and repair defenses, build gun-turrets, and purchase new weapons and ammo. Each tenth level is a "boss level," which pits players against an unholy combination of Grinders, Berserkers, armored shock troopers, and rocket-spewing reavers.
In what has become de rigueur for multiplayer console games these days, all of Gears of War 3's various modes are united under a persistent umbrella. Whether you're playing the campaign, co-op, or competitive multiplayer, experience points earned carry over to your master profile, creating a constant sense of coherent progress. I'm not entirely sold on the way the game "gamifies" itself by adding layers, unlockables, and even microtransactions, each of which feels designed to hook players and keep them coming back. It all feels a bit hinky, and as more and more games add persistent leveling, leaderboards, and paid unlockables, the sulfuric whiff of exploitation grows ever-more pungent.
Developer motivations aside, these systems combine to create a profoundly intoxicating cocktail of progression and challenge, and it's all framed by an energizing amount of real teamwork. A recent two-player bout in Horde brought me and a friend face to face with a supercharged Lambent Berserker. We frantically corralled it, leaping out of its path while spraying its weak spot, Ghostbusters-style, with streams of flame from our Scorcher flame-throwers. Tight-chested with dread, we vigilantly covered one another's' backs, quick to assist if one of us got knocked down, yelling enthusiastically over our headsets as the fight dragged on and on. When we finally defeated the beast, I felt a moment of ebullient, visceral video game camaraderie the likes of which I haven't experienced in ages. "Brothers to the end," indeed.
And so here we have Gears of War 3: Maniacally refined mechanics and design, a clunky campaign that works more often than it doesn't, and one of the more varied and enjoyable multiplayer suites I've ever encountered. Even as the culmination of the series, Gears of War 3's high level stuff—its story, themes, characters, and drama—never quite manage to get where they were going. But then, this game doesn't do "high level."—it makes its home in the dirt, hugging the ground as incoming bullets kick up chunks of cement, as rattling bursts of gunfire are drowned out by the roars of enemies and friends alike.
They're coming, the onslaught. Drive your way forward, knee-deep in dust and guts; your gritted teeth, your wild eyes, the sun vanishing into a pink haze of battle-rage. Slam in a fresh clip, pick a target, and shoot, and shoot, and shoot.