Gears of War 3 Preview: Act 1 Hands-on
As soon as the Lambent Leviathan slides back into the sea, Gears of War 3 shows off a new story-telling device: branching plots. The player perspective switches to Cole’s four-man shore party, and you get to play through events that parallel the first couple hours of gameplay.
Dispatched by helicopter from the Sovereign to look for additional supplies, Cole finds himself in Hanover, the city where he was a big Thrashball star before the first Locust invasion. Act I’s second sequence therefore acts as character development for Cole Train, exploring his nostalgic memories of stardom and the simpler — though not much less violent — life he led as a civilian.
Cole is accompanied by series regulars Clayton Carmine and Damon Baird, along with the lithe, tan, Aussie-accented Samantha Bratton, who fulfills Gears 3′s new “egalitarian with a great ass” commitment to playable female COGs. The banter between these four characters is mostly amusing, freed of the heavy-handed urgency of events of aboard the Sovereign. The natural chemistry is sometimes undercut, however, by a profusion of “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” routines that fall heavy and flat, regardless of the quality of the delivery. There’s also plenty of sarcasm about the love/hate relationship smoldering between Baird and Samantha (voiced by Uncharted 2′s Claudia Black — that’s why she sounds exactly like Chloe Frazer). When she teases him about settling down together, it’s meant to make her sound like more of a badass, but it’s mostly just dumb.
Entering Hanover, players are treated some top-quality Gears level design. As befits its name, the city looks more “Old World” than previous Gears locations, and its weather-beaten brick builds and steeply angled roofs provide an affecting atmosphere. The COGs are there to retrieve some food from a supermarket that Cole remembers from his time as a player on the Hanover Cougars.
Approaching the supermarket, Cole Train and company have to pick their way through a playground, another level design triumph, full of color and distinctive design assets. It’s soon shot to pieces, however, thanks to the arrival of the Lambent, who turn the playground into a charnel house. Combat, whether with Marcus or Cole, still has that great, weighty Gears feel, and the new weapons and tweaks tend to smooth over rough edges rather than turning the page entirely. The evolving Lambent enemies can dish out plenty of punishment, especially in the form of Imulsion-powered projectiles from which cover is no respite.
After surviving the playground, the team enters the supermarket, which is mostly full of heavily-armed enemies, not food. You have to fight your way from one end to the other in order to search the place thoroughly,
at one point coming across a display of Cougars merchandise from which Cole can snag and don a baseball hat — RT to wear it forward, LT for backward. In an echo of the earlier Silverback sequence, Cole also straps into an Aliens-style industrial loader, carrying pallets of food outside to a the teams waiting helicopter.
With the supply pick-up complete, the team moves on, eventually encountering some “Stranded,” hard-scrabble humans who didn’t make it onto the COG evacuation ships. Living hand-to-mouth in the ruins of civilization, these post-apocalyptic factions have little love for COG’s relatively well-equipped, well-fed patrols, but they remember Cole and his celebrity. Walking through the Stranded camps is another instance of Gears 3′s improved visual storytelling. As NPC’s flit to and fro, mouthing insults or approbation, you really get a sense of what life is like for these downtrodden people. It’s more reminiscent of a sequence in Fallout: New Vegas or Oblivion than it is previous Gears of War games.
The Stranded do a classic “take me to your leader,” thing, which gives Cole and excuse to go on a pilgrimage to his former thrashing grounds, the Hanover Cougars stadium. Looming imposingly in the distance, the building acts as a physical reminder of his past life, and the former star is surprisingly good at recalling alternative foot access routes to the stadium, considering he probably arrived every day in some sort of futuristic sports car.
Once the team is in the shadow of the stadium, they have to defend a small bridge against a flood of Imulsion-chucking Lambent enemies. This was the only part of Act I where it seemed like the gameplay design stuttered. There’s not enough cover to go around, and the Imulsion fireballs ignore it anyway — I found it nearly impossible to stay on my feet for more than a couple seconds. This problem was alleviated by a phenomenon that seems to define gameplay in Gears 3: with three teammates always at hand, revives were plentiful. Even so, it was easy to get trapped in a stun-lock cycle of revive-die-revive-die-etc. Eventually, the Lambent were dispensed with and we were able to move into the stadium.
Upon reaching the safety of this cavernous building, Cole is even more in his element than before. Players are given another chance to mosey through an immaculately art-directed Stranded base, as people crowd around the Cole Train like plague victims around a benevolent medieval king. A meeting with the Stranded’s leader — a no-bullshit kind of lady — is cut short by the sudden arrival of a Lambent stalk.
This death-dealing menace is located right in the middle of the stadium’s playing field, and somebody’s going to have to deliver a bomb to its base. Cole volunteers, sensing a chance to relive some of his old glory, and the game switches to a sepia-toned filter, showing a pre-rendered scene of the soldier dodging Lambent on the way to the stalk, inter-cut with his memories of epic, touchdown-scoring runs. It sounds silly, but its actually kind of sad, and certainly effective in making Cole a more sympathetic character.
With the threat neutralized, it’s time to depart the stadium, which the team does by way of some conveniently placed ziplines. It is at this point that they learn of Marcus’ distress aboard the Sovereign, and make their way to the bridge in order to try and save the day.
Having ascended to the roadbed, the team has the game’s first run-in with so-called “Savage Locust,” unmutated grubs gone feral after the demise of their queen. Players will have to fight their way through a heavily mined and turreted defensive position, acquiring the bayonet-equipped “Retro Lancer” in the process.
The Lambent Leviathan is still threatening to eat the COG ship, though, which means that Cole’s shore party needs a way to stop it. Baird, always the source of deus ex machina MacGyver solutions, is dutifully called upon, and he dreams up a plan to dump a shipping container full of explosive Locust larvae on the rampaging tentacle beast. After some more frenetic firefights in the belly of the bridge, the container is dumped, and the adversary destroyed. Act I ends, like all good video game acts, on a giant explosion.
Later in the day, we also got a chance to try some of Gears 3′s Arcade mode co-op. Repeating most of Marcus’ segment on the ship, this proved to be an amusing challenge, with a running score total in the corner exhorting everyone to poach kills and race ahead as much as possible. Keeping your multiplier going by staying undamaged was the surest way to big scores, so this kind of eagerness had a drawback. It reaped huge dividends by the time the Silverbacks appeared though — how anyone is supposed to win without getting one at the end is beyond me. There are only two available, and four players. Despite this hiccup, however, Arcade mode seems like an exciting way to extend the life of the game, especially if you’ve got a good crew of friends you can sh*t-talk and jostle on your way up the standings.
For more Gears of War 3 coverage, please also see our Ron Fergusson video interview, our report on the game’s Easter Eggs, our co-op preview, and our accounts of the game’s mutators, adjusted difficulty levels, and 3D graphics.