Posted on September 15, 2011, Phil Hornshaw Gears of War 3 Review
Gears of War 3, on more than one occasion, works to invoke the famous “Band of Brothers” speech in Shakespeare’s play Henry V. The final installment of the trilogy about monsters that come out of the ground to wage war on the humans living above, unfortunately, doesn’t really invoke the same strength of emotion as this inspiration in its story — but it does with its multiplayer. The sentiment of “Once more into the breach” is alive and well online, where Gears has finally become the competitive and cooperative experience promised by the very first game back in 2006. And it’s good enough that we can ignore the somewhat lackluster single player campaign.
After two iterations of the Gears online experience, Gears 3 finally brings players the game as it should be. Well-made maps, great weapons, a heavy emphasis on team play, dedicated servers, and new balancing mark the game’s competitive multiplayer, and it’s clear that Epic is putting to work everything it has learned through the trials and tribulations it experienced with the first two titles in the series. There is also a lot in the way of options for cooperative players over Xbox Live, including four-player campaign co-op. This is a game to be played with friends, and Epic has learned how to make Gears at its best online.
Where it fails is in its melodramatic and ultimately underwhelming single-player campaign. Gears games have never really excelled in the realm of story, but Gears 3 tries so hard to be emotional and heavy, while still delivering one-liners at a rate of nine per second, that there are points that the story is just a burden. Not to mention the fact that even at the culmination of the series, with all the information that Epic has deigned to make available to players through the trilogy, it makes little or no sense.
But it’s easy to overlook Gears 3′s overwrought attempt at sentimentality and battlefield brotherhood when you consider how much content is on offer, and how much fun there is to have when you hop online or join up with a friend. A single-player opus, Gears is not; but it is a fantastic multiplayer experience.
Gears has always offered something of a singular experience in competitive multiplayer, although over the years it has had its problems. A terrible design problem with the first game prevented players from creating parties with people on their friends lists or easily joining games together. It wasn’t just terribly inconvenient to game the system in order to play with the people you wanted — it was damn difficult. Gears 2 fixed that issue but suffered from connection and server problems early on that drove at least a few of my regular Gear buddies to drop the game altogether and go back to the original. It seems in Gears 3, all those troubles have been fixed.
If you played the Gears 3 beta, you probably know what I mean. Epic has put together some great maps that encourage a number of different engagement types while simultaneously presenting a more fair, balanced experience. Earlier versions of the game had multiplayer matches that were little more than races to the game’s map-specific power weapons, but map design in Gears 3 has severely limited the impact of these weapons so that they’re tools on the path to victory rather than instant-win buttons in the hands of capable players.
The game ships with about eight big maps and six modes on which to play them, all of which are Gears-style variants on common shooter archetypes. Capture the Leader, for example, is a rework of Gears 2′s Meatflag mode, which had players “capturing” an NPC that served as the standard flag in Capture the Flag modes in other shooters. Meatflag presented players with a flag that could defend itself: in Gears 3, the flag you must capture is another player, the opposing team’s “leader.” Insert additional strategic thinking here.
There has also been significant, interesting work done to Gears 3′s co-op modes, all for the better. Campaign cooperative play now supports up to four players. Turn up the difficulty and co-op can be a great experience with three friends. Epic has also added quite a bit to its popular Horde mode, a survival mode that includes waves of enemies attacking a team of five players. Horde in Gears 3 introduces money that’s earned for kills and has to be spent on everything; players can use the cash to upgrade defenses on the map to make it more difficult for enemy attackers, or spend it to claim grenades, ammo and additional weapons. But everything costs, and resources are scarce, which adds quite a bit to the already heavy tactical mindset and emphasis on teamwork present in Horde mode.
The newly added Beast mode, on the other hand, reverses the entire setup, putting up to five players in the role of the attacking Locust enemies. Again, players earn money here as they play as enemy Locust and try to kill AI-controlled human characters. That money can be spent to respawn as a number of different Locust enemies. Working together is key to success for any length of time in Beast mode, and like multiplayer games such as Left 4 Dead or the competitive multiplayer of Dead Space 2, playing as the enemy engenders an entirely different kind of game play and tactics than players have to use for the rest of Gears 3.
So multiplayer is a great time, with lots of options and several diverse experiences. But the single-player campaign is largely throw-away. While Gears 2 felt like a step forward in scope and “oh, sh-t” moments from Gears 1, Gears 3′s campaign has only a few really strong set piece moments, and even fewer genuinely tough battles. On Hardcore mode, the highest difficulty available to players right out of the box, the game actually felt overly easy.
This is probably less the result of the game not being challenging and more of a pretty solid improvement in the AI capabilities of your squadmates, of which you always have three, sometimes four, close at hand. Up until about the last of Gears 3′s five acts, my teammates were extraordinary medics, and I felt kind of hard to kill, to the point where I was willing to play Gears 3 a little more brazenly than it’s probably designed to be, since somebody always had my back.
Enemy AI, however, feels largely unaltered from the previous two games. There are new enemies to deal with, sure, but everything you go up against tends to operate in the predictable “pop up and shoot” way all shooter fans are accustomed to dealing with. There are a great many battles and some diversity of experience, with vehicle missions and other such situations, but largely we’re treated to mostly the same experience that Gears has been since its inception.
The game’s greatest failing is in its story, which is only worth mentioning because the game’s developers often like to refer to how big a deal they want it to be. We’ve been following these characters and this world for three games now, but it’s hard to really care about what they get up to. As for the world in which they operate, it remains just as weird and impenetrable as ever. Quite a bit of content is devoted to the antecedents of the conflict with the Locust and to important actors like Adam Fenix, protagonist Marcus’ dead father — but if you’re looking for any answers to questions posed by earlier games, or even some kind of sweeping explanation of just what the hell has been going on (or is going on) at any given point, expect to be disappointed. Gears 3 pulls a Lost, and it’s a bad one.
Still, likely none of us are in it for the story at this point (it hasn’t given us much in the way of sense or explanation for seven years, why would it now?). The campaign mode is lots of fun in co-op and passable if you play it alone, and there’s so much to like here that coming to the ending of the trilogy with absolutely zero answers as to what it was all about really doesn’t much matter.
What does matter: grabbing your Xbox Live headset and grabbing some headshots in one of Gears 3′s many multiplayer modes, because that’s where the fun is.
- Lots of multiplayer and co-op options. This is a game to play with friends.
- More weapons, more achievements and more rewards in multiplayer give players lots to strive for
- Campaign co-op can handle up to four people
- Horde mode improvements add a lot to its survival gameplay
- Beast mode invokes a cool Left 4 Dead strategic feel
- Competitive multiplayer seems to be the tightest it’s ever been
- Single player is kind of easy
- Melodrama gets laid on thick, but the story ultimately is pretty weak
- Story poses more questions in the last chapter than it answers in the entire trilogy
Final Score: 85/100
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Still eager to destroy the Locust Horde? Check out Game Front’s Gears of War 3 text and video walkthrough.