When Epic turned its unreal talents to the third-person shooter almost five years ago, it got a hell of a lot right on the first attempt. A well-realised cover system that demanded tactical thinking and flanking trickery; an over-the-shoulder perspective that gave the chunky gunplay a gritty and gory edge; an Active Reload system that rewarded dedicated players with Bemani-style benefits; and chainsaw bayonets that meant close quarters combat was often viable and always deadly. All these elements combined to make the original Gears Of War not only a chiselled milestone of modern gaming, but also one of the greatest success stories of the current generation.
But this unprecedented success had a knock-on effect, as by raising the bar so high Epic was left with the unenviable task of trying to top something which already felt complete, so rather than tampering with the award winning formula, Gears Of War 2 turned out to be a methodical fine tuning with improved visuals, tightened gameplay and a few new modes to keep us playing – even after the storyline had reached its cliffhanger conclusion. This allowed Gears 2 to subtly surpass its predecessor while retaining its grizzled charm and bombastic brilliance, and in more ways than one, Gears Of War 3 follows the same ‘if it isn’t broke don’t fix it’ mantra by offering a satisfying if unsurprising conclusion to Delta Squad’s war against the Locust Horde.
The Campaign mode picks up a year and a half after the last game and sees Marcus, Dominic, Anya and Jace – from the Gears Of War comic book series – picking up the pieces aboard the CNV Sovereign. The silence doesn’t last for long, because no sooner has Marcus discovered that his father is still alive and being held captive than the rickety warship is ambushed by a horde of Lambent which forces the COG squad to cock their Lancers while crouching behind some conveniently placed cover. What follows is a business-as-usual trek across five pleasingly long acts as the team unravels the mystery behind the Lambent as well as the fate of Adam Fenix and the Locust Queen.
Also on grub-hunting manoeuvres are the tech savvy Baird and everybody’s favourite Thrashball player, Augustus ‘Cole Train’ Cole, who at the start of the game are teamed with Samantha, who first appeared in the Gear of War novels, and Clayton, a COG veteran who may (or may not) buck the trend of the unfortunate Carmine family after his two brothers bought the farm in Gears 1 and 2. This influx of new and familiar faces, which includes sniper extraordinaire Bernie and space cowboy Dizzy, comes hand-in-hand with the expanded four player co-op – meaning three teammates rather than one will watch your six as you push the assault forwards.
And with Delta Squad now composed of more burly marines and not-so dainty dames – all of who wisecrack and trash talk as they butcher their way across fortresses, burned-out cities and crumbling churches – it’s immediately clear that Gears has retained its unique brand of machismo humour. The kind where, upon seeing what can only be described as a Locust zeppelin, someone immediately shouts, ‘Big slow target full of gas – is it my birthday?’ And yet despite a conveyor belt of cheesy quips, the pathway to the trilogy’s end is perpetuated by a few emotional moments. Nothing quite as strong as Dominic’s encounter with his tortured wife, but there is one scene where a Tears For Fears (in Gears) ballad plays out in remorseful force.
As well paced as the story is, however, it’s safe to say that most people play Gears for the duck and cover firefights rather than the standard fare script, and in this regard, Gears 3 keeps its crown as ‘king of the third-person cover shooter’ with only Vanquish offering a comparably accomplished alternative. Indeed, the ebb and flow of combat is exactly as you remember it, with mad dashes between vantage points as you hide from enemy fire while taking pot-shots in a parade of whack-a-mole ballistics. And all the iconic armaments, including the Torque Bow, Boltok Pistol and Hammer of Dawn, make a welcome return – in addition to some equally destructive alternatives.
The most gratifying of these is undoubtedly the Digger, as while the Boomshot functions as a typical grenade launcher, the Digger has the opposite effect as it jettisons a piranha mole that tunnels underground with a proximity payload strapped to its tail. Humanity has also upped the ante with the Vulcan Cannon; a portable Gatling gun that can be operated by two players for speedier ammo delivery, and the appropriately titled One-Shot; a futuristic anti-material rifle that can punch through a Mauler’s Boom Shield. There’s even a new Incendiary Grenade that can instantly kill a Drone on direct impact and a claymore-sized Cleaver that can be dragged around, Pyramid Head-style.
Accompanying the military surplus is a handful of new enemy types. Some of these, like the Digger-rocking Savage Boomer, are variations on the classic Locust classes, while others, like the football-sized Shriekers that combine dual machineguns with the ability to hover, are entirely new to the battlefield. But it’s the infected Lambent who’ve learned the most new tricks, as not only do they spawn from sinister looking Stalks that sprout from the ground, their mutated ranks now include new monstrosities like the Gunker – a living mortar with stretchy limbs that conjures up thoughts of Code Veronica’s Bandersnatch. And while we’re being nostalgic, there’s also a new threat – introduced at the halfway point – that’s reminiscent of the original Halo in the way it places sudden emphasis on the shotgun.
But relying on buckshot won’t serve you in the boss battles, as while the new bullet sponges are measured in terms of semidetached houses rather than skyscrapers, as a collective they pose a solid if not especially numerous challenge. Indeed, there are four or so encounters that can be ranked as fully-fledged showdowns and, of these, only the last two are entirely new entries to the Gears Of War bestiary. The rest are either new takes on familiar faces – including the reappearance of an angry arachnid that uses its spidery legs as a shield – or the mutagenic result of an old boss going Lambent, which is exactly what happens with the stampede-happy Berserker.
Another aspect of the formula to make an expected return is the obligatory vehicle sections. These began in Gears 1 with the underwhelming APC spotlight, progressed to the Reaver and Brumak hijacks in Gears 2 and culminate in a few on-the-rails shootouts in Gears 3. These are less intrusive and include a mad dash in a COG jeep, as well as an underwater expedition in an armoured submersible with ‘there’s always a bigger fish’ moments. The transportation highlight, however, comes courtesy of the Silverback mech, which sports both Gatling guns and rocket launchers. Although if you really want to make an impression, you can tell the Locust to get away from your freshly dug ditch as you pilot a Mechanical Loader – which is only available in yellow, obviously.
The Silverback mech also makes its way into the returning Horde mode. This offers the same wave marathon as before, but rather than hammering in the tent pegs with four teammates and building a graveyard of Boom Shields, the revised Horde now has a tower defence dynamic that works not too dissimilarly from Call of Duty Zombies. You gain money by killing the alternating waves of Locust and Lambent, and once your coffers have reached a certain level, you can blow the budget on everything from command posts and barriers, to turrets and ammunition caches. This gives an already excellent mode some additional depth and adds to Gears 3’s versatility as an online multiplayer experience.
The new Beast mode is, therefore, the icing on the cake. It places you in the size 20 boots of the Locust Horde, but rather than limited to a few basic Drones, Beast mode opens up the ranks of the Locust Horde and asks you to pay in human blood – with a few drops bagging you a lowly Wretch and pints needed for an Armored Kantus. This turns the survival dynamic on its head, as rather than playing defensively, the focus is on rushing down and wiping out the opposition within a strict time limit. And although the early waves ease you in gently with poorly equipped civilians, it isn’t long before Delta Squad is causing you all kinds of grief.
But as brutal as clearing wave 50 on Insane will undoubtedly be, the real test of skill comes from matching wits with another five-man team in the revamped online Versus. Returning game modes include the round based Warzone, the coup-de-grace centric Execution and the two man teams of Wingman. Submission and Guardian have also been replaced by the self explanatory and noticeably more intense Capture the Leader, while the new Team Deathmatch and King of the Hill modes offer traditional alternatives that were much needed. Epic has also gone to town with an extensive list of Ribbons and Medals that are earned by performing feats and reaching milestones on the ten new multiplayer maps – all of which are pleasingly varied.
Taken as a package, Gears Of War 3 is a hard game to criticise, as while it has its fair share of minor niggles – including the way in which the four player co-op makes being downed in the Campaign less of an issue, and the appearance of some optional stealth sections which feel out of place – everything else feels polished to an exceptionally high standard. We also have to commend Epic for steering the story away from the set-piece gauntlet of the last game, as while Delta Squad has to tackle its fair share of behemoths, it’s less about exploring the entrails of a Rift Worm and more about getting back to the heated gun battles which made the original so enjoyable.
And yet, stood side by side with its predecessors, this third and final hurrah is less a dramatically pitched revolution and more a masterfully sculpted evolution, as while the graphical depth, online functionality and cover mechanics are some of the best in the business, when contrasted with Gears 2, they’re incremental steps rather than thundering leaps. But even though its accomplishments are awesome in an obvious kind of way, the long list of subtle improvements combine to make Gears 3 as spectacular today as both the first and second were in the past. And after the end credits have been and gone after hours of curb-stomping and roadie running, there’s one fact that’s undeniably clear. No one hammers home the third-person cover shooter quite like Epic.