Gears of War 3 Review - Focused Narrative and Tremendous Gameplay
Through its first two entries, the Gears of War series has always felt like a slight case of overpromise and poor delivery on expectations.
Before the release of the first Gears of War, we saw the famous “Mad World” trailer, a preview which promised us a somber and melancholy experience where the harshness of war would ring as a strong central theme. That sentiment never quite echoed through to the final product though, and I soon formed the opinion that the game was not living up to its own lofty expectations.
Gears of War was still an influential game in many respects, though.
It served as the most prominent representation of how the cover-shooting mechanic could be used successfully in a triple-A title, and ushered in a level of graphical fidelity that would go on to define the 7th generation of consoles. However, the game’s environments felt very constrained when compared to its narrative, and the game seemed to lack emotion essential to its storytelling.
With the release of Gears of War 2 in late 2008, Epic Games corrected many of the problems that plagued the series’ original entry by introducing a much larger, more ambitious campaign filled with grand set-pieces and fleshed-out characters. However, the experience lacked some of the precision found in the former game’s combat by way of repetitive level design and enemy monotony, topped with crippling issues regarding its online multiplayer service. At the time, it just felt as though Epic Games held a dream of the grand adventure that Gears of War could become but lacked the understanding of how to deliver a product that could get it there.
Gears of War 3 is the realization of that dream.
Rarely have I played a video game that combines such expansive scale and gameplay variety with a strong and focused narrative. Epic Games released a title that is satisfying in every regard, from the gameplay possibilities given to the player through stellar level design, to a story that fleshes out the entire Gears of War universe while still providing a fitting end to the trilogy.
Gears of War 3 takes place shortly after the conclusion of Gears of War 2, with the COG soldiers seeking refuge after the sinking of their capital city, Jacinto, while preparing to fight the new and deadly Lambent invasion and surviving Locust.
The primary motivation to continue this fight stems from Marcus Fenix’s dad, a man who was previously thought dead--but has reemerged with a plan to stop the Lambent invasion once and for all.
With nearly all the series’ familiar faces in tow and with some new additions, the narrative weaves a strong focus on its characters by fleshing out their backstories and motivations; even allowing us to play through a couple short flashback sequences detailing important events in the characters’ pasts. A few other areas provide welcome respite from combat by allowing Marcus and company to peacefully walk around and listen in on the locals' conversations, further establishing the mood of the story.
With huge hype to serve as the capstone for a trilogy that has lasted for an entire gaming generation, it would have been easy to assume that the story in Gears of War 3 would not live up to its lofty expectations. Perhaps the plot would come across as cliché or that the accompanying characters in this journey would not receive their share of the spotlight.
Nothing could be further from the truth, however, as Gears of War 3’s story is a success in every regard. It brings the plot of the entire trilogy into clearer focus, introduces moments of emotion and reflection beyond what we would expect from a traditional mainstream shooter, and provides a definitive closure for the Gears of War journey--free from the pitfalls of cliffhangers and loose ends for the sole purpose of leaving the series open for a future installment.
Thanks to the power of an enhanced version of the Unreal Engine, Gears of War 3 looks much better than its predecessors from both a technical and artistic standpoint.
Perhaps the most notable improvement in the graphics presentation is the implementation of Epic’s new “lightmass” technology, a global-illumination solution that accurately calculates the effects of lighting and shadow on each environment and character. In practice, this technology gives the daylight areas of Gears 3 a very bright appearance, more reminiscent of real sunlight, and the night/indoor ones a more foreboding aura.
Other noticeable enhancements to the engine include a new water rendering system and more realistic foliage, tools which allowed the developers to expand this latest adventure into never-before-seen environments such as a tropical island and a military vessel hovering over the ocean.
However, all of this technology means nothing without a strong artistic vision to back it up, and this is where Gears of War 3 really stands out from its predecessors. I have always held the opinion that the first two Gears of War games lacked visual appeal despite their impressive technology, as it appeared the artists were never able put those final touches on each environment to really sell the setting to the player.
Gears of War 3 accomplishes this task incredibly well, showcasing both familiar and new environments with a level of detail that makes them feel like believable places and not simple game levels. Furthermore, these environments interconnect with nearly seamless transition courtesy of scripted day/night cycles, set-piece moments, and elaborate cut-scenes. The latter half of the game in particular houses some of the most stunning and unique environments of the entire series, fully embracing the vision that Epic Games was able to realize in the final act of their grand trilogy.
Unfortunately, the sound design of Gears 3 doesn’t quite live up to the technical prowess of its visuals. I noticed that the game’s audio seems to have a very narrow range, a complaint that appears almost inconsequential unless you have the opportunity to hear the game on higher-end audio equipment, where the distinct lack of bass in the explosions and sound effects gives them a somewhat shrill intonation. In addition, the audio mix heavily favors the game’s loudest sounds to the point where they can sound almost piercing in volume compared with the music and voice acting.
Otherwise, the audio in Gears of War 3 is quite satisfactory. While the original soundtrack doesn’t provide any especially memorable songs, it does perfectly compliment the on-screen action and provides a flawless backdrop for some of the game’s more emotional cut-scenes. The voice acting is equally strong as well, bringing both new and returning characters to life through interesting dialogue and a more emotional delivery.
Unsurprisingly, Gears of War 3 maintains the cover-shooting mechanic that has been the staple of this series since its began, albeit with a number of improvements that make the entire experience feel more fluid.
Characters attach to cover more precisely, weapon switching/aiming feels smoother, and refinements to the graphics engine allow the frame rate to stay more consistent than prior installments, maintaining its 30 fps target almost universally throughout the experience. The comrade AI seems to have been improved as well, only creating a slight dilemma when teammates occasionally provide too much support to the player in combat.
The biggest improvement to Gears of War 3’s gameplay which makes it such a standout experience would have to be its creative level design, however. Not once during the roughly 12-hour campaign did I ever notice any repetitively designed combat arenas, ensuring that every enemy encounter felt fresh and exciting.
To further this aim, the designers have incorporated new elements of verticality and spacing into the levels to consistently provide the player numerous options on how to approach each combat situation. This is especially welcome considering that the campaign can be played cooperatively online with up to four players and each can take up a unique vantage point and position on the battlefield.
Working in tandem with the improved level design in Gears of War 3 is a widely expanded arsenal of weapons to choose from. Many of these are completely new additions to the series, such as the Digger Launcher, which allows the player to fire explosives underground which resurface underneath the enemy, or the Vulcan Cannon, a high-powered chain gun which requires two players to operate simultaneously.
Some of the other armaments in this game are more akin to re-imaginings or changes to weapons from past games, such as the Hammerburst, which now contains the ability to aim down the sights in a first-person perspective, the Sawed-Off Shotgun, which serves as a close-range alternative for the popular Gnasher model, and the Retro Lancer, a reimagining of the Lancer weapon with a higher rate of fire, no chainsaw, and a stronger recoil.
With this many weapons up for offer, it is no surprise that Gears of War 3 provides an equally extensive selection of enemies to fight. Nearly all of the familiar Locust enemies from the series’ history have been brought back to cap off this trilogy, and the variety is further compounded by the presence of new and deadly Lambent-infected creatures, requiring the player to fully utilize each area and weapon to gain the upper hand on some truly unique opponents.
Take the Lambent for instance, which can rise up from stalks in the ground and transform into even more grotesque creatures mid-battle, or new Locust variants which are even more savage than their standard brethren. Boss battles are also plentiful through the experience, serving as fantastic capstones for some of the game’s more stunning action sequences.
Gears of War 3 has served as my first full foray into the multiplayer component of this series, so while I cannot directly compare the multiplayer offerings and mechanics to those of the prior games, I can still provide some of my standalone impressions and insight on the game’s offerings.
Compared with most other popular online shooters, Gears of War has a far more deliberate pace, placing more of an emphasis on player positioning and spacing rather than on quick reflexes. During my time online, I noticed that most players tend to use their long-range weapons to apply pressure on the opponent while approaching them, eventually getting close enough to make shotguns the preferred weapon of choice for racking up kills. This dynamic gives the multiplayer a chess-match vibe that I had not anticipated and makes successfully killing opponents a less frequent but more meaningful accomplishment.
The range of multiplayer modes up for offer in Gears of War 3 is quite substantial and offers up many returning variants from past games as well as a few new additional game types. While the omission of a standard death match mode once again feels like a significant oversight given how well most maps would suit the game type, the many team death match and objective-based variants fill the gap nicely, although they too can feel restrictive due to the limited number of player respawns allowed per match.
The ever-popular Horde mode of series tradition has returned better than ever in Gears of War 3, complete with an assortment of new tower-defense elements to allow players to purchase and build fortifications to protect themselves against enemy invaders and special boss battle waves.
Perhaps the most exciting of all these game modes however is the all-new Beast game type, which allows players to assume control of the Locust army and fight off waves of human survivors. It serves as quite the hilarious and refreshing role reversal to be able to pilot the Locust creatures and utilize their unique abilities to defeat the human soldiers, and the mode is definitely a highlight of the game’s multiplayer package.
Gears of War 3 is a remarkable game, breathing new life into a series that had never before reached its full potential and proving that a grand vision and strong design sensibility can turn an ordinary game into a true work of art regardless of its genre or pedigree.
The story provides a truly satisfying sense of closure for the trilogy and the excellent gameplay experience could serve as a blueprint for triple-A game development in the future. While the game’s audio doesn’t give quite the same immersive experience as its visuals and the multiplayer lacks a few expected features, these are only minor blemishes against a fantastic game that reminds us of how the future of gaming could not be brighter.