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Every so often a franchise comes around that permanently transforms the industry. All games of the same genre released afterward seek to emulate said franchise and inevitably are compared to it, either favorably or unfavorably. These past five years have seen the meteoric rise of one of these treasures. Since its release in 2006, Gears of War has had a profound impact on gamers across the globe, and the third installment in this magnificent trilogy is about as close to perfection as this medium allows. While the first two games in the series were fantastic, they lacked a noticeable component that prevented both of them from achieving an even higher degree of acclaim: emotion. Gears of War 3 has that component, which allows it to ascend from a video game to art that evokes the gamut of what makes us human.
Gears of War 3’s approximately 10-hour single-player campaign picks up a couple years after the end of the second game and immediately starts with a bang. Seasoned gamers expect their games to be frontloaded nowadays, but Gears 3’s campaign never lets up. I’d hate to describe the single-player experience with the same word as the developer, Epic, but I’m really left with no choice. I daresay Epic even surpasses their own moniker with the effort they put into delivering a high-quality scripted experience for their fans. The addition of Karen Traviss, the author of all 4 Gears novels, really shows, as the writing and storytelling of the third installment are vastly superior to their earlier counterparts. To give you an idea of how powerful a difference the improved story makes, I’m not ashamed to say that playing through the Gears of War 3 campaign is only the 2nd time that I nearly cried while playing a video game (the first was Final Fantasy X if you’re wondering). Yeah, it’s that good.
It’s easy to argue that the campaign is the crowning achievement of the game, but the multiplayer is where the replay value resides. Horde mode, which forces players to band together to fend off wave after wave of Locust and Lambent, makes a triumphant re-emergence as the centerpiece of the impressive amount of multiplayer variety. The new Beast mode allows players to control the Locust monstrosities they’ve grown so accustomed to slaughtering against an increasingly difficult assortment of COG heroes. The campaign can also be played cooperatively via 2-player split-screen or 4 player co-op online. In addition to these cooperative modes, the competitive versus mode features 6 different game types including team deathmatch, warzone, execution, capture the leader, king of the hill, and wingman. Each versus mode game type is unique, and each requires you to utilize a different kind of strategy to be successful. All of the above modes are complete with leaderboards. Even the campaign features a new arcade mode with competitive scoring for the hyper-competitive types. Just about everything you do in Gears of War 3 nets you experience points, and as you level up (max level is 100) you unlock everything from custom weapon skins to playable characters.
The game’s graphics and sound are what you would expect from a blockbuster title with a nearly bottomless budget. Steve Jablonsky returns to compose the soundtrack and his heroic yet hopeless melodies both inspire you and give you a sense of the endless futility and constant obstacles the games’ characters have faced over the years. While sometimes the Unreal Engine 3 is slightly sluggish while loading textures, the graphics are a cut above of the 2nd installment. The variety of locales, character models, enemies, and environments are simply stunning. Little details like characters holding their hands up to shield their eyes from bright lights, and then putting them back down if their backs are turned to said lights are everywhere. Characters’ mouths actually speak the words they’re supposed to speak rather than moving at random. If your character tries to run through a door at an awkward angle, say from the side, he/she will grab hold of the wall like a normal human being rather than “running in place” until they can fit through. Small details such as these often go unnoticed, but they stand as proof of the enormous amount of effort the folks at Epic put into this project.
In terms of the gameplay, Gears 3 doesn’t do much of anything different save for a few refinements to its cover-based third person shooter. The game still features collectibles and COG tags for the treasure hunters and a bevy of new weapons, from the kamikaze bayonet charge of the Retro Lancer to the devastating stopping power of the aptly named Oneshot. Gears 3 plays almost exactly like its predecessors and this is a good thing. When you have gameplay that’s already nearly perfect, there really isn’t any need to make wholesale changes. Gears veterans will have no problem picking it up and playing right away, but the core system that Epic mastered in Gears 2 doesn’t provide a steep learning curve for newcomers either.
The addition of more female characters, as well as characters only mentioned thus far in the novels, is a welcome one. However, the only reason I’m holding back on giving the game a perfect score is because of these characters. If you haven’t read the novels, then good luck figuring out who they are and why they have suddenly appeared in the series’ final act. Fellow Gears like Sam Byrne and Bernie Mataki, not to mention the newly suited-up Anya Stroud, help ease the brotastic bro-ness of the first two games, but ultimately in the case of at least Bernie, her character isn’t fleshed out enough in the game for people who haven’t read the novels to appreciate her presence. This may just be the gripe of a lore nerd, but to see a rich and intriguing character in the novels be reduced to a cameo in the game is disappointing.