A Totally Biased Review: Gears of War III

Ok, now, everyone strike a dramatic pose for the camera...!

Oh, the System Wars. Legions of pimply faced, greasy haired, nasally defunct teenagers squabbling over their respectively favorite systems, attacking one another with small-arms fire such as the system’s hardware specs, ordinance like it’s price point and artillery such as, most importantly, the systems flagship, console-exclusive franchises (because everything has to be a franchise, since the golden days of “one-offs” are long since dead). For the Xbox 360 fan boys, one of those such franchises has long been the Gears of War Saga, as it’s now being billed by Microsoft. And up until this the series’ latest entry, the disappointing Gears of War 3, for very good reason. The 1st game in the series opened up the franchise with a bang, showcasing a (then) brand-new cover system, gritty, steroid-infused character design, and the most machismo this side of the late, great Macho Man himself. The 2nd entry improved upon many things the first was criticized for: more variety in locations, more weapons, as well as many larger scale battles. Unfortunately, Gears 3, while disappointing, isn’t so much of a step backward as a step sideways, by forgoing adding much new to the series, it feels a little stagnant in comparison to it’s fellow entries, and a lack of any sort of emotional investment into the story keeps it from transcending it‘s emotionally impactful predecessors.

The game starts off two years after the events that concluded the 2nd game: humanity, having destroyed their own final bastion themselves, is growing increasingly desperate, the COG forces that were barely repelling the Locust horde have all but disbanded, and the story’s central heroes, Marcus, Dom, Cole, Baird and Anya, have been forced to survive aboard a giant, tanker-like vessel at sea to avoid constant attacks from the “Lambent.” For those who have been living under a rock (no, I mean, literally living under a rock. If you’re reading this and haven’t played the 1st two games, you probably live under some sort of boulder and I’m surprised you’ve managed to procure an internet connection), the Lambent are mutated forms of the Locust that are even more beastly and savage than their unmutated counterparts. They glow orange on the inside from exposure to Imulsion, the fictional super fuel found on the game’s planet, and they explode when they die. Great. Clearly, humanity has seen better days than the ones they’ve living through at the start of the story. Unfortunately, this aspect of the story, as well as more than a few others, falls a little flat. Aside from the very opening portion of the game, humanity’s desperation is sort of lost in the typical “let’s go here and kill a bunch of shit in the process” kind of journey the characters take in each of these games. The encounters and battles that take place don’t feel any more desperate than any from the first two games, and the fact that these 4 (there has to be 4 to suit 4-player co-op… Really? What the fuck is the point?!) dudes can basically repel however many Locust or Lambent as can appear, as well as simply march into enemy territory all willy-nilly, adds to the game losing that sense of desperation, save for a bit in the 3rd act and the end of the last.

What's with the doo-rag? Is he bald? My money's on "Yes!"

Speaking of the 3rd act, it’s easily the section of the story with the most emotional impact, which is a real shame because the majority of the story is spent on a search for Marcus’ long-thought-dead father, which puts the emotional climax of the story smack dab in the middle instead of the end, which completely undermines the impact Marcus‘ father has on the story. Wait, what? No, you read it right. Marcus’ father is alive after all. And you know what? Who cares?! Up until this point, we’ve known absolutely nothing about the guy, and to honest, the story does a very poor job of even explaining why we should we care about him besides the obvious fact that he’s Marcus’ father, and he conveniently has a plot-device to wipe out the Lambent. In fact, it’s really the problem across the board with the simplified story: there’s no real reason to care about anything that happens to any of the characters. It’s awful that things are so shitty for them, sure, and humanity’s “hanging by a thread,“ but the story and events contained herein don’t get those points across in any sort of meaningful way. Cole is having a mid-life crisis, and yearns for his glory days, but… No, actually, that’s it. The writers end this storyline before it has any chance to develop. There’s a budding romance between Dom and a new female character, but it goes nowhere. Granted, for good reason, but there’s no point in writing this or any sort of detail into the development of characters if it’s not going to go anywhere. Marcus is the only character that shows any growth, and I use the term “growth” loosely.

 One other thing that‘s grown in this game is the arsenal. There’s plenty of new weapons in Gears 3, some welcome, some not. The standouts, at least for me, were easily the Retro Lancer and the Sawed-Off Shotgun. The former is the precursor to the tried-and-true, chainsaw equipped machine gun the series is so popular for. It includes a big, burly-ass bayonet that impales your victims or worse… Well, you’ll have to see for yourself. The gun is quite a lot more powerful than it’s redesigned counterpart, and the expertise of the development team shows in the details of this weapon: to keep it balanced and make both versions of the Lancer a viable option, the recoil for this weapon is a lot more touchy than it’s cousin. It’s a shame this sort of attention to detail wasn’t paid to every aspect of the game like in the first two. There’s a few other new weapons, such as the Digger, which fires burrowing grenades that can dig under cover then jump up to catch unsuspecting enemies, and by “unsuspecting,” I mean the ones that don’t see all kinds of dirt spitting up everywhere as the grenade burrows towards them. And then there’s the One Shot, easily the most powerful ballistic weapon in the series. It kills Maulers behind their Boomshield. Nuff said. Old favorites such as the Hammer of Dawn reappear, with a brand new, super fancy and super irritating “battery-life” bar that keeps you from firing nonchalantly, as well as the Boomshot, Hammerburst, and other oldies but goldies. There’s also a couple different sets of powered armor, which are fun for a few minutes, but get to feel a little cumbersome in some of the sections they’re available in. Also, it’s a minor nitpick, but why did they remove the Longshot ammo from the ammo boxes found throughout the game? It’s like they purposely limit you to the standard, “boring” weapons you can start with rather than letting you play through in a way that suits your style. Again, minor nitpick, but another unwelcome change.

I think she needs a higher dose of whatever she's taking, because the roids she's on now aren't working. Clearly.

The gameplay itself, luckily, is very good. Save for a few minor tweaks, however, it feels, unluckily, exactly the same as Gears 1 and 2 both. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, and while redundancy is something you don’t generally want from a game franchise with such a rabid following, the gameplay was very solid to begin with in the first 2 games. There’s very little new going on here: active reloading, taking cover, roadie running, popping caps and smoking fools. Vaulting over cover with an enemy directly opposite you results in you kicking them, the roadie run feels just a hair faster,  the cover feels perfectly “sticky.“ Most of the tweaks are minor but welcome. The addition of the Lambent gives a new flavor to the game not necessarily seen in the first two, save for the Wretches in the first, but it’s not entirely pleasing to the palette. There’s very little in the way of variety when it comes to the Lambent, as opposed to the dozens of varieties of wonderfully designed, “job-specific” Locust. The Lambent pop when they die, and instead of Emergence Holes, there are stalks that Lambent flop out of. While it’s a nice change from the E-Hole thing the first 2 games relied on, it’s not as novel as it sounds on paper, and by the 200th stalk, you’ll be pretty tired of them in general. I was. And although I think the Lambent were a great idea, I think the execution is way off. These creatures are supposed to be what’s got humanity, AND the Locust, way past the brink of desperation, nearing extinction, but in the game they’re just as easy to deal with as the Locust, if not even easier, and the variety-less horde of Lambent that pop when lined up in your crosshairs, don’t have the terrifying and overwhelming feel the game tries to sell on them, save for one especially tense boss-fight with a Lambent Berserker. Boss fights are a rarity in the Gears games, and so far, they’ve all stood out as pretty awesome set pieces. Sadly, the final boss fight in Gears 3 is a bit of a letdown, and quite honestly, a little too simple and derivative to be totally memorable.

It’s a shame the gameplay relies so heavily on the Lambent. They lack impact and as previously stated, they don’t have the all-consuming, unstoppable feel that the story indicates they do. It’s a shame even more so for the fact that the Locust are better than ever. Wonderful design choices, creative weaponry, and some interesting details make them shine as a clear-cut, more fun enemy choice than the Lambent ever could be (Lambent Berserker notwithstanding). Since the 2nd game, they’ve been driven out of their warrens and into the daylight. They scavenge the COG’s discarded weapons. They hole up in abandoned bases and outposts. They communicate with one another in the heat of battle. If this series has any sort of strong point, it’s always been the Locust as a fierce, brutal, resilient, intelligent enemy that knows how to die as long as you shoot them enough. And only just. There’s a real disconnect between how fun the Locust are as opposed to the Lambent, and even when the two are thrown together to battle the remaining COG heroes, the Locust are still clearly the more endearing set of polygons to kill.

Speaking of polygons, there’s a few of them in this game. While the graphics since Gears 1 have been fairly top-notch, they’ve certainly lost their impact since debuting in the opening game, and the Unreal Engine is starting to really show its age. The fact that the background the entire time you’re on the ship in the opening act is really low-res matte painting doesn’t help the game’s case for graphics. In it’s defense, however, some of the new effects, such as fractured lighting and some of the explosions and particles effects, add a real nice glossy finish to the overall look of the game. The game also looks markedly better in the daylight levels where the contrast in lighting is more apparent. In the darker, dimly lit sections, the graphics don’t shine quite as much. The animation is also quite as is standard for the series, to the point where it’s tough to tell whether it was motion-captured or painstakingly animated frame-by-frame, and when you can’t tell, you know it’s good. Lighting and animation aside, some of the textures are pretty ho-hum, and the cut-scenes aren’t nearly as crisp or smooth as the in-game graphics themselves. Honestly, I’m not sure why the development team doesn’t simply use the in-game engine to render the cut-scenes, the way Sony Santa Monica did for God of War 3, or Naughty Dog does for Uncharted. But, hey. What do I know? While on the subject of the cinematics for the game, the voice-work, while universally very good (particularly one especially fantastic cameo from an original gangsta), suffers from some pretty lame writing and cheesy, action-movie-esque one-liners. Again, an ongoing problem with the game selling humanity’s desperation, Cole and Baird still have time to joke about how cute Tickers are, and the “tricks” they can do, like blowing up in your face. I mean, Christ, where are the game-faces? Why doesn’t anyone take their situation seriously? These questions go largely unanswered until the 3rd act, when a key character in the story makes a brave sacrifice, and even then, only one person in the story begins to show any sort of change in disposition.

The overall sound quality of the game, in the midst of gameplay, is again top-notch. Guns are loud, and they all feel and sound appropriately powerful. The death throes of your countless enemies are satisfying and disgusting. The grotesque squelch of a headshot still remains one of the best, most gratifying sounds in the entirety of the gaming world. The small things that add life to the on-screen action are still there, such as the little remarks your character will say when grabbing ammo, or how your squad mates warn you that the enemies are flanking you. To touch on the cut-scenes again, however, a lot of this detail oriented sound work is either very poor, or not there at all. The numerous doors it takes two of these roided out dudes to lift, drop back to the Earth with a sound that could’ve been my cell-phone hitting the floor. Except a lot quieter. Everyone in a cut scene is a ninja, as there are hardly any footsteps to be heard.  These sort of things being missing is a little bewildering, as the game was given months and months of extra time in the oven, to fine-tune and add details to the production to ensure the best possible product. What were they working on those extra months? Revamping and perfecting the online multiplayer? There’s a huge portion of the gaming community that simply doesn’t want to play the game’s competitive modes.

This is 2 seconds before the dude pops out from around that corner and blows your head off. Fun!

I am included in that portion of the gaming community. The gameplay is simply too nuanced for me to really get a handle on how things work when shooting someone not controlled by AI programming. There’s really a steep, STEEP skill curve when first starting out, and there’s hardly any encouragement to be taken from dying 3, 4, or even 67 times in a row, while barely tallying up any kills yourself. That’s not to say there’s no enjoyment to be taken from it, because while the competitive multiplayer is just that, too competitive, there’s several modes for people looking for more co-op based gameplay. The Horde mode that pits you against increasingly difficult waves of Locust and Lambent creatures, returns with a few novel, addictive twists. Points you would normally score to keep track of who’s top dog and who’s not, have now been changed to currency, and using said funding, you and your teammates can purchase and upgrade certain fortifications and defense systems to try to hold back the invasion of AI controlled enemies. The fantastic new Beast mode is the polar opposite of Horde, and pits you as Locust enemy trying to invade a fortified human outpost. Destroying fortifications or killing human enemies wins you cash, which you can use to “purchase” a stronger Locust creature to spawn as. There’s a 60 second timer, though, so it lends the rounds a more frantic pace than the war of attrition you might expect it to end up as. And as previously mentioned, there’s 4-player online co-op, private or public. On top of that, however, there’s an arcade more, which you can play solo or with friends, with or without mutators which change certain aspects of gameplay. Some of them make things more difficult or easier, such as making ammo boxes disappear or giving you infinite ammo, respectively. Arcade mode also awards you medals based on who takes the least or most ammo, who goes down the most, who revives the most teammates, who shot the most of a particular enemy type, and so on. It’s a lot of fun, save for the fact that you start over with the same weapons at the end of every chapter. So, if you were stockpiling ammo for your Longshot, too bad! You get a Shotgun instead to start things off. Sucker.

A weak, disappointing story and cheesy dialogue weigh down gameplay that's grown a little old for this series.

So, there it is. A disappointed fan’s perspective on the “closing” entry in the Gears of War saga. It’s pretty clear that the success of the series will spawn a new entry at some point. Whether a prequel to the first game or a whole new story arc, only time will tell. The game has a few brilliant set pieces, such as a couple of on-rails vehicle segments that are absolutely fantastic, and a creepy trek through a mostly deserted town and another through a dead city, that are, without a doubt, the brightest points in the game. However, the continued reliance on cheesy one-liners, and a refusal to get you emotionally invested in the story and it’s characters, keeps the game from being as great as it could, and should, have been. The promising trailers and vignettes that shows Marcus and Dom fighting off the Locust, surrounded by ash statues was almost totally squandered. While Gears 3 was clearly a bit of a disappointment for myself, it’s really only a letdown when compared to the first two games. Any other game and these problems would make it simply a “good” game. But, Gears of War has become synonymous with being “great.” And while it may be unfair or not to compare them to one another, it’s inevitably going to happen either way, and in comparing them, Gears 3 just doesn’t have what it takes to stand above it’s older, more refined brothers. Though they are Brothers to the End.

Get it?

Oh, and can I say how fucking annoying “Collectible” type achievements are?

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