Platform:  Xbox 360

Developer:  Epic Games

Publisher:  Microsoft Game Studios

Rating:  “M” for Mature

Review by Nick Cohen

In 2006, during the early years of the Xbox 360, Microsoft was looking for a big exclusive game to move its new Xbox 360 system off shelves.  Call of Duty 2 and The Elder Scrolls IV:  Oblivion had proved to be hits, but neither game was published by Microsoft and neither did the sales numbers of Microsoft’s flag-bearing Xbox franchise, Halo.  With Halo 3 not releasing until the fall of 2007, Microsoft needed to give consumers a big reason to upgrade to an Xbox 360.  With Epic Games’ Gears of War, Microsoft found that reason.

The original Gears of War was a huge hit, bolstered by a huge marketing campaign, a surprise-hit multiplayer mode, and—let’s face it—a lack of competition.  Gears sold like crazy and gave Xbox 360 gamers a great shooter to play while they waited for Halo 3.  In 2008—facing stiffer competition from Halo 3 and the hugely popular Call of Duty 4:  Modern Warfare—Microsoft and Epic released Gears of War 2, the sequel to Microsoft’s biggest exclusive new game of this generation.  While initial sales were high, Gears 2 ultimately suffered from a disappointing campaign and a new matchmaking service for multiplayer that barely worked.  Consumer’s interest in the Gears of War franchise waned while series like Call of Duty attracted millions of new players.

Microsoft and Epic Games announced Gears of War 3 a couple years later, promising a more-satisfying campaign and multiplayer that actually functioned properly right out of the gate.  Initially meant to be released alongside Halo:  Reach in the fall of 2010, Microsoft delayed Gears 3 to give Epic more time to develop the game, to give the Xbox 360 a big hit in the otherwise empty fall 2011 season, and to avoid having Gears go up against both Halo:  Reach and Call of Duty:  Black Ops.  With record-breaking preorders and a hugely successful multiplayer beta this past spring, Gears 3 is poised to reclaim the series’ former glory.

Gears of War 3 is (pun intended) an epic game.  Like Halo:  Reach, Gears 3’s main menu screen presents the player with so many options that he/she may initially feel a bit overwhelmed.  There’s a Campaign, Horde mode, the brand-new Beast mode, and Versus multiplayer, as well as an option to view your stats/achievements and another to go to the Xbox Live Marketplace.  That’s a lot of options, but most players should start with the Campaign.

The Campaign is the bread-and-butter of Gears 3.  The first two Gears games weren’t exactly renowned for their amazing stories, but Gears 3 actually tells a good one filled with loss, grief, reunions, and lots and lots of gore—this is a Gears game, after all.  I won’t go into details about the story since that would spoil the plot, but Gears 3’s story is heartfelt and sad—unlike Gears 2’s, where attempts at making the player feel sad came off as cheesy.  It’s a surprising bright spot in a game where you wouldn’t expect to find a good story.  A cautionary word to those looking to jump straight into Gears 3 without any prior knowledge of the  events in the Gears universe, however—many of the characters and situations pretty much require knowledge of the previous two games’ events, in addition to the extended-universe stories from the comics and novels.  Players of the previous two games shouldn’t have too much of a problem, but new players might feel a bit lost.  I recommend you first play through the campaigns of the first two games, and then read the Gears of War novels Jacinto’s Remnant and Coalition’s End before jumping into Gears of War 3.

Gears of War 3 features an excellent Campaign. Not pictured--the great story.

Not that the storyline is compensating for the gameplay—the campaign in Gears 3 is a blast to play.  Players still fight the classic Locust enemies from the first two games, but new Lambent enemies present a stiff challenge that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a game before.  The Locust also bring new enemy types into the game, and the free-for-all battles between the human Gears, the Locust, and the Lambent are some of the best in the game.  Even better, though, are the bosses; without spoiling anything, there are some truly huge bosses in this game that are a ton of fun to take down.  The final boss is a bit frustrating, but otherwise Gears 3 features some absolutely fantastic boss encounters.

Interspersed between the normal enemy encounters are monotony-breaking sequences like turret sections and levels where you come across Stranded settlements where there is very little action.  These sections don’t overstay their welcome like the many turret sequences did in Gears 2; instead, they pop up every now and then to keep the gameplay from getting stale.  All levels now feature four Gears instead of just two.  You can choose to keep the three remaining Gears as A.I. controlled—and they’ll do a decent job of shooting at enemies and reviving you—or you can play through the Campaign cooperatively in two-player split-screen or with four players via Xbox Live.  The Campaign is fairly long for a shooter—there are five total chapters comprised of many smaller sections that should take you a good 10-12 hours to see the first time, depending on difficulty and skill level—and has a lot of replay value too, thanks to an Arcade mode that enables scoring and unlockable mutators.

The best part of Gears 2 was the Horde mode, in which players had to fight off waves of Locust enemies with up to four friends.  Horde mode is back in Gears 3, but it’s even better than it was before.  Taking a page from tower defense games and Call of Duty’s popular Zombies mode, players can now set up fortifications such as barriers and turrets in-between rounds to hold off or distract incoming enemies.  These can also be upgraded, so that a simple spike strip becomes a laser fence, for example.

Also new to Horde is currency (You didn’t think the aforementioned fortifications were free, did you?).  Not only do fortifications cost money, but basic things like new weapons and ammo do, too.  This forces players to really think about how they spend their money—spend too much money on laser fences to keep out normal enemies and you might not have any money to spend on ammo for boss waves.  You see, every 10th wave is now a boss wave against things like Berzerkers and—if you’re really unfortunate—a Brumak.  Nothing is scarier than facing off against a hulking Brumak with no teammates left and little ammo.

Horde mode is comprised of 50 increasingly-challenging waves.  As mentioned previously, each 10th wave is a boss wave; however, once that boss wave is defeated, the next wave brings about tougher enemies with more health and better aim that take more damage to kill.  By wave 50, enemies do 2.5x the damage, have 2.5x the health, and have 2.5x greater accuracy than they did at the beginning.  This makes things extraordinarily challenging; a moment I’ll never forget was taking down a wave 50 Brumak with another teammate.  It took almost 2,000 shots from my Lancer assault rifle (seriously), but it was a load of fun.

New in Gears of War 3 is Beast mode.  Beast mode is basically the opposite of Horde; instead of playing as the humans and trying to fight off waves of Locust and Lambent, in Beast you play as the Locust and must defeat 12 waves of humans.  You only get a small amount of time per wave to take out all humans, so you have to be fast.

Initially, you only have access to weaker Locust, such as the Ticker and basic Drone.  By killing humans and wiping out their fortifications, you gain access to stronger Locust such as the Serapede and Bloodmount.  Each Locust type—even the lowly Tickers—has a role to play, however, so you never feel completely useless no matter which Locust you’re playing.  Beast mode is a lot of fun, but it’s too short and easy.  It does at least have a lot of replay value.

The last—and most disappointing—aspect of the Gears 3 experience is the competitive Versus multiplayer.  Those who have played the beta earlier in the year know what to expect, although there has been some balancing and there are more maps open in the final game (10, to be exact).  There are six modes in Gears 3’s Versus component, three of which are variations on wiping out the other team.

An action scene from Gears 3's competitive multiplayer. It's much gorier than this in motion.

In Team Deathmatch, each team of five tries to wipe out the other team’s respawns.  When a team’s respawns are depleted, each player on that team must fight to stay alive because once they are killed, they are out of the game.  Warzone and Execution are a lot like the end of a Team Deathmatch round, but in Execution, players must execute their opponent to kill them, forcing players to get in closer when going for kills.   King of the Hill is exactly what you’d expect—a fight for a moving control point. The first team to a set score wins.  Capture the Leader is a combination of the Capture the Flag and Guardian modes from Gears 2—here, one player on each team is designated the leader.  The leader can see enemies through walls, but once the leader is captured by an enemy for a specific amount of time, the game ends.  Lastly, there’s Wingman, which is similar to Halo’s multi-team modes because there are four teams of two.  The first team to reach a set number of kills wins.

This all sounds like it could be a lot of fun, but balancing and map design issues hold the Versus multiplayer back.  The new sawed-off shotgun is really overpowered—it can wipe out a whole team in one shot thanks to its extraordinary power and wide firing arc.  Spawn placement is terrible—each team only gets one or two spawn points a map—and these are shown on the map to all players before the start of a round, making for rampant spawn camping, particularly in Team Deathmatch.  A lot of the new weapons are useless—the Retro Lancer is so inaccurate that it’s barely useful outside of the bayonet charge.  Holding the ‘X’ button for a few seconds to pick up weapons leaves you vulnerable and doesn’t work all the time.  Gears of War 3’s competitive multiplayer can be fun in short bursts, but it’s not balanced well enough and can be too frustrating, so I don’t think many players are going to make this their new multiplayer game of choice.  People who have been playing Gears multiplayer through the years and have stuck with it may enjoy it quite a bit, though.

Tying together all of the modes in Gears of War 3 are a huge amount of unlockable content.  Your character levels up no matter what mode you’re playing, which unlocks things like new weapon skins and characters.  There are ribbons to be earned for doing specific in-game tasks, such as getting three kills in a short amount of time or completing all 50 waves of Horde mode.  There are collectibles that can be found in the Campaign.  Lastly, there are medals that can be earned for doing certain things, such as winning a certain amount of multiplayer matches or getting a certain number of kills with each weapon.  There’s a ton of stuff to chase after if you’re so inclined.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out something that really bothers me about the way extra content is handled in Gears of War 3.  Following the trend set by Mortal Kombat, a Season Pass can be purchased for 2,400 Microsoft Points ($30).  This will enable you to gain access to all upcoming downloadable content packs at a 33% discount.  I don’t have any real problem with this.  The thing I do have a problem with is all of the paid weapon skins you can buy.  As I mentioned previously, you can unlock certain weapon skins through playing the game.  However, there are only a small number that can be unlocked this way; most of them cost real money to use.  I’m not talking about 50 cents a pop, either—they’ll cost you a few dollars apiece.  If you want to buy them all in one shot (and no, they’re not covered in the Season Pass), you’ll have to spend a whopping 3,600 Microsoft Points (a whopping $45!).

One of the major problems I have with these weapon skins is that they are already on the disk, meaning you’re potentially paying a ton of money for things you already own.  There’s also the fact that a lot of them are very ugly and look like they didn’t take much work to make—look up videos online to see what I mean.  Who wants to make their shotgun have flowers on it, or put ugly splashes of blue on their Lancer?  Worst of all, though, is that your $45 will only get you the “Launch Collection” of skins—meaning, there could be even more for you to buy later!  I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that you have to spend so much money on something that should be free or at least not so expensive and not already on the disc.  I strongly recommend you don’t buy them, or at the very least, buy only one or two that interest you.

As you’d expect if you’ve played any previous Gears of War game, Gears of War 3 is a visual stunner.  However, the level of visual fidelity on display here puts the other two games to shame.  Gears 3 is easily the best-looking Xbox 360 game you can buy right now; it even gives Uncharted 2 on the PS3 a run for its money.  Environments, in particular, look great and have much more color and diversity than before.  The sense of scale is incredible.

Audio is decent.  The music is exactly what you’d expect—a mix of heavy metal and some slower-paced instrumental pieces for emotional moments in the story.  Voice acting is a bit inconsistent, though; while most of the characters sound fine, two particularly stuck out for me—Dizzy and Prescott.  Dizzy has the same voice actor as before, but now sounds more annoying and “country redneck” to me.  The worst, though, is easily Prescott—he has a different voice actor than before who gives him a really whiny voice that instantly grates on my nerves.

Overall Thoughts

Gears of War 3 is a huge game that is easily worth the $60 MSRP.  The competitive multiplayer isn’t going to hold many peoples’ attention when Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty release soon, but the Campaign is a blast and the co-op modes are great fun and very replayable.  It’s a shame this isn’t the total package it could have been if the multiplayer was better balanced, but there’s still so much to do in the game and so much of it is fantastic that anyone who has any interest in Gears of War or third-person shooters should pick it up.

Breakdown:

Sound:  The music is mostly forgettable (except for a rather good song by rapper Ice-T’s metal/rap hybrid band Bodycount).  Voice acting is mostly good, except for a few characters who grate on the nerves.

Storyline:  Gears of War 3 features easily the best storyline of the entire series.  It’s a tale of loss, sadness, despair, and also hope.  Some moments will stick with you long after you’ve finished playing through the Campaign.

Gameplay:  The Campaign and co-op modes feature top-notch gameplay that places an emphasis on cover and a feeling of weight.  Versus multiplayer is too unbalanced, however.

Graphics:  Gears of War 3 is easily the best looking game on the Xbox 360 right now.  Environments are extremely detailed, but also more colorful and varied than in previous games.  Character models are still big and beefy (just like in prior games), but faces aren’t the most convincing I’ve ever seen.  Gears of War 3 is also the most violent and bloody game I’ve ever played, so don’t let kids play this.

Overall Fun Factor/Replay Value:  Gears of War 3 really shines in its Campaign, Horde, and Beast modes.  Versus is fun for a little while, but balancing issues mean you won’t be coming back to it a year from now.

Final Score:  9/10 (great)

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