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Hey! Listen!: Gears of War 3 Review

One last time, I put on the boots. The boots to run to the end. As similar as it feels, however, things have changed. Gears of War 3 is a different game from its predecessors.

The campaign is much more understated. In execution, I found myself far more focused on the characters than the endgame plot. In Gears 1, we had to deploy the Lightmass bomb in Locust territory. In Gears 2, we were faced with the prospect of losing humanity’s last bastion Jacinto. Marcus Fenix, Dom, Cole, Baird, and the rest of the COGs became more human in the face of the stakes, even though the result was disheartening and filled with heavy-handedness. In Gears 3, we finally see the men and women we’ve invested hours of time with – whether on the screen or the page – become more than just heavily armored soldiers. For the first time in the series’ five years I cared about the “gears of war.”

Anyone familiar with the series will recognize the members of Delta (including another of the eternally doomed Carmine brothers). The Locust threat has been quelled, but the humans of Sera face the growing Lambent – mutant Locust over-exposed to Imulsion – threat. Imulsion’s dual role in the series as valuable resource and impetus for war becomes even more prominent as it becomes a character. With all of these elements at play, you’d expect Gears of War 3 to collapse under its own complexity. The reality is that Gears 3 is the best story of Epic Game’s trilogy thanks to Karen Traviss, author of the four Gears novels released over the last three years. She knows the state of the universe post-Gears 2, arguably, better than anyone else. And she shows it.

Traviss’ writing manages to give the oft mocked crumbling brown world actual meaning. The Imulsion-stained streets are foreboding and humans-turned-ash demand care when treading in their presence. The dialogue manages to endear instead of detest and the gameplay never falls back on the ostentatious as it so often did in Gears 2. Indeed, the gameplay is as tight and satisfying as it has been in both of the previous games. Always Gears’ strength, cover-based shooting remains the source of enjoyment, and in a market filthy with third-person shooters Gears of War 3 shines. The polish on this series is so that it’s not trying to be any more than it needs to be and if you don’t like what Epic is offering, then stay away. But if you do, saddle up.

Like Half-Life 2 – and few other games – before it, Gears of War 3‘s meaningful story complements the entertaining gameplay simply by coexisting and not trying to show the other up. The overwrought emotion is gone as are the outrageous set-piece moments. Unfortunately, Gears 3‘s lack of these set-pieces translates to a lack of “inside a creature”-level memorable moments. Not in a big way, though. Gears of War 3 is understated in its execution (comparatively so) and Epic proves they don’t need bells and whistles to earn an audience. What they give us instead is disbelief in war’s tragedy, a sense of camaraderie, and the purest extract of third-person cover-based shooting available.

The armor looks better than ever, well-worn as it is, and reliable. But how long are the Lancer’s teeth?

Versus, Horde 2.0 and Beast mode will add considerable amount of game time to Gears of War 3, but only if you are into the gameplay a great deal. The skill each mode demands varies, but the fun isn’t hard to find at any level. Versus remains the standard multiplayer mode, but the new maps plus a handful of new arms (including the Retro Lancer, the Sawed-Off Shotgun, etc.) will win back old fans and satiate any newcomers. Horde mode is a wave-based mode that pits you and up to four friends against waves of enemies ranging from the lowly Wretch on up to a Brumak and beyond. The inverse of this COG/Stranded-based survival mode is Beast mode. Instead players get the chance to assume members of the Locust Horde to decimate human forces. With all the cooperative modes available in the game, Gears 3 has some legs (up to 10 of them, in most cases). Did I mention the campaign’s Arcade scoring mode? You thought I was finished, didn’t you?

Gears of War 3‘s offerings are very compelling. When huge titles like this get to their third iteration, though, this can be expected (see Halo 3). It’s a win for gamers and it’s hard for me not to make that a blanket statement. There’s something here for anyone who loves well-balanced, highly polished experiences from their video games.