Coming nearly three years after Gears of War 2, Epic's final installment in the Gears franchise is a fitting send-off to the series that helped sell games on the Xbox 360. An evolution of existing mechanics, Gears of War 3 doesn't really step out of the box the franchise has drawn for itself; rather, it is an impeccably polished outing with enough content to keep both longtime fans and series newcomers pleased for many months to come.
The biggest update to the franchise is the complete integration of the game experience and the blurring of offline and online modes. Going back to the original Gears of War, the multiplayer and campaign modes were two distinct offerings. In Gears of War 2, the two felt like they were moving together, but hadn't quite been married. Here, everything is linked.
As soon as you press the Start button, the party lobby launches and the setup screen appears. You can kick off a traditional solo game, join a public campaign game or create one that anyone can join. The campaign mode has support for up to four-player co-op, which is a nice upgrade from the standard two-player adventure seen in many titles. The four-player co-op works well here, with all four squad members battling it out together in larger areas, then splitting up when alternate paths appear and the area narrows.
When playing solo, the extra squad slots are taken over by AI, so you're never a man (or woman) down. On the hardest difficultly level, the AI isn't going to be a huge help, but on easy or normal, your AI controlled helpers can be surprisingly efficient at eliminating the Lambent and Locust hordes. It's a great way for less experienced players to get into the game and not feel overwhelmed. Gears veterans will always have hardcore and the unlockable insane difficulties for a challenge.
The story driving the campaign is a well-balanced affair that provides some closure on a number of plot threads that were left hanging in Gears of War 2. Not every single thread is neatly packaged, but the majority of the lingering questions posed by the prior two games are finally answered here. Some of the surprises are fairly well telegraphed (especially for those who were paying attention to the lore in the last game), while others can be said to be completely unexpected. Extra kudos to the team at Epic for the cinema scene backed with an instrumental version of "Mad World." The music not only fits well, but it is also serves as a nice tie-in with the first game.
For players who can't get enough of the story, Gears of War 3 has a number of collectibles scattered throughout the levels. Aside from basic Achievement hunting, each of these collectibles reveals a tidbit about the world of Sera. This backstory is completely optional, but adds a touch of depth to the environment you are exploring.
In addition to the standard campaign mode, there is also an Arcade mode, which is essentially campaign with points. You can fight through Arcade with friends and your score is entirely tied to performance. Fight well and watch those numbers get bigger. Let one of your teammates get downed, and your multiplier drops like a brick. It's a huge incentive to practice your craft as well as giving you a very direct way to compare skills. Unlockable mutators are available to add more depth to Arcade.
Outside of the campaign, Gears of War 3 features traditional multiplayer modes in Versus, as well as an updated version of Horde and the all-new Beast.
Versus mode is likely to be where Gears veterans spend most of their time, though even here, Epic has shown some love to new players. In addition to the standard and private options, there is also a casual option in the menu. This is essentially a quick link to team deathmatch, and it's designed to get you into a game quickly and seamlessly, with players of similar skill. Standard Versus playlists include team capture the leader, deathmatch, execution, king of the hill, warzone and wingman. All of these support 10 players, with the exception of wingman, which is limited to eight.
Horde mode sees the return of what is more or less five-versus-the-world. First introduced in Gears of War 2 (and since cloned across many other games), Horde mode pits five COG soldiers against wave after wave of incoming Locust. Survival is still the name of the game, but there are a few new twists to this iteration. The biggest change is the introduction of base defenses. You can now fortify your position by purchasing various defenses to help keep the Locust at bay. Money is earned through performance, so it's all the more reason to keep your teammates alive.
Beast mode has been referred to as an "inverse Horde," but to call it that is something of a disservice because the two modes play entirely differently. Whereas Horde is primarily a defensive game, Beast is all about the offense. You'll team up with other players in a co-op battle, but the goal is to eliminate the human resistance rather than trying to keep them at bay. Just like in Horde mode, you earn money based on your performance, spending it on characters instead of strengthening defenses.
Each of the usable creatures in Beast mode is vastly different from the others, with the suicidal Ticker handling much differently than the powerful Mauler. In some ways, it's best to think of the Locust choices in Beast mode as classes. Rather than just picking a skin to play, you're choosing a character with a very specific set of abilities. A good team will have a varied set because time is of the essence.
Winning at Beast mode doesn't just take skill, it also takes speed. You need to eliminate all of the humans within a set amount of time, or it's game over. Successful kills add more time to the clock, and it's one of the ways the game encourages aggressive play. All in all, Beast mode is an unexpected offering that really shines.
Of course, it wouldn't be Gears without plenty of unlockables, and Epic doesn't disappoint. In addition to the pre-order skins and the free download of Ice-T's character, Gears of War 3 includes an abundance of goodies to unlock by playing the game as well as the franchise. There are unlocks in Gears of War 3 for completing Achievements in Gears of War, Gears of War 2 and Gears of War PC. There are also beta-specific unlocks, for those who participated in the multiplayer beta earlier this year. The beta unlocks were not working at the time of the review, but Microsoft has stated that they will go live when the game officially launches.
Separate from the unlockables, but still on the customization side of things are the microtransactions. Gears of War 3 doesn't require an online pass, but it will require you to cough up some real-world coin for specific weapon skins, such as a hot pink skin or a Child's Play icon. These offer up no gameplay benefit, but they do give players a chance to stand out. Don't be surprised if some of the more exotic options you see online are only obtainable via purchase.
Despite all the praise, Gears of War 3 isn't perfect, but when put in perspective, the existing flaws seem minor. Screen tearing is occasionally visible during play, and the frame rate appears to drop during cinema scenes. Audio is generally rock solid for most of the game, but the Brumak's roar will overpower even the best of speakers. Playing with a set of ASTRO A30s as well as a traditional speaker system, the Brumak attack sounded like a muddled mess, with much of the audio clipping rather than a dominating roar. Issues like these only stand out because production values on the rest of the game are so high.
With Gears of War 3, Epic has delivered a worthy send-off for Marcus Fenix and the rest of Delta Squad. Player complaints from previous titles have been addressed, there is more multiplayer content than ever before and the story delivers a satisfying conclusion. In many respects, Gears of War 3 is everything you could want a Gears game to be. Don't hesitate on pulling the trigger.
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