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In 2006 we knew only a few things about the Xbox 360, namely that its launch titles and future prospects were weaker than expected, especially considering millions of gamers clamored like children wondering why Microsoft would launch without its prize baby Halo 3. For many of us, the original Gears of War was an extraneous purchase in attempt to bridge that gap between Halo games. It had the guts, the grit, and the alien invasion scenario that fit like a glove on our battle rifle-worn mitts. And with its then ground-breaking cover system the original Gears ushered in a thousand clones and the promise of its own further battles in sequel form. It was a promise we looked forward to such an innovative team coming through on.
Fast-forward to 2011, and we’re starting to ask where those innovations went, why Epic Games stopped developing the Gears series somewhere around five years ago. This is the same game we all played to quench the virtual blood-lust, solid in its own right but merely a placeholder for those trying to push the field ahead with unique and challenging gameplay. I can give the team credit for Gears 3 being an ultra-polished game, for the cover system is nearly perfect, the mechanics are developed to be intuitive, and even stylistically there are few games that can emulate such grandeur amongst ruin. But play it back-to-back with the famed original, and you’d be hard-pressed to identify any stand apart additions to the first that don’t involve a gimmicky weapon or an enemy magnified in size.
Where they’ve upped the ante though is in multiplayer, a concept Epic seemed to embrace fully as of Gears 2 but only really mastered upon this release. As is standard with any game wishing to break into the world of online competition, there are a multitude of gametypes including standard deathmatch, their patented Horde mode, and a reverse-Horde mode called Beast. General match-making is as normal as they come, the only real twist being a last-man-standing finale style which can make for some tense games towards the end. And unlike Halo’s Firefight mode, the Horde selection here can take a couple hours, truly challenging a group of five players to prove themselves against a dozen enemy types including bosses. The entire package feels generous and can be played for hours upon end without getting stale.
Another positive for this series, well reflected in Horde mode, is the complete selection of enemies you’ll encounter in Gears 3. Some shooters place you against a handful of enemy types with the occasional boss, but here Epic shines as every chapter brings with it the chance to fight any type of enemy. In classic Halo style, anyone you fight can be effected by an alien entity to become a second style of “lambent” enemy. It’s a concept well worn down in the shooting genre, but if recognized as a gameplay enhancement it actually can turn this mundane trek across brown landscapes into a fun experience.
What I always seem to return to though is this lack of creativity on the Gears team. A new weapon or two show up, but really it’s little benefit to get rid of your classic combination and experiment because enemies only seem to drop ammo for the main two guns. The story has been hailed by multiple sites as touching, but in reality the writing is disjointed, mostly plot-driven. And the characters are about as accessible as the drab settings, with the most emotional moments feeling a little drawn-out. Cover is back and more naturally a part of the environments than in previous games (and the Uncharted series, whose blatant use of cover can actually give away future plot developments). But the greatest achievement in gameplay here is during boss battles, which can be rewarding but repetitive.
Besides these larger-than-life encounters, the rest feels like such classic Gears that it will surely please those who wanted the same game, but along with the Modern Warfare series it actually seems to be fighting against the concept of experimentation in today’s gaming environment. Which is why, even though as a game Gears of War 3 is a fine example of a studio at the top of its field, I feel like it deserves a demerit for being such a detriment to the growth of gaming as a serious artistic medium. The fact that zero risks were taken may retain those players unwilling to change, but Epic needs to learn how to innovate or they’re going to bring everyone else down with them.
(Images are property of Epic Games)