The Gears of War series has emerged as arguably one of the flagship franchises for the Xbox 360 system, and has arguably also inspired a wave of games which have taken many cues from it, alongside a general rise in third person shooters. Gears of War 3 marks the final chapter in the Gears saga. The final game has a noticeably greater level of polish than Gears of War 2 and retains the series' theme of testosterone-filled, blood-soaked mayhem. Though, at the same time, Gears 3 doesn't have quite as many 'wow' moments as you might expect. It isn't a quantum leap forward from the other titles in the series and it has some clear deficiencies. Nonetheless, it does make some nice improvements and remains an extremely solid game that will definitely satisfy those who enjoyed the Locust-killing insanity of the previous installments.
Gears of War really isn't known for its storyline, but it does still bear some mention in this review. The chaotic conflict between the human race, Locusts and the Lambent carries on right into the finale and is noticeably expanded on in some instances. The game begins with Marcus Fenix finding out that his father is still alive and that he may have a solution to the Lambent problem. Not one to sit around and wait for things to just simply happen, Marcus goes in search of his father, for the sake of the salvation of both the human race and his own soul. Of course, the mission isn't going to be easy - on top of having to face the Locusts and Lambent, you will also have to deal with the Stranded, who are increasingly resentful of the actions the Cogs have taken which have devastated them.
As you progress through the story, it's clear that Gears 3 is playing for keeps. A lot of lingering questions are answered, there are some unexpected reveals and surprise appearances along the way, and not everybody makes it to the end credits. There are some little threads left dangling that could be fleshed out in the expanded universe of Gears comics and novels, but there's nothing immediately apparent by the end that suggests further games.
If you've played the previous installments of the series, then you'll know what to expect in terms of the basic gameplay in Gears of War 3. The run and gun cover system remains as consistent as ever, though there are definitely other areas outside of the basics which have been shaken up a bit. The first and most quickly apparent of these is your team's AI. They are much less likely to simply stand there and watch you wriggle around and die when you have been downed by an enemy. Even if you have to crawl a little bit first, your comrades will more often than not quickly give you the tap of life to keep on going. It's much, much rarer for you to die this time around as a result of you waiting to be revived and a team-mate not coming to your aid. We personally found that there were only a handful of times that we died in such a manner, while the rest of the time our gory, explosive deaths were from particularly persistent Locusts and Lambents.
Speaking of which, there are more varieties of enemies than before, and they also come with an assortment of new weapons. While there are still the classic Locusts and the memorable Boomers, a few new types also step up to make their mark. One particularly large type of fiend has a special kind of grenade launcher called a Digger which, as you may be able to imagine, burrows under ground and explodes below your feet. These can be pretty easy to dodge at times as they leave distinctive chunks of earth flying up as they burrow, but in your hands it's a weapon that rightly makes the Locusts tremble.
Lying around the devastated lands, you'll also find the Retro Lancer. It has a slower rate of fire and is harder to control than the standard Lancer, but it also has some of its own advantages - it has a lot more 'kick' to it and the secondary weapon can be more effective when used in the right way. While a standard Lancer has a chainsaw bayonet, the Retro version has a single bladed bayonet. It requires a bit of space between you and your enemy to use, as your character has to take a running charge before skewering them to death. While it can be harder to set up and there is a meter indicating how long you can run for, it will kill almost any enemy it comes into contact with, and you'll never find yourself in a jousting situation as you would with a standard Lancer's chainsaw bayonet.
On top of the new weapons, there are also two mech suits available for use, which are very reminiscent of that seen in Aliens. You are able to take control of a loader whose main function is to carry and push large objects out of the way. You can also use it to stomp on other enemies, but it's really not effective in combat at all. On the other hand, the silverback suit is a much more impressive addition to your fighting arsenal. Not only can you kick and stomp enemies, you can also use a rechargeable machine gun to lay waste to the Locust hordes, as well as a set of powerful rockets. The suit itself will eventually break down over time, and its appearance will change as it takes damage, but it can endure quite a pounding before it explodes in spectacular fashion. You are given a warning before it blows itself up, giving you a chance to walk it right into Locust territory, abandon it and watch the grubs fry.
Expanding on the non-standard transport theme, there are also more vehicle sections in Gears of War 3 than its predecessors, and of a greater variety. There are three distinctly different vehicle types in the game, but thankfully they don't come across as being shoehorned in, and are both logical and justified in their inclusion given the way the game's story progresses. It's these vehicle sections that provide some of the crucial set pieces of the game.
The pacing of the game also seems to be very different this time around, informed largely by the kinds of environments you encounter. It's filled with action as always, but there is also a better use of more quiet moments, where long stretches of walking are punctuated by minimal skirmishes with glowies, before returning to a slower pace again. Parts such as these are very welcome and add atmosphere to the proceedings. This results in some sections having an almost survival-horror feel when combined with the environments, resulting in some genuinely creepy and unsettling moments.
All of these inclusions are of a high standard, and Gears of War 3 remains very grit-filled and satisfying in its gameplay, but there's a sense that something may be missing from it. Perhaps there are high expectations, combined with the gameplay being less fresh and original as a result of being the final chapter of the trilogy, but there doesn't seem to be as much of a sustained 'wow factor' as seen in previous entries. The boss fights are still very intense, but there aren't as many standouts and they're not as inventive as before. The first fight is a strong and fun stoush, as are some to the middle of the game, but many others do not fare as well. The final fight in particular is pretty underwhelming and definitely not the most fun you'll have fighting a boss in Gears 3. As the final chapter of the trilogy, one can't help but feel that there should be more to it.
In terms of graphical prowess, Gears of War 3 is a triumph for both the series and the 360 console. The wider colour palette that was introduced in Gears 2 is expanded on yet again, thanks in part to some new environments that are represented. Without giving too much of the game's progression away, there is a noticeably greater variance in environments this time around and all are beautifully represented. The brilliant shades of blues, yellows and greens are accentuated by some neat particle effects. The dust, smoke and heat shimmers are all simple details that add immeasurably to the depth of the game's visual splendor. Even the trails left by bullets in the air seem to have had special attention paid to them. We also found that the graphical integrity holds up pretty well across the game - even in some intense sequences when you are fighting off dozens of Locusts at once, the frame-rate remains fairly constant. It's pretty important that this remains the case too, as there's a lot to take in during some major ambushes and sieges, and you need a constant real-time awareness of your surroundings to avoid being reduced to a pile of gory goo.
With regards to audio, Gears 3 is also impressive. Though the basic scripting includes the usual macho military cliches, they're entertaining enough and delivered with enough enthusiasm from the cast, with the voice actors for Cole, Baird and newcomer Sam being the clear standouts. Rapper/actor Ice T also does some voice work in a small role but one replete with enthusiasm and profanity. Despite being supporting characters, they easily have the most entertaining lines to deliver, both in cut-scenes and within the heat of battle. But it's the sounds of your enemies that really steal the show and one-up previous installments. The guttural roars and speech of the Locust hordes add horror to already terrifying situations, and the noises they make seem to have a greater sense of direction and place this time around, meaning that you can better track them down to wherever they are hiding. The Tickers, in particular, emit sounds that are deliciously ghoulish to the ears. The general score of the game is nicely composed of instrumental pieces that highlight various memorable moments well, with sprinkings of licensed music thrown in - most notably at one crucial plot point in the middle of the game and a song at the end credits provided by Ice T.
The multiplayer aspect of Gears of War 3 has also received something of a shake-up when lined up against other titles in the series. For the first time, players can engage in a co-op campaign mode with up to four players. For the most part it works really well and is definitely a lot more fun than playng all on your lonesome - provided that you have players that you can trust by your side. Since all of the Cogs are controlled by people in four player co-op, it means that you won't be revived unless someone chooses to help you out. Most of the time it's not a problem but you will occasionally find someone who refuses to help any of their team-mates up from the ground, even when all three other players are down and they themselves are on their last legs. As well as this, cutscenes are unskippable, which can cause some sections to drag a bit if you die just after a cutscene but before another checkpoint. Other than these quibbles, there are a lot of other benefits - it's a lot easier to concentrate your firepower on a single powerful enemy or direct someone to a particular location to set up a Locust ambush.
This time around, Locusts also have a greater role in competitive multiplayer. While the Horde mode returns from Gears 2, a new setup called Beast mode has also been introduced. Beast mode turns the tables a bit and has you playing as a Locust to take out humans with a unique level up system. You start off as a mere Ticker, but as your kill count rises so does your rank, and you are eventually able to take on the form of other Locusts, from the standard soldier to Boomers and beyond. It's an interesting twist on the multiplayer genre and we're looking forward to seeing out it plays out when the full force of the world's Gears fans are online to lap up the mayhem.
Gears of War 3 certainly has some faults. The lack of a wow factor at some points, combined with some frustrating aspects of multiplayer, are both things that should have been aired out for Epic's finale of the series if they hoped to live up to their namesake. In this way, Gears of War 3 may be a bit of a disappointment. However, it is undeniably a rapturously fun game, and gets points for improving on things too. The improved ally A.I, more logical inclusions of vehicular sections and a mostly satisfying multiplayer mode will mean that only those with the deepest prejudice against the niche Gears has built for itself will find nothing to enjoy here. For everyone else, the bawdy, bloody and boisterous nature of Gears of War 3 will have you reaching for your chainsaw bayonets and adopting the foulest of mouths as you take on the Locusts one more time.