The release of Gears of War 3 could be coined "Submergence Day", since so many gamers are going to disappear into their gaming holes and not come out until they finish it. I admit, that's what I did.
I'd love to be able to claim it was strictly to meet release deadline, but the truth is that I played for 11 hours straight on my second day with it and, frankly, could have kept going if my Xbox hadn't started crashing from overheating. As I'm typing this, my hands are still shaking from adrenaline. And there were times that I could actually hear my heart pounding during a Team Deathmatch multiplayer session.
Maybe I need to get out more. But maybe this rush is really what Gears of War 3 is all about. Yes, it wraps up the story. No, it's not a perfect game. But anything that delivers that sort of excitement without the unpleasant twitchiness of a survival horror title is something I can enthusiastically recommend.
As it tells the story of the events 18 months after the end of Gears 2, Gears the Third is facing a challenge almost as daunting as defeating the locusts: it has to crush sales records AND win a shit-ton of awards to be meet head office expectations. There were, obviously, many difficult choices regarding what the Epic development team really wanted to do versus the amount of fan service required in a core title. Add to that the limits on the amount of data the Xbox 360 discs allow, how long they could really take to get the game out, and... I'm going to stop going down this line of thought, because I'm starting to pity the studio.
Adding to the performance anxiety is a hype machine bigger than a Brumak. This is when I usually say that no game could live up to that hype, but... in this case, it actually might have by the skin of its teeth. Yes, Bitchy McCrankypants von Doesn't Like Anything Popular actually just wrote that. What can I say?
Well, I'll say this: the trick to really enjoying Gears of War 3 is to set your expectations high, but to let the game tell its story, not the one you've made up yourself while waiting to find out what the cliffhanger transmission at the end of the second game was all about. Believe the hype, but don't get hypnotized by it.
As if to show up previous trilogy-cappers that rested on their laurels and played it safe, Epic Games has thrown so many new features at the wall that the wall cried and told them they were assholes. Mech suits, melee weapons, squad commands, an arcade mode, online four-player campaign co-op, a game-wide level system, even silly items like fire extinguishers and baseball caps... all of it means that you can play through campaign multiple times and never have quite the same experience twice, especially on hardcore difficulty. Then there's the return of Horde, and the insane fun of Beast multiplayer mode. More on that later.
With so much to do, Gears 3 is not a game intended to be rushed. You can complete a playthrough in a weekend if you do nothing else, but you'll need two passes to properly enjoy the story, its moments of foreshadowing, subtle symbolism, and more than a few red herrings. Take your time and enjoy the easter eggs, collectibles, and other little details that really do add a cool factor. My personal favorite time waster is the swing set on the playground in Hanover. And just in case you missed that the Gears boys aren't cardboard videogame thugs, you can find a copy of Dom's psychiatric report early in the game.
It's refreshing to see tough guys being intensely affected by the horrible circumstances they've had to endure, without them emoing all over the place. As well as Dom's grief, Marcus is having nightmares about his father. Even Cole has a brief scene that cuts through his joyous bravado; even he isn't immune to regret. Baird's tells are more subtly presented, but they're there too.
Beyond the four main characters, thanks to the tie-in comics, novels, and the push to sell collectible action figures, Gears 3 features a vastly expanded cast. It may be no surprise that the characters new to the games don't come anywhere near the complexity or depth of the returning ones. The most interesting new face is Aaron Griffin, voiced by Ice-T. He's the only Gears hero that is brand new in the world, and he has all the snap and swagger that I hoped for. And it was nice to see a black guy in a position of authority among the Stranded, since COG command is pretty white.
Other characters, like Jace Stratton and Bernie Mataki, originate in the comics and novels, and they just don't have the same sizzle. Jace, however, serves to show that not all black men on Sera are hyper-bombastic. Bernie, on the other hand, is the youngest-looking 62 years of hard living I've ever seen.
The worst port from the novels, though, is Sam Byrne: her video game incarnation is just a stereotypical hot babe bitch with very little depth, and she works best when she's the victim of Baird's verbal barbs. Unfortunately, his suggestion that she get traded to the Stranded for sex in exchange for a side of bacon crosses a line for me. I want Baird to be a dick, but I don't want to imagine him at a Tailhook party.
The least ridiculous, most likable female Gear is still Marcus' crush, Anya Stroud, and her portrayal saves the game as far as the girl Gears are concerned. She's deadly with grenades, aggressive in her tactics, and her communications skills give her a function beyond toting a lancer. Unlike the other women, she feels like an integral part of the team, and a respected equal. I can tolerate bacon girl and not-so-old lady because Anya proves that Gears 3 is actually capable of depicting a competent, believable female character, even if her arms seem a bit skinny to be hauling around a giant gun.
I also really liked the way Anya's and Marcus' relationship is handled. I could write an article just on this element, and how it avoids all of my fictional boyfriend/girlfriend pet peeves, but I'll let you judge it for yourselves, and maybe write that article later.
By this point, I hope you're getting a sense of the delicate mix of trade-offs and compromises Epic had to make in closing their trilogy: artistic integrity is in a constant battle with the need to make lots and lots of money for Microsoft. Hmm... maybe there was a deeper meaning to trading a girl for bacon.
I'm offering you the hits and misses of the characters, because there's very little about the plot that isn't a spoiler of some sort. The story is a delicate balance of factors, and my appreciation of it sank in gradually as I pieced together the fragments of plot offered through the Gears franchise's incomplete storytelling technique. Because the player only finds out what Marcus, Dom, Baird and Cole do, there are gaps in what you know, and the inferred possibilities will likely lead to some interesting water cooler conversations over the next few months.
Regarding gameplay, things do feel a bit jammed in, and chapter selects and arcade mode offset the fact that all the new additions are samplers instead of core elements of gameplay, which itself is tweaked to get you to move more instead of digging in to cover for too long. The bright side of this is that if you really hate a particular level, the likelihood of you encountering something similar later on is extremely low but if you love something, it's easy to access again and again. It's a new way to pace a game, and while it took some getting used to, I like it. It's fast-paced, keeps you thinking tactically, and runs mostly smoothly. I did get some bumps coming in and out of cut scenes, and the occasional laggy giant explosion, but that might of been due to my Xbox being on for, er, twelve hours uninterrupted. AND I LOVED EVERY MINUTE OF IT!
And that was before I even touched Gears of War 3's delightfully addictive multiplayer. I normally only play multiplayer games when I absolutely have to for review purposes. I hate the way it turns friends into assholes, turns strangers into even bigger assholes, and feels like a massive free-for-all where you die a lot unless you put a ton of time into learning the maps. Fortunately, with Gears 3 multiplayer, you can ease into things with small groups filled out with computer controlled characters, meaning even novices can rack up a few kills. And if you want to play with your friends instead of against them, Horde is back, a co-op survival scenario.
But the thing I thoroughly loved was Beast, the new Locust compliment to Horde. In Beast, you play as various Grub characters, tickers, wretches, drones, and so on. The objective is to take out all the human characters in a level before time runs out. Your selected character doesn't replenish health, but once one character dies, you can select another, provided you earn enough money to keep going. So you could start off as a drone, switch to a wretch, then select a ticker. The tickers are absurdly fun to send skittering around the map before using them to blow up an unsuspecting Stranded. Beast does require skill and strategy to master, but it's also hilarious to just goof around in, and you can choose to start from the very beginning after failing a level, or just picking up where you left off. It's incredibly well designed and balanced.
So while Gears of War 3 might not be the ending every player was hoping for, I believe it's the right ending in many ways. Many questions are answered, but there is enough story left to tell for a prequel series to be made down the road. You'll definitely laugh, you might cry, you'll spill a lot of blood, and you'll have a hell of a good time unless you're actively trying not to. No game is going to please everyone, but Gears 3 pleased me.