The world of video games has become one of trilogies. Epic's Gears of Wars series is no different, wrapping up the tale of Marcus Fenix and his fellow Cogs, the last bastion of hope for humanity.
The gameplay of this one is largely the same as the previous games, especially Gears of War 2. Cover-based third-person shooting is still the name of the game, and coordinating with your teammates (be they computer controlled or human) is the only way to survive the waves of enemies, both locust and lambent alike. With a third iteration, there's not a lot to add to the way the game is played, and the focus here is definitely the story.
Dom's new look
Without revealing too much, this is definitely an ending to the tale of the Gears. Old enemies and old friends thought dead come back to the story for one last hurrah, while some new enemies and allies are revealed. You can play as female Cogs for the first time, with eight total playable characters, though most are only available at certain points of the story. There are major deaths on both sides of the war, and the biggest secret finally comes to light. In short, it's bigger, more explosive, and has a higher sense of "importance" than the previous entries. Every moment could be someone's last, and the pace definitely reflects that. Even the exploration and conversation bits are clearly there just to let your pulse slow down a little bit before the next extended section of ass-kicking.
And that works. For a game like Gears of War 3, you're not coming into this for a truly epic story of romance and intrigue; it's the summer blockbuster, the popcorn flick, the thrill ride. There are some great twists and turns for sure, and some heartfelt moments, but those are there to serve the massive explosions and crazy gun battles. It's what you come to the world of Gears for, and it's what you get in the best way in this third game.
Stalks increase difficulty
There are new enemies this time around (and new weapons to kill them with, including the awesome Incendiary Grenades), but they're mostly variants of ones you've seen before; and not necessarily in this game. Some of the larger lambent creatures are definitely cool – and creepy – with crazy growths and second forms that put the most grotesque and violent anime to shame, while clearly having their roots there. Stalks now shoot up from the ground and continue to push out more and more enemies, until the pods adorning them are destroyed. It's a nice change from the emergence holes, and makes team-based combat more important, with teammates alternately focusing on the stalks themselves or the enemies that have come out of them.
The new human variant of lambents, though, will seem very familiar to fans of Mass Effect 2. From their look (glowing burnt out shells of humans), to their explanation (see last parenthetical), to the way they act (running at you, arms flailing, zombiesque), the sounds they make; these are full-on out-and-out Husks, and it honestly threw me off for a moment.
Overall though, there's just enough variation on the theme to make this feel like not just a new game, but a complete one. It ends the big story, tweaks the gameplay (cover works even better this time around, and there's a lot more of it to quickly navigate between; there are large sections of the game that if you desire, you can just stay in cover during the whole thing), and lets you make things go boom in fun, new, and familiar ways.
The multiplayer options are also a huge strength of this game, and will give it plenty of life beyond the approximately 15 hour campaign. The celebrated Horde mode (which has spawned tons of copycats, and rightfully so), where teams of up to five face down waves of increasingly difficult enemies, is back, with maps that are more varied, and will actually make you want to play more than just one of them. There's also a currency system, where you earn money for each of your kills, and in-between waves have the opportunity to purchase better weaponry, traps, and other assorted defenses, which adds a little more organic strategy to the game. No longer do you need to get to the overlook on Avalanche, slap in a couple of grenades and shields on the staircases, and repeat; now you can build proper fences and choose an actual section of the map to be your "base" and last line of defense. Epic also flipped things around for Beast mode, letting players play Horde as the bad guys, defending against waves of human characters. Here you'll unlock bigger, badder bad guys rather than standard defenses, making it more unique. It's fun, but it's not going to steal away many of your Horde hours. There is of course your standard competitive multiplayer as well, with pretty standard play styles; it should be noted that this time competitive MP actually works out of the box, something that Gears 2 struggled quite a bit with in its first month or so of release.
So is Gears of War 3 a must-own? It's the only huge Xbox 360 exclusive of the fall, for so for Microsoft-only console gamers, the answer is more of a resounding yes than others. Ultimately, you probably know if you like the Gears series or not already. If you do, you'll find a refined version of everything you love, and the best iteration of this style of gameplay yet. If you don't, there's ultimately nothing here that will really change your mind.
If you haven't played a Gears game yet, there's nothing stopping you from jumping in here. They even include a movie on-disc that tells the story so far from the first two games, a brilliant move to help people catch up and start playing from this point. Gears of War 3 is a worthy completion of the franchise's story, and better in every way than the previous games; ultimately, that's all you really want.