Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Gears of War 3

As a Gears fan since the release of the original, I looked forward to the final installment of the trilogy with a generous helping of hope and a touch of trepidation. The first game offered a multi-player experience that had no comparison, nor an equal, and a great story as well.. The single-player campaign played like a steroid-injected, sailor-cursing buddy film with plenty of nasty baddies to dismember in some interesting ways (looking at you chainsaw bayonet). I was among the hundreds of thousands of players who continued to play it right up until the midnight launch of the sequel. Gears of War 2 was sadly a bit of a letdown, at least on the multi-player side. The campaign continued the story of the COG battling the Locust Horde, and offered some excellent moments of gaming awesome. While the environments at times felt slightly enclosed and linear, overall the single-player offering was a fitting, and perhaps improved continuation of the original. The multi-player portion of the game, however was disappointing for a large contingent of fans. Although the introduction of Horde mode offered a new group co-op experience that has inspired many imitators since its release, the core online versus experience felt off somehow. I took part in the summer beta test for GOW 3, and I was left hopeful that this was going to be a return to glory for my favorite fragfest, and I am happy to say that I think Epic has succeeded.

Lets address the campaign first. The story picks up two years after the events of Gears of War 2, and things aren’t going well for the humans of Sera. The COG is in disarray after the disappearance of Chairman Prescott, and Marcus Fenix and the rest of Delta Squad have taken refuge aboard the Raven’s Nest, a rather massive carrier. After a brief introduction, the action takes off as the carrier is assaulted by the new threat, the Lambent. These mutated monsters are the main attackers you face throughout the story, though the Locust are still involved at several points, including the final confrontation. One major difference to keep in mind with the Lambent is their tendency to explode upon death, and at the higher difficulty settings it only takes a couple of these “glowie” explosions to kill the player, so be cautious about charging in with a shotgun. The series is known for epic battles against large bosses, and the trend continues here with some pretty epic boss fights, particularly the first that pits you against the Leviathan on the decks of the Raven’s Nest. As you battle the massive creature and the waves of Lambent landing on the decks, you receive your first introduction to one of the new toys in the game, the Silverback. The exoskeleton gives you some pretty hefty protection and offers a pair of chainguns as weaponry, as well as the option to dig in and launch rockets against your enemies at the cost of mobility. This is the first of the new heavy weapons you will likely find. There is also the aptly-named One-shot, which lives up to its moniker against all but the toughest of enemies, again with limited mobility. Along with new weaponry, the story campaign also feels a little different than the previous games. Gears 1 featured a lot of wise-cracking dialogue, and as previously stated, had a buddy-film style dynamic between the main characters. Even though Lieutenant Kim died at the hands of General RAAM, and of course a Carmine brother fell in action, it was more about action than drama. The story in Gears 2 was a little bit deeper, with the loss of Tai Kaliso and Dominic Santiago’s wife Maria, as well as the climactic sinking of the COG holdout city of Jacinto. The story in the third installment is much darker. There is a tangible feeling of loss and despair, with a tinge of hope from the information that Marcus’s father, Adam Fenix is alive and may have a way to eradicate the Lambent threat entirely. There are fewer jokes this time around, and even the flamboyant, boisterous Augustus Cole is slightly more subdued. There are several-scenes, that while perhaps not tear-jerking, are certainly somber. Delta Squad faces its greatest adversity, and in that adversity the best story of the trilogy is found. A fitting end to a great series of stories, I also love the campaign of Gears of War 3 for the fact that it is just that, an end. There is no hint at the chance of another struggle, there is no major plot point left hanging, it is truly an end to the story of Marcus and friends. With other major trilogies setting themselves up to continue (Yes, Halo 4, I am talking about you), this kind of definitive completion of a story arc is rare these days, and I find to be refreshing. At the time of this writing, Epic has discussed the first of the campaign DLC, due for release on December 13th, and it is not a continuation of the story, but a prequel which does not involve Delta Squad at all, and for fans of General RAAM, there is the opportunity to play as the Locust commander as well. It is yet unknown if there will be other campaign DLC as well.

Now, I know that the majority of those who get Gears of War 3 will do so for the multi-player portion of the game. As I said before, there was a sizable contingent of fans who found the online component of Gears of War 2 to be a disappointment, however I can safely say that in this installment, Epic has found redemption. We all have a tendency to measure sequels against originals, and often our nostalgic feelings make it difficult to live up to the lofty ideal we hold for our favorite properties. Yes, there are still differences in the multi-player here, and yes, some of them not everyone will like, but overall the package is pretty awesome.

For the Co-operative bunch, the campaign can now be played with four human players, which is great fun, and a first for the series. Horde mode has now been revamped, and is called Horde 2.0. While the original Horde mode was a straightforward kill baddies, spawn a new wave of baddies to kill, rinse and repeat for fifty levels, Horde 2.0 has added some cool mechanics to increase the strategy. Kills in Horde earn you cash, which can then be spent to purchase fortifications, weapons and ammunition. It adds a tower-defense aspect that provides more of a strategic feeling than it’s predecessor, and also allows for a deeper layer of teamwork as everyone works to build up and maintain the base structures to survive the higher waves. There is a new Beast mode as well, which sort of works opposite of Horde, and instead of killing waves of locust and building up a base with the money earned, you choose various locust from the game, who have different abilities, and assault human strongholds in the attempt to wipe them out. The same fortifications from the Horde mode are used against you, and while the Stranded that make up the majority of the human team are relatively ease to eliminate, the main COG characters act as “heroes” and require an up-close and personal execution to take them down. This all has to be done within a time limit, requiring teamwork to bypass or destroy the fortifications and reach the main characters within the time-frame. This mode is much shorter at only 12 waves, but offers an interesting chance to play as those damn wretches we’ve been cursing for years.

On the competitive side of the multi-player, there are 6 modes in which to dismember your friends and those random folks across the world. Warzone, Execution, and Wingman return and are basically unchanged from Gears 2, the exception being that Wingman is now only four teams of two players as opposed to five. King of the Hill is back, and is plays essentially like Annex from Gears 2, as you are not required to stand in the ring to continue scoring points after you capture it. Capture the Leader is basically a return of Guardian, where each team has a leader they must defend while attempting to capture and hold the opposing teams leader. The new kid on the bock in the game modes department is Team Deathmatch, a straight up battle where each team has 15 re-spawns to use, and the first team to run out and lose all their lives is the loser. I have always loved the Execution game mode, and it was really all I played in the original Gears of War, but this time around I really found myself drawn to the fast-paced action of the Team Deathmatch. All of your favorite weapons return, and the Gnasher is much more like the shotgun from the original than the second game. The Hammerburst also receives an iron sight for long range accuracy and a slight zoom. Additional starting weapons are available, with the Retro-Lancer, an AK-47 style assault rifle with a standard bayonet that allows for a brutal charging execution, and the sawed-off shotgun, a double-barreled street-sweeper that does massive damage across it’s spray pattern over short distances countered by a long and vulnerable reload time. Now, for the purists out there, the Sawed-Off is considered to be a sign of a lack of skill, however it has been nerfed a little in the first title update which reduced the spread and range at which it completely melts opponents. The initial batch of maps that shipped with the game were a good mix of long range and close quarters maps, including another revival of Gridlock, which has appeared in both of the previous games. With a large number of medals, titles, weapon and character skins, and acheivements to be earned, there is a lot for completionists to get through if they want to unlock everything. Continuing the tradition of ridiculousness is the Seriously 3.0 acheivement. In the original game, Seriously required 10,000 ranked multiplayer kills, and due to an issue with scoring, many players actually had to get many more kills to receive the acheivment, sometimes as many as 15,000 or more. In Gears 2, the Seriously 2.0 achievement required racking up 100,000 kills across all modes, which could be accomplished relatively quickly by blitzing the brumak ride in the single-player campaign. Seriously 3.0 however, has no quick fix, as it requires the player to reach level 100 in Multiplayer, and earn every Onyx Medal in the game, over 60 total.Needless to say, there is plenty of content for determined Gears of War fans to get through.

A note for parents; THIS IS A MATURE TITLE. For starters, the series has always been known for its dismemberment and brutal deaths, and that hasn’t changed. There is an option to disable the gore, however if your children are old enough for you to consider getting the game in the first place, they probably know how to change the setting. Secondly, as with any online title on XBox Live, you have to take into account the millions of other gamers on the service, most of whom are extremely vocal, and the odds of your children hearing every potential curse, racial slur, or sexual comment within the first 5 hours of online play are quite high. I personally feel that if someone is going to be playing this online, they should be a minimum of 16 years old, but we all have individual children who differ from one another and this is a case of a parental judgement call.

Well, its time for the scores!

The Unreal 3 engine shows off the extra muscle that Epic games has managed to find lurking somewhere, and looks phenomenal. Occasional  issues with texture loading crop up, as they have in previous titles, but its really a minor complaint, and is based around the engine itself. Overall, the areas of Sera you explore look amazing, as do the character models, particularly in the boss battles

AUDIO - 9.7
The voice acting continues to shine, and the general sound design continues to be excellent. I particularly like the sound of the new Retro Lancer.

The single-player campaign is excellent, and plays very smoothly. The online modes are a great time, and offer an experience much closer to Gears 1 than the sequel in the way they play.

With so many things to be unlocked, both solo and with friends (and enemies), and with the knowledge that more DLC is on the way throughout the year to add to the initial purchase, I expect that Gears of War 3 will be in and out of XBoxes all over the world for the next year at least.

Gears of War 3 succeeds at offering a great package no matter what type of gameplay you are looking for, and with Epic Games’ dedication to adjusting and perfecting the title while adding new experiences through DLC, there will be plenty more to keep you entertained at least until next Holiday Season. I recommend the title for fans and newcomers alike, bearing in mind the recommendation regarding children. This is a definite AAA title and one of the best of the year.

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