Gears of War 3 represents the kind of game that’s become deeply embattled as bite-sized smartphone gaming and freemium models shift the economics and expectations around the video game medium. It’s big and loud and costly to make. It runs on only one game platform and appeals mostly to a meat-and-potatoes fanbase that doesn’t appear to like too much experimentation in their interactive game experiences.
That fanbase revels in the specific brand of cover-centric gunplay that the Gears games have perfected, where you crouch behind the environment and strategically pop out to blast away bad guys who are doing the same thing. Gears fans have also made cult heroes out of the game’s characters, too. The franchise’s fictional universe gets revealed through the eyes of Delta Squad, a cadre of soldiers trying to keep some semblance of civilization going, following the lead of series hero Marcus Fenix. Sera–the Earth-that’s-not-Earth where all of the Gears of War games have taken place–stands on the brink of near-total collapse after a decades-long war over a miracle energy source named Imulsion. After years fighting the Locust–the subterranean race who had their civilization destroyed by humanity’s thirst for Imulsion, Gears 3 pits players against the Lambent, a radioactive mutation of the Locust.
As the game starts, Marcus and Delta Squad try to eke out an existence with the last dregs of humanity, protecting civilians from Lambent threats after the central government’s dissolution. A message from Marcus’ scientist father–long-thought dead–suggests that there may be a way to end the Lambent threat. Both humans and the subterranean Locust are trying to scrape by in a war-ruined world, but Dr. Fenix’s discovery may mean the end of the Locust race altogether.
Much of the signature Gears of War feel remains unchanged; it’s still meaty, muscular and mournful. Even the newly introduced female characters growl and grunt in decidedly testosterone tones. Added backstory plays out in dream sequences for key characters, like the insubordination where Marcus deserts to try and save his father and Cole Train reliving glory days in the rundown stadium where he played Thrashball.
The Xbox 360 exclusive comes across as one of the most well-tuned titles of the year. Now more than ever, enemy attacks feel like they can come from anywhere, making you constantly pivot around the gameworld as you orient yourself around constant waves of threat. But, like Halo: Reach last year, Gears of War 3 introduces some elements which change up the core experience considerably. Since its inception, the Gears of War games have been synonymous with its cover mechanic. These pop-in, pop-out duels make up most of the essential tension that keeps players hooked to the game. Gears 3, however, brings in gigantic weapons that require you to stand out in the open and fire, as well as swarming enemies who neither respect or abide by the hide-and-shoot tactics of cover. There’s even optional bits of stealth. These all come off as feeling as good as the core of the Gears experience. Aside from changing up the gameplay, these tweaks modify the mood, too. Gears 3 feels more horrific than the previous two games, with bigger, more disgustingly tentacled enemies and more quiet-then-chaos cycles than before.
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