Cruel Story, Bro: ‘Gears of War 3’ Review

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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.

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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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Gears 3 also doubles down on another hallmark of the series, which is the fact that these games blend awkward, sometimes even mawkish characterization with bloody, sphincter-clenching combat. The stories in this trilogy mean to explode with as much bathos as possible and, in some alchemical happenstance, that sloppy emotional splatter connects to the desperation you feel while playing and dying over and over again. While you’re spending hours mastering the twitch reflexes necessary to keep you alive, you’re also moving through a story with big, clunky metaphors and bigger and clunkier character dynamics. But those are almost forgivable for two reasons. One, Gears of War games really don’t do nuance. Everything, especially grief and gallows humor, in these titles is burly and lugubrious. Two, the plot beats in question, like the sad fate of Dom’s wife in Gears 2, don’t feel emotionally manipulative in a crass way.

Rather, they feel adolescent, pushed out into the world in a not-quite mature form yet asked to get their message across regardless. Some of the big plot turns get broadly telegraphed, especially by the marketing slogans attached to the game, but they do lend the notes of finality necessary to this threequel enough gravitas to feel important.

If Gears 3 doesn’t feel spectacularly well-written, it does feel well-paced. Epic’s latest effort nails its rock-solid shooting experience but also folds in good chase scenes and underwater sequences for variety, too. Gears 3 also presents that sweetest of shooter dilemmas: which gun do you hold on to? Many’s the time where I had to weigh the benefits of the Boomer grenade launcher against the Scorcher flamethrower, or that I held onto a Longshot sniper rile with no ammo, hoping that I’d find more bullets for it soon. Players will encounter these Sophie’s Choice moments over and over again, and they testify to how satisfying the weaponry feels in Gears 3, no small thing for a game based on gunplay. By the time you reach the end of the story-centric Campaign Mode, you’re playing in the throes of an exquisitely frantic crescendo filled with mortar shells, miniguns and melee weapons.

Speaking of frantic, Gears 3’s multiplayer feels strong in its current state. There’s a superb pressure generated in Team Deathmatch that happens when all your side’s respawns (extra lives) have been used up and every death counts. The resulting tension makes a mode that shows up in every game’s multiplayer feel fresh in Gears 3. Horde Mode gets an upgrade, too. The biggest new element in multiplayer is in-game money. You’ll earn points every time you play Gears 3, no matter what mode you’re playing and, in Horde 2.0, you’ll use those credits to purchase all-new fortifications. These will be either barriers, armaments or decoys that you can deploy at specific points in the environment. They add a strategic element to the mode, making it so you can create narrower paths for enemies to march through. You can also spend cash to acquire weapons and ammo, too, if you’re not able to grab them from the dead enemies’ weapons.

The new Horde Mode’s 50 waves will feature a boss battle every ten rounds, with randomly seeded Challenge Waves, which offer special rewards if you meet certain requirements. Do stuff like clearing a wave under a prescribed time limit or rack up a specific number of kills with a particular weapon and you’ll earn extra cash for resources. However, the biggest change to Horde Mode comes in the form of resurrections. In Gears 2, dead players could only come back at the beginning of a new wave. In Gears 3, you can buy your way back to life in the middle of a wave, if there’s enough money. The updated Horde Mode might be divergent from its previous incarnation, but the core elements still feel entertaining as ever.

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It’s in this way that Gears of War 3 walks the risky tightrope of trying to grow up in public. Sly references to Watchmen and Aliens let you know that Gears 3 wants to think of itself as another pop-cultural watershed in the same vein as those entertainments. The subjects touched upon in the game’s story include war profiteering, mankind enduring a slow mutually assured destruction of its own making, the viral insanity that prolonged armed conflict engenders and ends-justifying-means decisions. There’s also distrust of government, anti-military sentiment, a sour populism that resonates with present-day political climate and a fumbly eco-metaphor in the Imulsion fuel that started the series’ central conflict.

Any attempts at storytelling texture flash by very quickly, giving way to the relentless shooting that fans show up for. Still, the ambition on display does show signs of maturity. Epic didn’t have to try and up their aspirations for this title’s narrative. Yet, in Gears of War 3, the series that often gets derided as the prototypical bro-shooter gestures at something bigger than the sum of its very successful parts. The idea of loss always lingered in the background of the game’s universe but the developers at Epic walk players through the actual process of bereavement. And any affect to be had from those scenes comes not from their dialogue or direction, but from the sheer number of aggregated hours spent playing Gears of War games. How many Campaign battles and Horde waves have Marcus, Dom and the rest lived through via the thumbs of millions of gamers everywhere?

Because Gears’ unique formula works the way it does–panic + resolve + skill-building x teamwork = fun–all that familiarity doesn’t numb us to them; it has the opposite effect of endearing those characters to us. Gears of War 3 conveys a bittersweet victory despite the rough edges of its plot and characterization. The emotional punch rides on the strength of its gameplay. In the end, all the shooting in the world can’t make the world change. And when you step away from cover and drop your gun, the world that’s survived is forever different. It’s a rare game that can make you actually feel that notion and, surprisingly, Gears of War 3 does.

Official Techland Score: 9.3 out of 10

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Evan Narcisse is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @EvNarc or on Facebook at Facebook/Evan.Narcisse. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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