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Do you remember the ballet performing hippos in Disneys Fantasia? Large, chunky and seemingly cumbersome beasts, they give an initial aesthetic impression that belies their true gracefulness; their ability to move with a delicate fluidity and polished perfection. Gears of war 3 reminds of them not because Marcus and co have taken to wearing pink plimsolls, tutus and pirouetting between those chest high walls in the 2 year hiatus since Gears 2 (although they do now model the new summer holiday range of COG sleevless armour), but because Gears has always had a deliberately overwrought and stocky design.
Consider the seemingly elephantitis inflicated girth of the COG/Locust characters. The Brumak, a steroidally enhanced t-rex outfitted with more firepower than Metal Gear Ray, and the Vulcan, a new 2 man handled gattling gun, with such world shaking operating power that even John Rambo’s ridiculous biceps would be reduced to quivering bellsprouts. Yet for all of the overt brashness in the physicality and visual design of its world, Epic manages to construct unfalteringly smooth mechanics, time and time again, through both a mastery of its proprietary Unreal Engine and incremental refinements upon the previous 2 Gears games.
The cover system and movement in general are as smooth and gracefull as the aforementioned Hippo ballet. Weapons are appropriately weighty and yet aiming is steady, but fluid enough never to become a chore (aside from the miserably inaccurate retro lancer). Active reloads require a rhythmic knowledge of each weapon’s reload timing in order to maintain an effective flow of combat: When executed well they can bolster your confidence into battle, but when scuffled will provoke colourful profanity and a retreat back into cover. The rechargeable health and revival systems interplay perfectly with enemy difficulty and teamplay, leading to situations in which you will question whether to leave a tactically advantageous position to revive the idiotic squadmate who ran out into the open. Stick to the chest high walls man!
Everything slots perfectly into one well greased machine, and appeals to the eye with wonderfully sumptuous Unreal 3.5 visuals and a newly brightened, yet still fittingly apocalyptic colour palette.
Like the God of War series your actions in Gears games are consistently rewarded with satisfyingly visceral and sanguineous reactions. From the squelchy pop of an exploding headshot, to the screen smothering blood gush of chainsawing someone in half. It provides a compellingly satisfying cycle of lurid action followed by appropriately gruesome reaction, that coupled with its mechanical fluidity and visual splendour makes Gears 3 a pleasure to play. But Epic is aiming for more than just mindless violence, it has aspirations of spinning a heartfelt yarn of loss and desperation.
The opening act onboard a giant ship, serving as a self contained ecosystem for survivors, provides interesting background details that lend a true sense of the post apocalyptic struggle for survival. Pumpkin and tomato patches are grown on deck (As Dom points out if he doesn’t grow it they don’t eat it) and two survivors quip about being unable to fill in a crossword as other people need re-use it. Sadly these insightful glimpses into environmental storytelling are few and fleeting. Core storyline exposition is all to often reserved to slapping you in the face with a big sloppy joint of emotional cutscene ham, and by the time Aaron Griffin (A downbeat emulsion business mogul voiced by rapper Ice – T) turns up things have soured considerably, sliding back into the old Gears staple of smelly jockstrap dialogue. To its credit however plot threads and questions that have lingered from the opening chapter of the franchise are finally tied up and it does manage to retain the feeling of being a true conclusion to the trilogy.
New antagonists the Lambent provide the campaign with a refreshingly combustible luminescent twist on the old Locust formula, appearing with the presence of giant ground piercing stalks: The Lambent equivelant of emergence holes, these stalks are peppered with multiple polyps from which the Lambent emerge, and that can be destroyed to stem the flow of these lumbering adversaries.
The roughly 12-hour campaign experience is not so much of the uneven rollercoaster found in Gears 2, but a more consistently paced compilation of set pieces, interspersed with the occasional period of quiet restraint: Evident in a chapter taking place in the seemingly deserted town of Mercy, hometown of Dom’s wife Maria. A section that slowly and effectively builds anticipation into a large plot revelation. Alongside this the focused linear shootouts of Gears 2 have blossomed into larger open battlegrounds which provide more width, latitude and overall flexibility in your approach to each battle.
A suit of additional gameplay options proves both comprehensive and substantially well fleshed out. Horde mode 2.0 introduces an economy and pilfers inspiration from the tower defence genre, allowing the purchase of command posts surrounded by upgradable defencive barriers, turrets and decoys after each enemy wave, allowing a small team to hunker down in a well defended section of a map. An extension of the original Horde philosophy, it blends in perfectly with the wave based survival as you panic, rushing around in the small respite between waves restoring barriers and collecting ammunition. Counterbalancing these extra defencive capabilities are the newly implemented boss waves, bringing a pronounced difficulty spike with them as you tackle Reavers, Berserkers and even a Brumak.
New inclusion ‘Beast Mode’ could so easily have been an afterthought, a tacked on reversal of Horde mode included to artificially bulk out the experience. Contrary to this it turns out a deep and well refined addition, with money earned killing COG and spent purchasing playable Locust beasts of all shapes and sizes. You may begin as a ticker but successive waves unlock the bigger and badder Locust for your disposal.
Connection and balance issues that plagued the competitive multiplayer of both previous instalments have been remedied, leading to an altogether smoother more enjoyable online experience. Maps are designed with a combination of symetry and multiple vantage points for which a competitive power struggle will almost always ensue, creating tactical choke points.
Rounding off this already generous multiplayer package is a 4 player online co-op mode offering an experience that requires a reliance upon your teamates for revivals, while provoking competition through the new points based arcade mode. All in all Gears 3 provides some of the most irresistibly addictive competitive and co-operative multiplayer experiences of recent years.
The Conclusion to any trilogy carries with it a great weight upon its shoulders. Required to tow a fine line between the inclusion of enough new refreshing additions, whilst yet maintain the core facets of design that established and popularised the franchise. What Epic demonstrates with Gears 3 is pure confidence in traversing that line. It shows exactly why imitators such as Quantum theory are so weak by comparison; they simply cannot match such well assembled, polished and extensive gameplay mechanics and options. And whilst Epic may still stumble when it comes to using videogames as a storytelling medium, the quality of gameplay from the final Gear in the trilogy managed to conjour thoughts of a classic hand drawn Disney animation. High praise indeed.