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It's once more unto the breach for Marcus Fenix and the Delta Squad...
Nearly half a decade ago now, Epic's Gears of War had its Emergence Day on Microsoft's fledgling Xbox 360. What followed was the first game to stamp its authority on the console and usher-in the dawn of next-gen gaming. Before then, release schedules had been filled with beefed-up ports of previous-gen titles, or games that had been rushed to market on previous-gen tech just to make the launch window. Marcus Fenix and his Delta Squad were the first heroes of the Xbox 360 and they've certainly been able to give the Master Chief a run for his money as the face of Microsoft's second console. Remarkably, Epic Games has managed to craft a triple-A trilogy of the series in less than five years, a feat unsurpassed elsewhere on current-gen consoles (at least until Modern Warfare 3 launches in November). It's made pretenders of the once dominant Japanese game industry, with 'me too' games from both Capcom and SEGA in the shapes of Lost Planet 2 and Vanquish – Relic Entertainment has even been happy to wear the nickname 'Gears of Warhammer' for its recent franchise shooter, Space Marine. Truly, there's little doubting Gears of War's dominance of the third-person shooter category over this generation.
And with this third instalment in the series it remains 'best in class' by quite some margin. Like Heinz Baked Beans or McVities Jaffa Cakes, somehow it's just not quite the same if it isn't Gears and the finer details are what bring this through. While broad features such as Epic's revolutionary cover system or its flanking AI have been copied to high heaven over the last five years, it's the more specific identifiers that remain unique. The active reload system, menagerie of ever-more inventive weapons, and 'shaky-cam' dash are the areas where the competition hasn't been able to copy Epic (either because they lack the imagination, or because it would just be too blatant) and consequently it's things like these that you cling to for enjoyment more than anything else in Gears 3. It's nailing a shot with the Torque Bow or Digger, receiving a “Nice” from Marcus when you hit the active reload meter right on the button, or sprinting into a melee kill with the Lancer's chainsaw attachment and disembowelling a Theron Guard. Above all else though, it's the weighty feel to the controls that Gears does so well; deft touches in the camera work and gunplay ensure that you always feel like the heavily armoured COGs you're embodying. Where it's impersonators are notoriously hammy, Gears remains strong as oak.
Perhaps the various tiers of enemies, from Drones up to Boomers, Corpsers and Reavers, now feel a bit more repetitive due to their endless clones from any other space marine shooter worth its salt these days – the Lambent, which were introduced in Gears 2, also stray a little too close to zombie vogue at times and struggle to be as engaging as the original Locust Horde. Thanks to the rich fiction surrounding Gears though, with its deeply mined back-story that's been further elaborated through books and comics, these enemies still manage to be much more than mere fodder. For all the unrelenting combat that Gears of War has thrown at us, broken up by cut-scenes filled with pithy one-liners, the games have never felt shallow and Gears 3 is no exception in that regard. Yes, plot devices have been shoe-horned in to tie together loose story threads from the previous games, and yes, it's hardly the stuff of a Philip K. Dick novel. Epic and Gears 3's writer, Karen Traviss are pretty self aware of this though – the dialogue does a better job than usual of adding character-based humour or exposition to the ceaseless fire-fights, and it's serious when it needs to be without seeming crass.
And perhaps it's the story that's the most essential part of Gears 3 – finding out how Epic and Microsoft make good on their 'Let's Finish This' and 'Brothers To The End' slogans. In terms of brand new ideas, Gears is lacking a bit compared to its predecessors. Beast mode is perhaps the most significant new addition and it's basically just an inverted version of Horde. You can play as various types of Locust in the mode and unlock new classes for purchase as you progress through the waves and ratchet-up the kills on Stranded and COG attackers. As with the previous two Gears instalments, you'll also find a wealth of new weapons to sink your teeth into: the Digger Launcher, Retro Lancer, and Sawed-off Shotgun to name but a few, all of which add a touch of variation to the combat (particularly that Digger Launcher – think of it as a grenade launcher that burrows underground). Beyond all of this though, we're struggling to think of anything else that adds considerably to the content of Gears 2.
One thing we had been looking forward to was the war-on-two-fronts that Epic had been promising, where COGs have to fight against the Lambent and Locusts simultaneously with each side effectively facing off against the other two in a rock-paper-scissors of post-apocalyptic proportions. For the vast majority of the campaign though, the COGs fight against either Lambent or Locust in separate engagements – only on a few occasions do all three find themselves on the same battlefield. And it's a shame because the prospect of using the Lambent as a weapon against the Locusts was a fresh one; it would've added an engaging layer of strategy to what's otherwise a fairly strictly defined cover-shooter. The fire-fights are all-too-brief when the three forces do come together too and it does appear as if you're fighting one amalgamated army rather than two diametrically opposed forces.
So, perhaps Gears 3 isn't the most original game of the trilogy. What it lacks in new ideas though, it makes up for in refinement. The Horde mode that's inspired so many wave-based co-op modes in competing shooters over the last couple of years is back with a few additions – players can now add defences to maps such as fortifications and barbed wire fences (with money that's built-up from kills) to slow down each wave of Locusts. It effectively adds a touch of real-time strategy to the mode, making it all-the-more enjoyable in the process. Campaign co-op has been bolstered to 4 players online and, barring a few hiccups in the transition to cut-scenes, our experience with it was fairly solid. Competitive multiplayer, on the other hand, is graced with dedicated servers for the first time in the series in an attempt to banish the much maligned 'host advantage'. We did experience some lengthy waits to join matches and a few annoying crashes but we're inclined to put this down to teething problems – other than that, everything was hunky-dory.
It's the same Gears multiplayer that you know and love, with the focus squarely on close-quarters combat and cover-based sneaking. Everyone's favourite modes return alongside new weapons, freshly designed maps (plus the odd remade one), and the occasional tweak. The levelling-up system is pervasive throughout the campaign, co-op modes and multiplayer, but its offerings are admittedly a bit on the dry side. Character and weapon skins are about the extent of it, which does feel a little thin when you set it against the likes of CoD and Battlefield's XP trees – even more discouraging is the fact that any of the decent weapon skins have to be paid for with Microsoft Points. That said, if Epic had added weapon unlocks, perks and killstreaks then we'd be the first to criticise it for coming over all Call of Duty on us. We're happier with the classic style of placing heavier weapons as pick-ups throughout the maps – after all, it's been a while since we've fought to be the first to a sniper rifle.
To say that Gears 3 is the weakest game of the trilogy does seem a little harsh but, no matter which way we look at it, we keep ending up at that conclusion. The core gameplay is as strong as it ever has been but you need more than that at the climax to a trilogy – it's just all a bit too much of the same as before and not enough of the innovation that made the previous two games so strong. Epic may well have been the victims of their own success in that regard – perhaps the series just peaked too early. For the loyal Gears fans who've had their copy pre-ordered since last year though, Epic has successfully 'Finished This' with a story that's as strong as we've come to expect of the series and a game that's jam-packed with content.