Four-player campaign co-op! Arcade mode! Redesigned Horde mode! Completely new Beast mode! More competitive multiplayer modes! I could write out a several-page review just going over all of the bullet points the latest entry in the Gears of War series brings to the table. However bullet points have never been the reason behind Gear's success, at least as far as I can tell. I think it has more to do with how many times it causes gamers to express themselves through expletives. Effectively crude and unapologetic, the Gears franchise thumbs its nose at gamers who disapprove of glorified murder simulators. At the same time, however, it has the nuance and understanding for what makes great game design while maintaining its own identity. The latter part is especially important considering just how many third-person shooters have come out over the years.
Horde 2.0 is excellent and makes Gears of War 3 a required purchase.
What has made me a fan of the series in the first place is all in its mechanics, everything from the impact of the weapons to even the manner in which soldiers slide into cover carries weight. Satisfaction is derived from every little motion, no matter how insignificant it may seem. Sure it's entertaining to see heads pop and chainsaws tearing through flesh, but the approach is what brings it all together. I've played a fair number of shooters, some more popular than others, but none stand close to the feel Gears of War captures. For me, all Epic had to do was deliver a solid campaign and some inoffensive additional modes and I'd consider it a good sequel. Gears of War 3 does not wish to be considered a mere good sequel, and aside from the aforementioned bullet points, Epic has tuned and polished almost every aspect of the game. While perfection is still a ways away, this is most definitely the best entry in the series.
While I think the mechanics and overall feel of the Gears of War series is incredible, I can't really say the same for the campaigns. While I wouldn't change a thing about the storyline or characters, I have more than a few words to share when it comes to pacing and direction. The average Gears of War campaign is basically a series of arena battles. I wouldn't have this any other way. Throw some cut scenes in-between, dramatic moments, humor, and tie everything together with absolutely stellar visuals. Yes, it's predictable and, yes, it isn't breaking new ground or saying anything significant. Who cares? Gears of War is about dropping f-bombs and killing with astounding frequency.
The first game in the trilogy had a really good campaign that was only marred by its numerous stretches where nothing happened, a handful of badly designed checkpoints, and an obvious re-usage of encounters to pad the campaign's length. Gears of War 2 tried way too hard to establish variety, with its overuse of vehicle-based segments. Other than that, it was just unmemorable and bland up until towards the end. This time around, a nice balance is achieved, and it was done through the inclusion of quite a few new enemy types. Having new foes to deal with that require different strategies to approach and defeat is the best way to add more content to a game. Almost everyone that has ever looked at Marcus and company the wrong way will be fought in this campaign, and there's enough variety in the core game that it's completely unnecessary to use vehicle sections or some other means of padding to keep the story from ending too quickly. That being said, I don't mind the one or two occasions where this entry's campaign strays from its arena-battle nature.
Not all of the new adversaries facing the Cogs are welcome, however. The biggest enemy in this installment is the immulsion - or "that juice," as it was bored into everybody's skull several years ago. It has infected the planet of Sera in such a way that lambent stalks are rising out of the ground and birthing lambent locusts, wretches, and all sorts of other nasties with verbs for names at an alarming rate. I liken the fights with them to shooting at a balloon hiding in a bowl of chili. The battles are rarely satisfying and when the lambent are killed they tend to disintegrate or explode, which isn't fun. Gunkers are the worst of the bunch, as their attacks carry a ton of range and can down multiple players at once. The only surefire way to survive is to start dodge-rolling long before the Gunkers throw their lambent-bomb. Even then somebody else is likely to get hit and that will lead to the player's party becoming disorganized. All that being said, the different enemy types lend a more dynamic feel to the game, as it requires less time spent behind cover and leads to more situations where the entirety of the battlefield has to be accounted for to survive.
As far as new and improved features, I'll stick to discussing what I enjoyed the most. Competitive multiplayer is not one of them. I'm starting to become an old man when playing these sorts of games and should probably throw in the towel before too much longer. On top of that, the last multiplayer game I put any effort into was a Call of Duty, and for the most part anyone can win in that game if he finds a nice spot to camp and a steady stream of opponents who prefer running into bullets over winning. Gears of War requires flanking, managing space, controlling the power weapons that spawn on the battlefield, and mastery of the shotgun. That last detail is the one that constantly eludes me, and while its affect on the game balance is arguable, I'm not the person who can provide a worthwhile explanation. I do enjoy the occasional run against the bots however, since if nothing else they're incapable of the kind of behavior the worst human players can exhibit. In multiplayer matches, I've seen some very distressing things done to my corpse while waiting for a respawn.
When I play Gears of War 3 it's either the Arcade or Horde 2.0 mode. Arcade mode is basically the campaign but with points doled out for kills. A multiplier bonus rises as long as all players remain alive and bonus points are handed out for spectacular kills like head shots and executions. High scores are more my speed when it comes to competitive gaming. Also when a player is killed, as in "he is down and out," all that happens is that he has to spend the next thirty seconds out of the action. In the campaign mode, if something like this happens everyone is kicked back to the last checkpoint. This makes going through the game far more manageable while still providing players an incentive to do well, since dying is a serious detriment to a high score.
Horde 2.0 is excellent and makes this game a required purchase. This is the one thing I hope every reader takes away from this review. The original Horde mode was a great addition in an otherwise disappointing Gears of War 2, and now it has become something that can stand on its own. The usage of upgradeable fortifications and greater enemy counts add some much-needed strategy to this mode, since positions can no longer be held with just a couple of well-placed shields. This is where the large roster of enemy types really works in the games favor, since it leads to more situations where lambent and locust share the battlefield and they will attack each other. It's difficult to point why exactly this mode is so great, but in terms of my play time this mode dominated over all of the others by a wide margin. I think that says enough.
The Beast mode is still in the "nice addition" phase. The goal is to lead a locust army to wipe out the humans and their defenses. It's sort of like reverse Horde, where instead of using money to buy turrets and laser fences, the cash is spent on buying new types of locusts. The strategy is to work in tandem with other players and develop the best combination of different locust soldiers so that the Cogs are dealt with quickly and efficiently. As the player accumulates death and destruction, more powerful locusts can be purchased. In effect this mode actually gets easier over time, as it's pretty difficult to lose with a trio of Berserkers. I expect this mode to be fleshed out over time through downloadable content, but for now it's just a fun distraction.
What's most important about all of these modes is that they're not tied into a lesser game. Gears of War 3 still has some of the best controls and most satisfying gunplay the genre has to offer. Epic deserves every accolade that comes its way for improving upon the core game design, refining the mechanics, and delivering one of the definitive cooperative gaming experiences this year.