Review: Gears of War 3: Limited Collector’s Edition (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Gears of War 3: Limited Collector’s Edition
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Developer: Epic Games
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release Date: 09/20/11

When you create a franchise that basically defines a console, there’s a lot of hype leading into each release, and outside of possibly God of War 3 and Halo 3, no game exemplifies that more than Gears of War 3. The fact that these games are all the third games in their respective franchises (and theoretically the “end” of their stories) notwithstanding, there has been a metric ton of hype behind Epic’s cash cow franchise, and not without reason. The first two games were exceptional pieces of work; the first because it brought cover based third person shooting into the spotlight in a way no other game had (to a point where everybody seems to do it now), and the second because it took the basic concepts of the first game and refined them to a point where they were exceptional, mechanically, and tacked on some awesome multiplayer to boot. Gears of War 3 has been heavily anticipated from about the moment where its predecessor hit store shelves, and the fact that Epic took three years to put the game together instead of slapping another game out on the shelves immediately is a testament to their patience and desire to get things right, if nothing else, and the game, at the beginning of the year, was looking to be the bright spot in the 360’s fight against Sony’s massive release schedule. Well, the year obviously didn’t play out like anyone expected, but Gears of War 3 is no less anticipated and desired, so here we are and here it is. Does it live up to the hype? Let’s find out.

The story of Gears of War 3 is meant to resolve the storyline for the trilogy, and given the adequate (if not grand) stories of the first two games, the story in this game is wholly better than those of its predecessors in all possible ways. In the wake of the events of the second game, the remainder of the COG forces have taken to the seas, living in ships that keep them isolated from the world, as the events of the prior game have mostly reduced the threat of the Locust… by replacing it with a new threat, the Lambent. After a visit from Chairman Prescott, Marcus Fenix and company are driven from their home and forced to search for the information needed to put an end to the Lambent menace, as well as the Locust… while tying up a few more loose ends along the way. The plot this time around, as noted, is a good bit better than that of its predecessors, thanks in large part to the addition of author Karen Traviss, who is generally quite good at this sort of subject matter, so much so that she’s authored a total of four Gears of War novels in addition to the plot for this game. The upside of this, aside from the fact that she has a distinct familiarity with the characters and is capable of writing a plot that matches the tone of the games, is that Karen has given the characters more involved and likable personalities, and expanded the world significantly. Instead of the plot being based around the four main characters, we get several important characters who matter in this plot, including several female Gears, which is pretty excellent, especially since they, like their male counterparts, are dressed for war, not the runway. The downside, of course, is that Karen has a tendency to introduce elements and characters from the novels, which is fine for fans who have read those, but confusing for those who have not. This is less frustrating than it could be, given the strength of the plot otherwise, but it’s still a mild annoyance at times.

Gears of War 3 is excellent on the eyes, as was its predecessor, thanks to some outstanding visual design, fantastic tech, and a great attention to detail. The characters are all rendered very well and look sharp, and they animate very believably, to the point where they speak in-game when their dialogue comes up and they duck slightly when bullets whiz by their heads, and there is a whole lot of animation that is mostly spot-on. The environments are a good bit more varied this time around, featuring beautiful underwater locales and bleak but beautiful ruined cities intermixed with the normal industrial locales, and while this game isn’t going to get rid of the “UR GAEM IS LOTS OF GRAY AND BROWN LOLZ” jokes that idiots think are funny, it doesn’t have to. The odd clipping issues from the prior games still exist, though, but they’ve been cleaned up slightly, at least. Aurally, Gears of War 3 is, once again, identical to its predecessors, meaning that the music features more powerful, if obvious, classical score work, the voice acting is absolutely stellar and well cast throughout the game, and the sound effects are as powerful and do as much to make battle satisfying as they ever did, especially when slicing into an enemy’s sensitive bits with your ever so lovely Lancer chainsaw.

The gameplay of Gears of War 3 is functionally identical to that of its predecessors, but for those who have missed out on the franchise for one reason or another, here’s the gist. If you’ve played a shooter in the past few years, you should have a vague idea of how things work: the left stick moves and strafes, the right stick looks around, the left trigger aims, the right trigger shoots, X is your context sensitive button, B melees enemies, Y highlights points of interest and executes downed enemies, and A runs, evades, and puts you into cover. The left bumper highlights allies and objectives, the right bumper reloads, pressing in the left stick crouches when in cover, pressing in the right stick zooms when aiming, when applicable, and the D-pad allows you to switch between your two main weapons, your sidearm, and grenades. Most of the controls are fairly self-explanatory and easy to grasp, and the main point that differentiated Gears of War from other games, the cover system, has since appeared in so many games that statistically speaking most everyone reading this has seen it, even if they didn’t see it in this series. Pressing A near cover makes the character latch onto it, allowing you to dive from cover piece to cover piece when moving, pop out and aim from behind it, or blind-fire while still in cover with ease. It’s still an engaging and well designed mechanic, years after its introduction into the world, and the fact that so many developers make good use of it shows that it works, as does its design and functionality here.

As with the prior games, in the campaign, the combat is mostly tactical in its designs; though you regenerate health when not taking damage, much like… well, most shooters anymore, really… the game makes it a point to pin you down behind cover while fighting six or so enemies at once, which means not making proper use of cover will result in your anatomy being ventilated in short order. This is, as you’d expect, a bad thing, which makes using the Cover mechanic key to survival. Other things in the game make a welcome return, from the active reload system (pressing the right bumper at the right time while reloading will expedite the process and, if done really well, add to the damage your weapon does) to seeing a travel path for weapons like the Tork Bow and grenades to reviving downed allies and so on, and are as useful and enjoyable as they ever were, which keeps the experience both familiar and enjoyable. The game also brings back the wonderful weaponry from the previous game, as well as adding in several more useful weapons, such as a cleaver that can rend enemies in twain, the “retro lancer” with a giant bayonet on the front instead of a chainsaw, and more, and the game also renders the Hammer of Dawn a normal, quickly expended weapon instead of a special-use toy, and you never need to use it once in the campaign.

At this point, the differences between Gears of War 2 and Gears of War 3, in terms of the campaign, are incredibly minute, as Epic found a formula that works and ran with it. While there’s not a big segment with the Gears wandering through the insides of a giant monster, the game manages to mix up the experience all the same, featuring big aerial battles, underwater segments, and some excellent setpiece battles amongst the normal cover combat segments, and the game also offers four player online co-op this time around, across a few different teams of characters, so it’s not just the Marcus and Dom show with special guests Baird, Cole and the disposable Carmine. There are also a few new enemy types, across both the Lambent and the Locust, so the more balanced gameplay elements are also expanded with the introduction of new foes to face that also change up combat. One of the Lambent types, for example, completely eschews the “duck and cover” combat mechanics by generally introducing thirty or forty of them at once as a charging horde that you basically have to frantically gun down, which changes up things from the by-the-numbers tactics players expect, adding a bit to the campaign variety. As noted, the game also doesn’t really force you into any annoying combat sequences either; the Hammer of Dawn sections are gone entirely, and the weapon has been made into a cute toy more than a necessary plot component, so the “puzzle battles” are kept to a minimum, letting you focus on the combat alone. Basically, the campaign is easily the most balanced it’s ever been, and it’s a good time all around.

The multiplayer is back as well, and even more diverse than ever. Now, as expected, you have Versus Mode back again, featuring several match types, including Team Deathmatch, Warzone (Team DM with no respawns), Execution (Team DM where you MUST execute the opponents), Capture the Leader, King of the Hill, and Wingman (up to four two player teams go at it, like a massive tag-team rumble). The game offers online versus play for up to ten players, in casual (unranked Team DM), Standard (ranked versus, all modes) and Private (all modes), so you’ve got plenty of options. If you don’t want to play AGAINST people, however, there are also Horde and Beast modes available to play. Horde Mode is as it was in the prior game; you play as one of several Gears against the forces of the Horde (and Lambent), with the goal being killing everything against you. The game throws in some new bonuses, however, to keep things interesting. You’re given money by killing enemies, reviving allies, and completing bonus objectives that you can use in a variety of ways, from beefing up the defensive structures around the map (barriers, guns, decoys and more), to buying new weapons off the field, to buying back into a match if you eat it, which makes the battles a lot more involved than they were in the previous game. Beast Mode, however, is the reverse; you’ve given various types of Locust you can “buy” and use against human survivors and heroes, with the intent being for you to survive their traps and make them incredibly dead. It’s much more limited than Horde Mode, mind you, but it’s no less fun buying different Locust types and charging out into battle hoping to take someone out and win the match in limited time, and it’s a bit of a challenge regardless.

The campaign can be completed in around eight to ten hours, depending on how much item hunting you do, but there’s so much more to the game than that for players who are looking for value added. You’re given the ability to play the game in co-op with up to four players, Horde and Beast Mode for up to five players, and Versus Mode for up to ten players, both friends and strangers alike, so there are quite a few online play options to have fun with. You can earn up to one hundred levels while playing the game online and off that unlock new things, be they skins, characters, and other bonuses, which should also keep you going if you’re a completionist. There are also plenty of medals and awards that the game keeps track of independent of the Achievements, documenting your progress in other elements of the game, that also unlock various things as you get them, and the game is also set up for multiple DLC packs and online events down the road that should keep fans busy for a good long while after launch. Based on sheer content alone, Gears of War 3 is an excellent value and well worth the investment, as Epic have packed the game with tons of things to earn and play with and the promise of more down the line that are very likely to be worth picking up.

Oh, and since I picked it up, let’s talk about the Collector’s Edition:

Nice case, that. The case is a hard rubberized case, featuring the Octus Medal in the front display for those who want to show off their acquisitions on their game shelf. Opening it up we find…

A whole mess of stuff. There’s the Octus Medal, which not only includes the code to play as Adam Fenix in battle (lightly printed on the back) but also contains the engraving “Dr. Adam Fenix For Service to Humanity” on the front, and “Property of Coalition of Ordered Governments” on the back. It’s also heavy enough to do some damage if you’re robbed or something, if you put it in a sock, I guess. You also get three Gears of War 3 stickers to, I don’t know, put on your binder or something, as well as a two page “manual” that basically says “here’s the controls, have fun”. There are also a good amount of doodads in the box, from a picture of Adam Fenix and Coalition Chairman Tom Dalyell shaking hands after Adam won the Octus medal, to blueprints of the Hammer of Dawn, a picture of Adam as a Gear, a letter written by Adam to Marcus from the front lines, a certificate of award for the Octus Medal to Adam, and Adam’s Last Will and Testament, as well as a COG flag to hang up or wrap it all in. As game novelties go, what’s included is cute, if mostly decorative, and it’s not as impressive as a mounted Batarang or a Fallout Boy bobble head, but it’s cute and should be fun for franchise fans if you can get your hands on it.

So what’s wrong, you might ask? Well, the AI has been cleaned up (though it’s still prone to stupid actions that get it killed now and again), there’s a bit more variety to the guns, and Epic has given the Lancer a bit of a stall before the chainsaw revs, making it less abusable in multiplayer matches, so these are good things. However, with the good comes in new bad elements, the most obvious is “an over-reliance on DLC to make money”. Go online and there are massive gun pattern packs available that can be bought individually, or in a group for about forty five dollars. Look at the size of the downloads and note they are exactly 108.00 KB. That size is a universal “unlock” code size that indicates the content is already on the disc, meaning that Epic is charging you forty five dollars for gun colors that are on the disc already. Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it, but consider this: the whole package, of every single gun color pack in the game for every gun in the game, totals 172.00 KB; if you understand data storage at all, the idea that there are about twenty one color sets for four guns that only take up 172.00 KB? Yeah, no. I don’t even need to explain why that’s terrible and that’s automatic points off, even if they’re somehow unlockable through normal play that has yet to be revealed. There’s also the fact that, for all of the added content, this is largely the same game as its predecessors, and while making massive changes isn’t specifically a good thing, a whole lot of games have done what Gears of War does in the past few years; hell, Mass Effect 2 did it with an RPG attached for crying out loud. It’s no longer a fresh concept, and while Epic does a great job with it, it’s no longer the original concept it once was, just the same one with some new tools added into the box.

All told, Gears of War 3 is still an excellent game. Let us not pretend otherwise. It’s still an excellent experience, alone or with friends, and Epic has clearly put a lot of effort into fine-tuning the experience, and for that they deserve praise, even if it’s not wholly universal. The story is significantly better for the final entry in this part of the series, the game looks and sounds fantastic, and the gameplay is as tight and easy to work with as it’s ever been. The gameplay has been fine-tuned to a point where the campaign feels right and there are plenty of new additions, both to the weapons and the enemy forces, to keep things interesting. There are also plenty of online modes to play with as well as unlockables and Achievements to earn to keep players busy for a good long time, making this worthwhile if for no other reason than the sheer amount of content in the package, and the game has been tuned to a point where mechanically, it’s excellent. However, charging forty five dollars for a whole package of gun skins that are obviously stored on-disc is belligerent, and the game, for all its polish, is very much an extension of the original game released years ago, and while it’s still a good game, it’s no longer as fresh a game as it used to be. As the end to a storyline, Gears of War 3 is a satisfying one, and as the third game in a series, it’s excellent, but it’s not reinventing the wheel and it’s a bit to obvious about its want for cash. Overlooking those two issues, however, it’s still one of the best games to come out this year, and while that doesn’t resolve the issues, it sure as hell makes up for a lot.

The Scores:
Story: GREAT
Graphics: UNPARALLELED
Sound: CLASSIC
Control/Gameplay: UNPARALLELED
Replayability: UNPARALLELED
Balance: CLASSIC
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: UNPARALLELED
Appeal: CLASSIC
Miscellaneous: GOOD

Final Score: INCREDIBLE GAME.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Once again, let me repeat myself: Gears of War 3 is one of the best games to come out this year, not just for the 360, but at all. It’s a fine way to end this tale in the series, and a fine game in general that gamers will have fun with, even if it’s not a perfect experience. The storyline is vastly improved this time around, while the graphics and audio are as excellent as they ever were, and the gameplay, balance and mechanics are finely tuned to a point that shows the love that went into the experience. There’s plenty of variety to the game, between the additions to the campaign and the tuning and additions to online play, and the game offers plenty of depth and unlockable content to play with to keep players occupied for a good long time to come. However, the fact that Epic is charging high prices for “additional content” that’s clearly on the disc is a shame, and the game is, frankly, still very much reminiscent of its predecessors to a point where it’s a great fine-tuning of the experience but not terribly original in the end. Taken as the sum of its parts, however, Gears of War 3 is still an excellent experience and easily the best game in the series, and while it’s not quite “perfect” in the sense that no game ever really is, what’s here is easily one of the best games released this year, period.

2 Comments
  1. Mark B.

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