The trailers leading up to the Gears 3 release have built an engaging picture of humanity on the brink of extinction, a promise of frantic action, detailed environments and of course an epic end to the Gears trilogy. Combine all this with an expectation of improved gameplay mechanics and it's fair to say that for the final installment there is little, if any, room for error.
It's just as well then that Gears 3 delivers straight off the bat, recapping humanity’s desperate struggle to survive and the near incalculable cost: an all out war against the Locusts that transformed into a fight against a greater enemy – the Lambent. The price humanity paid to try and secure victory; a sunken city and millions dead, innocent civilians sacrificed for that elusive goal. And in the end everyone became stranded.
But Gears 3 doesn’t play too long on the heartstrings of loss and quickly reminds you what this horrific war is really all about – survival.
The opening act comes aboard a ship and one thing is instantly noticeable; Gears 3 looks a lot better, particularly with lighting effects, while the surroundings look less like matte paintings and a more tangible part of the world. The environments also seem larger, the architecture more grand and varied than the cities-and-caves setting that dominated Gears 2.
A large ensemble cast is also one of the big changes for Gears 3. The trailers have shown Anya in the thick of fighting but there are new characters, including the newest Carmine brother, to go along with the return of Dom, Cole and Baird. Not all of them get their own moment to end the trilogy but for the characters that do, it's executed to perfection. Having also teased fans with the return of Cole to his triumphant stage in football, Epic have backed it up with fantastically designed play and a fair amount of finesse.
Despite the expanded cast, Gears 3 becomes a deeply personal experience as it delves into the life and familial relationship of Marcus Fenix. It's easily the most balanced and well-executed story of the trilogy expertly, at times even poetically, moving from one character to the next while keeping the overarching story firmly in focus. To say more would be a disservice to all the ardent fans who are waiting patiently for Gears 3. Let it simply be said that the story evoked a number of jaw dropping moments, not just as it unfolds, but as you move through the results of humanity’s struggle and come face to face with the cost of that struggle.
With the extra cast it quickly becomes noticeable that you fight more often in groups of four. While previous Gears games had large sections of only two players, with sections of solo activity, Gears 3 is predominately a four-player game which actually changed the way I played, primarily because the Locust and Lambent enemies had more targets rather than just picking on me. Playing on the normal difficulty level, as suggested, I spent less time crouched in cover and more time moving from cover to cover, changing angles of attack and shooting while in the open and really being, as they say, in the thick of.
Part of this can also be attributed to how the game is designed, with enemies overrunning your positions more often keeping you from camping in one spot. Overall this creates a more frenetic pace of gameplay, which I believe was the intention given the setup of humanity balancing on a knife edge. The outcome is the best Gears gameplay so far, the controls are slightly tweaked and you can call on your comrades to concentrate their fire, but it's the same solid mechanic executed with more skill and aplomb than ever before. That said, experienced players should try out hardcore difficulty first, not that normal mode is a walk in the park, but it's a little too casual and you finish most sections on the first attempt.
Gears 3 executes well in so many different areas it's hard to point them all out but an area worth particular attention is the variation in enemies. It's helped by having two different enemy types in Locusts and Lambent but new enemy types are introduced often and they actually require different approaches other than the random application of bullets. There are also new weapon types including the retro lancer yet the standard issue Lancer is still the weapon of choice by far.
With everything that Gears 3 does exceptionally there are a few minor deficiencies to mention. For one there is often a small freeze-and-skip in play when the game saves and a few times I saw Cole floating on air, the game failing to recognise that he should have gone down the stairs. There is also the familiar occurrence of squad members appearing ahead of you magically, not to mention running in front of your line of fire. These are all things you take in stride but nevertheless they are aspects that detract from the overall polish of the game.
Gears 3 is filled with plenty of wow moments not just visually but also in how the story is driven to its climatic conclusion. It's more deftly handled than previous Gears where there was often some confusion with key elements and this time around events unfold smoothly. It's a relief then that the gameplay effectively drives you through the story rather than just sticking with it to get the ending. Sure there is a little superfluous switch flicking, but much less in previous games, even though it's a near 12-hour campaign. Simply put, Gears 3 is hands-down the best of the series, an amazing conclusion to a fantastic trilogy and one of the most well-executed games of the year.