Thursday, 6 October 2011

Game Review: Gears Of War 3

Format Played: X-Box 360

If there is one phrase that I think defines the Gears Of War series as a whole, and which is more appropriate than ever for the third installment, it is 'identity crisis'. That might seem odd for a game renowned for it's overly-muscled, gruff protagonists and relatively simplistic tales of running through drab and decaying Gothic environments liberally sprinkled with chest-high walls. But I assure you it's true. Evidence? Oh yes.

Evidence A: Those emotive trailers, picking out the futility of war and a sense of impending doom with somber acoustic music trilling in the background. They work well, as a study in contrast. I like it when pseudo-space marines are chainsawing big ugly monsters to death along to Sun Kil Moon and Mazzy Star. Hardly representative of the actual mood of the games though, sadly.

Evidence B: Attempts at stirring our soft spots in cutscenes - GoW2 had the Maria scene, GoW3 has similar efforts for various characters. 

Evidence C: An ever-so-slow reveal of what is going on behind the scenes. What is the deal with Marcus' father, Queen Myrrah, the Locust themselves, dodgy research facilities etc. 

There are, however, significant unmountable chest-high walls for the success of the Gears series as a poignant tale of war and lost love on some future alien planet. Firstly, the characters are drawn permanent marker-thickly. These are individuals who struggle to have one dimension. I can't really hang on to them as people if in my head the core members of Delta Squad can be reduced down to Macho, Sad, Sciencey and Racist Caricature. Don't even get me started on the supporting cast, who seem to exist purely because the writers behind the series decided that whooping idiots increase in likeability when grouped together. You can shove in all the stirring cutscenes you like, but when they are bookended with endless sequences of the same character hollering "Woooo! Fuck yeah! Get some!" while pumping ammunition into a series of bullet sponges - well, you see where I am going with this. It is par for the course in the games industry and shooters especially, but when the likes of Halo: Reach can make me care somewhat for the fates of similar minimally-developed space marine types with less screentime something has gone badly wrong in the Gears writing camp.

The second problem is that while GoW3 does contain some answers to ongoing plot points within the series, they are by and large not the ones that needed answering. In fact, it almost seems like a whole new story set around discovering the actual identity of the Imulsion. Yep, Imulsion. The fuel they have used in the series so far that poisons people and Locust a bit. That's right. The central plot point of this story is that the fuel source they have mentioned a few times isn't quite what it seems. It's out of nowhere, and hardly riveting.

It occurs to me that I have spent all of this review so far criticising GoW3 for the story, which is so far away from being the central draw for it's fans that I am quite literally shrieking into the void. Gameplay, then.

Exactly the same as the first two installments in the series. Constrained environments, cover shooting, pleasantly physical weaponry. Enemies are far more varied now with the introduction of the Imulsion-corrupted Lambent as a fully-fledged force. They are a slight change of pace, but while they have to be approached more cautiously it is mostly a case of targetting a different soft spot than the head and forgetting any notion of using their explosive carcasses for meatshields or executions. Boss fights and setpieces happen along at a fair rate and are decent enough, but suffer from a lack of ingenuity following on from similar experiences in the first two games. Leviathan, Brumak, Berserker, Corpser, flying bit, siege. Blah, blah. Give us something new, Epic. 

Graphically the series is better-looking than ever, and benefits somewhat from a bit more variation in colour pallette and environment. You spend far more time outdoors than ever before in a Gears game, and a particularly brightly-lit and sunny opening Act (complete with beach area and green vegetation) stands out as visually striking. Some additions have also been made to the arsenal - the Digger is a tactical cover-defying armament that spits out a tunnelling Locust grenade, the Cleaver is a powerful melee weapon (which you drag behind you while running, spitting sparks) that can carve up multiple opponents for a limited time. There are a couple of duller heavy weapons as well, but the sparsity of their usage means their main function is to add variety to the multiplayer and co-op modes.

Speaking of which, said modes are the saving grace of Gears Of War 3. The main campaign is repetitive and bad at pushing the buttons it wants to push - but enjoyable nevertheless, in a meatheaded kind of way. By contrast, the co-op modes in particular feel fresh and fun in a way the campaign struggles to match. Horde mode has added fortifications to the mix, which sees cash earned through wiping out wave after wave of grubs being spent on razorwire, sentry guns, turrets, decoys and the mech-lite Silverback weapons platform to enable further slaughter. It is compulsive, exhilirating and provides a fair challenge - especially through the Boss Waves, which throw the real badasses of the Locust at you so they can tear down everything you have constructed. Success in a sequence of waves will also throw in a challenge for your team to hit - a certain number of headshots or executions in a round, for example. Completed, these result in a cash bonus and some tasty weapon-shaped treats. 

The other co-op mode worth shouting about is Beast, which is fundamentally Horde in reverse. Spawning as a series of ever-increasing Locust nightmares (paid for by earning cash again), you must wipe out a band of desperate Stranded and COG heroes under a time limit. Each wave of the 12 available pitches you against harder groupings until you face Chairman Prescott, the COG Elite and the Hammer Of Dawn. It is a natural follow-up to Horde modes and their copycats in other game franchises, and well-executed to boot. There is a real sense of escalation as you ascend the Locust ranks, and moving up to the likes of the insanely destructive but visually limited Berserker when you started out as a lowly Ticker is extremely satisfying. As a quicker option than Horde, it lets you kick back for twenty minutes or so and conduct some severe violence to undeserving individuals with some nasty creatures. More than 12 waves would have been good, but I can also see the value in a game mode that can be completed in a much shorter timeframe than the epic 50-wave Horde.

The multiplayer is much as you'd expect from most shooters in the 21st century - various familiar game modes, slightly wonky matchmaking and swiftly overrun with people who cannot have very much to do with their time other than play multiplayer Gears Of War 3. Maps are a limited range but fairly varied, undoubtedly to be increased via wallet-sapping and community-splitting DLC. It is all tied together in a experience/levelling system partially cribbed from the likes of Halo and Call Of Duty that pulls playtime together from all areas - including the main campaign - and slowly pushes you toward various non-functional unlocks, ribbons and medals. The latter two are really only for providing player titles, a couple of achievements and further unlocks. Still, it is curiously addictive to see yourself levelling up and have new ribbons added to your Stats area. Which is why it was added in the first place - we are all predictable sheep impressed by little numbers slowly edging their way towards bigger ones.

Gears Of War 3 is the perfect example of single-player gaming stagnation and multiplayer/co-op bloom. While this is the current trajectory of the industry, it is also a worrying trend. There are many gamers who prefer playing on their own, some exclusively so. It would be a shame to alienate them for the sake of further tapping into the lizard brain of the masses, and it would be even more shameful to do so not by failing to incorporate single-player, but by sending it further down the chasm of crappy writing and repetitive gameplay. GoW3 isn't falling yet, but the grip on the edge is sweaty and slipping.

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