Gears of War 3 begins as the series did five years ago — with series protagonist Marcus Fenix in a jail cell. This time, though, we find out why Fenix was imprisoned. Gears 3 completes the story that began back in 2006, and it does so definitively. Not everyone will survive.
It may have been years since you played the last Gears of War title, but don’t worry about getting caught up with the story; it’s almost superfluous at this point. What matters is that the characters in Gears 3 are at war. It feels like they have always been at war.
The game’s huge, muscular characters in heavy armor have not changed, nor has the action. You will be fighting a variety of enemies and using the cover system to gain a better position to take them out. Melee attacks spice things up, and the combat itself remains loud, layered, and often captivating. Between Space Marine and Gears of War 3, the third-person action game has been all but perfected.
The game world has no actual buildings, just wreckage. It has no love, only regret. We don’t see characters bonding through suffering or performing heroic feats, but simply surviving, fighting, and remembering the things they have lost. One of the few bonds left between two characters rips apart even as you play, and all that comforts soldiers is the knowledge that war at least remains a constant in this ruined world. So what happens when even that is removed?
Apart from the subtext of its surroundings, the game is often deeply stupid. If Gears 3 were The X-Files, every character would be Scully, endlessly repeating the most basic plot points back to the player, making sure every tiny thing is said out loud multiple times. If you are told to look for a maintenance bay, a character will tell you that the door labelled “maintenance bay” looks promising. Then another character may tell you that this is the maintenance bay you need to explore.
Fortunately, this sort of hand-holding is balanced by scenes that truly work on every level. During one section of the game, you walk through what Fenix describes as a mass grave; it’s a haunting moment of stillness in an otherwise loud game. Then, out of the corner of your eye, you see movement… and thus begins a tense game of cat and mouse. The characters border on caricature, but the game has some reverence for the ruined planet they stand upon.
The game can also get in its own way in places. At one point, my squad had left a single enemy behind during a firefight. When we reached an easily navigable barrier of barbed wire, Fenix barked that we couldn’t go through that yet. Why not? Because we had to go back and kill that one last guy. It didn’t make any sense from the perspective of the characters, but the heck with it. What’s one more?
While detailing some of the new enemies would dip into spoiler territory, I will say that I’m getting damn tired of seeing a certain kind of bad guy in almost every game I play. It was out of place in the end of the new Deus Ex, and it’s annoying as hell in Gears 3. In fact, the glowing Lambent enemies in general are annoying to fight, while the combat against the more classical Locust remains engaging and enjoyable, especially in co-op. The selection of enemies often proved to be the difference between getting excited for a large battle ahead … and hoping a section would soon be over.
Gears 3 also suffers from the perverse need to make every task much more difficult than it at first seems. You need to find a submarine, but when you fight your way to it, you find that getting the submarine to work requires two other items (there are of course piles of enemies between us and those items). Once finished with these two fetch quests, you need to get the submarine to water, but this involves a number of switches and more fights. To do anything, you need to find multiple switches or “go there to do this before that can do the thing you need to do.” It begins to feel like one damn thing after another. Still, if it weren’t for this endless set of complications, the game would most likely be around four hours long.
As it stands, the game is around 10 hours or so, depending on the difficulty level. This is an important distinction, because the game feels very different when you play with yourself or with friends, and as you climb the difficulty levels or play in Arcade mode. You’ll see everything you need to see the first time you beat the game, but multiple playthroughs will be rewarded. Co-op is handled both via split-screen and online.