Sunday, November 06, 2011

Gears of War 3 (Xbox 360) Review

There's no question that Gears of War 3 is Microsoft Studio's biggest exclusive launch of the year. Featuring a massive advertising campaign and a tremendous amount of hype, this sequel finishes off the journey of Delta Squad and their battle to save humanity against the Locust Horde and a newer, more terrifying threat, the Lambent.

Written by Karen Traviss, the author of the Gears of War novels, the Campaign is set about two years after Gears of War 2 and after all four novels. The Locust have been defeated but humanity is nearly extinct and the C.O.G. has disbanded. Hoffman leads one group of survivors to the old fortress of Anvil Gate, Prescott abandoned everybody, and Fenix and company are living on the Sovereign, one of the last Navy vessels sailing.

Now let's be honest, the Gears of War franchise isn't known for strong storytelling. It's always reminded me of an 80's action flick where muscle-bound soldiers run around and kill monsters through miraculous feats of bravado, but Traviss changed all that. Here novels are detailed and full of strong character moments and development, and with her actually penning the script for the game I honestly expected something more than what we've seen before: a solid, cohesive story and character moments in-game.

While playing you can certainly tell that that was the goal and a lot of novel-only stuff either appears or is at least hinted at, such as the play between Baird and Bernie, but really it all falls flat upon itself with poor execution. There are snatches of potential in there, particularly mid-way through Act 1 and at the end of Act III, but when all is said and done the Campaign's story is poorly implemented as a coherent narrative and the excessive swearing that the franchise is known for seems to be amped up this time around, feeling completely juvenile and out of place. Yes Fenix, you're angry. We get it.

Marcus, Dom, and Anya are around for the long haul but other key supporting characters are generally given smaller "screen time" which is a damn shame. So much was done with Cole, Baird, and Hoffman in the novels that they were done a complete disservice with the game. New characters come and go like crazy, barely giving you time to get to know them save for a very few exceptions (like Sam). I was sorely disappointed that Bernie, a great novel-character, only had a small cameo, and new characters like Griffin, voiced by Ice-T, were so stupid that it should have been laughable, however at that level of lame it just had me cringing.

To be perfectly blunt, this critically acclaimed Campaign story is worse than Gears of War 2 (though better than the original game's) and is a huge disappointment. If you haven't read the novels even the summary video courteously provided and narrated by Anya Stroud doesn't fill in everything you need to know, but again since the story's so weak you likely won't even notice. The story's implementation is so poor I often forget why I was leading Delta Squad to a particular location or trying to achieve a certain objective; it was just all muddled and derivative.

So basically stuff in Gears of War 3 just happens and you roll with it. Literally. At least the franchise's cover and combat are still sound, and while that's certainly enjoyable, it's honestly nothing new or revolutionary. You can do some cool things at the beginning of the game like pick up a Fire Extinguisher to put out fires, wear a baseball hat, and interact with world objects in such a way that it almost feel like your stepping into a Valve shooter, but then all that cool innovative design seems to be forgotten and it's back to basics. Throughout you can swap weapons with AI allies or instruct them to focus fire, but it's nothing overly crazy and the whole gameplay experience screams been-there-done-that. Sure, you also have Lambent to fight as another enemy faction now, the Gears of War universe's version of zombies, but they're so shoddily implemented that, for the most part, you might as well just be fighting the Locust themselves. Which of course you do later on.

The ever troublesome Emergence Holes are long gone, and the Locust rocket up from under the ground like reverse Orbital Drop Shock Troopers without their pods, which is plain stupid. Instead of the Locust having a massive troop funneling system to try and overwhelm the player and build gameplay tension, the Lambent now fill this roll and come out of Stalks that erupt from the ground and grow pods on them. Destroy the pods to stop the flood of Lambent which is actually far easier than closing Emergence Holes since any old firepower will do, no Grenades or specific weapons or tactics required.

This makes dealing with an infestation of Lambent, who fight almost exactly like their Locust counterparts with a few exceptions, far simpler, and when it comes down to it, Gears of War 3 is a very easy game to complete. Still hampered by the annoying Checkpoint system the franchise is known for, getting killed by lucky shots is how you'll most often die, as even on Hardcore the game simply isn't. Granted I haven't tried Insane yet and I hear there's challenge there, but I expected Hardcore to be up to the standards of Gears of War 2 at least.

The AI isn't horrible for both friend or foe but it's nothing to write home about. What is memorable is the game's boss encounters. Truly amazing, there are several massive boss battles that you'll encounter, all of which feature large enemies with great encounters that are very intense and cinematic. Such a shame the rest of the Campaign isn't up to this level. To try and split up the monotony of repetitive gameplay, Epic Games throws in some on-rails vehicle sequences now and then, seeing you take to vehicles both on land, in the air, and even at sea, but they're pretty basic and rather underwhelming once you get past their original novelty.

So yeah, as you can tell, I'm quite disappointed with Gears of War 3's single player content. Very hyped, very much a let down, and overall it honestly feels extremely rushed; rather ironic since the game was delayed by nearly half a year. Perhaps they were simply trying to cram in too much that they lost their sense of identity along the way, or perhaps it was all a mess from the start. Either way, the end result is underwhelming.

Where Gears of War 3 truly shines is in Multiplayer. Now, I've never been a fan of the franchise's Versus game modes and even with a few new modes, such as Capture the Leader, I still find it all more frustrating than fun. I just suck at Gears of War 3 Versus and that's alright, so I won't complain about it and I know there's many, many of you having a complete blast with it. If you want to find out more about the game's Versus mode you can check out my Beta Impressions post here, as not much has changed to any great degree, in my opinion.

For me, it's all about Horde, and Horde is back and better than ever. While not as drastic an upgrade to the original Horde as Firefight was for the Halo franchise in Halo: Reach, it still sees some great enhancements that really refreshes things.

Still set at 50 Waves max, players now start with a certain amount of money that can be spent on fortifications around the game world. These fortifications consist of fences, decoys, turrets, etc. that harm, distract, or kill Locust and Lambent allowing teams to really set up perimeters and defensive locations. You start a match by placing a Command Post which is your central spawn location. From here you can quickly begin building pre-determined defences, picking up scattered weapons or ammo (which now costs money, so do so wisely), or just digging in and saving your cash for later Waves.

This latter strategy seems the soundest as early Waves are simple, but every 10th Wave is now a Boss Wave. In addition to normal enemies, you'll also end up fighting a swarm of Reavers, perhaps two Lambent Berserkers, or even a Brumak, etc. These Waves tend to be challenging and require a good bit of team work to overcome, and getting past one is a huge achievement.

Thankfully you can boost things to your advantage even further by completing bonus objectives that pop up every several Waves, which grant special crates to spawn near your Command Post that contain power weapons or extra ammo. These bonus objectives can range from killing a certain amount of enemies with a certain weapon, or with melee, or with executions, etc. They're not essential, but really help to mix things up.

A new game mode introduced, rather the reverse of Horde, is Beast Mode. Here you play as the Locust Horde and must defeat human forces over a max of 12 Waves. Each Wave is on a timer, however, and if you fail when time runs out the Hammer of Dawn will strike and wipe out your entire team.

While proper coordination and team play is essential for surviving the later Waves of Horde, in Beast Mode, team work is a must right from the get-go. You begin with a set amount of cash and can choose to be a Wild Ticker, Ticker, Wretch, Feral Drone, or a Butcher. Each one plays different and each is essential for working together. Wild Tickers are great at taking down fortifications but are extremely fragile. Feral Drones, on the other hand, play like a standard character and start with a Retro Lancer. As you take out defences and kill humans you increase you time limit and also earn additional cash, which ultimately allows you to become more powerful forms of Locust.

In later Waves as well, human Hero units start spawning, such as Marcus and Dom, and while you can down them they can only be killed via an Execution. Beast Mode is a great addition and an interesting twist on a known gameplay style, but it still doesn't replace the great fun that is Horde. Thankfully, for both Horde and Beast Mode, matchmaking is featured so getting into a game is very easy. Just note that a lot of Public players like to quit mid-match which may ruin some of your fun and really, Private games are the way to go for these cooperative game modes.

Another thing Gears of War 3 did well is the game's graphics. Simply put, Gears of War 3 is the most beautiful Xbox 360 game I've ever played and the Unreal Engine is still the cream of the crop when it comes to this generation's graphic engines. Backgrounds and vistas look stunning, character models are rich with detail and fluid animation, and effects and gore flash, bang, and splatter good.

Audio wise, the voice acting is mainly what we've come to expect from the franchise, excessive swearing, grunting, and so on and so forth; nothing to write home about and it's a damn shame, as you can see Traviss tried. The music is definitely good, though not as epic or grand as what was featured in Gears of War 2. Sound effects are, as usual, top notch and I've got nothing to complain about with weapon sounds, monster howls, etc.

When all is said and done, Gears of War 3 is not a bad game despite my more negative tone in this review, but it's not a great game and it's definitely the worst of the trilogy. Lacking any real depth or innovation, it's the poster child for been-there-done-that, and Horde alone can't improve the quality of the whole product. I was really, really looking forward to a solid Campaign and the game just failed me here hard. Beast Mode is fun but won't last, and I'm not a Versus fan so really, Horde is all the game has going for me and the improvements aren't that huge over Gears of War 2 there.

But who am I kidding, like me, you've probably owned the game on launch day, so you already know what to expect and this review is moot. If you haven't and you're waiting to get it, I'd say pick it up to complete the trilogy in your collection, but wait for a price drop as there's nothing here you haven't seen before.

No comments: