The Gears of War series has been a mixed bag for me since the original, with epic, moving single player campaigns that rank among the best, most interactive video game experiences I've ever had and almost laughable, mind-numbingly bad multiplayer modes. Gears of War 3, the latest and hopefully final chapter in this series, delivers on both of these contradictions in spades. It's beautiful, but monotonous.
As with any sequel, Gears 3 is bigger--much bigger--in scope than its predecessors, and often to good effect. And certainly, its makers have settled into a nice rhythm with this series, delivering the most polished and cinematic version of the game yet. But Gears 3 still suffers, somewhat, from "been-there, done-that" syndrome. There's just precious little that's truly new here, and aside from wanting to see the storyline wrapped up, little reason to continue playing.
As with previous Gears titles, Gears 3 includes a few different single player and multiplayer game types. And as with previous Gears titles, I feel strongly--very strongly--that the multiplayer types, for the most part, are worthless. For this reason, I'll focus largely on the single player campaign. But this disparity means that, for me at least, Gears doesn't offer the long-term enjoyment of every single Call of Duty title released since 2006, where I typically continued playing these games' multiplayer modes until the next games was released. Now that I've completed Gears 3, I'll probably never even look at it again.
But this time around, even the single player game has issues. It's too long and repetitive, with the same types of set pieces repeated endlessly while the pseudo-dramatic storyline winds down to its silly conclusion. And the new problems with Gears 3 single player are immediately apparent: The game opens up with a dream sequence that you actually have to play through. And you know you're really in trouble when you, as the main protagonist, Marcus Fenix, wake up and see that this supposedly tough-guy-space-marine-whatever actually keeps a journal. You know, a diary. Tough guy, eh?
Suddenly, there are women in the GOW universe. Lots of 'em. And they all seem to have British accents for some reason. This addition doesn't serve much purpose other than variety, and to highlight how bad this graphics engine is at rendering long, straight hair. And maybe not coincidentally, the game immediately gets touchy-feely. As it starts, Fenix dreams about his dad, and Dom is sinking further into mental distress over his wife's death; when we first see him, the guy is actually gardening. Seriously, what's next? One of them gets so nervous he spends an entire level knocking his knees together in a porta-toilet? (Don't laugh. A memo in the very next room decries the lack of working toilets.)
To be fair, the single player campaign is described as a cinematic experience, and as such you do more sitting and watching than you do fighting and blowing stuff up. And this type of thing has always been a strong point of the GOW franchise. It's just that there's nothing really new here from a storytelling experience. You watch a movie, are given a new objective, and then you fight, and achieve that objective. Rinse, then repeat. You spend as much time watching the plot unfurling as you do playing the game.
But even the game play is getting tired and overly familiar. A level section begins and--what's this? A playing field conveniently stocked with rectangular objects for you to hide behind. So we're about to get attacked. Obviously. Been there, done that.
The graphics are lush and, in a first for the GOW series, often colorful. Where previous titles were just shades of gray with slashes of red blood for damage, Gears 3 ekes out an additional several colors, and some of them are actually bright. It does a nice job of showing off the graphical capabilities of the 360, though I can't claim it breaks any new ground. If anything, it's clear we're hitting the apex of what's possible, graphically and from a performance standpoint, on this console. Some sequences are apparently too complex for the 360's GPU, as the game sometimes grinds to a halt and then picks up again. I thought it was going to crash a few times.
I've always enjoyed the variety of enemy creatures in GOW and game three once again introduces some new variants. They're pretty to look at but killing them is generally the same old splatter routine: Just shoot 'em 'till they pop. And they do, in more colorful ways than before. And all the old favorites from previous games are back, including the huge Brumack and giant spider. Which is fine, but that too contributes to the sense of been there, done that. That these things are easier to kill than ever is kind of curious.
The single player campaign is long--too damn long--in an age where single player games, notably Call of Duty, are getting shorter and shorter. By the time I got to Act 4, I was thinking, please, let this end. It's just the same thing over and over again, and it kind of ruins the payoff of seeing the series wrap up. In fact, I only finished it so I could write this review. By the time it happened I couldn't have cared less.
You're never going to want to go through the single player campaign a second time, but there is a an additional single player mode, called Arcade mode that could be of interest: This is essentially a competitive, online single player mode where four people march through the single player levels together. And in multiplayer, there's a Call of Duty Zombies rip-off called Horde that my son likes a lot. (He's a huge Zombies fan.) I found it as monotonous as everything else in this game.
Gears of War has given Microsoft a second exclusive sci-fi shooter series that it can use to bludgeon PlayStation 3 fans with, and successfully so. But these games have always come too close to crossing a line with their terrible multiplayer modes, and in Gears 3 even the single player campaign, finally, has become uninteresting. The game looks good, plays well, and is professionally and competently made. It's sonically bombastic.
But something is missing here. I've been scanning the reviews of this game this morning to see whether I'm alone on this one, and I clearly am: Gears 3 has been very highly reviewed. But I'm going to have to disagree on this one, and I just don't see it. Gears 3 is the "Transformers" of this video game world: I can appreciate the effort and professionalism that went into making it but the end product is lacking in soul. I don't care about the characters or their world, or the backstory of this silly alien war.
Let's hope this really is the final chapter of this tired series, or that some future game goes in a new direction, including with multiplayer, which has never been well-done. There are better shooters out there, and some new games this holiday season show great promise, including Rage, Battlefield 3, and of course Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3. I'll now turn my attention to them instead. Gears of War 3 is recommended only for those who are already huge fans of this series, and even then with caveats.