Occasionally I’ve been asked to name my favourite games ever. The top two come easily to mind: Half-Life 2 and Uncharted 2. If pressed to name any more I’ve struggled, blurted out something about Call of Duty and Gears of War, then felt vaguely embarrassed.
For some reason I feel a little ashamed to have these shooters among my favourites. Maybe it’s because Gears and Call of Duty games seem somewhat immature. To the non-gamer they fit the template of Mindless Shooter: run there, shoot him, repeat, repeat. I champion gaming at a hobby fit for adults, perhaps some part of me worries that people will see these games in my personal top ten and ask Where is the intellectual stimulation?.
I heartily encourage anyone to play Half-Life 2. It's a better game than, say, Gears of War 2, but is it any more complex? Any more adult? Do I prefer games that only challenge my reflexes and awareness of angles of attack, requiring little else from me?
The non-gamer may watch gameplay from the Gears trilogy and – as well as seeing the repetitive violence – hear the cheesy dialogue, the whooping after victory, and think these games are the modern day equivalent of 80s action films: testosterone-fuelled, adolescent rampages. There seems to be an 80s action influence on the Gears franchise, but one that is knowingly accepted, a wink to a cinema sub-genre that valued fun over everything else (like story, character development, logic). And that's what Gears games are: fun. For all the themes and storylines in the franchise, Gears games are successful because – simply – being a COG is incredibly enjoyable. Chainsawing a Locust is fun. Using a mounted gun to destroy a huge monster is fun. Some games may be frustratingly hard, with enjoyment coming from the sense of achievement once a mission is completed. Gears delivers fun by knowing that a big soldier with a big gun fighting big monsters never gets old.
Despite this, when Gears of War 3 was first released I was reluctant to play it. I thought the Gears era had passed, that the battlefield for shooters had changed since Gears 2 was released in 2008. Would playing a Gears game in 2012 be like exposing those same 80s films to the harsh light of modern sensibilities, realising how badly they’d aged?
Thankfully, Gears 3 is a fantastic game. The over-the-top dialogue is tempered, walking a line near cringeworthy but being acceptable as part of the overloaded manliness of this universe. Dramatic moments are brilliantly handled, firefights frequently tense, most levels wonderfully designed. The game balances drama and comedy well and, as expected, looks brilliant too. I returned to Sera with caution. I left exhilarated.
The ‘Previously on Gears’ recap was a nice touch, as my memories of the first two games had worn away over the years. The openings of the first two games were blatantly derivative of the Lord of The Rings films, so the stylistic change in Gears 3's was a welcome fresh start to the trilogy’s final piece.
As you progress, it quickly becomes apparent how much brighter and more saturated Gears 3 is compared to its predecessors. As Tom Bissell mentions in The Art and Design of Gears of War, this was deliberate, the glow of the world an intentional contrast with the darkness of the story. Despite the full on-action, quips and jibes, Gears games have been narratively bleak, and 3 is no exception, dealing with genocide and loss. Given those cheery themes, a decision was made to literally lighten up to avoid play being too bleak. Initially the look is jarring but soon feels appropriate.
Onto the women of Gears 3. In your squad: Anya and Sam. In the Locust corner, the distinctly non-monsterish Queen Myrrah. Was their inclusion a showing of equality, an attempt by Epic to sucker in the growing female gamer demographic? I hope not. If that was the reason, it was laughably misguided.
In a world of grizzled, scarred, battle-worn men, Sam and Anya have walked in from a shampoo commercial. Both are slim and pretty; with not a mark to suggest they've ever been in battle. They look more like they're trying on armour for a photoshoot, 'Kim and Kourtney go to war, this week on Keeping Up With The Kardashians'. The contrast between them and the male COGs could not be starker. Anya is introduced ass-first, we follow her as she wiggles over to a desk.
Sera is a world of limited resources – initially the COGs fail to find parts to repair Jack, the robot. Perhaps they should've commandeered Sam’s hairdryer. Myrrah at least looks like she’s been in battle, but her most notable aspect is the perfectly-rounded breast moulds of her armour. For anyone looking for proof of progressive gender attitudes in games, don’t look at Gears 3, it’s pointing in the wrong direction.
Back to the action. The first level of Gears 3 is – yes – epic. Marcus is on a ship that's attacked by a leviathan. After completing the level we rewind and witness the same event from Cole's perspective, high above the ship. There's a wonderful sense of urgency to Marcus’ mission; I ran between objectives, feeling like the ship could be overrun at any moment. By the end, however, mental fatigue crept in. The dual-viewpoints were a good idea, but it led to a lot of time being spent around one event.
This opening level reminded me just how well Gears games handle scale. The Leviathan is so huge that it's hard to see it in its entirety until you play as Cole, far removed from the action. Despite the overly-muscled stature of all the male COGs, the game constantly reminds you that you're still small fish. Even the standard Locust soldier is bigger. You may succeed, but you'll need a shedload of ammo, good aim, and your wits about you to defeat these huge creatures. One of the wonderful contrasts of Gears is that, for all the macho talk and muscles, there's always fear and hiding involved, always a sense that the odds are against you.
Thankfully, after the constant tension of the opening, Epic had the sense to inject some brief, yet necessary moments of rest into play. Gears 3 avoids the trap that Black Ops and Modern Warfare 3 fell into, that which I call 'bang fatigue', in which a game piles on the action so heavily and constantly that the player becomes desensitised to it. Gears 3 is not a quiet game, but the few moments it allows you to decompress are vital in making the action more engaging. As a player, I need the calm to enjoy the storm.
Two of the enemies of Gears 3 are inspired creations. Early in the game, Lambent appear to be little more than Locust clones. This was deliberate, to lure the gamer into a false sense of security. As you progress, Lambent start to respond to gunfire in unusual ways. They may grow massively long limbs and use them like axes to chop down upon you. Their limbs may detach from the body and chase you, like big explosive snakes. I knew this would happen and it still caught me off guard. It injects a welcome confusion and randomness into proceedings, making battle more exciting and complex.
Human Lambent offer a different and more thrilling experience. With their introduction, Gears 3 takes an unexpected break from action to briefly masquerade as a horror game. I was now under attack from zombies, essentially, and I was not prepared. Despite the cut scene explaining the peril I was in, I still took a few seconds to grasp the situation. Those seconds were vital as I was immediately under siege. Combat had changed, the calculated headshots and flanking of Locust replaced by panicky blind firing and spinning as I was attacked from all sides. Epic captured the all-around onslaught that makes Left 4 Dead so tense, and soon I was sprinting towards a wall to back against so I could narrow directions of attack. Human Lambent make a relatively brief appearance, but fighting them was scary and exhilarating. The dread as I waited for them to break through a door was probably the most intense experience of the game.
Engaging Human Lambent requires the player to competently handle multilateral character movement. Here Marcus’ slow turns added to the tension. Elsewhere, however, when the battlefield required 360-degree movement, Gears’ mechanics were exposed as less than ideal. One battle requires you to fight a Corpser (a huge spider) and its children*. In this rounded, enclosed level, the baby Corpsers (awww) appear out of the ground, so you have to be observant of where they unearth. And when they do arrive, its often best to first put some space between them and you. I found the best way to do this was to spin and search for them, then roadie run away before shooting. This was a reasonably sensible strategy, but Gears mechanics aren't suited to this type of agility. Angling off while running is slow and awkward, by the time you stop and turn and fire, an enemy can already be on top of you. The level was frustrating as it plays to the game's weaknesses.
*This fight was one of the few moments in Gears 3 that felt gamey. You shoot the Corpser, then its children appear and attack you while mum takes a break. Having this monster take three or four breaks in the middle of the arena during battle just seemed ridiculous.
The cover system, feels more fluid than ever. There are still occasions when Marcus will come unstuck from cover at a particular time, but generally the system feels easier than previous versions.
I’m not sure if my melee failures were mostly mine or the game’s. On a number of occasions I’d sneak up on a Locust, chainsaw cranked, ready to widen the gap between his ribs. Then I’d end up standing beside him instead, sawing away at thin air. Likewise, with the Retro Lancer, I was delighted to find I could incorporate a lancing into the end of a roadie run. The reality, however, was that I’d end up running past my enemy and lancing a wall. My bad, or the games? I’d say a bit of both.
The AI caused some problems too. My squad members would regularly obscure my line of fire. Despite the wide battle arenas (clearly designed for co-op play), my fellow COGs would often wander between me and the Locust I was about to shoot the face off. This problem was further highlighted when trying to use Gears’ sniper rifle: the Longshot.
In many games, finding a sniper rifle conveniently lying on the ground happens to coincide with arriving at a high vantage point, allowing you to pick off enemies from an elevated position. In Gears, however, the playing field is generally flat. When using the sniper rifle you’re best to hold back and use distance to your advantage. While you do this, however, the rest of your squad will rush forward. You line up a shot, only to see the back of Anya’s head as she wanders into your line of fire. For some reason this issue seemed to diminish in the middle part of the game, only to return towards the end.
Where the game’s mechanics work best is in multi-tasking. Gears 3 is at its most fun and frantic when you fire, then roll between cover while trying to hit the active-reload sweet spot. Gears 3 is good when you’re in a long-range shootout, popping up from cover for a few long-range shots. But, like Uncharted 2, is at its best when you’re being flanked and have to respond with movement and aggression.
A problem I had with Gears 2 was how it distorted my sense of rhythm. So often, after a few battles, I’d be ready to run ahead and start some more, but the game would slow as it wrested control of Marcus away from me. He would be on the radio, walking slowly, while I waited, randy for violence. Thankfully, Gears 3 rarely falls prey to this.
Any moments involving Cole are fun and often hilarious. His strategy for dealing with the leviathan (“We need to make its brains come out its ass”) made me burst out laughing. Rarely is game dialogue laugh-out-loud funny. Well, intentionally anyway.
Cole return to his hometown in a section put to clever double use, allowing the level to further the plot while also serving as Cole’s backstory. He recalls his glory days as an American football (as we Brits call it) player. Residents are still quick to recognise him from his athletic career. In an inspired (though underused) moment, Cole has to break through a squad of Locust to gain and then detonate a bomb, which plays out like a touchdown rush mini-game. The moment is fun and funny, but also a sad reminder of what Cole has lost, a faded memory of normal life on Sera before Emergence Day.
Part 2 coming soon, if anyone cares.