I always find myself more critical of the Gears of War franchise compared to other similar titles, like a critical parent who wishes one child were more like the other. It likely has to do with the myriad of issues that go unfixed in the multiplayer, such as consistency levels, rotating weapon layouts that disrupt strategy, and unbalanced starting weapons that turn the normally slow-paced Gears of War into a violence-on-demand frag-fest.
Gears of War 3 continues to co-opt features from the likes of Call of Duty with the ability to prestige, a Team Deathmatch mode to attract the run-and-gunners who infest Halo, and a strong emphasis on free-for-all-type battles as opposed to teamwork – in other words, it has become something other than Gears of War in its third installment, largely in part to these contributing factors piling atop the charade that is the Gnasher and Sawed-off Shotguns. 80% of the deaths in my experience – both killing and being killed by – have been at the hands of starting weapons. Gears continues to struggle with the awkwardness that Gears of War 2 brought about, giving possibly the best and most unique multiplayer engine some negative traits the likes of the aforementioned setbacks. If only it could remain as consistent as the Campaign that complements it.
Due to the default mode being Team Deathmatch, old Gears staples such as Execution and Warzone have seemingly gone by the wayside. Tens of thousands will be playing Team Deathmatch, while only the 2000 or so cream-of-the-crop-tier players will be demolishing the competition in the traditional Gears of War game modes. In other words, if you wish to enjoy classic Gears, you better shape up, buttercup, because you will be going toe-to-toe with the very best Gears of War players in the entire world. Needless to say, this is off-putting for those of us who are pretty good as opposed to dedicating their free time to mastering the craft of the engine.
Team Deathmatch also renders certain maps useless due to persistent spawn-killing that overtakes good sportsmanship in the heat of the moment. Levels such as Drydock and Overpass quickly become a race to whoever can control the center of the map and shoot down at those who are just spawning. Fear not, as you’ll get 3 seconds of spawn protecti… never mind. The time it took me to type that sentence is all you will get before the hunting spree commences in the wide-open spaces where cover is non-existent and resistance to four guns-blazing is futile.
So why is Gears of War 3 on this list, given the complaints? It is because at its core, the gameplay engine is unlike anything else on the market, and the Campaign is no slouch, either. Gears of War 3 is more of the same from Gears of War 2, offering gigantic boss battles, better vehicular missions, a little variety in backgrounds to spice things up, and a fitting conclusion for a breakneck story arc. With its back-story being properly fleshed out, the tale of Marcus and Dom comes to an end while reflecting on the casualties along the way, be it the cities that have crumbled in ruin, thanks to the C.O.G. and their Hammer of Dawn’s destructive force. Hearing the horror stories of how the C.O.G. destroyed civilization even more than the Locusts themselves is a political statement wrapped in a beam of chaos brought down from above -- especially given the conclusion to the second game, where the largest city in the land was destroyed at the hands of the good guys themselves.
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, as they say, and Gears of War 3 imitates several franchises quite a bit throughout the course of its Campaign mode. Several games have gameplay elements or settings lifted straight out from underneath them. Some are more ambiguous, like hordes of rabid creatures swarming you viciously (Left 4 Dead), while others are as blatant as announcing that you’re shoplifting over the public address system at a retail outlet, such as an underwater city where the worlds best and brightest are kept away from the unclean (BioShock). Countless games have taken from Gears in the past (and in the future; Resident Evil 6 looks to adapt the Gears cover system), so it's not a knock on Epic for lifting a few ideas here and there. Still, looking at the Depths multiplayer map is essentially like staring at a wartime Rapture environment. It is what it is.
The thing that sticks out most in Gears of War 3 is the emphasis on creating a more heartfelt story than merely “bug-men have surfaced on the planet, make tiny pieces of metal enter their mouth-holes.” It is clear from the get-go that humanity is on its last legs, and the final confrontation – for better or worse – is dawning for the human civilization. Marcus and the rest of the C.O.G. members we know and love will face greater hardships than we’ve seen before, and they’re handled in the best way possible. It seems slightly bi-polar in a world where riding Brumaks to destroy other Brumaks and revving a chainsaw to cut through the innards of a giant worm held sway in the second entry, taking the series from serious to tongue-in-cheek to sorrowful. It’s an identity crisis, but it manages to salvage the sense of despair that made the first game the golden standard for the series.
Gears of War 3 suffers from the same pitfalls that the second installment of the gore-hungry franchise fell into. During the original Gears of War, gamers witnessed a gigantic beast stomping through in the distance and immediately wanted a chance to go toe-to-toe with it. This enemy was known as the Brumak, and it was larger than every other enemy in the original game. One of the biggest reasons why the first Gears of War remains the best was its terrific pacing, and Cliffy B responded to player outcry over wanting to face the deadly beast by throwing dozens of them at us – and even larger critters, to boot. Gears of War 3 continues this trend by tossing even bigger baddies out there for us to obliterate in a mere two rounds of Lancer fire. I prefer a little foreplay as a prerequisite to my orgy of violence, personally.
Gears of War has defined itself -- again, for better or worse -- with these big moments. The initial sequence at the start of the game has a humongous sea beast attempting to sink a large vessel that Marcus and Co. are aboard. This sums up the experience you are likely to face throughout. I would argue the opposite, that Gears of War is at its best when it forces you to look at the devastation around you. One particular sequence finds the C.O.G. entering a city that has long been forgotten under the ray of their very own Hammer of Dawn. As you look around, you notice that the remains of men, women, and children who perished in the blast have become entrenched in time, erected as dust statues all around you by the dozens, collapsing into the ether upon touch. These are the moments, due to their perfect pacing that made the first installment so memorable, that make the case for Gears of War as an elite franchise. If it could stop pandering to the Michael Bay fan club of big explosions and instant gratification, it could finally reach its full potential. Alas, that must happen after the Marcus Fenix chapter in the Gears universe. Gears of War 3 is a step in the right direction for the franchise. As cliché as it has become in sequence, it is still an engine worthy of imitation, praise, and repeated playthroughs. Now if only they could finally fix issues with the multiplayer...