This war really doesn’t change.
Gears of War 3 is like learning how to play football through a poorly written stageplay. The fantastic multiplayer murder-fests make up the actual game, and the single-player is just a long and tiresome scrimmage.
Gears of War 3 wants us to care about a walking tree-trunk with a soul-patch, a doo-rag, and an etched-on frown. In this beefcake world even the scientists use deer antler spray. But how much can we feel for the fate and emotions of action figures, of characters defined primarily by what they kill and how much of it? A few garden variety family problems (and largely excellent voice-acting) can’t make these caricatures any more interesting or imbue any resonance into the game’s awkward stabs at pathos.
I didn’t think about that as I ducked down behind a conveniently-placed barrier and occasionally popped up to spray bullets into Locust faces. Gears of War 3 is as mechanically sound as its predecessors, with basic actions like aiming, shooting, and taking cover smoothly implemented and simple to perform. It’s easy to forget the uninspired reasoning and repetitive nature of the game’s missions when shooting stuff is this manually satisfying.
Blame uninspired level design and a story that’s essentially an endless series of errands for that repetition. I moved down anonymous corridors and from one similar room to the next, stopping behind those felicitous rocks and boxes and taking out roomfuls of enemies, in search of the next piece of broken-down tech that could help us out. And then I did it again, and again, all in hopes of having a post-apocalyptic catch with Dad.
Gears of War 3 needs other people, either friends or strangers. The multiplayer modes hone in on the action that makes the series worthwhile, leaving behind the histrionics and platitudes. The story’s big tear-jerking centerpiece wasn’t remotely as effective as any single time I had to revive a teammate in Horde mode.
Not much has changed with the multiplayer since Gears of War 2. Trading up to the new one is more about following the player base than buying in to a bigger or better version of Gears. The standard modes remain squad-based, with two five-person teams hunting each other down throughout a variety of expansive maps. With limited respawns per side, deathmatches are stressful countdowns, each death ticking that number down towards the sudden death finale when my team only has one respawn per player left. My anxiety hits Lightmass levels when that number drops into the low single digits and any one of my too-frequent deaths wastes a precious and depleted resource.
The co-op Horde mode is still the best thing about Gears. It provides the gun-crazed thrills and cooperation central to the game’s appeal without a scrap of unnecessary story. Horde’s just me and three friends trying our best to survive wave after wave of gun-toting subterranean assholes with murder on their minds. It’s a crucible that melts us down into a soup of twitchy, hair-trigger nerves. Our test is to reconstitute ourselves into a well-oiled military machine.
This new version of Horde incorporates tower defense elements. I earn money as I kill things and can use that to build barriers and various defensive weapons. It’s basic stuff, and adds a slightly discursive new layer of strategy to the survival mode. Having to worry about resources and repairs adds more stress to the equation, but it doesn’t feel like a natural addition to the Gears world. It’s almost like it was added to have a new feature to tout. It impacts the flow and feel of Horde, but it’s less detrimental than just different.
Otherwise Gears of War 3 isn’t different enough. I’m sure there’s satisfaction in the campaign for those who care about the story, but for the rest of us the game hinges on the multiplayer, which has evolved minimally since Gears of War 2. The new Beast mode, which is basically Horde from the Locust’s perspective, isn’t the substantial game-changer that Horde was for Gears 2. Gears of War 3 works fine in isolation, and would likely blow a Gears novice away as easily as Marcus Fenix cuts through the Lambent, but it’s not an obvious improvement over the last game. It’s like when a championship team returns most of its players and sticks to the same playbook but struggles the following season.
Paste Games Editor Garrett Martin just moved back to Atlanta after eight years in Boston. He also writes about games for the Boston Herald and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and has contributed to G4TV.com, Edge Magazine, GamePro, Joystiq, and many others. You can contact him on Twitter at @grmartin or at Garrett [at] Pastemagazine [dot] com.