We've come to the end: Gears of War 3, the ending of an era (That is, until a spinoff sequel/prequel is announced). It's hard to think of the gaming landscape without it, so great is its impact. It's not a spectacular send off, to be truthful, but it's a good, solid end to a franchise that launched a thousand-cover shooter.
Two years have passed since Delta Squad decided to sink the city of Jacinto into the ground and drown out the Locust once and for all. The Lambent, the weird glowing creatures that deus-ex-machinaed their way into Gears 2, are still rampant, forcing the remaining humans to live on ships. In true Gears style, it all hits the fan, leaving the humans to mount a final offence after finding out about a secret island that may have Marcus' long-thought-dead father.
Of course, nobody is really playing the game for the plot. That's not to say that the plot doesn't matter; its connective tissue makes the entire game seamless. There are seemingly-quiet villages (with a deadly secret) and a desert stretch that teems with all sorts of unpleasant surprises. None are quite as inventive and out of left field as being inside a giant worm, though. They do, however, perfect a certain type of tension, something the second game lacked. Scarcity of ammo heightens feelings of horror (there's even a new type of enemy that eats ammo). All this signals a shift back to the first game's feeling of dread and horror in the face of overwhelming numbers. This isn't a bad thing (both styles are equally enjoyable), but it gives the game a solemn air. At least, as solemn as you can be in a game that has a finishing move where you put a flamethrower into an enemies mouth and pull the trigger.
While the tone of Gears 2 has been abandoned, the game has mostly stuck to its template. There have been no substantial improvements to how the game feels and handles. It's hard to remember that there was ever a time when you couldn't use an enemy as a shield. A few new weapons have been added, but Epic has left the game untouched. Even the formula has been perfected: attack a space, defend a space, big battle, small battle, culminating in a huge setpiece battle at the end of the act (of which there are always 5). If it weren't for the tension that's created by the setting, a lot of these battles would seem samey and lose a lot of power. Its clear why there won't be a 4th Gears: Without a radical redesign of how the game works, they have nowhere to go but down.
This is somewhat alleviated by the new enemies. The Lambent are, design-wise, interesting enough (and colourful, with neon yellow veins that stand out again the desaturated world). Certain Lambent genus charge at the player en masse. In a series that prioritizes cover and tries to encourage only strategic recklessness, this can be very hectic and nerve-wrecking. Even though the shape of the geography doesn't change in these encounters – eg. you are still presented with a room with several layers of cover – they become, at best, useless and, at worst, a liability. Thankfully, the Epic designers decided not to overdo it and give just enough of these encounters to make them a welcome treat.
This lack of gameplay variety means that the multiplayer hasn't really changed that much. The standard modes are here: Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill, and subtle variations of those basic formulas. While some of the new weapons change the way space works - like the Digger that buries itself underground until it finds somebody, pops up and explodes - all that multiplayer offers are new maps. Horde has you facing off against increasingly difficult waves of enemies with your squadmates. The major upgrade is the base-building elements. The money earned from kills can be used to build fortifications to make the coming waves a bit easier to bear. Mechs, a new addition to the game, can be used if enough dough is forked over. These elements don't overwhelm the “hunker down and kill anything that moves” approach that Horde traffics in, and instead, give enough of a strategic tinge to make it even more interesting and enjoyable.
Beast mode has also been added. It's an inverted form of Horde: you play as the Locust and have to attack a group of humans within a set amount of time. Killing humans gives you cash to unlock different units. If you die during a run, you can respawn and spend some of your hard-earned cash on another unit to attack with. A lot of its fun comes in discovering how differently each Locust unit plays. Some are heavy grunts that are best with melee, some are ranged, and some are clear suicide bombers. Like Horde, the units are tiered. Getting access to the higher units costs a bit extra, but their abilities are usually worth it. It's not quite as involved as Horde, but its quicker pace and variety is a nice change. It's an excellent new addition to an already solid game.
Also worth mentioning is the pseudo-multiplayer Arcade mode. You can play the campaign and any of its chapters as a score attack round. Rack up points with your pals by killing enemies. Long chains up your combo meter. New gameplay modes that either increase the “fun” (their word, not mine) or difficulty of the chapters can be activated for variety. Again, it's a new angle on the same formula and another indication that the franchise has to add new distractions to keep the core of the game from getting stale.
When it comes down to it, we don't play Gears for the plot. We don't play Gears for the multiplayer or for the cover mechanics. We don't even play to see Dom, Baird, Cole, and Marcus chainsaw the hell out of a Locust drone. We're playing it because of the feeling it gives us, the raw sense of power the game conveys. It's the feeling we get halfway through a prolonged skirmish, controller vibrating violently in our hands, feeling that the tide of battle is in our favour. It's that feeling we get when he charge out from behind a piece of cover and head straight into the breach.
That's what's I'll miss.