the artistry and psychology of gaming


Gears of War 3

Gears of War 3

Not all escapist fare is created equal. I wish people would stop telling me to like crappy movies or to “appreciate a big dumb action movie for what it is.” I do like big dumb action movies… provided they’re well-made. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Terminator 2, and Speed are all towards the top of my list of favorite movies, not because of thought-provoking screenplays or Oscar-caliber acting, but because the action scenes are engaging, with exciting choreography and intelligent editing. The problem is that people are invariably telling me to like the bad dumb movies, with sloppy editing and uninventive action scenes, like the latest Michael Bay explosionfest, or that godawful Clash of the Titans remake. On the flip side of the coin, I think that immediately dismissing something because it is escapist fare is rather pretentious. I personally prefer witty satires or dark comedies, like In the Loop, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, or In Bruges, but I also enjoy loud, stupid comedies like The Hangover when they actually manage to be funny.

The same could be said about video games. Epic Games’ Gears of War 3 (and the series as a whole) is definitely escapist fare. There are no sociopolitical themes, no pervasive psychological symbolism, and no difficult moral choices. If you were to say to me that the series is overrated, I would have a hard time disagreeing with you. But the important thing is that it’s fun as hell.

Story and World

Let’s start with the worst part of Gears 3. The series has never excelled in the narrative department, and this threequel does little to change that. The first game barely even had a story. There’s definitely substance to the universe of the game; it’s just that the writers decided to relegate all of those details to novels, instruction manuals, and artwork books included with special editions. The second game had a more focused plot and even gave one of the characters personal motives, but it ended up getting downright silly towards the end.

For what it’s worth, Gears 3 has the best story of the trilogy, but that’s not saying much. The story is once again a little more focused. The events of the previous two games annihilated most of the forces of all three factions – the humans, the Locust horde, and the schismatic Lambent horde – and the war is more or less over. Eighteen months later, the shockingly resilient Lambent start causing trouble again, and the Locust Queen makes it clear that they shouldn’t be counted out either. Shortly after, the COG head of state (who had gone AWOL) returns, with a message from Marcus Fenix’s father Adam, previously thought to be deceased. Marcus et al set out to find Adam, which means that both of the main characters have a personal goal in this game. There are some genuinely interesting twists and turns along the way, but overall the plot is just an excuse to move you from one setpiece to the next. One of the best parts of the narrative is the ending. Epic’s trilogy ends with a… um, climactic conclusion that wraps up most of the plot threads. It truly feels like a finale.

Another great part of the story is the cast of characters. The main character is none other than Marcus Fenix, who is voiced by this guy:

Seriously. Look it up. His name is John DiMaggio.

He is joined by his best friend Dominic Santiago, the boisterous Augustus Cole, the insufferable genius Damon Baird, the kind-hearted Jace Stratton, and for the first time in the series, female Gears: Anya Stroud and Samantha Byrne. You know those side characters in movies that become unexpectedly popular because of how hilarious or badass they are? The ones that end up getting their own spinoff movie, which is never as good as the original because that one-dimensional character is now forced to bear the emotional brunt of the story? Characters like Evan Baxter, Riddick, and Jay and Silent Bob? Well, just about every character in Gears of War is like that. A few characters – most notably Marcus and Dom – get a moment or two where some hidden depths of character are hinted at, but at best they are kiddie-pool deep. The important part is that all of the characters have personality, and the cast is surprisingly diverse as far as personality types go. It may be hard to care about their emotional journey, but they are entertaining. That’s more than you can say about most games starring space marines.

Visuals and Audio

When it was released in 2006, the first Gears of War was on the bleeding edge of graphics technology (despite having only various shades of grey, brown, and blood). Both sequels have taken a step forward in the visual department, though they haven’t improved quite as fast as the industry as whole. Gears 3 is still an amazing-looking game; it’s just that there a handful of previously-released games that look better.

One thing that the series is constantly criticized for is the limited color palette, though I will continue to defend its use. Since the setting is for all intents and purposes a post-apocalyptic one, I see the relative lack of color as an artistic decision, much like the limited color palettes in Limbo, MadWorld, and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. There’s also the fact that Gears did the “Real is Brown” thing before it became an industry-wide epidemic. But most importantly, the constant desaturation sets up an interesting phenomenon. About halfway through the game, splashes of color start appearing. Eventually, you’re fighting through vibrant environments full of color that look less like Fallout and more like Uncharted. After two-and-a-half games of grey and brown, this shift to green and blue and yellow and red is exciting. It’s kind of like that scene towards the end of The Matrix Revolutions where Trinity sees the sun for the first time; even if you’re expecting it, it’s still awe-inspiring. If you’re the kind of person who gets enthralled by Gears’ storyline, this is the part where you start thinking that maybe this hunk of rock (which isn’t Earth, by the way) just might be worth fighting for.

“What… what’s this on my screen? Is that… the color green?”

Over the course of the series, each game has been “bigger and better” than the last. The first game had a fairly large sense of scale, but the enormous creatures and environments of the sequel made Gears 1 feel like a downright intimate affair. Gears 3 is even bigger; Epic put some incredibly… er, grandiose setpieces in this one. Seeing a four-story-tall stalk bursting from the ground is a regular occurrence and the big setpieces are on par with a God of War game. Other visual improvements include enhanced lighting (particularly when something is backlit) and the incandescent Imulsion, which looks better than ever, especially when it splashes about as a Lambent enemy explodes.

“Well you’re a big ‘un, ain’t ya?”

Aurally, Gears 3 gets high, but not perfect, marks. Voice acting is great more often than not. The sound effects are excellent, but occasionally they get lost in the confusion, leaving you with little audio feedback to let you know your gun is working. Of course, the roar of a chainsaw is always a satisfying treat for the ears (unless it’s being used on you). The musical score generally fits the mood, but is otherwise unremarkable. At one point, a certain song is used (you’ll know it when you hear it), though it ends up being unintentionally funny instead of moving.

Gameplay and Design

If you’ve played a Gears game before, you know that the series has a number of “quirks” that make it a unique experience, even when compared to other cover-based third-person shooters. The characters have a real sense of weight and inertia to them; they all look like cartoonish, bulky NFL robots and they control like it too. When sprinting (called Roadie Run in the game), your turning radius is extremely wide, and the camera switches to a low angle and adopts a mild shaky cam effect, adding remarkably to the sense of momentum. Very few weapons are effective at range, and most encounters take place in relatively close quarters. The Locust and Lambent have extremely thick skin, and they can take a lot of damage before going down, probably more than the player characters can. This all combines to make typical firefights intense, intimate, and extremely violent. It also has the side effect of regularly making you feel like a total badass.

The controls work well, but there are still some issues. Since the A button is a catch-all button that controls sprinting, dodging, entering/leaving cover, moving to different cover, and vaulting over cover, you will sometimes find yourself doing something you didn’t intend to do. However, it is context-sensitive, and this will rarely be an issue if you’re familiar with the game. Chainsawing requires that you hold down the B button (read: you won’t have control over the right stick), but the developers made the intelligent decision to switch the left stick to GoldeneEye-mode, granting the player a near-full range of motion. Unfortunately, Marcus too often seemed keenly interested in chainsawing large wooden boxes, rather than the enemies standing next to them. Both of those are rather small gripes, however; Gears still has some of the best controls in the genre.

Gears of War is known for having one of the more inventive and satisfying weapon suites in third-person shooters. Just about all of the weapons from the previous two games make an appearance, including the Lancer (of course). For those uninitiated to the Gears series, the Lancer is an assault rifle with a chainsaw attached to it. Yes, it’s ridiculous. Yes, it makes very little sense. Yes, it is incredibly awesome. There are also a few new weapons to enjoy. The Retro Lancer is a more powerful version of the standard Lancer with a slower rate of fire and much higher recoil; it also replaces the chainsaw with a standard bayonet that allows for an incredibly satisfying charge attack. The Digger fires a projectile that burrows slowly under the ground in a straight line, ignoring cover and detonating in the proximity of an enemy. One of the heavy weapons is an incredibly powerful sniper rifle, aptly named the One Shot. The Vulcan Cannon, another heavy weapon, is a ridiculously powerful machinegun that requires two people to operate. There is also a more powerful shotgun, the Sawed Off Shotgun, but its absurdly short range and the fact that it needs to be reloaded after ever shot led me to favor the standard Gnasher shotgun. Finally, a giant-ass knife called the Cleaver might have you feeling like Pyramidhead, but it is ultimately the most impractical weapon in the game. Naturally, every weapon has its own unique, brutal finishing move.

Carried over from the previous games is the Active Reload system. Upon tapping Right Bumper to manually reload (or shooting all of the rounds in your clip), a slider will appear underneath the ammo gauge on the HUD. When the slider moves all the way to the right, your weapon will be reloaded. However, you can tap Right Bumper again at any time, achieving one of three different effects. If you tap the button when the slider is in the grey section, you will perform a quick reload, knocking about a second off of the reload time. If you tap the button when the slider is in the tiny white section, you will perform a Perfect Reload, increasing the damage of the ammunition you reloaded. Depending on the weapon, a Perfect Reload may also have other beneficial effects, like increased rate of fire or longer range. However, if you tap the button when the slider is in one of the black sections, the gun will jam and it will take a little longer to reload it, during which time you are unable to switch weapons, dodge, or sprint. Combined with the fact that the Active Reload slider is up in the corner of the screen (so you have to briefly take your eyes off the action), this makes for a very interesting risk/reward scenario. It is, quite frankly, the best thing to ever happen to reloading in any game.

Gears of War: The only game where you can reload your gun EXTRA HARD to make the bullets come out MORE AWESOME.

In addition to the new weapons, there are also new enemies. The Lambent in particular have much more variety than before. The emergence holes from the previous two games are gone; in their place are gigantic Lambent stalks that continuously spawn Lambent enemies until you destroy their pods. Joining the Lambent Drones as foot soldiers are Drudges, which can mutate into one of three more dangerous forms if you don’t shoot them in the right spot. The largest Lambent encountered more than once is the Gunker, which throws large globs of Imulsion at range, and attacks with a powerful bladed tentacle after closing distance. Finally, creatures called Polyps fill the role of “Those Goddamn Tiny Monsters That Are Only a Threat Because They Attack in Swarms.” The regular Locust have new recruits as well. Serapedes must be destroyed one segment at a time, kind of like the arcade game Centipede, and the Armored Kantus are almost immune to bullets and have a devastating roll attack. Imagine Silver Sonic if he dual-wielded automatic pistols.

Unlike many other games with popular multiplayer modes, the story-driven campaign in Gears 3 thankfully doesn’t feel like an afterthought. The campaign is of above-average length for the genre (about 12 hours), and the entire thing is very refined and polished. Epic managed to put at least one… uh, spectacular setpiece in every chapter in the game. New ideas are frequently introduced, giving the campaign a great sense of variety. Throughout the entire thing, the pacing is brilliant: whenever the action starts to become taxing, a lull in the action offers a respite, and these reprieves never last long enough for you to lose interest. The only time that the game becomes truly arduous is towards the very end, which frankly is where a game is allowed to have a strenuous gauntlet. If you’ve beaten one of the previous Gears games (or if you’ve beaten any cover-based third-person shooter), feel free to jump right into Hardcore difficulty. I found it to be difficult enough to be rewarding, but never frustrating. And as I said before, playing this game will regularly make you feel like a total badass.

Like the previous two games, the entire campaign can be played cooperatively with a partner, online or split-screen. New to the series is the ability to play four-player co-op, though this is only available online. You can play four-person co-op with two groups of split-screen players, and LAN functionality is also available. The entire thing supports drop-in/drop-out, and overall it is a very smooth and robust co-op system. I personally played through all three Gears games in split-screen co-op, and I recommend you do the same if possible; it’s just that much more fun. The cover-based nature of the game means that there is a little bit of potential for tactical planning, and coordinating attacks with a friend is always a thrill. Additionally, you can play co-op in Arcade Mode, which awards you points for scoring kills and completing objectives, giving the game a competitive spirit. We didn’t play through it that way (it turned out to be goofy and superfluous in F.III.A.R.), but I won’t disrespect the fact that the option is there, mostly because it is an option in this game.

Of course, competitive multiplayer returns again, this time with dedicated servers. An extensive public beta period prior to release helped iron out many of the wrinkles in Gears 2’s multiplayer mode, though you will still find a lot of neophytes abusing the Sawed Off Shotgun. There are no killstreaks or other such malarkey; instead Gears sticks more closely to the GoldenEye formula of spawning with a basic loadout, picking up new weapons on the map, and simply killing the crap out of each other. Most of the previous multiplayer modes return, though Guardian and Submission have been combined into Capture the Leader. Team Deathmatch is like Warzone, except each team is allowed 15 respawns. All modes support two teams of five, except for Wingman which supports four teams of two. There is also a “newbie” playlist which places amateur players in games with similarly inexperienced opponents in an effort to ease new players into the series. Earning certain Achievements (including ones from the first two games) or a certain amount of experience will lock you out of the newbie playlist.

Gears of War 2 introduced Horde Mode, and ever since, tons of shooters have had a cooperative “Endless Waves of Enemies” mode. It returns in Gears 3 as Horde 2.0, allowing for up to five players. This time, your performance awards you in-game cash, which you can use to fortify your position, adding some interesting tower defense elements. Gears 3 also introduces the five-person Beast Mode – the inverse of Horde – which has you playing as the invading Locust, trying to eliminate a squad of humans. Once again, doing well grants you cash, which you can use to unlock stronger Locust units.

Spread over all of the game modes is an overarching experience point system. If you are the kind of person that sinks your teeth into multiplayer games, this will keep you busy for quite a while. Pretty much everything you do in the game will reward you with experience points, and increasing in level will unlock multiplayer skins and Achievements. There are also fifteen Mutators to unlock, which have a deliciously old-school feel to them. Five of them make the game easier (e.g. Infinite Ammo), five make the game harder (e.g. Active Reloading is mandatory), and five make the game sillier (e.g. Laugh Track). In addition there are dozens of medals and ribbons to earn for accomplishing certain feats. For example you get the Lumberjack ribbon every time you chainsaw three enemies in a row. As a side note: over the course of the campaign, I managed to earn over 100 Lumberjack ribbons.

Why do they even bother attaching guns to these things?


Overall, Gears of War 3 is a very good, highly polished game, clearly made by people who know what they’re doing. If you’re a multiplayer junkie, you probably already own it. If you prefer single-player/co-op games, particularly action games or shooters, I highly recommend at least renting it, inviting a buddy over, and playing through it in “couch mode.” It’s not high art, and the story (at least the one in the actual game) leaves much to be desired, but if you’re just looking for a game that’s fun as hell, you could do a lot worse. For now, I leave you with this comparison.

What point am I trying to make with this? None really. I just think it’s interesting.


One Comment

  1. Man, I wish I were still teaching high school. I was the faculty advisor of Game Club (it’s legit; we had carpet letters and everything), and one of my students brought in Gears of War 2 fairly often. Despite First-Person Shooters generally being an excuse to make a **** out of me, I was formidable with that chainsaw (which might have had a gun on it; I don’t remember). Too bad the big guys with the giant meat cleavers can’t be sawed up. I learned that one with the first (fatal) cleaver to the face. Good times…

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