The game’s arsenal provides a dizzying amount of options, each carefully balanced to a different tactical preference. For players who like to smell the breath of the enemy they’re taking out, the Gnasher is joined by ?a sawn-off shotgun that deals devastating wide-angle damage, but only at point-blank range (beware the agonising ten-second reload). A heavy-weapon version of the sniper rifle delivers the king of one-hit kills. The Digger grenade sends an explosive critter burrowing a straight trail beneath the ground like Bugs Bunny, only to pop up behind cover where it explodes. And the Vulcan, which requires a second player to carry its ammunition box, is essentially a Mulcher on steroids.
The remainder of the roughly 12-hour campaign offers a tightly paced sequence of combat challenges that span a wealth of locations. The beauty of what ?Epic has achieved with the Unreal Engine 3 cannot be understated, as moments continually arrive that inspire genuine awe. In a visit to the seaside village that Dom Santiago and his family once called home, you’re treated to a sleepy Mediterranean-style hamlet full of domed rooftops, worn cobbled paths and archways that frame the light of the sun slouching toward the horizon. A rescue mission through the woods on a full-moon night finds eerie shafts of moonlight filtering through craggy branches. If you fire on the imposing lobby window of one late-game architectural marvel, each pane of glass shatters in precisely the spot you target, breaking apart in shards that dangle briefly and tinkle to the floor.
Karen Traviss delivers a consistently engaging, funny and well-plotted script – your eyes will only ?roll on the few occasions she opts for a heavy-handed morsel that just barely avoids the phrase “a brighter tomorrow”. Most of the time you simply feel as though you’re tagging along with a crew of likeable, wise-cracking soldiers who care about each other, even as they swap affectionate barbs and shout down the enemy hordes. During an early firefight amidst the COG ship’s only food supply, Dom rages: “You fucked up our tomatoes, you assholes!” The fact that he’s deadly serious makes the gag that much more amusing.
While there are plenty of enticements to replay the campaign – the new Arcade mode will even keep a score tally for each co-op player – Gears 3’s numerous other multiplayer modes promise to keep a vast percentage of Gears 3 copies off the second-hand market for a good while. As series like Halo and Call Of Duty scramble to copy Gears 2’s popular survival mode, Horde, Gears 3’s forges ahead, embellishing the experience with tower-defence and RPG elements. Cash earned from killing enemies can be spent on building, upgrading and repairing fortifications such as spike strips, turrets ?and scarecrow-like decoys. Focusing on a specific ?type of fortification will add toward levelling up that category, which in turn gives discounts and enables you to build more effective varieties. The intermissions between waves pulse with tension as your team goes about its preparations industriously.
Beast Mode could easily have just flipped Horde on its head and kept the same exact rules, merely letting you play as the enemies of the Gears world. Instead you get a much more tactically driven experience in which you spend money on sending monsters into battle. Each time you scamper in with a Ticker and explode next to Stranded and COG hero NPCs, you bounce back to ?the monster selection screen. As you gain experience, ?you unlock new monster tiers. There’s something deliriously enjoyable about seeing a Ticker or Corpser or Berserker teammate and not instinctively leaping for safe quarters. And if you blow your cash, you’ll get well acquainted with the Ticker’s comical jihad.
The carnage of competitive multiplayer plays out across a slew of new, fabulously immersive locales. The Thrashball map offers the perfect setting for a round of Team Deathmatch, seamlessly marrying theme and function. Snag a Mulcher in the stands and mow down opponents on the field. Or indulge in close-quarters combat in the locker room or hallways running through the wings of the stadium, praying you don’t bump into someone with a sawn-off around the next corner. Epic has spent years honing competitive multiplayer, and it shows in each pulse-quickening standoff.
The degree of refinement and technical polish across every facet of Gears 3 is enough to make most other games look tatty. A few head-scratching nitpicks exist – one level toward the end of the campaign finds you bumbling about trying to fight in near total darkness – but they don’t chafe much. Even the legendary Marcus Fenix fluffs an active reload from time to time.
That conventional wisdom about dinosaur brain size? Mostly fallacious. Because the T-Rex had to hunt its prey on the run, it evolved excellent eyesight and a large brain. The conclusion of the Gears trilogy exhibits a similarly accomplished blend of might, scale and evolutionary rightness.
See our next issue, out September 27, for an interview Post Script with Gears Of War 3 writer Karen Traviss on war, zombies and keeping it real.