It's hard to believe that almost five years have passed since Emergence Day. The bane of the humans on Sera was a boon for the gamers on Earth, as we plunged headlong into a grim new world of brutal, cover-based combat and gorgeous visuals. Now the third-person shooter trilogy comes to a superb climax in Gears of War 3. Building on the savage shoot-outs and merciless melees of its predecessors, Gears of War 3 hones the series' signature action to a wickedly sharp edge. Cooperative and competitive opportunities are broader and better than ever, but the most stunning achievement is the campaign. It's an exhilarating, emotional, and thoroughly satisfying finale for the series, and it makes Gears of War 3 one of the best shooters of the year.
Things haven't been good for the Gears since the first cutscene of the series, and this time around, the human race is really on the ropes. Having sacrificed their last civilized holdout in a desperate bid to destroy the Locust, they now cling to survival in isolated forts and on ships, teetering on the verge of annihilation. The included "Previously On…" video gives you a disappointingly meager refresher, but the first act of the campaign sets the tone beautifully. It starts with a surreal surprise that undermines your expectations right from the get-go, and then it reacquaints you with Delta Squad. Marcus grumbles about taking orders while Dom cultivates plants, and this brief moment of quiet offers a nice contrast to the chaos moments later when Marcus is barking out orders and Dom is threatening to kill the enemies that mess up his garden.
Gears of War has always done brash well, and this game is no exception. A salty new female squad member named Sam gives Baird a run for his sarcastic money, and the Cole Train barrels along, full steam ahead. Some of his lines are groan-worthy, while some are genuinely amusing, and the same holds true for many characters in the game. Regardless of whether you cringe or chuckle, the dialogue does a great job of creating a sense of camaraderie that bonds both new and old members of Delta Squad into a cohesive unit. Their fraternal connection makes you feel like you know the characters well, and sets the stage for the outstanding campaign to come.
An early revelation shocks Marcus Fenix, but you get only a glimpse of internal turmoil as he overrides his emotions to be the leader his squad needs. It isn't until halfway through the first act that the game really flexes its storytelling muscle. Stepping out of Marcus Fenix's boots, you play as Cole Train on a foraging mission to the town where he earned his reputation as a star athlete. Your first encounter with his past includes a simple line that foreshadows the journey you are about to take: "You ever feel like you're dead, but nobody told you?" As you catch more and more snippets of the life that used to be, the horrifying reality of the life that is begins to sink in deeper than it ever did before. By the time you see this chapter through its hallucinatory climax, you don't just have a whole new understanding of Augustus Cole; you have a richer understanding of what it must be like for everyone still alive on this war-ravaged planet. As the campaign progresses, different characters, environments, and situations intertwine to further flesh out your emotional investment in this world. Gears of War 3 delivers some truly poignant moments and boasts some of the best storytelling ever seen in a shooter, complemented by great facial animation, an expressive soundtrack, and excellent pacing.
As you journey from ship to shore and beyond, you visit a variety of beautifully designed locations. Improvised settlements of human and Locust alike convey the desperate state of Seran surface dwellers and contrast starkly with the areas humans have forsaken. These places all have meaningful connections to the story, so every narrative detour feels natural. The same goes for the gameplay detours. Logical on-rails vehicle sequences link major locations, providing exciting interludes that last just long enough to add some welcome diversity. The only vehicles you actually pilot are squat exoskeletons that move like a bulkier, robotic version of you. They are used sparingly and handle well, offering a heady feeling of destructive power. Gears of War 3 doles out cutscenes, combat, and changes of pace in skillful measure, and maintains this delicate balance within the on-foot firefights.
Conflict zones vary widely in size and shape. Claustrophobic rooms channel you straight into your enemies, while larger areas give you plenty of room to flank your foes. Such spacious locations often play host to a new type of enemy spawn point, the Lambent stalk. Like the emergence holes before it, the stalk must be damaged to stanch the flow of enemies, and this can require some active maneuvering on your part. You need to use cover to stay alive, but you also must venture out into the field of fire to stop these spawn points and locate powerful weapons to wield against your foes. Returning favorites like the Mortar and Mulcher are joined by the One Shot (guess how it got that name) and the massive Vulcan, a devastating minigun that can only be moved by two people. Most of your arsenal is made up of guns that will be familiar to series veterans, providing a gruesome and satisfying array of ways to deal death at all ranges. Bullets still hit their marks with gratifying squish noises, and roaring chainsaws proclaim that the tried-and-true combat mechanics are once again in top form.
The pace and intensity of combat change drastically depending on your difficulty level and how many cooperative teammates you have along for the ride. The Gears of War 3 campaign supports four-player online co-op throughout (and two-player splitscreen), and it is an absolute blast to play with friends. Having actual humans on your team increases the campaign's natural sense of camaraderie, though the friendly AI still creates very capable companions. Still, having more folks along for the ride makes the battlefield feel more lively and encourages you to vary your play style to support and complement your teammates. Cooperative campaign play is one of the most exciting and rewarding modes that Gears of War 3 offers, and it's easy to drop in and out of a friend's game. It's a little trickier to join a public game, because you have to limit your search by act and difficulty level, but once you've found a match, you quickly take control of a Gear and start shooting. You can also play the campaign in Arcade mode and earn points for every enemy you kill. Racking up a big multiplier and notching a high score is gratifying, just as getting downed and watching your multiplier slip away is frustrating. Teamwork is crucial to high scores because you share a score multiplier, so a downed ally translates to points lost. A variety of Mutators let you mess with battlefield conditions to make things easier (every melee hit causes an explosion), harder (friendly fire is enabled), or just flat-out goofy (dialogue is complemented by a laugh track).
If you're looking to test your skills against other people in a more direct way, the Versus mode provides a bunch of great maps upon which to do battle. Up to 10 players can clash in a variety of game types, including staples like Team Deathmatch and King of the Hill. Other types make good use of specific gameplay mechanics, like Capture the Leader (hold an enemy hostage) and Execution (only executions will kill players). You can now resurrect yourself if you are downed, provided you have enough time, which adds extra incentive to close in for the kill. Furthermore, a number of these Versus game types have limited respawn counts, creating the possibility for some incredibly tense final showdowns. Death can come quickly on these battlefields, especially if you get close enough to put the new sawed-off shotgun to work. Fortunately, newcomers can play in a kiddie pool of sorts before swimming with the sharks. A beginners-only multiplayer lobby ensures that you have a chance to compete against other novices and learn the ropes without getting mercilessly slaughtered at every turn. Once you join the murderous multiplayer hordes, you find that skillful movement is almost as crucial as skillful shooting. The difference between slow players and nimble players is more drastic here than in other shooters, meaning that with some practice, you can navigate these maps significantly faster than your opponents. This makes for a special breed of competition that deftly serves up the thrill of a great kill as well as the heartbreak of seeing your own intestines paint the floor.
Two distinct cooperative modes offer even more great Gears gameplay. The Horde mode introduced in Gears of War 2 makes a return here, once again pitting up to five human players against wave after wave of bloodthirsty Locust. This time around, however, you can use money earned by killing Locust to build fortifications and bolster your defenses. From a simple row of spikes to a makeshift turret to an apparently very convincing cardboard decoy, each element helps you deal with the enemy in a different way. The more you build, the better your improvements get and the better your chances of survival. You can only build between waves, however, and your resources are limited. Deciding what to build, what to repair, and when to save your money can make the difference between a long, successful run and a short, brutal run. This engaging strategic element livens up the already-frantic moments between waves when you are scrambling around to replenish your weapon stores from the guns your enemies dropped. Once the next wave begins, these assets disappear and it's just you, your teammates, and your defenses. Struggling to survive is an exciting challenge, and the extra tactical depth makes it that much more enjoyable.
Beast mode offers you a taste of how the other half lives. This is essentially an inverse Horde mode in which you (and up to four teammates) spawn as the Locust and try to slaughter increasingly strong groups of human survivors. Playing as the bad guy is every bit as sinister and satisfying as you want it to be, and like in Horde mode, you earn currency for all your gleeful murders. You then spend this resource to spawn as the type of Locust of your choosing, from the humble Ticker to the hulking Berserker. Time limits can be pretty tough in the early going, which forces you to aggressively seek out your prey. It can definitely take some trial and error to get the hang of each type of creature, and you may find yourself trying to execute a familiar maneuver but failing to do so. Not all Locust can use cover, for example, and sometimes your healing screams seem to stick in your throat. Fortunately, once you've worked it all out, Beast mode makes for some gory and challenging fun, with a range of difficulty levels that make it accessible to anyone.
In fact, accessibility is one of the strengths of Gears of War 3. Though it is an undeniably intense shooter, it scales very well to accommodate a range of skill levels. This is just one facet of the pervasive attention to detail that suffuses the whole game and gives you the sense that you are experiencing the pinnacle of the series. From the taut Versus competition to the two great cooperative modes, Gears of War 3 delivers immensely entertaining experiences on both sides of The Locust War. But the real triumph is the campaign, a masterpiece of exciting gameplay and emotional storytelling that stands head and shoulders above its predecessors. Even if you don't remember where you were on Emergence Day, this is one adventure you won't soon forget.