Gears of War is one of those games we've never really managed to get on with. Try as we might, there was always something that stopped us from really throwing ourselves into the series. Perhaps it was how serious, or, in the case of the first game, brown everything seemed - or maybe it was the difficulty level, which didn't exactly make the game that easy to pick up and play. With a huge, renewed emphasis on story, accessibility, and co-operative gameplay, however, Microsoft are hoping that Gears of War 3 will be one of the biggest releases this year - and it looks like they backed a winner.
For those new to the Gears of War series (and that probably includes us), there's a handy little video that explains the story so far. Even if you don't watch it though, there isn't really all that much to catch up with, as the story's fairly self contained. Unlike the first Gears of War, there's actually a decent story in place here - complete with characters that actually have character, and will drag you into their world.
The story revolves around a team of COG marines (that's the Coalition of Ordered Governments to me and you), who're embroiled in a three-way war on an Earth-like planet named Sera. Having faced off against the Locust, an army of mutated aliens that burst out from underground, who in turn are fighting a civil war against the Lambent Locust, a group of Locust who've fallen foul of a mutation, which leaves them covered in explosive pustules, Gears of War 3 picks up as the storyline comes to a head, but also adds a more personal aspect to things.
The game kicks off with a flashback, as the main character, Marcus Fenix, reminisces about the death of his father. Marcus, also then a member of the COG, was jailed and court-martialled for abandoning his post in an effort to save his father from the Locust attack - which ends in tragedy as the locust destroy a pillar, burying Marcus' father. Cutting back to reality, on board the warship Sovereign, you head to meet a character on deck, who hands you a disc, and advises you watch it. When you do so, you're met with a video of Marcus' father, who looks older, weaker, but most surprisingly, is still alive. He says he's being held by the Locust - and he might have a secret that could turn the tide of the war. All of a sudden, the battle just got a lot more personal.
Gears of War 3 is a third person shooter, which has designed to be taken at a slower pace than other games. Try as you might, you won't be able to simply run through these levels blasting everything in sight, as the enemy outnumber, and outgun you by a large margin. Luckily for you, there are plenty of places you can hide, and the game's been designed to make it easy for you to get into cover - simply press A near something that looks like you can cover behind it, and you'll dive behind the nearest crate, box, wall, or doorway, taking you out of the line of fire. From the safety of your cover spot, you can take refuge, only popping up every now and then to fire off a few shots at the locust horde, taking out huge numbers with relative ease - at least, until a ticker shows up.
You see, much like human beings, only to a much greater extreme, Locusts come in all shapes and sizes. From the tiny, ticking time bomb spiders that are the tickers, to the humongous, and rather deadly Gunkers, which fire huge blobs of explosive goo at you from half way across the level, you'll have to think on your feet if you want to stay alive. Whilst ducking behind cover will let you take pot shots at the smaller enemies, the Gunkers force you to keep on the move - luckily, tapping A will let you dive out of the way, too - if you're not standing near any cover.
Luckily for you, you're anything but alone out there, with a full team of three COGs to back you up. Supporting four player co-op for the first time in the series (although sadly only two in split-screen), Gears of War 3 plays best in co-op (once you've got past the first level, which is full of single player sections, anyway) - and it's always nice to have someone watching your back. Letting you distract huge Locusts wielding even bigger shields while your friend blasts their unprotected back, or simply having someone there to revive you when you get knocked down, having a partner there makes Gears 3 a lot easier - and a lot of effort's been put into making this the most accessible in the series so far. Even on normal, we were dispatching enemies with a lot less trouble than we used to, making Gears 3 the easiest to pick up and play in the series so far. Even in single player, you're not on your own, as your three AI buddies will revive you, watch your back, and even take out enemies by themselves - making your life a lot easier.
Whether you're playing on your own, or with a friend, though, Gears of War's story mode is something worth experiencing. A mish-mash of slow, narrative driven moments, that really reveal more about each of the characters, and adrenaline pumping, life or death battles against huge enemies that literally fill the entire screen, Gears treads the boundary almost perfectly between story and action, and would give the biggest summer blockbusters a run for their money on both counts.
It's helped along a lot by the strength of the characters, and the fact that, for a welcome change, Gears doesn't seem to be taking itself quite as seriously this time round. With a core contingent of characters that are oozing personality, such as Dom Santiago, a hugely muscle-bound man, who'd initially rather tend to his vegetables than repel the locust horde, to a large contingent of female marines, our favourite has to be the slapstick personality of Augustus "Cole Train" Cole, a world-famous thrashball player, up until the day the Locusts attacked. Calling everyone baby, running into battle with a "Whoo!", and generally brightening otherwise dire situations, the Cole Train brings some much needed comic relief - and, as a random standee you find in run-down grocery store says - "Cole Train runs on whole grain baby - whoo!" It even has hats you can find in the levels and wear!
Perhaps as a sign of its new, more accessible ideals, Gears of War 3 is packed with collectibles, too. Where the previous games simply had you collecting COG tags - the game's equivalent of dog tags, Gears 3 has you finding everything, from schematics, to diaries, to magazines, filling in parts of the back story, and giving you a greater insight into the world.
Things are helped along by a persistent levelling, and reward system, which lets you earn ribbons, medals, and level your character up both online and off, whether you're playing through the campaign (in Arcade mode, which gives you points for defeating locust), or one of the game's wide variety of multiplayer modes. In a brilliant move, and one other companies should follow, although there are rewards for levelling your character up (such as new character models), there's no unlockable guns, or anything that would give higher level players an unnecessary advantage over those just starting out - another sign of Microsoft's move to make Gears more accessible.
Once you've blasted your way through the game's story mode, however, there are plenty of other things to sink your teeth into here too. Horde mode, which debuted in Gears of War 2 returns, and sees you, and up to three friends fighting off wave after wave of increasingly powerful Locust. With added depth, you now have to choose a place to build your base, and then buy re-enforcements to go around it, such as barbed wire, which enemies get stuck on, buying you precious seconds to fire off more rounds, and gun turrets. When you first start out, you'll only really have access to barbed wire - but the more you play, and the more you level up your character (and the more re-enforcements you buy in Horde mode), the better equipment you'll unlock. As a new addition for Gears of War 3, Horde mode is accompanied by Beast mode, which puts you in the shoes of the Locust, attacking the COG forces.
So far, so great for Gears of War 3 - but sadly, there is one problem we have with the multiplayer mode, or, more specifically, the downloadable content available on day one. On going into the game's multiplayer menu, you can choose to customise your gun, by applying a skin to it which changes its colour to one of a number of patterns. Disappointingly, there's an incredibly limited number of shades of grey available for you to choose from - and then 22 more with little dollar signs next to them (admittedly, one of these is for charity, and so isn't subject to our complaint). The problem here is that these skins are all already on the disc, and should be available for you to use - but, for reasons known only to Microsoft, they've been locked, and if you want to use them, you're going to have to pay extra to unlock them. It's worth remembering here that this isn't an Xbox Live Arcade game, or budget release, where a publisher might be looking to make a bit more of a profit after charging a low entry price - this is a game that cost £49.99 to £99.99, depending on which version you've bought, and then wants to charge you more to fully customise your character. It's a pretty underhand tactic, and, for a game with an RRP of £49.99, we expected better. From Microsoft and Epic, we expected better.
Charging to unlock a skin for a weapon that's already on the disc is low - after all, many of these skins were already present in the beta which ran over the summer, so it's incredibly unlikely that they were added extras that didn't get finished in time for the launch - and, unfortunately, the only thing you can do if you want to protest is to not buy any of the skins, no matter how cheap they are. Any money spent on the skins is money that wouldn't otherwise have made, and simply justifies their cause - if this is a success, it's something we can expect to be rolled out to other games in the future. Imagine having to pay to change your character's hair style on Mass Effect, or colour your armour on Halo. Things that have always been taken for granted in the game, that are now starting to be held back, and charged extra for - turned into a privilege, rather than something included in your entry fee. To be honest, we're just annoyed because there's a pink and a rainbow skin in there - but rather than being able to use them, they want us to pay extra to unlock something that's already on the disc. Like the Dire Straits would say, it literally is money for nothing. In a fit of generosity, the skins will be available in one bundle at a discount on day one. Great - a discount on something that's already on the disc, and should therefore have been included in the RRP in the first place. Thanks, but no thanks.
And all that really does is put a sour taste in our mouth, and a sour end to our review of Gears of War 3 - which is a bit rubbish, because it's otherwise a really, really impressive game. Improving on absolutely everything the original got wrong, Gears 3 is accessible, at times funny, and comes packing a deep, involving storyline to keep you going. With pick up and play co-op gameplay, a great selection of multiplayer modes, plenty of split-screen for girlfriend/boyfriend sessions, and a learning curve that's a lot, lot more forgiving than the original, there really aren't that many reasons not to buy Gears of War 3. It's better than we'd ever imagined.
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360