Gears Of War 3 is for a culture that’s lived the past decade against the backdrop of a slogging war. The concluding chapter of the first Gears trilogy is suffused with weariness and despair. The hero characters in Delta Squad are forced to confront myriad ways in which humans’ struggle to control Imulsion, an underground liquid energy source, has destroyed multiple societies. The story features all the nuance of a Michael Bay film, and reaches for big emotional brass rings it isn’t strong enough to heft. And yet repeated confrontations with grim pockets of desperate survivors hammer home a familiar point: War is grimy fucking hell. The narrative setting is nearly as potent as the gameplay.
Surprisingly, Gears 3 reserves subtlety for that gameplay. Basics are still outlined in bold strokes: dash to cover, hunker down, blast enemies into chunks. But cover is now deformable, and occasionally movable, thanks to Aliens-esque powerloaders. Levels are wide-open compared to past chapters, with endless opportunities to flank and surprise the opposition. The battle-scarred landscape finally makes the availability of cover feel appropriate, as every location has been ravaged by combat.
Gears 2 featured two-character co-op; 3 ups the ante to four. With friends commanding those fighters, Gears 3 blossoms into a tactical delight that far surpasses the pleasures of the previous two chapters. A handful of new weapons round out the available arsenal such that a four-player squad can easily outfit itself as a potent, adaptable killing machine. Wait, wasn’t war supposed to suck?
As the gameplay seeks to undermine Gears 3’s thematic outlook, it gets an assist from a supremely polished presentation. The story campaign has flow a master MC would admire. When railed shooter segments crop up, the assembly feels far more organic than the patched-together ideas of the previous sequel. An underwater segment late in the game is more beautiful than almost anything else in gaming in 2011.
Tables are turned on human forces in the Beast multiplayer mode, which emulates the returning Horde mode from Gears 2. Instead of controlling humans facing waves of monsters, players seek to pulverize the characters they’ve played through the trilogy. Beast does nothing to support the war-weary narrative, however, because seeing this war from the enemy perspective is far too much fun.