'Gears of War 3' review: Steroid poetry for a global hangover

Have you ever been inside of a frat house the morning after a big party? It is a digusting sight, a truly singular vision of decadence corroded into misery. The first thing you notice is the smell: Half-empty beer cans spilling warm gutter alcohol onto damp floors, the foot-stench of dance-floor sweat that has hardened into human mildew, a few half-eaten pizzas lying around the kitchen, cigarettes on the porch. You will see thrown chairs, busted lights, probably a window broken. Lovingly-assembled party decorations have been torn to pieces. The poor sap who fell asleep on the community couch has unmentionable things scrawled across his face in permanent marker. A few girls are sneaking out the back exit, debating whether last night was a mistake. Eventually, around noon, the frat dudes wake up and start the clean-up process. As they mop up cocktail residue and fill trash cans with red cups, they all have the same sour expression on their face. (The bigger the party, the worse the hangover.) All they want to do is go back to sleep. But someone has to clean up the mess.

That is a close approximation to what it feels like to play through the Gears of War trilogy, which comes to a fascinating, flawed end today with the long-awaited release of Gears of War 3. (This being a videogame series, I should note that “comes to an end” really means “reaches a satisfyingly ending-ish pause point before the inevitable cut-rate cash-in prequel-sequel bonanza, Halo-style.”)

The Gears franchise is set in a world that used to be beautiful, but has long since descended into grime and devastation. The ruined cities resemble war photography from Belgrade and Iraq and Blitz-era London. The third Gears expands the scope of devastation in every direction, sending you on a floating tour of a desert wasteland and on a submarine voyage through a sunken city. The Gears designers cherrypicked their world’s architectural design from various sources — ancient Rome, mid-century suburban London, Blade Runner-ish sprawl — so you feel a little bit like you’re taking a tour through all of human history, a post-apocalyptic safari.

The first Gears was praised for its technical innovations. Designer Cliff Bleszinski and the Epic Games crew didn’t invent the duck-and-cover shooting style, but they did perfect it: Playing Gears was an enjoying mix of brain-teasing strategy and enjoyably straightforward Kill-the-bastards! thrills. Tom Bissell, who wrote the definitive profile of Bleszinski for The New Yorker in 2008, has noted that the visceral gameplay of Gears of War feels more like hand-to-hand combat than typical gunplay.

But the Gears of War franchise has been a victim of its own massively influential success; pretty much every shooting game has aped its gameplay and its grit-grandeur aesthetic. So Gears of War 3 is the first game that really has to stand on its own merits, without the thrill of innovation. Does it succeed? Honestly, it’s hard to say. If you’re someone who buys games like this strictly for the multiplayer experience, then this third game will not disappoint. The graphics look better than Gears of War 2. The maps are slightly more complicated than Gears of War 2. The new “Beast Mode,” which allows you to play as enemy Locust, seems just addictive enough to potentially destroy your chances of getting into a top-tier college or career.

There was a time when videogame sequels felt like evolutionary leaps forward: Compare the straightforward Super Mario Bros. to the candy-colored Super Mario Bros. 3, or the top-down tomfoolery of Grand Theft Auto 2 to the ridiculously expansive world-building of Grand Theft Auto 3. Nowadays, sequels feel less like genuine steps forward and more like perfected visions of an original concept, with the rough edges sanded off and the boundaries expanded ever so slightly. You could say that Gears of War was the rough draft, Gears of War 2 the revised post-workshop draft, and Gears of War 3 the final product. So I guess the Gears of War 3 multiplayer system is probably the very best Gears of War multiplayer system that has ever existed, although it certainly seemed more enjoyable when it was rougher and newer half-a-decade ago.

NEXT: Surely the saddest rendition of “Mad World” this side of Donnie Darko.

Comments (36 total) Add your comment
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  • Therealeverton

    My wife is a woman. Like millions of others she manages to watch & play GOW without laughing; except at the insane difficulty of playing the thing of course…

    • And by GOW

      You must mean God of War.

      • Therealeverton

        No Gears of War all the way. 1 & 2…

  • Nerwen Aldarion

    I love Gears and I’m proud to admit to being a girl gamer, can’t wait to pick it up today!

    • Therealeverton

      Outstanding!

  • Matt W

    I’m getting it on lunch today. I haven’t been excited for a game like this since Red Dead Redemption.

    • Nathan

      Just had a flashback of playing Red Dead for hours on end, still might be the greatest game I’ve ever played.

      • ace

        Right!

    • Danny

      Im getting it at lunch time too (1:30pm), counting down the minutes right about now lol

  • Brett

    Finally, somebody who actually understands what Gears is about.

  • Therealeverton

    Also I’m a little bit concerned byt the idea od kids growing up on Gears of War. They aren’t kids games at all! I don’t even play them in front of my kids for crying out loud! Over here (Britain) games can be rated just like films and the Gears games are all certificate 18; the idea of anyone under 15 playing them would mortify many.

    • Monty

      I’ve played on xbox live with many many kids that have obviously not had their voices drop yet…that’s not an endorsement. It does bother me that parents let their kids play games like GoW (and before you go off on the USA, many of the kids had british accents, so its not just americans letting their kids play violent video games. Apathy is worldwide).

      That being said, according to UPS, my copy is currently waiting for me at home! It’s going to be a late night…

      • Therealeverton

        I have played on-line with people from all over that were clearly far too young. If anything it’s worse here because the games have great bif 18 certificate signs all over them so parents should know the games aren’t for kids.

  • Lindsay

    I’m a woman, and I’ve been a fan of Gears since day one. Now, I’ll admit that the first thing that drew me to the series was the Mad World commercial for the first game, but what kept me playing was the innovative game play and storyline. I may not look like a stereotypical gamer, but what I love about games like this, is the fact that they do draw all kinds of demographics. My younger, 17 year old sister, is also a huge Gears fan, and we plan on beating the campaign together this weekend. Thanks for not spoiling anything!

  • hkr

    ive never played it before, the game i absolutely love is mass effect, is it anything like that? particularly story wise?

    • E-geek

      not at all! I love both series but Mass Effect is RPG, GOW linear action/adventure. The outcome of GOW and who dies is predetermined, your choices in ME effect the ending and who dies. Check out the Deus Ex: Human Revolution for more ME2 style gameplay

  • Shannon S

    It always surprised me that Gears of War gets so much press, but the Resistance games (which are similar in style and storyline) for PS3 gets so little. I’m playing Resistance 3 right now (it was released 2 weeks ago), and it’s without a doubt one of the most exciting games I’ve played in years. I’ve always heard good things about Gears, but I chose the PS3 over X-Box 360 and just don’t have the money to own both. Games like Gears of War always make me wonder if I picked the right one.

    • The resistance franchise

      is so fantastic. U def picked the right one

    • Skye Hill

      The problem with Resistance is that the first game was OK, the second game was abysmal, and the third is good and then really bad at the end, and worst of all the multiplayer is a joke. Gears gets more press than Resistance because its an infinitely better series of games.

  • StemCellFajita

    To answer your question, Nazi Zombies.

  • Leo

    So excited to play this game all night till the wee hours of the morning and go to work all bleary eyed and repeat the same pattern until i finish the campaign.

  • Amanda

    “The franchise could be cheesy, and it could overdose on its own testosterone; I can’t imagine a woman watching two seconds of Gears of War without laughing hysterically”

    I take some offense to this. I’m proud to be a fan of the Gears franchise and a woman. Just because there aren’t daisy and rainbows in the game, it’s not for women? I think the comic-y, high level of testosterone in the story and mood are what make the game style unique. I am a fan of having the female character options for multiplayer, but I’ll probably be staying true to Dom for the third game.

    • Darren Franich

      Hey Amanda,

      I want to personally respond to your comment, because I’m worried that what I wrote has been misunderstood. I’m not saying that women only like games with daisies and rainbows. I’ve played “Gears” against women who have ripped me to pieces. (For that matter, I’ve known plenty of totally badass women who could literally rip me to pieces in real life. For that matter, I actually like games with daisies and rainbows. Gender is fluid, women and men can all enjoy the same things, and anyone who says differently is an idiot.)

      What I was trying to get at was that the particular tone of “Gears of War” feels to me like it has a lot in common with a male-weepie like “Field of Dreams” or “Rocky” or “The Bucket List” or even “Entourage” or some of the later episodes of “Lost” where the motif about daddy issues become the main plotline. “Gears of War” is all about dudes who are the very definition of DUDE — strong like a lumberjack, tough like a linebacker, cold-hearted killers — who nevertheless have the massive emotions of a schoolboy, have been traumatized by emotionally-distant father figures, and, most notably of all, seem far less interested in any kind of romantic relationship than they do in maintaining their own male friendships.

      I assumed that, when taken to such a ridiculous extreme, those male fascinations would seem a bit silly to some women, kind of like how some of the badass women I have known laugh at early-00s rap-rock because it’s such a mock-hardcore interpretation of emotions that wouldn’t look out of place in a freshman-year poetry seminar at an all-boys’ prep school.

      Of course, plenty of women cry at male-weepies, just like plenty of men cry reading “Little Women.” So my statement was so ridiculously sweeping that it could be proven inaccurate almost immediately. But I feel terrible that it seems to have given people the idea that I don’t think women can enjoy “Gears of War.” I want to state for the record: If I gave that impression, then that is my bad, and I apologize. Women can enjoy “Gears of War” and can almost certainly kick ass at “Gears of War.”

      That being said, the fact that there are no real female characters in “Gears of War” should maybe aggravate female “Gears of War” players more than it does. It’s nice that there are playable woman characters in “Gears 3,” but they feel barely even sketched out compared to Dom or Coal Train or even freaking Baird. Queen Myrrah is the only really interesting female character in the games, and without spoiling anything, I think people will be extremely disappointed by her role in “Gears 3.”

      But of course, there are plenty of people who zip through the campaign and then play “Gears” for years on multiplayer, where the only characters that matter are the players. So maybe it doesn’t matter that the series doesn’t have any real female characters. The point is: We can all laugh and cry or respond however we want to while experiencing the testosterone-heavy absurdity and occasional profundity of “Gears of War.”

      -Darren

  • Miranda

    Women would laugh at the funny parts like any other game. I proudly waited four hours in line last night for this game. I’m a woman by the way – and I enjoy shoot ‘em up games as much as the next person. Next time, try not to be so sexist.

  • Brian Bouton

    Thanks for spoiling the “Mad World” surprise and the location of the beach ending for everyone then having the nerve to say you wouldn’t risk spoiling either scene. Try to look up spoilers in the future to see what they are before writing these reviews.

    • Monty

      They use a song. The game ends on a beach.

      Oh my god, ITS RUINED!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      Its not like darren said that it is revealed that Marcus and Anya are brother and sister, Dom’s wife was cloned and is still alive, and Cole mercy kills C. Carmine.

      Woops…

      ;)

  • E-geek

    I’m a girl who was in line at midnight to buy my copy-give me cheesy male dialogue and overdose of testosterone any day over typical chick-lit, chick-flick crap. Laughing at the dialogue isn’t merely for women- you should see my guy friends laugh and groan at the cheesiness.

    Another thing I love about the series is the multiple ethnicities of the characters. Its not made into a big deal, it just is what it is. Its interesting that video games are more likely to embrace diversity than the vast majority of other art forms (looking at you tv shows and movies)

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