One of the poster boys for Microsoft’s formerly new-fangled Xbox 360, the Gears of War trilogy reaches its conclusion in dramatic fashion with this third and final instalment. The occasion is given extra gravitas by the knowledge that once the end credits roll, you will never again hear the gruff yet seductive voice of Marcus Fenix, nor gaze longingly upon his furrowed brow.
And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything. The franchise makes too much money for this to be the end, and with talk of a film in the works, not to mention a fifth novel scheduled for next year, these gears may yet have a few more turns in them.
This is it for now however, and the gang’s all here, looking and behaving largely as they did in the 2006 debut. The idiosyncratic third-person control system is present and correct, replete with the trademark barrelling ‘roadie run,’ a tribute to hairy-arsed sound technicians everywhere. Convenient cover points proliferate every level, and a wide variety of weaponry and ammunition is to be found lying around on the ground. Some fairly major plot twists are thrown at you from the off, and without giving away too much, characters considered dead or gone mysteriously reappear. There are enough story-based shenanigans to keep Gears enthusiasts happy, but more pressingly there is a new enemy in town in the shape of the Lambent, weird tree-like creatures that emerge from the earth and spit out the more traditional locust enemy. In real terms, it’s something else to shoot at, and some of the new creatures explode in particularly satisfying fashion.
Gunfire is a near constant throughout the campaign, as Marcus is joined by a rotating squad of three teammates, either playable co-operatively or AI-controlled. As such, there are a lot of bodies on screen at any one time, and in the midst of a firefight it’s not uncommon for a stray bullet to hit one of your muscle-bound colleagues. Thankfully, friendly fire only stretches as far as terse verbal admonishment - this is by no means a military simulator. It’s fair to say that Gears is action-oriented; indeed stealth is jokingly alluded to on a couple of occasions before swiftly being scoffed at in a hail of gunfire.
In the course of the campaign, you’ll rack up the obligatory enormous body count while taking in some particularly exotic locations in what proves to be something of a personal odyssey for many of the team. For instance, former sports star Augustus ‘Cole Train’ Cole visits his home stadium, now a burnt out shell housing a handful of human survivors. You actually play as the chirpy Cole in these levels, as Marcus is busy elsewhere in a concurrent mission (that you also play) that all ties up quite cleverly. It’s the taciturn Marcus all the way from there on however, with other characters chipping in their thoughts on the fly.
There is a lot of chat in Gears 3, and it sometimes feels as if you’re little more than a lackey brought in to shoot a few monsters in order to trigger the next cut scene. On the easier levels at least, the game largely plays itself, and even when you’re supposedly in control, Marcus spends a lot of time with a radio pressed to his ear advancing the plot. There are also a few ‘on-rails’ sections, including an underwater bit that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a mid-90s Full Motion Video game (on six CD-ROMs).
While there is of course plenty of action, ultimately it’s all about the spectacle and the story. Indeed, following a key event just over halfway through there’s a lengthy dramatic sequence featuring a familiar song associated with the series. Depending on your emotional investment, it’s either incredibly moving or a little bit cheesy. And despite the overtly macho posturing, there’s more than a hint of mawkishness.
As ever, the multiplayer is an acquired taste, with the cover-based system making it a slightly more level playing field for those without the lightning reflexes required for the likes of Call Of Duty. Six different 'versus' modes are available, from traditional Team Deathmatch to King Of The Hill, and a couple of twists such as Capture the Leader. Elsewhere, Beast and Horde are essentially survival-based affairs, whether playing as human or locust.
For the two or three evenings it takes to plough through the single player campaign, Gears Of War 3 is a thoroughly engaging experience, and at least you’re never in danger of getting stuck. You can be safe in the knowledge that you’re having almost exactly the same experience as everyone else playing it, with scripted sequences and - apart from three or four times where you have to choose left or right - an almost entirely linear approach: kill the boss, save the day. While it sometimes feels like you’re just along for the ride, it is admittedly one hell of a ride.
The Gears Of War trilogy comes to an end in largely triumphant fashion, with a spectacular conclusion to the multi-million selling series. This is a slick modern blockbuster, an impossibly macho, action-oriented story-driven beast of a game that ties up the loose ends amidst a frenzy of exploding monsters, spectacular set pieces, and earnest cut scenes.
Videogames can do so much more, but this is mainstream gaming writ large, and complaining at the lack of ingenuity or intellectual rigour is a bit like bemoaning a Bruce Willis movie for not being in French. This is what you want: this is what you get.