Monday, September 26, 2011

Why Gears of War 3 Matters

In 2006, Microsoft had some pretty rough waters they were about to sail.

Sony, who had crushed Microsoft's original Xbox and Nintendo's Gamecube with the Playstation 2, was about to release the PS3.

Nintendo, was getting ready for a "revolution" with motion control, and was about to release the Wii, which wasn't competing with Sony or Microsoft on a graphical or controller level.

With Microsoft already having a year ahead of both systems, it was on good footing, but aside from Halo which wasn't coming out until 2007, they didn't have a killer app or known franchise to rest on to prevail them through this tidal wave; that is until Gears of War came out.

The first Gears of War is exactly what the Xbox 360 needed to conquer. It was a great controlling game, with an excellent and easy-to-use cover system, that had violence galore coupled with excellent graphics that showcased the power of the 360. Plus, it had great multiplayer, satisfying shooter fans with longevity after the single player campaign was over. It was the perfect storm all wrapped in one game.

We were also blessed with one of the sexiest creations ever—the lancer gun.

With Sony's PS3 being $500 - $600 (a severally expensive pill to swallow) and no "must-have" game and Nintendo's Wii just having a bunch of games for your grandparents to play, Gears of War paved the way for Microsoft to dominate the "hardcore" gaming market to what it is today.

That Was Then, This Is Now...

Fast forward to 2011, and a lot has changed in gaming, let alone with shooters. Not a year later after Gears of War was released both Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare were released. Halo 3 appealed to many fans and was an amazing game in its own right, but regardless of what your feelings are towards COD4, that game revolutionized online gaming and shooters.

It's perk/reward/leveling system has been copied so much, almost every game that includes multiplayer copies it. Even racing games like the highly unappreciated Blur copied it. Games like Borderlands and Crysis 2 have copied its control layout (and Crysis 2 copied its multiplayer almost exactly) for consoles as the defacto standard for what FPS games should feel like on consoles.

Once upon a time this game was fresh, and not milked to death.

Let's not forget that Gears of War 2 was also a bit of a mess. The online was broken when it came out, it suffered from host advantage, bullet lag, a multitude of game-breaking bugs, and the "grappling" cover system that seemed worse than the first game as players would randomly stick to things they didn't mean to. The game certainly turned off a lot of players that were into GOW1 and some that may never return to the franchise.

Some fans were so upset, they sent these lovely letters to Epic.

So in a Call of Duty world, where FPS's reign supreme and where even the most casual of player has prestiged, how does Gears of War 3 remain relevant and why should it still be considered so? Let's discuss.

1. The enemies/creatures.

GOW3 takes place in a futuristic, alien, dystopia. What this allows for is some fantastical creatures, weapons, stories and vistas to see.

Looking at the heavy hitters coming out this yearBattlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3you're main enemies in those games are going to be terrorist. They're evil and planning on world destruction, but let's be frank here; you're going to shoot some tanks, helicopters and some regular ol' dudes. Nothing really special or standout, and certainly nothing you haven't seen before.

What other games this year is going to let you fight a T-Rex-sized monster that shoots Gatling guns and rockets at you?

None. No other game, that's what.

Or not only kill, but play as a giant armored spider?

Aptly named "corpser."

Or play and kill a giant walking tank of a monster known as the "lambent bezerker?"

When you get to control this in "Beast Mode," it's a magical experience.

GOW creature design is the reason we play games to begin with; a fun way to escape reality and see what our imaginations make up. Jumping back into another brown desert stopping another possible nuclear attempt against regular humans isn't as fantastical as taking down these creatures.

You've got to see the bezerker in action.

2. The story and characters.

It's easy to write-off the GOW story line as having as much depth as a Michael Bay film. For the most part, this is true. The first game can easily be summed up by: Locusts attack, Delta Squad attacks back.

The series really tried to captivate a more emotional side on the second game, however. With Dom trying to find his wife Maria. Most of the game is spent with the Gears trying desperately and frantically to fight back an enemy they are losing against, while Dom searches in hopes of finding his wife. When he finally does, it's a heart breaking scene.

The game does a great job of tricking you too...

Though the game still suffers from a lot of the gruff action-hero, one-liner dialogue, this scene is hard to not give the writers some credit.

In GOW3, after the drastic events of the second game which might or might not have been a huge mistake to sink the main city Jacinto, it seems humanity has lost. The Gears are simply fighting for survival. This is where the characters personalities come in and flesh out the story.

Let's be honest Marcus Fenix, though iconic now, is still pretty one-dimensional. Nothing seems to break his spirit (he does show a little more humanity towards the end though). The supporting cast however; Dom, Cole, Baird, Anya, Sam, Jace, Dizzy and even the lovable silent robot Jack, all have a personality that helps them carry the game.

Cole, who was once an enthusiastic "nothing breaks my spirit or gets me down" kind of guy, is reminded of his previous life as a star and has one of the most memorable and hopeless yet human quotes in the game when confronted with the reality he now lives. Baird remains the comic relief that even in the face of adversity, can still crack jokes when everything seems lost. Dom looks rugged and beaten down after the loss of his wife, and his character model even shows this. Anya and new comer Sam also add a lot to the story.

Love them or hate them, the "Gears" do have a lot of personality.

That's what makes GOW3 standout. Instead of having another FPS where you're character is silent and faceless with zero personality, here you trade off with characters who you can see them grit their teeth, lose hope in their eyes, and finally overcome adversity. Their personalities are even woven into them while fighting and in the multiplayer. Find me a person who picks Cole and doesn't yell "Woo!" out loud.

3. The graphics and vistas.

The first GOW really showed what "next gen" graphics were for this generation, and that makes sense considering that Epic, the creators of GOW, are also the creators of the Unreal Engine 3 that is used to power and create most graphic engines in most of the games on the market.

That said the GOW franchise has had one consistent complaintit sure is filled with a lot of grays and brown. While GOW3 does have its fair share of this, it does a great job of trying to add more visuals and colors to its palette. During Chapter 5 of the game, you are treated with some superb visuals of golden hotels on a tropical paradise. Even the multiplayer map "Sandbar" represents GOW3's new luscious island vista with vibrant greenery and blue oceans.

It's also one of the biggest maps

GOW3 treats you with the best the Unreal Engine 3 has to offer and also, credit is given to the artist. Whereas in modern shooters you are stuck with going through modern city scapes we've all seen, the buildings in Sera (the planet GOW takes place on) all have a gothic take on them.

Gears of War has always had stunning architecture to look at.

It's truly amazing the amount of lighting, detail in environments and characters has been shown with this game. I'm sure Battlefield 3 will compete in terms of horsepower, but as far as artistic vision, I doubt it will compete with the awe-inspiring visuals GOW3 has.

Uncanny valley, you have met your match.

4. The gameplay.

I don't think it's hyperbole when GOW franchise is considered the best cover-based shooter. It's quick, it's fast and has the controls down. GOW1 and 2 could be argued that they needed some work, especially considering you always felt that your character could only move in a four-way plane and not in diagonals. Also, it was very easy to get stuck to cover you didn't intend to.

Smooth, like a baby's ass.

GOW3 controls like butter. It's silky smooth. Never once have I gotten stuck on things I didn't intend to and the game has a true sense of eight-way moving on a plane and they made button changes that brilliantly speed the game up.

Perhaps the best change to the gameplay is to Horde mode and the addition of Beast mode. GOW2 added the beloved Horde mode that many games afterwards copied. This addition is brilliant in that it allows people to play online with friends in a non competitive environment. Instead, players work together to overcome waves and waves of AI opponents.

Horde mode in GOW3 ups the ante by making more enemies and harder enemies come at you along with the a currency system in place for the players. While facing off, you're given a set amount of in-game money to use to set up defenses in a base that you establish to fend off against the onslaught.

Setting up defenses is a great addition to Horde mode.

As the enemies batter your defenses, you're left with the decision of buying better weapons, paying for ammo, or upgrading more defenses. It's a great risk/reward system that makes the player feel accomplished when they scrape by the skin of their teeth conquering a wave, only to have a harder wave coming.

Beast mode is similar to Horde mode only the players get to play several different Locust characters. You start off with small, infantry level characters killing the "Gears" off. The better you do, the more money you accrue and get the ability to buy bigger and badder characters (like the ones mentioned above.)

Beast mode allows you to become the enemy.

This is a brilliant addition that again allows players to join together and compete against the AI without the pressure of playing human opponents that could be better than their skill level and lead to frustration. It's just another way that GOW3 allows for longevity gaming and really makes you feel like you got your money's worth purchasing the game.

I've mentioned the story up above, but it really does help that the story is fun to play and fairly long. On hardcore a player can easily spend ten hours beating it and playing four-player co-op. Another addition not done in enough games. Tack on the insanity difficulty and that the difficulty scales to how many human players are in the co-op campaign, and you've got even more game to go around.

I could also go on and on about the multiplayer, and how many modes there are, but the one thing I've always loved about GOW franchise and 3 is no different, is the impeccable balance of weapons. With COD and other games, I always felt it unfair that if a team or player got a "power weapon" you were screwed. If they ranked up and go so many perks, a new player didn't stand a chance.

That's not the case in GOW. While a player may have a slight advantage getting the better weapons, you're easily capable of taking out someone who has a Boom Shot with your starting shotgun.

Or you can just stab them.

The newly added sawed-off shotgun and retro lancer are good examples of this balance. While the sawed-off is a one shot easy kill at point-blank range, missing can prove fatal due to it's insanely long reload time. The retro lancer has a running charge that impales the opponent, however you have to get a pretty good running start for it to work, and the opponent can see you coming from a mile away. Again, it's another risk/reward system that can be satisfying when it works and helps with the balance of the game.

In conclusion...

I think Gears of War 3 is a total "game worth buying" for any shooter fan. If you didn't like GOW1 or 2, I doubt this one will persuade you, but I think the game ultimately is polished to a fine sheen, and is one of the best and most important games out today. Modern Warfare 3 will be more of the same, and I'm excited to see what Battlefield 3 has in store, but when it comes to a shooter with "3" in the title, Gears of War takes the cake.

Verdict: You HAVE to play this game.