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Late in the action of Gears of War 3, after much sorrow and hardship, a member of Delta Squad broaches the subject of loss with main character Marcus Fenix. Growling in his characteristic gravelly voice, Fenix abruptly changes the subject to the matter at hand – completing the mission.
That moment, with its complex mix of stubborn will, sorrow and helplessness, is what makes Gears of War 3 truly great.
It is easy to write off the Gears series as a violent exercise in super-macho excess. The story of each installment, at the best of times a ridiculously overwrought thing, has focused on an implausible effort to set off an explosive MacGuffin device capable of completely wiping out the enemy, be they Locust or Lambent. The enemies themselves are improbable creatures (Gears 3 has Locusts using living catapults and assault zeppelins, the latter of which strains every bit of gritty credibility the franchise has earned), the character designs are over the top and the action movie clichés run rampant. Also, Ice-T makes a cameo.
Yet somehow, the characters have finally come alive and suddenly Gears of War 3 seems to be about so much more than chainsaw bayonets.
The core Gears gameplay is present, of course, and more refined than ever. Gears of War 3 is the definitive third-person cover-to-cover shooter – it is a rare joy to play a game that has been so perfectly and lovingly fine-tuned over the course of three
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installments. I am confident that we will be measuring similar games against this yardstick for a very long time.
Great pains have been taken to expand the multiplayer suite as well, which offers far too many modes of play to list here – more than enough to satisfy most players, even the multiplayer-averse like myself.
But that pales compared to the emotional richness of the game.
At its most basic, Gears of War 3 is about loss. There are plenty of elements of the game that attempt to distract from that theme, but it remains, underneath, influencing everything. It is about a son losing his father in a hostile world. It is about carrying on in the face of unimaginable tragedy, not out of some noble notion of justice or perseverance, but because there is simply no other choice.
These are incredibly powerful themes for a videogame to tackle, and they are made even more so by the relentless pace of the action. Like real life, Gears 3 doesn’t give you the luxury of discussion or hand-wringing – it moves on even if you aren’t ready. There is a job that needs doing. We can make sense of it all later.
And, most compelling, for all its masculine posturing, the world of Gears of War 3 is one without hope. It can not be fixed with high fives or smack talk or bullets. All that can be done is to soldier on to the bitter, indifferent end.
Rating: Five out of Five Pies
(a word about our ratings)