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

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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.