By Darren Franich
September 20, 2011 at 02:00 PM EDT

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.

But a big part of the allure of the Gears franchise, for me, has always been the story. It might sound funny to talk about the “story” in a game that stars massive hulks of walking muscle who all talk in various interpretations of an Eastwood growl. But what always set the Gears series apart from its shooter brethren was the particular tone of unrelenting sadness: Series star Marcus Fenix looks like he was cut from the lineup of The Expendables because of manic-depressive tendencies.

I don’t think you could call Marcus a “character” in any sort of literary sense, but he undeniably captures a very specific mood. Call it “steroidal melancholy.” In this sense, Marcus is a close cousin to the protagonist of that other franchise with the initials “GoW”: Kratos, the star of God of War, whose perpetual sneer evolved over the course of three games into an anger so all-encompassing that he wound up destroying heaven, hell, and everything in between.

Compared to the earlier games in the series, Gears of War 3‘s campaign mode is a bit of a mess. Gone is the practically wordless real-time assault of the first game. The decision to include a four-player co-op campaign option means that there are always at least two extra characters yammering away in your ear who you desperately don’t care about. The world-building impulse is admirable, but like most threequels, Gears 3 just winds up feeling overextended. (That’s particularly true of the long-lost father subplot, which worked much better as a casual tease in the first two games, and the curious decision to make the game’s opening act an extended tangent into another character’s personal history; call it Requiem for Coal Train.)

I would probably give the Gears campaign a B, though I admit it might be more fun if you play through it with three friends. More importantly, I have to say something potentially embarrassing: I was actually moved to tears by Gears of War 3. Does that sound funny? It kind of is. It’s a bit like saying “I was moved to tears by Fast Five,” or “Man, that LMFAO song makes me cry every time I listen to it.” I should note that I played through Gears of War 3 in two marathon sessions last week, mostly after midnight and before normal working hours, so I was probably not in anything resembling a normal emotional state.

But there are a couple moments in the Gears 3 campaign that feel far more soulful than you would expect, given the series’ chainsaw-gun reputation. One of them involves a surprise rendition of “Mad World,” a callback to an iconic Gears 1 advertisement that in context feels almost impossibly sad. The other comes at the end of the game, on a beach. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling either of those moments.

What, in the end, did the Gears of War franchise mean? You could look at the first game as a nifty expression of mid-2000s malaise: You don’t have to dig too deep to find echoes of 9/11, of wars without any apparent end, of enemies who seem to lurk behind every corner. Like most action videogames, the franchise has a recurring motif about horrible government bureaucrats; unlike most action videogames, Gears of War wound up exploring the notion that the villains were only villainous because we made them that way. In that sense, the series already feels a little bit out of date. (Post-Osama bin Laden, which would you rather experience: The existential exhaustion of Gears, or the ebullient farce of Call of Duty: Nazi Zombies?)

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. But for all its emo-beefcake silliness, the Gears series also tapped into a primal anxiety: An apocalyptic mood, a feeling that the good times were already in the past. To get really heavy for a second, I would imagine that a kid who grew up playing Gears of War will be sadder — and weirder, and wiser — than his theoretical twin brother who grew up playing Call of Duty. Here’s to being sad, weird, and wise.

Campaign Grade: B

Multiplayer Grade: A-

Overall Game Grade: B+

Overall Franchise Grade: A-

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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