Gears of War 3 Saved By Multiplayer/The Bell
So the last chapter of “Gears of War” is finally out, and I’m sure you’ve been playing it vigorously, just as we have. Eric and I have already made short work of the campaign, but I’ll leave that for him to discuss later in the week. Suffice to say: its the most technically polished campaign they’ve ever done, but it still can’t touch the claustrophobic intensity and ingenious pacing of the original. And having just wrapped up the exquisite “Resistance 3,” I’m all the more aware of that reality.
In my opinion, of course, “Gears” fundamentally missteps when it tries to copy the scope and size of “Halo.” It belongs in a tougher, more closed in environment, one that the original embraced out of necessity but ended up working in its favor. All the same, I’m well aware than neither Cliffy B nor Microsoft are ever going to heed me on that one. So fine. If “Gears of War 3″ was nothing but its campaign, it’d be a shrugging second place to the original. Not bad, not outstanding.
Fortunately, there happens to be a multiplayer component. Hit the jump and let’s talk about how Epic Games managed to save their behinds in the land of deathmatch.
“Gears of War 2″ is very much like “Halo 2″ in most respects. Both titles were probably rushed out of the gate by Microsoft, and as a direct result neither held up very well in the wear and tear department. And yet, “Gears 2″ and “Halo 2″ are easily the most important titles in their respective franchises. “Halo 2″ was an incomplete game, plain and simple, but it introduced the multiplayer format that all console shooters would later follow. It also invented staples of the “Halo” franchise that we now take for granted: jacking vehicles, using swords, and so forth. “Halo 2″ defines what “Halo” is, arguably as much as the original, and certainly more than any of the following releases.
“Gears 2″ is much the same, but for a simpler reason: Horde, the game mode heard round the world. The tectonic effect this ingenious co-operative experience had on the “Gears” franchise, as well as shooters in general, could never have been predicted. Even the mighty Master Chief, who stubbornly resisted trendy cover systems, aped it shamelessly with Firefight. Never mind that Warzone was still a pirate’s den of game-breaking glitches and bum-rushing cheap shots, Marcus Fenix had finally found a way to translate himself into multiplayer.
So the question is: does “Gears of War 3″ capture anything near that level of importance? Probably not. But it comes a lot closer than you might think.
The biggest victory “Gears 3″ achieves is finally annexing deatmatch into the United States of Gears. After two failed attempts to let people blow the crap out of each other on Sera, Epic has tweaked and fiddled the formula to perfection. It works, I mean it really, really works, praise God. Rolling around with a shotgun is no longer the only way to win a match. Firing from cover has actual value. Matchmaking doesn’t take an eternity. Winning is actually fun, and losing doesn’t feel cheap. The Beta left everyone optimistic, but the release settles the matter permanently: they finally got it.
So now that Horde is no longer the only game in town, Epic really had to keep their signature co-op experience fresh, and they did a good job. Horde is now significantly influenced by Tower Defense: kills and revives earn you money, which can be spent on barricades, weapons, even last-ditch respawns. I have to admit, it sort of clutters the whole experience, and sometimes I wish I could just hop into the straight-ahead simplicity of “Gears 2″ Horde mode. But with a little patience, the new wrinkles offer a lot of opportunities that the last iteration couldn’t have imagined.
Oh, but then there’s Beast Mode. From the moment they announced this, I had a good feeling about it, and that feeling was not misplaced. Beast mischievously inverts the Horde formula: you now play as the Locust, earning cash from killing humans and slowly buying your way up to more and more powerful avatars. You begin with a pretty rote selection: Tickers, gun-wielding Locusts, and a Butcher. But if you pinch pennies and make your lives count, you’ll soon find yourself playing as Boomers, Blood Mounts, Maulers, even Corpsers. Epic didn’t hold out in the slightest, and that’s what’s so exciting about it. If you’ve fought it in Horde, you can play as it in Beast.
The economic system at the heart of Beast is ingenious: each spawn comes with a cost, which varies based on what avatar you choose. Sure, playing as a Ticker isn’t sexy, but it’s so cheap that it hardly matters what happens. If you spawn an Armored Kantus, however, the pressure is on: make back your investment, or you soon find yourself with fewer options. It’s an oddly accurate metaphor of real-world business, and it makes the experience dexterous and malleable based on the player’s preferences. Simply put: this is one of the best engineered multiplayer modes I’ve ever encountered.
The humans you’re fighting come in two varieties: grunts, and so-called “Hero” units. The Heroes need to be executed to die, and they’re tougher than the grunts, but they also yield more points, and you can’t win a round until all of them are destroyed. Meanwhile, the A.I. brilliantly employs Silverback mechs, turret guns, barbed wire fences, and trip wires to slow you down, and the resistance they create is incredibly satisfying to overcome. This is really where Beast mode could have fallen on its face: the A.I. needs to provide the kind of push-back that continues to be satisfying and surprising over a long period of time. Incredibly, Epic pulled it off.
The number one reason Beast is such a success is that playing as each of the Locust feels truly satisfying, as if each was designed from the ground up to star in their own titles. Nothing is tossed off here, and nothing is left out. Kantus players can actually revive their team mates, Corpsers can actually burrow (although admittedly they can’t move underground), Tickers can actually fly across the ground at blinding speed. After fighting these things for so long, getting to experience them from the other side, and recognizing the authenticity of the experience, is a singular thrill. Bravo, Epic. Bravo indeed.
Between a finally-working deathmatch, a revolutionary new Beast mode, and the Tower Defense-influenced Horde, there’s a lot of really groundbreaking work going on here. Clearly, Epic’s attention was never really on their campaign anyway, it was on multiplayer. As far as I’m concerned, that was a smart move. The original “Gears” will always be the best campaign experience, but “Gears of War 3″ exhaustively translates Epic’s flagship into every imaginable permutation of multiplayer. This is a kitchen-sink experience, there’s almost too much to play with. And that’s the way it should be.
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