Gears of War 3 arrives five years after the original sketched the rulebook for modern console shooters. In that time the military sci-fi series’ cover system, visual style and regenerating health have become standards of the third-person action game, even influencing other genres for better and worse. It's the very definition of a modern console shooter and that's something which nobody can take away from it.
The future didn't look good for humanity when we last played a new Gears of War title; the last human city had finally fallen and a whole new alien threat had reared its head too, the ridiculously named Lambent. Gears of War 3 continues 18 months afterwards, with survivors scattered and civilisation in ruins - a predictable point to jump to, but so much better than if everyone just kissed and made up.
Gears of War 3 can't hope to evoke the same kind of wow factor that the first game did on release, though; the first game's crisp graphics and wily technical tricks made it one of the first titles to convince console gamers that a new HDTV was a legitimate expense. Still, Gears of War 3 wears its blockbuster quality on its sleeve - the graphics are outstanding, and there's little to complain about, apart from the occasional jaggy shadow. Motion is slick, with a decent frame rate maintained throughout. What's more, in response to the main criticism of the series’ look, the surface textures are also now varied, and pop-in is rare, helping to create a more interesting game world than its predecessors.
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It's the artistic adjustments rather than the technical that have the biggest effect, however, with the colour palette extending beyond just grey and brown and levels having a proper sense of place. It doesn't matter whether you're indoors or outdoors, in light or shadow, urban sprawl or overrun forest; more than ever Gears of War gives the impression of fighting in real places. This is despite the fact that all the levels feature conveniently sized walls for you to hide behind.
The cover system and general gameplay remains unchanged from the previous games. Holding A makes you run low and is designed to be used to traverse to and from cover, while tapping A near cover slams you into it. You can shoot without a reticule by just pressing right trigger or aim properly by holding left trigger. When in cover, you hold left trigger to pop up and shoot, and release it return to safety. The aim is to move from cover to cover, flanking the enemies as you go.
In other words: same old, same old.
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Additional features, such as the ability to use wounded enemies as meat-shields, cut enemies to pieces with gun-mounted chainsaws or hop into mech armour add spice to proceedings, but the bulk of the game is still cover-based shooting. It’s a simple system, but it works.
The enemy AI is the first place where Gears of War 3 really succeeds though, with plenty of variety woven into each encounter in terms of enemy reactions. Your foes are still by no means geniuses, but there are plenty of times when their actions can surprise you, such as when larger enemies enter the battlefield and the smaller grunts will use suppressive fire to spread out and flank.
Combat feels incredibly dynamic as a result, with hordes pushing forward when they can or retreating when under threat - Gears of War 3 is a far cry from the monotonous whac-a-mole shooters that console gamers have learned to tolerate. It's just a shame that enemy intelligence doesn't scale with the difficulty setting; instead it's just a case of increased bullet resistance.