Gears of War 3
Bayoneting reptilian humanoids never felt so ... right.
Among gaming's Holy Trinity of blockbuster shooter franchises, Gears of War is the most unabashedly dumb—the meathead gore-fest to Call of Duty's flag-waving military fetishism and Halo's plasma-blasting space opera. Halo and Call of Duty aren't known for their searing intellectualism either, but Gears of War wears its over-the-top silliness like a badge of honor. In Gears, linebacker-shaped space marines saw monsters in half with rifle-mounted chainsaws as blood spatters the screen like globs of strawberry jam, heads burst like watermelons when shot, and characters yell taunts like "Suck pavement!" and "I'ma take down all these bitches!" Subtlety, Gears' designers seem to believe, is for n00bs.
Yet despite this dumb-jockery, the Gears of War titles are works of genius. The games' genre-defining brilliance is a consequence of their peerless grasp of game design, the uncanny art that so many developers burn millions trying and failing to master. On the surface, Gears of War 3—the newest entry in the series—looks quite similar to the earlier titles. Its most-obvious innovations, after all, are the new ways in which enemies explode. But anyone who can stomach the superabundant carnage will find that Gears of War 3 is one of the most thoroughly, compulsively playable games ever made. Bayoneting reptilian humanoids never felt so ... right.
As with the first two Gears titles, the plot of Gears of War 3's main campaign is either commendably straightforward or completely irrelevant, depending on how you look at it. Once again, you take the role of Marcus Fenix, a battle-scarred brick in human form who growls his way through post-apocalyptic environments alongside his band of bantering space marines. Fenix is still fighting to save humanity from the Locusts, a race of inexplicably evil underground-dwelling monsters who, despite their admirable grasp of weapons technology, only speak in monosyllabic descriptions of actions in which they're currently engaged. (Crush! Boom! Grind!) And that's pretty much all you need to know. The bland narrative is mostly just a tool to move the characters among beautifully designed CGI landscapes.
Peek under the hood, however, and you'll see that the people at Epic Games—famed for their mastery of gameplay intangibles—have reached the pinnacle of their craft. The delicately honed combination of rumble and kick you feel while firing a gun, the satisfyingly weighty feeling of maneuvering Fenix, the intense, gladiatorial sensation of the combat—all of it feels perfect. (This perfection is the reason their proprietary software, the Unreal Engine, powers so many other developers' games.)
The game's microscopic focus on playability is mostly due to the influence of Cliff Bleszinski, Epic's Lamborghini-driving, hottie-dating, occasionally Eurotrash-resembling mastermind. Aside from being a game-design savant, Bleszinski is also unusually forthright about what he considers the secret to crafting flawless gameplay. He has said many times, most recently in an interview with the website Gamasutra, that the secret to making a great shooter is "to make sure that those 30 seconds that you do over and over again are more fun than anything else in the game."
This secret might sound a little underwhelming at first, but let's take a closer look at Gears' 30-second fun loop. There are four actions you constantly repeat in shooter games: running, shooting, reloading, and taking cover. Epic's unique implementation of each one of these tasks is superior to the competition. Gears' "active reload" mechanic, for instance, is a sort of mini-game that happens every time you change clips. In every shooter before Gears, reloading entailed nothing more than a few seconds of impatient waiting. Bleszinski revolutionized this process by allowing players to time a button-press for an instant reload or enhanced damage. Hit the button at the right time as an icon swings across the reload meter, and you win one of these prizes; mistime it, and your gun jams for a few extra seconds. It's such a smart invention that many, including Bleszinski himself, have wondered why more games haven't cribbed it.
Taylor Clark is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. His most recent book is Nerve: Poise Under Pressure, Serenity Under Stress, and the Brave New Science of Fear and Cool.
Image from Gears of War 3 courtesy Epic Games.