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.
Fenix's sprint is similarly distinctive and purposeful. When he runs, Fenix doesn't just quicken his normal pace. Instead, he enters the famed Gears "roadie run," in which the camera tightens on his bustling frame and jiggles frenetically, producing a thrilling feeling of urgent flight. And when you hit a button to send Fenix into cover, he does more than just sidle smoothly up to a wall. As Tom Bissell showed in his aptly titled 2008 New Yorker profile of Bleszinski, "The Grammar of Fun," Epic's designers took great care to make sure Fenix hurtled into position with a gratifying, controller-rattling thump, uttering just the right grunt and stirring up just the right amount of dust. Each of the game's actions, from the concussive jerk of Fenix's shotgun to the propulsive feeling of dodging out of the line of fire, begs to be repeated. That's just what Bleszinski intends. "I should want to be the rat with the feeder pellet who's addicted to that one little thing in your game," he told Gamasutra.
Though these gameplay elements all appeared in earlier Gears games, Gears of War 3 blows its predecessors out of the Locust-infested gym. (Seriously, there's a Locust-infested gym.) Bleszinski has said that his goal is to remove all of the parts of games that "feel like work," and Epic accordingly crafted this entry into a digital speedball: all fun, no downers. Gears 3 has corrected every hiccup that slowed down the prior games (like tedious vehicle sequences and overly vast maps), and the game plays faster, looks better, and animates more fluidly than any Gears title before it.
Gears of War 3 highlights just how much detail-obsessed work goes into creating a video game that feels not just fun but also natural. The game is so responsive and intuitive that you notice virtually no gap between what you want Fenix to do—say, chainsaw your way through the Locust army—and what he actually does onscreen. Even when compared with another fun, highly polished game like Halo: Reach, Gears 3 stands out for the balanced, almost naturalistic sensation of its combat. In Halo's disembodied long-distance gunplay, characters avoid damage by running sideways and jumping up and down like idiots. Gears of War, by contrast, is intimate and breathtakingly visceral—a game that often doesn't feel like a game.
Gears 3's only real blemish, in truth, is its single-player experience. Everything, including its main campaign, has been designed for cooperative online play, so taking on the game by yourself is distressingly easy and undramatic. If you take cover in a safe place and wait, your computer-controlled squadmates will win most any battle on their own. The game is meant to be played online.
Fortunately, Gears of War 3 is so dense with content—from its standard competitive multiplayer setups to its ingenious, endlessly replayable cooperative modes like Horde and Beast—that you can ignore the main storyline entirely and still have hundreds of hours of unadulterated fun. Which is why Gears 3 is such a danger to any strong-stomached human with an Xbox: When you've created a game so well-wrought that even reloading a gun is enjoyable, the thing should probably be regulated as a Schedule I narcotic. Play Gears of War 3 for a few hours, and you'll never be happier to be a rat with a feeder pellet. Good luck trying to stop.