Marcus Fenix is a gruff-voiced hulk of a man, who sleeps in a uniform that looks like it was constructed from spare backhoe parts. Marcus’s machine gun rests ready beside his bed. On his desk, another gun sits in a state of repair. A class photograph shows the squad he graduated from war school with. He also has a bookshelf—full of gun books, no doubt.
It’s important to understand Marcus, because he’s the main character of Gears of War 3, and more than any other franchise, the Gears of War trilogy has attempted to cram an emotional story into an otherwise straightforward game of run-and-gun. And so I must sit through a dream sequence expressing the guilt Marcus feels about his father’s death. Clearly, Gears of War 3 is a daddy-issue shooter.
The emotional storytelling is a natural consequence of the Gears of War franchise’s ongoing attempt to give the games’ action a sense of meaning. “Bad guys! Get ‘em!” is never enough motivation in a Gears of War game. Gears of War 3 is constantly mixing in small projects, like extinguishing fires, reaching control rooms, or locating a comrade’s lost family. But this isn’t a plot — it’s a checklist.
And character development doesn’t happen in a pre-rendered cut-scene. While Marcus might go through an emotional journey, it’s something that I watch, not something that I do. My choices are between splitting a glowing alien in half with a chainsaw or peppering him with rifle fire.
At least the shooting is solid. It’s not revolutionary, and, compared to the precise targeting and subtly different weaponry of Call of Duty, the guns in Gears of War are blunt tools. Most of them deliver the same kind of death, and they almost all aim with the same round “zone of fire,” which conveniently lets players aim approximately and still hit their targets.
But occasionally the game’s remarkable graphics and the gunplay come together, such as when I try to toss a grenade and it clatters to the floor far short of its target because it crashes into an overhanging beam.
For the most part, though, Gears of War 3 is full of rooms ringed with cover—boxes, crates, rocks—in which enemies appear predictably at one end while I invade from the other.
While the franchise has reached new levels of technical wizardry, and the storytelling strives to integrate more meaning into the action, the shooting seems content to stay the same. It feels like it just rolled out of bed, suited and ready to lock and load.
THE GOOD: Gears of War 3 pushes the Xbox 360 to the graphical extreme. An over-fired gun glows red at the tip. Loose pipes skitter across the floor in the direction they are kicked, dragging their sound along in the same direction.
THE BAD: The lush graphics make the inevitable errors even more glaring. A cardboard box sitting in the sun continues to glow brightly when kicked into the shade. Marcus’ fluid movements occasionally shudder as the 360 attempts to cope with the amount of detail onscreen.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Epic ambitions are undercut by average action in Gears of War 3.