- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 17, 2011

Marcus Fenix, one of the chiseled and grizzled veterans of the humans continuing struggles against the Locust Horde, again leads Delta Squad into battle in Gears of War 3: Limited Edition (Microsoft Studios and Epic Games, reviewed for Xbox 360, rated M for Mature, $79.99), the final piece of the current story arc in the Gears of War trilogy.

Exclusive to the Xbox 360, Epic Games’ latest entry to this third-person shooting franchise keeps players on Sera, a planet ravaged by death and destruction, and in action where the fine art of taking cover from enemy fire strikes a balance with sticking a chainsaw into the gullet of a gooey monster. 

What’s the story: Roughly two years after the flooding of Jacinto City, Marcus and his close associates are stuck on the water aboard the Raven’s Nest carrier class vessel CNV Sovereign. When a former COG (Coalition of Ordered Governments) chairman returns after having been missing for years, Marcus also learns about the existence of someone very close to him who is in need of help.

Of course, he and his pals can’t resist a rescue mission and it’s off to the post apocalypse locales of Sera to save a legend and deal with some aggravated human survivors while battling Locust and Lambent forces. 

Play the role: Start as Marcus with support from Anya Stroud, Dominic Santiago and Jace Stratton (either computer or player controlled).

As the five-chapter saga develops over roughly 15 hours of game play, Epic give players missions also starring other Gears such as the team of Augustus Cole, Damon Baird, Samantha Byrne and the full facial helmeted Clayton Carmine.

This time out, the developers take great care to try and humanize these muscle-bound brutes and take away a bit of the testosterone by adding lady warriors (still tough as nails) and some emotional twists. They also introduce an occasional weepy flashback such as Cole Train’s glory days in Hanover as a Thrashball superstar juxtaposed against his current desperate state.

It certainly helps flesh out the details of the massive epic but the redundancy of some dunderheaded dialogue (Marcus offers his best mix of Nick Nolte’s growl and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s corny one-liners) and proliferation of profanity hampers buying into the potential dramatic layers of storytelling.

However, put away your bloodstained hankies as the ferocious enemy waves snap players back to the violent reality of playing a mature video game.

Besides a wide range of Locust including grenadiers, sniper drones, savage Theron and Grinders (gatling gun equipped Boomers, not the sandwich), an emerging mutant species has evolved from a toxic fuel source. These Lambent now compete with the Locust for Delta Squad’s attention.

The Lambent pop out of multistory stalks in various, often weapon-wielding forms to attack the teams and mix characteristics from the Swamp Thing with transformations that lovers of John Carpenter’s “The Thing” would appreciate.

Get to the action: Still controlling characters from an over-the-shoulder perspective, players can carry four weapons, take cover with the tap of a button, restore other character’s health, and find ammo and new firepower scattered around war zones.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the latest game spends more time refining and celebrating its strengths rather than innovating, and that’s not a bad thing.

For example the cover-and-move strategy continues to be the best in the industry and expands so if an obstacles is destroyed, the character hops through the rubble.

Weapons are also mostly familiar such as the Hammerburst Assault Rifle, Mulcher (a mountable gatling gun), Gnasher Shotgun and the high caliber Boltok Pistol.

My favorite, the Lancer, comes with an attached chainsaw and the new retro version features a bayonet for charging into battle (complete with a shaky cam perspective).

Best of the new includes the heavy-duty sniper rifle called a One-Shot and the Digger that fires a live organism underground and pops up and explodes on an unsuspecting enemy.

Additionally, the inclusion of an occasional mech suit loaded with rockets and gatling gun in the fights is just extra frosting. I like it, but the impact, since it’s already been done ad nauseam in other games, was not as dazzling.

Memorable moments (in no particular order): Going one-on-one with a Locust grunt wielding a Lancer as we both fire up the chainsaws and duke it out; taking control of a living catapult called a siege beast to take down a Brumal (a bit of a Rancor) while a battle with Locust troops took place simultaneously; caught ina spider-like Corpser den; an obligatory Leviathan (doesn’t every game have one these days) munching on a vessel; a gas barge aerial assault over the Anvegad Plains; and a “hold the fort” battle under the moonlight at Anvil Gate.

Multiplayer: Playing solo in the story campaign gave me an unwelcomed chance to appreciate the little things of a Gears’ firefight (like killing a chicken). That’s because my far-too-competent-computer-controlled teammates often handled all of the heavy duty action. It was a bit boring on the “normal” difficulty setting unless I aggressively pushed forward and cheated the bots for kills.

However, let’s get serious. Not playing the campaign with three good buddies (a first for the franchise) really lessens the fun potential. It also never allows team members to get in big arguments over who gets to climb aboard a siege beast catapult, turn on an irrigation pipe or use a fire extinguisher.

After completing the epic, pick up another online player for the group (now five for those counting) and move over to the other multiplayer options.

These include an enhanced Horde mode featuring a touch of tower defense elements and use of currency.

More intriguing is the Beast mode. Become part of the Locust army, kill and gain points in 12 waves against COG personnel to transform into some of your favorite fiends such as a Ticker, a Savage Boomer and even a Berserker.

Finally, the standard multiplayer matches (up to five versus five) include Team Deathmatch (don’t run of limited lives and please keep saving fellow warriors), Warzone, Execution, Capture the Leader, King of the Hill and Wingman (two player teams try to eliminate three other teams).

Violent encounters: Yes, my mature Delta Squad mates, it’s blood and more blood mixed in with glowing goo and body parts during even the most minute of firefights.

Head stomping, kicking, skewering and special kill moves for every weapon keep the brutality at a maximum throughout.

Just use the massive cleaver found on a dead Locust Butcher to vivisect his best buddies and bring a towel to clean off the virtual innards flying onto the screen.

Read all about it: DC Comics’ offers a bimonthly sequential-art series since 2008 based on the franchise and called, you guessed it polyp breath, Gears of War ($2.99 each). A current six-issue story arc “Dirty Little Secrets” ties to the release of the latest game.

Pixel-popping scale: 8.5 out of 10. This is the visual package Gears’ players waited for. Be it stuck in the dusty wastelands of Seran Deadlands or a Locust above ground hive, or even in a Ticker factory (the goose bumps won’t stop) the mix of harsh lighting, textures, explosions, smoke and crumbling landscapes ooze of war. I’ll also note the close-up facial detail (down to hair on Marcus‘ chinny chin chin) during cut scenes is as masterfully designed as a John Bolton (comic book illustrating maestro) painting come to life.

Extras and Unlockables: For fans in love with the Gears mythology, the Limited Edition should satisfy through a package containing: Dr. Adam Fenix’ Octus Service Medal in display case (check closely on the back of the medal for a code to unlock his son, Marcus, in multiplayer); Mr. Fenix‘ will; a note to Marcus; some family photos; a schematic for the Hammer of Dawn; and a fabric COG flag.

Final thoughts: If I sound a tad down on Gears of War 3, it could be that the marketing pre-hype crushed any reasonable expectations for this player.

Nothing in the game tops my first encounter with a Berserker (a blind female behemoth) in the first Gears of War back in 2006 – an adrenaline rush rarely duplicated since.

Still, it took about 90 minutes into the campaign, before the grumpy clouds lifted, and I finally felt like I was involved in something really special.

For those keeping score, just before the holiday season gaming frenzy begins, PS3 owners have quite the sci-fi spectacle in Resistance 3 and now Xbox 360 owners get their own military sci-fi crown jewel in Gears of War 3.

This is before Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, Batman: Arkham City, Battlefield 3, Assassins Creed: Revelations, Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Unchartered 3: Drake’s Deception ever hit the stores. Prepare to open the wallets and spend liberally very soon, my gaming brethren.

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