The first act of Gears of War 3 is impressively muscular and surprisingly graceful, a role model for shooter fans that proclaims from the crowd of so many gun-wielding peers that this is how a blockbuster action game should begin.
I've only played the first fifth of the storyline mode of Epic Games' mega sequel, and I've played it solo, which does feel a little wrong. I know the game can still stumble. I know that any Gears of War game stands against a grey and brown tide of grunting enemies and crumbling cover that can drown the action in a sea of sameness. I see brighter hope this time.
Prior Gears games successfully introduced new ideas and offered at least the promise of a full campaign of sustained excellence. They did that by building upon the foundations of their first acts. In Gears 3 we have the most impressive and interesting one.
The first act of Gears of War 3 spans a prologue and six chapters, many of the details of which I won't spoil for you. I must tell you one surprising thing, though. You will spend less than half of this act as Gears of War hero Marcus Fenix. That helps emphasise that Gears of War 3 does not feel like a game about one hero any more than it feels like a game about one place, one time, one set of enemies or one of anything else.
We do start as Marcus, at least if you are solo-ing the first act as I did. Much time has passed since Gears of War 2. Marcus, along with longtime ally Dom, now-a-field-soldier Anya and a guy named Jace stretch their lives on the planet Sera by surviving on a floating city, a freighter turned into what seems like one of the last refuges of humanity. Prior Gears games felt like they were set in the world's most war-torn locker room, all wise-ass remarks and machismo. Gears 3 saves a visit to an actual locker room to its fourth chapter and precludes it with a better execution of the why-we-fight quiet moments glimpsed in the prior games. This game isn't all jock-scratching. We see Marcus, Dom and surviving friends making do on their ship, dreaming of past trauma, solving crossword puzzles and gardening. It surely sounds a little more like a knitting circle than it looks, and its played well, less maudlin than appropriately pathetic. Our heroes are just hanging on.
The designers of Gears of War 3 promised that the new game would bring back some of the excellent combat design of the first game in the series. At first, you won't see that as Marcus' chapters erupt into a series of mostly linear corridor fights above and below the decks of the ship as it comes under an expected attack. The first chapters are good for reinforcing the Gears basics of fighting from cover, managing ammo and reloads, sticking with the team and varying machine guns, sniper rifles and grenades where appropriate. The enemies are Lambent, mostly bipedal beasts infected by glowing yellow Immulsion fluid that justifies the juicy explosions they die in when you fill them with bullets.
I played this first act at normal difficulty (the middle of three difficulties available at the start; a fourth, tougher one, is locked). It was hard to die at that difficulty mode, at least in the Marcus chapters. His/your three allies are effective fighters. Anya blasted many of the biggest threats with grenades before I could get more than two shots into them. The opening chapters introduce the idea of spotting enemies, tagging them with a click of a thumbstick as you aim their way, so that allies can shoot them. That may be handy for multiplayer or may be more effective in harder difficulty modes, but I didn't notice my computer-controlled buddies reacting to my spotting orders. They were busy annihilating other enemies.
These Marcus chapters are exciting even if they present little challenge. Epic is giving fans their ice cream first in Gears of War 3, affording them the pleasure of an increasingly bigger-scale fight against an onslaught of enemies. This fight starts with conventional weapons. Let's just say it doesn't end with them.
This game should be played co-operatively. Alone, the first act is fine. It's obvious, however, that it has been made to be more fun with friends. Up to four people can play the campaign together, up from two in the last two Gears games. In Gears 2, Epic took chances with how its divided players' labour. Instead of just letting either one run and gun, they once, for example, put each player at the opposite end of a heavy crate that had to be pulled in tandem. It was a short sequence, but one that relied on genuinely co-operative play and introduced all the vulnerability and empowerment that comes with needing someone else's help to get something done. That kind of thing is more pronounced in Gears 3 where, even on the ship in these opening chapters, one player needs to use a fire extinguisher to put out fires while the rest of the team needs to provide gun support. Roles are divided more often and more interestingly, it seems, even in the first act. Playing solo I could tell I was enjoying a simpler, less interesting version of the game, one that didn't require the satisfying coordination of team play.
Less than halfway through the first act, the game switches to minor flashback, transporting any and all players to a different crew led by fan favourite Cole Train and his own squad. Their adventure starts an hour or so before Marcus' with its climax expectedly intersecting with the events you played through as Marcus, Dom and crew. Cole's section starts quietly as well with a visit to the town where he was once the favourite hometown Thrashball (read: Gears of Football) athlete. His team is looking for supplies. For all of the excitement and muscularity of Marcus' action-move chapters, Cole's reveal how gracefully this first flows.
By the time you are in command of Cole and his crew of three allies, who, of course, can be controlled by other players, you have been introduced to eight significant, playable characters. Gears veterans will already have known Marcus, Dom, Anya and Cole and most of the rest, but even a newcomer will swiftly be able to get an ear for and a sense of the differences of all eight people. They're cast in action movie types, with Cole's female ally, Sam, and returning hotshot hero Baird exchanging battlefield flirtation, Carmine playing the unlucky target, Cole the braggart and so on. None of them seems deep or complex but they're also not tiresome. Because there are so many characters, Epic can keep most of them quiet most of the time, making it feel fresh when a new character begins to chime in. Their chatter is, so far, entertaining.
In Cole's chapters you experience that retro Gears 1 combat that Epic promised would return. Combat is less funnelled and more open, re-introducing the "bowl" design of gunfighting from all sides that filled the first game. The enemies, initially, are again infected Lambent, but unlike in Marcus' ship-bound fights, they have room to make things tough and surprising. The main idea introduced in these fights is the stalk, a next-level Emergence Hole which, unlike those enemy-spawning sink-spots from the first game, are tall beanstalks that will keep spawning enemies until certain growths on the stalk are destroyed. Those certain parts can be on any side of the stalk, requiring the player to move around them to get the right shot. The player can't just plant behind cover and toss grenades as one would to plug an Emergence Hole in the first game. This means you'll be moving around, angling for a good shot at the side or back of the stalk during an intense gunfight, lest the enemies keep on coming.
The smarter enemies in this Cole section also keep the player moving around the "bowl", firing long-range melee and arcing projectile attacks that prevented me from ever finding sustained cover behind a single cover point. Again, you can't rest. Movement is key and the old cover-shooter cliche of waiting for enemies to poke out before shooting them is subverted by the need to keep scrambling for a new vantage point from which to fight. These are the most promising skirmishes in the first act, because they push the combat design of the series forward. If the Marcus fights were linear beachhead assaults, the Cole fighting, in moments like I just described, are jungle warfare with the enemy on all sides. The Cole chapters aren't all like that and they do funnel into some more typical battles set on a bridge. It can't be bowls forever, I guess.
As in the Marcus sections the opportunity to divide one's labour with co-op buddies is featured in the Cole parts, leaving the solo player like me again recognising how much more interesting it would be to, say, play a certain Aliens homage with a friend or three.
One of the few things people had good things to say about Duke Nukem Forever was that its levels were full of things to tinker with. Marcus and Cole's section both have a lot of that. I couldn't figure out if the arcade machines in Marcus' sections are playable, but I did find Cole a baseball cap and made the big decision whether to wear it forward of backward. I also found him a playground slide to slide down.
Aside from the side diversions there are the surprising shifts in the action. There are unique bits of the first act that last less than a minute and yet involve unique and clever gameplay. They're better than the obligatory driving sections that have divided skirmishes in other shooters and past Gears games (and doubtless will later in this one). I can't tell if they are bits Epic will return to in later acts or if they are just the team showing off, introducing dramatic shifts to the action without making then overstay their welcome, an abundance of diversions, essentially, a la an idea-rich game like Super Mario Galaxy 2. My favourite two surprises were in Cole's section. One involves a zipline, the other involves a hallucination.
The first act is polished and lays the foundation I want. I do wish I was playing Gears of War 3 with friends, but I was happy even playing it solo. The action begins to get clever, the characters prove to be surprisingly distinct and entertaining and, best of all, I see a layering of complexity in the combat encounters that will hopefully proceed into the next four acts. I'm not tightly on the hook to find out how this third Marcus story plays out, but I'm gripped by the gameplay. The game didn't rut into monotony. It was ever-improving as I barrelled toward the start of Act 2.
We'll have much more about Gears of War 3 as we get closer to its September 20 launch on the Xbox 360.