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Monday, October 31, 2011

Ace Combat: Assault Horizon (8.6/10)

To read the official, full length review follow the link here: Ace Combat: Assault Horizon.

Waaaaay back when I was just a small Simon, we had a Mac Plus in our house. It was our first computer and kind of a big deal... for me because of a game called Falcon. Falcon was an F-16 flight simulator. I played the hell out of that game as a kid-it was one of my first experiences in gaming. Top Gun was big at the box office and the overly romanticized life of a fighter pilot captured my imagination. While the flight simulator genre hasn't since been one of my favorites, I still remember those carefree days of my youth shooting down enemy MiG's by the dozens. Fortunately, I can recapture some of that magic with the excellent Ace Combat series, the most recent installment being Ace Combat: Assault Horizon.

Overall, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is an excellent diversion from most modern military shooters which take place, you know, on the ground. I'm still on the fence about the new DFM mode. It works well, but I don't like how you're more of less forced to use it. However, by allowing you to not only fly a whole slew of fighters from around the world (and some that are still on the drawing board), but also pilot different types of planes in different types of missions (like the helicopter, door gunner, and bomber raid sections), AC:AH offers enough options to keep things from getting boring. When it gets it right, when you take out three enemy fighters in succession, looping in and out of DFM and dodging missiles, it's difficult not to smile as their wreckage plummets from the sky. While it most assuredly falls under the "niche" title heading, Ace Combat: Assault Horizon is definitely worth your time if you're looking for something a little different.

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online


Score = 8.6 / 10

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pro Evolution Soccer 2012 (7.7/10)

To read the official, full length review follow the link here: Pro Evolution Soccer 2012.

Historically, the FIFA series set the benchmark mostly because of a bigger budget and therefore licensing rights, while PES held the crown for better mechanics and actual gameplay. But in recent years FIFA, has improved in the area PES held the title, creating a surprisingly accurate on-pitch experience. Striving for realism, the inherent difference between a game and a simulation, has pushed FIFA over the edge and into the driver's seat. I feel like PES 2012, while still a pretty good soccer game in it's own right, has fallen significantly behind the FIFA series, like a player past his prime who has lost a step... and he knows it.

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online.


Score = 7.7 / 10

Monday, October 24, 2011

Batman: Arkham Asylum (9.2/10)

Batman has always been a bit hit and miss for me. While I never read too many comics growing up, I loved the classic Batman movie with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson. The sequels however... well, you've probably seen them, you know what I'm talking about. I also never watched the Adam West show a whole lot, nor the old cartoons, but I have caught some of the newer ones and they are pretty good. And then there are the games which, like most comic or movie tie-ins, usually leave a lot to be desired... until now. Batman: Arkham Asylum is not only one of the better action games out there, it's easily one of the best super hero video game adaptations that has been made to date.

As the game begins, Batman is returning the Joker to the infamous penal island to go back behind bars where he belongs... but not all is as it seems! Without giving too much away, the entire escapade was a plot by the Joker to trap the Caped Crusader on the island... while he lets all the crazies and super villains out. But Batman knows that with the Joker, there is always something else going on, and this time is no exception. Before long, Batman is facing off against a slew of iconic arch-enemies and a seemingly endless supply of thugs for him to beat up on.

The gameplay is an intriguing mix of action, adventure, and stealth all rolled into one. Usually when a team attempts to mix varying styles together it ends up that all of them are sub-par, but that's not the case here. The fact that Arkham Asylum hones them all to near perfection is all the more impressive. 

Combat is a simple exercise in timing: one button to attack, one to stun, and one to counter. The trick comes down to mixing them up correctly and watching for the onscreen cues that indicate an incoming attack. It seems easy at first, but as you face more challenging enemies in greater quantities, it will test your skills and timing. But it's when you silently drop from the shadows into a group of seven or eight thugs whom you then beat senseless without getting so much as touched that you feel like a proper Bat-ass... wait, that doesn't sound right.

Batman isn't bullet proof, so if the enemies are armed, it's better to stick to the shadows and avoid direct confrontation. These clever little stealth sections make a welcome break from the combat. By hiding in the rafters and moving from place to place unseen, it's easy to flank enemies for silent take-downs, or even hang off an outcropping for a quick inverted take-down leaving them strung up like so much meat. Get caught in the open and you'll fast turn into Swiss cheese, so be prepared to retreat to high vantage points with a quickness. These are almost like mini-puzzles on their own, both challenging and rewarding to take out an entire room full of armed thugs, watching their heart rates rise as they keep finding the unconscious forms of their friends.

The argument can be made that above all else, the Dark Knight is a detective first and foremost. A quick button press activates "Detective Mode," whereby Batman's visor allows him to see, well, everything really. He can follow a trail of whiskey breath in the air to track down a traitor, see where a wall might be structurally weak and thus vulnerable to a dab of explosive gel (a cool new gadget I had endless fun with), or even see the glowing skeletons of guards through walls. In fact, it's incredibly handy, almost making the game too easy. Apparently the developers considered this, because for some reason, I found it quite jarring and distracting when leaving detective mode on for extended periods of time. I don't know if it's the color contrast, but I preferred to switch it on and off when searching an area.

You'll have access to a wide variety of Batman's iconic toys. Batarangs (including multiple ones, or a very cool remote controlled version), Explosive Gels, Batclaws, and even the Line Launcher are at your disposal. They are not only well realized and relatively easy to control, but also serve a purpose in combat as well as exploration. Laying down explosive gel in the path of multiple guards while their backs are turned, only to detonate them all the next time they complete their circuit is a thing of beauty. When searching out the  massive number of collectibles scattered about the asylum and grounds, a lot of places you won't have to access until you have the proper tool. This means a lot of backtracking Zelda-style over familiar ground and extensive note taking so you can find your way back to the goodies.

And trust me when I tell you, if you're a completionist like me, you'll be searching constantly. The Riddler has left over two hundred collectibles for you to discover. Some are in directly in your path, others are fiendishly hidden in out of the way corners. In fact, some are hidden in places you'll need to mentally map and return to when you have the proper tool for the job. I've played through the game twice and still haven't found them all. There are also interview tapes involving the clinical diagnosis of the super-villains who populate Arkham. Again, I was never much into the comics, so these back stories are welcome as they expand the story, the characters, and the universe. With so many iconic foes to face, Batman needs to learn all he can to defeat them!

This leads to a quick side note about the boss fights. These climactic moments are hit and miss, but sadly more of the latter than the former. Actually, they are probably the biggest drawback to Arkham Asylum. The disappointment stems not just from the fact that they are overly formulaic, but rather because with such iconic villains to choose from, they aren't particularly well written. I don't want to spoil any one encounter, but there are a couple of times that I knew one was coming up, my reaction was more along the lines of "Really? This is what I'm supposed to do?" This negative trend is almost (notice, almost) a true hindrance if not for the Scarecrow sections, which are fantastic. These simple platforming levels are as clever as they are creepy. They serve as a nice surprise, as well as a welcome break in the action.

The relatively simple upgrade system allows you to progressively enhance The Caped Crusader, each upgrade feeling fresh and adding something to combat or the devices you carry. You gain XP not just by beating up bad guys or advancing the story, but also by finding Joker Teeth and Riddler trophies, so it behooves you to search them out.

Graphically, Arkham Asylum may a bit dated now (texture issues and matting up close, poor facial animations, etc.) but the in-game action animations are among some of the best I've ever seen. Batman moves seamlessly from one bad guy to the next, dealing out painful, yet smooth, beat downs culminating in a slow motion close up as the last foe falls.

The sound work is also excellent, bringing in most of the cast from the cartoon series. The incomparable Mark Hamill returns as the Joker, and he is bloody brilliant as the Clown Prince of Crime. While his exceptional performance steals the show, the rest of the voice acting is superb as well. The moody soundtrack heightens the atmosphere, bringing the dank island to even greater life.

Outside of the main story mode are the challenge maps you unlock by finding Riddler trophies amongst other things. The challenge maps are a fun... challenge. Basically, they work by pitting our hero against waves of enemies and a clock. The goal of these challenges is to get the best score, achieved by racking up higher and higher combos. These are fun once or twice, but the novelty wears off quickly.

In the end, Batman: Arkham Asylum stands as probably my favorite super hero game to date. The combat is visceral, violent, and ultimately satisfying. The gadgets work great, and are effective in all sorts of situations. It's fun to experiment! The stealth sections, admittedly something I'm not usually a huge fan of, work exceptionally well. Using detective mode to track an enemy, plan an assault against armed guards, or discover hidden collectibles, made me really feel like I was always in control. In fact, when you add everything together (a few boss fights aside), I really felt like I was Batman. It's rare to experience such transference with a game, and I can only think of a few titles that can compare in that regard. I can't think of much higher praise than that. 


Score = 9.2 / 10

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (8.9/10)

The "realistic military shooter" genre is easily the most popular and best selling in all of video games, but it's also the most overcrowded. The Call of Duty phenomenon may have changed the landscape of modern gaming, but it's also spawned a plethora of imitators. Some of these tweak that template slightly and are quite fun (Medal of Honor), but most are merely passable (Homefront). The biggest competition to the Call of Duty juggernaut is the Battlefield series. Like CoD, Battlefield has it's roots in World War II shooters, but then evolved into the modern era. Following in the footsteps of CoD 4: Modern Warfare, DICE and EA created their own modern version, Battlefield: Bad Company. While I played the first Bad Company game ages ago (and I'll get around to reviewing it eventually when I have time to replay it), I thought I'd review it's sequel first, Battlefield: Bad Company 2

The Bad Company games follow a motley crew of cliched grunts who constantly find themselves in the worst possible situation. They are Sweetwater (the smart techie guy), Haggard (the gruff Southerner who provides most of the comic relief), Sergent Redford (known as "Sarge," who is one day closer to retirement and acts as the elder statesman of the group), and you... who takes control of Preston Marlowe. While the original game had the good ol' boys of "B" company chasing after a horde of gold, the sequel has them hunting down the mythical super-weapon the Japanese had developed during World War II.

Their search takes them from sweltering jungles to frozen mountain peaks and back-all stock locales for this sort of game. The story is largely forgettable, merely providing a framework to shoot stuff, but I will say that it's better presented and flows much more smoothly than all the CoD games since the first Modern Warfare. Sure, it's riddled with cliches and there's not much original going on, but that's hardly why we are here. We want to shoot up the bad guys... and once again it's the Russians.

From the gameplay standpoint, it's impossible not to compare Battlefield and Call of Duty directly. The gameplay is virtually identical: the gunplay, graphics, controls, and the lack of a "true" cover mechanic, right down to the standard set pieces like vehicle sections, sniper missions, calling in air strikes, are all present and accounted for. It's in the way the game plays where you'll notice a difference. It's slight, but plays a major role. As a rule, CoD is defined by over-the-top, albeit intense, sections that, while entertaining, are actually unrealistic. For every "Wow!!!" moment I've always found myself rolling my eyes twice as often. It's like an 80's action movie. Battlefield, on the other hand, is not quite as gung ho, rewarding more patience and caution. Some of the titular moments are as ludicrous as CoD, but for the most part the game plays much slower over all.

But what the Battlefield series is really known for are more open, and more importantly, destructible environments. Personally, I think it's a lot less linear than CoD, allowing you multiple ways to complete some objectives. Other areas turn into shooting galleries, something we are all too familiar with. But what I really love about Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is the fact that the landscape is constantly in flux. Pretty much everything can be blown up, blown down, or blown sideways. Some campy punk sniping you from way over yonder? Destroy his cover brick by brick till you can get a clear shot. Alternatively, grab an RPG and blow a hole in the wall. The enemy AI is pretty smart, making good use of cover as well as employing flanking tactics if you are pinned down. Be wary too, if you can chip away at an enemy's cover to expose them, they can do the same to you!

Speaking of AI, for the most part your squad (who are nearly always with you) does a good job of supporting you. More importantly, they stay out of your way (usually). The problem lies in the fact it seems like they can't die. Combine that with the lack of a squad healing mechanic and you might find yourself taking cover next to a teammate in a position you think must be safe only to wind up quickly dead. How this happened can be a mystery, because it's not always obvious where you are getting shot or blown up from. Ultimately, you can get stuck in that hateful position of having to try multiple paths to reach your objective. This normally isn't so bad, but naturally Battlefield employs a checkpoint based save system which means you'll be doing the same bit over and over. Early on this wasn't an issue as it seemed to autosave often, but again, towards the end everything kind of falls apart. The checkpoints are too infrequent, and you have to complete the same sections over and over.

As with most games like this, there are collectibles littering up the place for you to find if you are so inclined. I like the fact that you "collect" different guns. You'll find some and pick others up from fallen foes. But because there are ammo drops everywhere, you can pick and choose your loadout depending on the situation. If you find yourself needing a rocket launcher to take out that pesky helicopter (for the umpteenth time), and you die, you'll probably respawn close to a drop point so you can change up your arsenal. The other nice thing is that because there are ammo dumps everywhere as well, you don't have to rely on your enemy's inferior weapons. I don't think I ever ran out of ammo on my preferred weapon once the entire campaign.

While the graphics and animations are pretty good as a rule (although not spectacular), the destructible environments look pretty awesome. The dust effects are especially impressive, although they do tend to murky up the battlefield a bit too much. The fact that any bit of cover can disappear at an alarming rate means you won't have much time to catch your breath or, more importantly, regain your health. You've got to be ready to move on in an instant if you are compromised. Of course, it's crazy fun blowing stuff up, especially when entire buildings come crashing down under sustained fire.

The voice actors do a pretty good job with a limited (or limiting, I suppose) script. A lot of the trade mark humor is back from the original Bad Company game. The banter between squad mates can be a bit hit or miss, but some of it is pure gold, especially from Haggard. However, I will say, unequivocally, that the sound effects are some of the best I've ever heard. If you fire your gun indoors it echoes realistically. Fire your sniper rifle and you'll hear the "crack" of the sonic boom a beat later. It's fantastic.

I feel the need to quickly mention something I often gripe about with these sorts of games: what I call the blood splatter factor. When you get hit, blood appears in your peripheral vision. The more blood the worse off you are. With some games (CoD in particular), this phenomenon is far too invasive, obscuring your vision and making a bad situation worse. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 does a great job of keeping your damage indicator to a minimum without limiting your field of view. Personally, I'm grateful. 

Now, I know I'll get endless guff for admitting this, but I haven't played Battlefield online yet. I'm not a huge fan of online multiplayer in general, but from everything I've heard there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like CoD online, and those who prefer Battlefield. CoD is faster paced, with generally smaller maps and a more arcade-like feel. Battlefield is focused on bigger maps and the previously described destructible environments. From everything I've been told its much more strategic and team oriented. I think each series are worth playing in their own right because they are both excellent shooters; it really comes down to which style you prefer.

Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is an excellent shooter in its own right. The destructible environments add a new wrinkle in what is rapidly becoming a tired formula, giving this series it's own identifiable personality. I know I'm doing these out of order, but with the absolutely awesome looking Battlefield 3 (which, incidentally, is not a sequel to Battlefield: Bad Company 2) coming out next month, I thought I'd take the time to knock out a quick retrospective on the Call of Duty's main competition. Now I don't know which sequel I'm looking forward to more... Battlefield 3 or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. Either way, a lot of terrorists are going to get shot up this fall.


Score = 8.9 / 10

Monday, October 17, 2011

Assassin's Creed II (9.1/10)

One of the great things about games like Assassin's Creed is there are virtually endless possibilities to expand the created universe. Can you imagine having a person of Japanese origin as the test subject? You could play as his ancestor, a proper ninja in feudal Japan! Seems like the perfect evolution from the Desmond/Altair story arc, doesn't it? However, Ubisoft chose to stick with Desmond's tale, although this time the story takes place in the shared memories of another of his ancestors... a man named Ezio Auditore da Firenze (try saying that three times fast) in Renaissance Italy.

The game starts where the original left off: Desmond and Lucy escaping from the Abstergo Corporation. Something funny is going on with Desmond... there are times when he seems to hang on to some of the skills and abilities (like Eagle Vision) of his infamous ancestor, Altair. But he is still pretty green, as you'll soon find out as he tries to fight with the guards. However, they manage to escape and join a small underground group of assassins working against the ancient Templars and their Abstergo front.

Along with Lucy, Desmond joins Shaun (a smartass historian who seems out of place, solely there to provide crass humor, until you realize just how important his job actually is...) and Rebecca (a computer savvy girl who has built their own Animus) so Desmond can uncover more of the plot hinted at the end of the first game with the glyphs left by the mysterious Subject 16. It's an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a vest... not unlike Nelson Muntz.  But there is more! They are using the Animus to train Desmond (the aforementioned weirdness causes a "Bleeding Effect," whereby he will retain some of the skills of his forebears) to become a proper assassin and join the Order.

So he agrees to "go back under" as it were, this time revisiting the memories of his ancestor Ezio in Italy. Ezio is a brash young chap, constantly getting into scrapes, chasing after the ladies, and generally being an irresponsible fool. But there is conspiracy and treachery afoot, and soon he finds himself the head of his family. They relocate to his uncle's villa (there is a great insider joke here that I won't spoil...) in Monteriggioni. Therein, Ezio learns that his family has a long history with the Assassin's Order (duh!), so he learns their ways in an effort to avenge his family's honor and stop the Templars. This time the bad guys are various influential families in the Italian nobility, and once again everything revolves around finding the mysterious "Apple of Eden." 

The use of historical fact blended with liberal re-imagination allows the writers to take real world locations, like Rome, with real life historical figures and mix them together to fit the story they are trying to tell. Ezio eventually meets Niccholo Macchiavelli (famous for his writing of The Prince, and his ideology of "The ends justify the means" is incredibly fitting to the Assassin's Creed dogma) and Leonardo da Vinci (one of the most famous, and more importantly, influential inventors and artists in history). They join forces to help stop the Borgia family who are seeking the secrets of the "Apple" for the Templars.

Now, without giving away any spoilers, I'll just say that the story takes a turn at Weird Ave. and Reeeeeaaaaaalllly? St. It's not bad as it is, but I have to agree with Desmond's last words at the end of the game... "What the f***?!" Trust me, play it and see... it's bizarre that they chose to take this story down this path. 

Assassin's Creed 2 plays pretty much the same as the first; however, Rome as the central location for you to explore is truly magnificent... as it must have once been. Not only is it gigantic, but it's wonderfully realized and detailed. I can't emphasize this enough, especially with free-running and exploration at the forefront of the experience. The open world sandbox style lends itself perfectly to this sort of narrative, and there is a ton of stuff out there for you to find.

One of the biggest complaints of the original was the lack of variety in gameplay. AC2 seeks to remedy this by offering plenty more options in story missions. You're no longer stuck doing the same pattern of interrogating people/pickpocketing/eavesdropping to gain enough information to actually go through with assassinating your target. Now it seems like the missions evolve naturally, and things don't always turn out as you might expect. The story missions blend together much more smoothly, and there are plenty of side missions and optional things you can do if you so choose. Finding and looting treasures or completing missions nets you funds you can then spend to upgrade your home base at the villa, right down to purchasing famous artwork to adorn the walls.

There are lots of little things like this that really add to the overall experience. Buying famous works of art to spruce up the homestead is just the beginning. You can even dye Ezio's clothes different colors! Oh, and Ezio can swim, something Altair, for some inane reason, couldn't seem to manage. Since this alternate version of true historical events is the basis for the Assassin's Creed universe, one nice touch is the database whereby you can access tidbits of actual information on the cast and locations. Every time I'd enter a new area or meet a new historical figure I'd take a moment to read up on them. I actually felt like I learned something... which was nice.

One thing that irked me about the first game, as good as it was, was the collectibles. There were feathers and Templars everywhere. If you did them all, you got... bloody nothing! Argh! There are tons of this sort of thing in AC2 as well, but there is actually a pay off this time around. By finding all the feathers your poor deceased younger brother left all over the place, you'll get a cool cape that allows Ezio to walk around each area unmolested. Discovering Codex pages means that your new friend Leonardo da Vinci can make you new weapons, including dual hidden blades (nice!) and even a gun (nicer!)! There are even some rudimentary vehicle sections. What's more, there are now interactive platforming puzzles that far outstrip those from the previous game. These hidden sections are brilliant additions not only for their challenge and entertainment value, but also because they serve to give you a break from the rest of the story. Seek them out, they are totally worth it!

The action is also basically similar with Ezio climbing all over everything and fighting against endless numbers of guards. However, despite the fact that most of your combat is still waiting on your foes to attack so you can counter, there is a lot more variety in both how you approach combat and the enemy types themselves. You can purchase a plethora of weapons to carry; some work better in certain situations than others. Plus, you can actually disarm opponents and use their own weapons against them! Once again the brutal finishing animations left me smiling sadistically. There are a whole bunch of new animations because of all the new weapons. I loved trying to see them all! The climbing/platforming is still hit and miss in my book. It works fine and looks pretty smooth, but you need to have the camera lined up precisely on precarious jumps or Ezio (like Altair before him) will leap majestically into thin air... and then impersonate a pepperoni pizza upon landing.

In fact, I think that the biggest thing going against AC2 (apart from the bizarre conclusion to the story) is the fact that everything is a little too big. With such a huge space to explore, so many hidden things to find, and such a wide spread and complex narrative, it's easy to get overwhelmed. Switching back and forth between Desmond in the present and Ezio in the past can sometimes be a bit jarring, not to mention confusing, as the plot begins to unravel. To do everything in AC2 would involve a major time commitment, and I really don't feel like the game has any replay value. Still, it is what it is, and I really enjoyed my time in Rome.

I honestly feel like the framework created here for "story telling" has a lot of potential. The idea of the Animus is fascinating! While I won't go so far as so suggest that the Assassin's Creed series has limited itself by sticking solely with Desmond, I'd hate to see such potential squandered. AC2 is a great game, fixing the problems of the original and adding a wonderful new world to explore. My only real complaint is that the story has gone a little too far down the proverbial rabbit hole for my taste (hence the fact I scored it the same as the first). With so many things to do in Rome it's easy to lose the thread, a problem compounded in the third installment Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood (to read my review follow the link here). With Assassin's Creed: Revelations upcoming this holiday season supposedly rounding out the Desmond/Altair/Ezio story arc, I'm really hoping Ubisoft will continue the series with a different setting.

Maybe they could do one with someone of South American origin? How cool would it be to play Assassin's Creed in the jungle during Mayan times? So many possibilities...


Score = 9.1 / 10

P.S. It is absolutely worth taking the time to find all of the hidden messages left by Subject 16. Each is part of a video file. Upon finding them all you can watch a short scene that leaves you wondering about the very nature of humanity... our past, present, and future. It's fantastic, if a little over the top.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Rage (8.1/10)

To read the official full length review follow the link here: RAGE.

In the end, Rage reminds me a lot of Borderlands, another game that, while uniquely awesome in its own way, ultimately left me disappointed: same basic locale, same silent protagonist, same pseudo-open world, same focus on driving to missions, same sidequest driven, bare-bones story. To be honest, the fact that Rage is a better shooter with much better vehicle controls is tempered by the lack of RPG elements that would allow you to invest in, or "own," your character. Instead, you're just sort of... there. Having a coherent story to drive the action is necessary, and while we certainly see a distinct lack of that in modern shooters, at least most have more than Rage offers in that regard. Don't get me wrong, Rage is a good game, and one that is certainly worth your time, but I couldn't help feeling like there were a string of missed opportunities to build on a solid foundation that left me not only wanting more, but wondering just how good it could have been. 

If you want to read more of my specific thoughts about the game, follow the link to read the full length review at Game Over Online! 


Score = 8.1 / 10

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Gears of War 3 (9.3/10)

I love the Gears of War series. Seriously, I went out and bought the books that tell the story in between the games. I've even got my own COG tags (thank you GameStop and their PowerUp Rewards program). For the longest time whenever my best friend was in town we would play the first game because the co-op was a blast (probably beat that game over a dozen times easy). As I say, I love these games, but how does the closing chapter of Delta squad's fight against the Locust finally conclude?

The Gears narrative has always forced the player to take certain things for granted... like the fact that all the protagonists seem to be modeled after Ray Lewis, a weapon of mass destruction can be used for tactical strikes without killing everyone in the city, machine guns have chainsaws on them, and the evil Queen of the underground monsters looks and sounds like Judi Dench. What I'm saying is that if you can sit back, crack a beer and lose yourself in the mythology they've created, you'll be less likely to focus on the glaring plot holes that plague the story.

In Gears of War 3 the story delves even further into the weird. After some thought I've decided not to give any plot points at all not because I don't want to spoil anything, but rather because I don't want to waste a ton of time trying to explain it. Now, I'll readily admit I bought the books. They are excellent by the way, if you're a fan of the series you owe it to yourself to peruse them. Check them out, they are by Karen Traviss. The books go a long way to setting up the back-story, adding to the history and mythology Epic has created, and developing the characters. If you didn't read the books, a lot of these little details that expand the universe will be lost on you and you'll be wondering who on earth all these people are.

But from the beginning, even if you've played the first two games, there are new characters and moments that I never felt were properly explained. I played it through again with my friend when he was in town, and I can't remember the number of times he would ask a question about what was going on, and my sole response was "It's in the books...." There are a lot of moments that are clearly intended to surprise and shock (and to a certain extent they do) but it all felt a little too predictable, with a great deal that the writers are asking you to take as a matter of course irregardless of whether or not it's remotely believable. Again, maybe I'm biased because of the books, but there are a lot of questions that went unanswered. If this is, in fact, that last hurrah for the series, then I might feel the slightest bit let down in this regard. Still, I appreciate any series that has become popular enough to branch out to other media: if you read the books you'll get the full story. It's up to you.

But to be honest, the story really just serves as a vehicle for the gameplay, which is once again on the top of its game. The third person, cover-based shooting seems to polarize people: either you love it or you decidedly don't. I count myself firmly in the former camp. It's not just that the weapons are fun, but both the ally and enemy AI are improved greatly and it's got the best cover mechanic in gaming as far as I'm concerned. The fact is that it all flows together virtually seamlessly. 

Early on you'll notice new characters are now joining Delta on the battlefield. It's humanity's last stand and everyone is gearing up (sorry, couldn't resist). Anya has left the operations center and picked up a Lancer, as have some other friends. The problem with having four player co-op is the ally AI will sometimes get in your way... more often than it should. Having someone walk in your line of fire is always tedious. Don't get me wrong, your teammates are more than decent, but what's weird is they aren't always consistent. Allies will lay down fire and actively finish off downed enemies (something I always found amusing), but towards the end of the campaign it seemed like they just stopped trying. I like the fact that having four players fighting together at once means that they can heal you easier. However, the opposite is also true: you need to pay attention and make sure you heal them. And then there are those moments when they will do something inexplicable. Sometimes you'll be down, crawling towards them, slowly dying, and they'll run right past you. Other times, rather than taking cover like a sane person, they will just stand there, getting peppered and taking it.

Gears of War is known, perhaps more than anything else, for making a habit of giving gamers awesome weapons with which to wield destruction. From the iconic Lancer with it's chainsaw bayonet, to the Torque Bow (my favorite) with exploding arrows. Come on, the most famous, the Hammer of Dawn, shoots lasers from space! The new game introduces new options to the arsenal of Delta squad like the One Shot. This massive, super-heavy but incredibly powerful rifle will take out a Reaver with... that's right kids, one shot!  The Locust "Digger" sends out burrowing grenades that will pop up in your face and explode. There are also some old school additions, like a sawed-off shotgun and the Retro Lancer with blade bayonet which is perfect for charging. Hell, you can even pick up a massive cleaver and swing it around melee style if you like. With so many choices at your disposal, it's difficult to know what to choose! Oh, and new weapons mean new finishing moves. Nice!

The original Gears of War set a graphical standard at the time of it's release. It really showed what the new generation of consoles could do. Sure, it's a bit dated now, but this third installment looks absolutely fantastic. You can tell the good people at Epic have been hard at work-gorgeous environments, great lighting and particle effects, and cutscenes that are the best in the series by far.

One minor complaint might be that there are too many vehicle sections. Despite the Brumak bit at the end of Gears 2 (which I loved, by the way), I don't know that these parts fit well with these games. At least this time around you don't have to drive poorly controlled vehicles. They are "on-rails" as it were, so all you have to do just shoot stuff. Actually, I take that back. One addition to the vehicle sections that is welcome is the inclusion of mechs. These machines are called the Silverbacks... and they are suitably badass, as mechs should be. These moments serve as a nice break, but I always end up feeling like this kind of stuff is just filler, used to elongate the game.

The first Gears included finding collectible COG tags. Gears 2 added to this by having intel items that, when found, popped up text that further explained the backstory or adding flavor to the universe. I love hunting for this sort of stuff, and Gears 3 rewards those who like to check every nook and cranny. There is a lot to find, and some of them are fiendishly well hidden.

I've never been huge into online mulitplayer, but I have to say I enjoy Gears of War online. The differing mechanics and cover system make it just different enough, plus you have a whole slew of options. If you don't like playing against other people, grab a couple of buddies and play Horde mode (and the new antithesis, Beast mode, where you control the Locust against the COG). Plus, you can play the campaign all the way through with four player online co-op now.

So how does the third and presumably final installment of this franchise fall in relation to it's brethren? To be honest, I'm going to score them all the same. While the story was a little disjointed, I feel like the gameplay is better than ever. If nothing else, it speaks to the consistency that Epic has brought to the table. Sadly, the ride is over, and I'll admit I'm a little melancholy about it. But having said that, I know the Gears games will have a place on my shelf for the long haul. Marcus and the boys (and girls) from Delta aren't going anywhere. 


Score = 9.3 / 10