In September 2011, I was a college junior very willing to waste away the early days of her fall semester playing Epic Games’ new third-person shooter, Gears of War 3. I pre-ordered the highly anticipated title so I could guarantee I got the gold Retro Lancer skin for my multiplayer battles, and threw myself into the beta earlier that year with more energy than I put into my entire undergraduate coursework combined.
The following year, my fondness of Gears 3 grew and absorbed the place once reserved in my heart by the Halo franchise after the disappointment of Halo 4.
But, like all multiplayer games with finite resources trying to keep the attention of a fickle fanbase, Gears 3 eventually faded away. I focused more on Call of Duty releases, then eventually on Overwatch 2 and the battle royales that began popping up like lanternflies on New York City vegetation in the early fall.
Read More: A PS3 Version Of Gears Of War 3 Is Now Available
Occasionally, my mind would wander to Gears of War 3 and its unique, somewhat disorienting camera angle, the satisfying crunchiness and weight of its gameplay, and all those gleefully gross executions. Nothing ever felt remotely like Gears 3, not even the sequels (which came after long-time game lead Cliff Bleszinksi left Epic Games) that followed in its wake. Recently, those occasional daydreams of Epic’s third-person shooter became more frequent and, finally, I downloaded it via Xbox Game Pass and booted it up again.
Gears of War 3 online is a 2011 time capsule
Several things shock me in the seconds after I start up Gears of War 3. First, the Xbox 360 online interface greets me, like I applied a retro theme to my Xbox Series S in a fugue state. When the old pop-up appears to let me know that I am, indeed, online, I do the Leonardo DiCaprio pointing meme alone in my living room. My old profile picture is there (my Xbox avatar wearing an Optimus Prime helmet), and so is all the information about the 360-era games I played. It’s a lovely little detail that threatens to derail my Gears gameplay, as I get lost in the old menu for far too long.
Then, as Gears 3 loads up and the familiar horns of the opening theme fade in, I’m shocked by the memory that the score stirs in me. Suddenly, I am 21 years old and very stoned, likely wearing a pair of leggings and a t-shirt I’ve cut the sleeves off of to make a muscle tank—maybe I’m even wearing my Gears 3 one—and I’m waiting for my friends to meet me online so we can run a five-stack in Team Deathmatch. Time flattens into a circle, just like the one Rust Cohle warned us of, and I am briefly, blissfully unaware of how my rent will be going up in my Brooklyn apartment, because I’m in upstate New York, living off my student loan.
The final thing that shocks me is that I can actually play Gears 3 online. The menu says “0 players online worldwide,” but it’s lying—I load into a Team Deathmatch game in seconds, filling in for a bot Locust (the beefy, scaly bad guys of the Gears universe) upon its death. As I step into the huge shoes of this subterranean (and for some reason bipedal) beast, I realize I’m gonna need a second to get my sea legs.
Read More: Gears of War Creator Thinks Series Needs ‘A Bit Of A Reboot’
Gears of War doesn’t feel anything like the games I play now—aside from when I choose one of the heavier, tankier Overwatch 2 characters, most of the time I’m playing as someone who’s lithe and lightning-fast. When compared to modern games like Apex Legends or Modern Warfare III, Gears 3 is gluey and clumsy, like someone mixed a shooter with Ambien and a glass of wine until everything got a little wavy. It takes several gory, squishy deaths (Gears of War 3 is probably best-known for its violent multiplayer executions which include swinging your gun like a golf club and taking off someone’s head in a spray of brain matter) before I remember how the controls work.
Once I get my active reload down (a mechanic by which your weapon damage or fire rate increases if you time your reload correctly), I really hit my stride. I split a snub-nosed grenadier in half with a Gnasher Shotgun, I pop the head off of a peeking Carmine brother with a Boltok Pistol from halfway across the map, I impale Marcus Fenix on the end of a Retro Lancer. I remember that the cover-based shooter has tons of movement tricks and hacks, and soon I’m gliding around the map like my character isn’t wearing a ton of heavy armor and boots that sound like they’re made of steel.
Gears 3 multiplayer’s visceral audio brings back the same intense wave of nostalgia as the starting menu’s soft horns. There are the gushy, mushy sounds of shotgun shells embedding themselves into flesh, the nerve-wracking rev of the Torque Bow winding up its shot, followed by the high-pitched, heart-stopping audio cue you hear when one of its arrows sinks into your leg. The horrid, wet gurgling that bursts forth from Locust characters stomping about the map and the metallic clangs of menu sounds whisk me away to a simpler era. For the entire time I’m playing Gears of War 3, I am in 2011.
But it is, alas, 2024, and the other people still playing Gears of War 3 are either newcomers who can’t tell their incendiary grenades from their Boomshots or seasoned veterans who are a nightmare to play against. Matches end fast, and there’s little room for the weak in them. Despite quickly remembering how to make the most of the game’s movement mechanics and gunplay, I am still repeatedly owned by players who have no problem picking up my downed body and miming humping me against a wall.
In that way, and in many others, Gears of War 3 is a perfect 2011 time capsule, full of blood and guts and badly behaved boys, and, of course, Cole Train expressions.