This really is a year for threes in gaming, isn’t it? Resistance 3 last week, Battlefield 3 and Uncharted 3 later in the year, and now the final piece in Epic Games’ combat trilogy, Gears of War 3 is here. Boasting a proper end to the story and improved co-op and multiplayer, can it really deliver on all it promises?

Gears of War 3 picks up 2 years after the end of Gears 2, with the city of Jacinto sunk and the last of the COG now scattered and fighting off the new Lambent threat and the remnants of the Locust Horde. Starting on a giant flotilla of ships converted into a mobile base, the game starts off in a more reflective mood than its predecessors, beginning with a flashback and then a casual wander through the base–instead of merely throwing you into combat as soon as it can. For those of you who may have found the plot progression lacking in previous games, you’ll find a lot more here to get your teeth into. In fact, you may find yourself a little lost at first. Gears 3’s story is written by acclaimed Republic Commando scribe Karen Traviss, who has also written 4 of the Gears of War novels and now writes the comic series as well. A whole host of the characters from her books appear here and major events between this game and the last are covered in those novels. If, like me, you haven’t read them, you may be slightly confused as to who some of these people are and what’s going on. Though, if anything, you’ll be very interested to read those books. Don’t worry though–there’s a satisfying plot for even the uneducated of us, and I found it hugely engaging, if my uninterrupted 8 – 9 hour playthrough is anything to go by.

The campaign gameplay will be eminently familiar to fans of the franchise; the cycle of cover, pop-up, shoot and repeat might seem like it could become stale very quickly; but the level design and enemy AI is varied enough to prevent that. Previous Gears games had a very similar feel when it came to the art design; cities were generally interchangeable and my pervading memory of Gears 2 is that everything was a dull fire-lit red. Here, however, everything is brightly lit; there’s a definite sense of it being summer on Sera and the locales are possibly more varied than both previous games combined.

Also it should be said that this is without a doubt the fastest paced title in the series. “On rails” sections that would have been slowly paced and measured in Gears 2 are a frantic dash with a veritable onslaught of enemies. The new Lambent enemies are quick and can easily change their attack style – more than once I was overwhelmed before I knew what was happening.

It has to be said that Gears of War 3 absolutely has to be played in co-op. Upping the player count from 2 – 4 is a stroke of genius, as anyone who’s played Halo co-op can tell you. If anything, playing in single player seriously lessens the experience–as there are so many moments that just feel like they were designed for a group to handle. It’s helpful that the co-op AI is at least competent, otherwise it may have led to more than a few moments of controller-snapping frustration.

Next, the other huge part of Gears of War’s appeal – the multiplayer. Now there were a lot of complaints about Gears 2’s matchmaking; mostly that it didn’t work. You know, AT ALL. Now obviously, as I’ve been playing before release, the servers haven’t exactly been what you’d call crowded; but I found no particular issue finding matches in any of the various multiplayer modes. Whether that’ll continue after the game releases on Tuesday, I can’t say; but it did feel like a major improvement.

There are a few changes in the multiplayer modes. Gone is Submission, now replaced by Capture the Leader, requiring you to take the commander of the other team hostage as a human shield, rather than a random Stranded character as before. Also present is a Team Deathmatch mode, giving a shared number of respawns to each team which are whittled down in a much faster paced game reminiscent of the Annex mode. All of the other multiplayer variations are back; and with a far greater array of weapons, skins, and characters, there’s a huge amount of customization available.

The Horde mode makes a welcome return, but it’s had one hell of an upgrade. Now you earn money from kills which can be used to buy better weapons and build defenses. You can also give money to other players, introducing a completely new way to deal with slew of enemy troops–it’ll also throw bosses at you in the later levels! This new mode bears so little resemblance to the original Horde mode, I’m surprised it has the same name; but these new changes are more than welcomed and the sheer amount of differing tactics available mean that there’ll be life in it for ages.

In addition to the Horde mode there’s its mirror image – Beast mode. This works like Horde but from the other side, using cash to buy a Locust and Lambent character then controlling them against the Human forces. This presents its own challenges, as the AI human characters are capable of building horde defences and will also send “hero” characters (usually main characters from the game) after you, who can take a lot more punishment.

Gears of War 3 is a stellar addition to the series. It offers a robust and engaging campaign, sterling co-op gameplay, and not one, but multiple unique multiplayer experiences. It’s a fitting end to the trilogy–and while it’s clear that more games are planned in the series, this ties up the arc it’s been following in excellent fashion. As I said in my Resistance 3 review, this is going to be the heaviest release schedule in gaming history–and if everything’s going to be of this calibre, it may very well be the best.

Gears of War 3 is available worldwide on September 20th.

 

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