Gears of War 3, one of the industry’s most anticipated games of 2011 and the most pre-ordered Xbox 360 exclusive to date, made a big splash only months ago when Epic Games successfully launched the popular Gears of War 3 multiplayer beta. While we had plenty of time to enjoy a tease of its competitive multiplayer offerings, it wasn’t until today at E3 when we got up close and personal with Gears of War 3’s campaign.

In a room with Cliff Bleszinski, I was shown a sequence which starts with, Cole, Baird, Carmine and Sam up top on a bridge, aiming to push a crate of tickers over onto the giant Lambent Leviathan (think giant Kraken) while the players(s) is/are controlling Fenix, Dom, Anya and Jace, battling the massive beast up close. After taking the monster out, the story skips back in time two hours and pits the players in shoes of the Cole-Baird team up top. This change in gameplay, which Cliffy B compares to a Pulp Fiction style, allows for the entire campaign to involve multiple intertwined and more complex stories and of course, appropriate use of Gears of War 3’s much larger cast of characters.

During gameplay we saw two new weapons in action, one being a mech battlesuit and the other, a two-player heavy machine gun called the Vulcan. This chain-fed heavy weapon requires one player wielding the actual gun like any other heavy weapon and the other carrying the ammo, tethered by the chain of bullets. One player shoots, the other must continually tap to reload to feed the bullets in. If the players do it right, you can continuously fire until running out of ammunition.

A large focus of the demo was on the upgraded Unreal engine employed by Gears 3, starting with Vertex Deformation Technology, which allows for a push towards dynamic environments, helping immerse players in the chaos and destruction the Gears are so very well accustomed to. Cliffy B explains that, “the engine that allows this to happen uses very little CPU power” so there is no slow down in gameplay or framerate when large, intense events are happening on screen. Global Illumination is another feature which offers unique shadows and lighting.

Throughout the gameplay, there was also emphasis placed on 4-played co-op, a first for the series’ story campaigns. The demo ended with literal cliffhanger as Baird and Cole’s team falls off the broken bridge after the tickers fall to take out the monster. What happens next is not something Bleszinski would talk about.

“The best part about ending in a cliffhanger is that you don’t know who lives or who dies.”

This is the real end of the Gears of War trilogy, remember.

Gears of War 3 does come with additional campaign modes which add fun replayability including arcade mode which adds points and hence, a competitive element to co-op gameplay. They’re are also “mutators” which can be unlocked to add things like flower blood, big heads, etc.

“The campaign’s a thing we put a ton of effort into and it’s the longest, beefiest campaign we’ve ever done.”

I asked Cliff for an estimated number of hours to complete but he couldn’t comment on that, revealing only that Gears of War 2 as about 8-9 hours and it’s significantly longer, but not because of “padding” the missions.

The visuals, game mechanics and cinimatics all show noticeable improvements over Gears of War 2 and this was evident in the Gears 3 multiplayer beta. The biggest takeaway from this demo is the increase in scope of the game. The larger team with greater focus on the characters, their larger array of weapons (now including mechs), larger missions and longer overall game length all indicate that Gears of War 3 may bring the franchise into the next level of story-telling and gameplay.

So, Kill or Save Carmine?

Gears of War 3 releases September 20, 2011, exclusively for the Xbox 360.

Follow me on Twitter @ rob_keyes and stay tuned to Game Rant for more news and updates as E3 2011 continues through the week.