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Game Rant’s Rob Keyes reviews Gears of War 3

When Gears of War debuted on the Xbox 360 back in 2006, it raised the bar in what the industry came to expect from third-person shooters. Offering incredible graphics with over-the-top, arcade-esque violence and gun mechanics, mixed into an intriguing war with lovably macho characters, the franchise quickly became a cornerstone for Microsoft’s home console. Its sequel took the story of the Locust-COG conflict and the multiplayer offerings to the next logical step, paving the way for Gears of War 3 to both complete the series and perfect its high-potential online play.

Gears of War 3 was originally meant to arrive back in April, but business reasons saw the game pushed by Microsoft to the holiday season, thus allowing Epic Games more time to polish the title and expand on its gameplay modes. Did Epic succeed in answering our questions from the first two games and does its multiplayer rectify the issues we had with Gears of War 2?

In short, Gears of War 3 offers a deserving conclusion to the trilogy and is without question, a game of the year contender. The campaign of Gears 3 picks up after some time has passed since the horrifying events of Gears of War 2 – which saw our heroes forced to sink the entire city of Jacinto.

No time is wasted in Gears 3 to jump back into the action and through a stylistic introduction, players learn a little back-story of protagonist Marcus Fenix and what happened to his father, kicking the main narrative into gear. Watch the opening for yourself, if you haven’t already.

This is just the first step of many that allow the trilogy to come full circle in almost every way. Every member of Delta Squad is given their fair share of screen time – even the new Carmine brother – so players can learn a little more about their favorite heroes, not the least of which is a very cool level through the Thrashball Stadium where Cole Train made it big as a superstar athlete before the war began. As the final act of the Gears trilogy, the game doesn’t shy away from including some emotional and effective moments – Even newcomers to the series will not be able to avoid being drawn into the events that unfold.

Gears of War 3 Review - Delta Squad

The campaign is divided into five acts, the first three of which could make for a game of their own. The third act ends in an epic set piece firefight, concluding with a cutscene that utilizes an instrumental of Gary Jules’ Mad World tune in one of the game’s most emotional moments. All of the missions are chock full of varied objectives, offering a constant sense of urgency and accomplishment, never letting players fall into a boring rut of run-and-gun encounters. The mission variety is further enhanced by the addition of Lambent forces which offer a twist on the standard Locust enemy fare. Each kill results in bright, fun and juicy explosions and some Lambent forces transform into larger threats just when it looks like they’ve been defeated. The heavy focus on the Lambent also provides players with more boss battles intertwined with encounters against the Locust monsters of old.

Gears of War 3 abandons the franchise’s limited color scale, instead trading the grungy, darker tones for some rather beautiful and large set pieces. The graphics of the environments are just as improved as the animations of the game’s COG, Locust and Lambent forces, and players will barely notice any of the texture popping that was a concern in Gears of War 2. From jungles to the underground, the game’s environments and level designs are some of the best of any title this year, further emphasizing Epic Games’ goal in increasing the scope and scale of the game.

Not only are the environments more open, and offer more COG characters to fight alongside with, but the numbers of enemies on screen in each skirmish see a significant upgrade as well, giving ample opportunity for players to take advantage of some of the game’s new weapons, not to mention the Silverback mech suit.

Gears of War 3 Review - Lambent

Fans who may have held gripes against Gears of War 2 for its multiplayer matchmaking process will be ecstatic to learn that in Gears of War 3, it’s been totally revamped – so much so, that Gears of War 3’s multiplayer is better than its predecessors in every possible way. Gameplay and balancing improvements aside, the overhauled Gears of War 3 multiplayer component provides dedicated servers for faster match-making and no lag disadvantage to the non-hosting players.

There are a variety of multiplayer modes that should be familiar to players of Gears of War 2 and shooter veterans. Standard fare from Team Deathmatch and King of the Hill are complimented with the tweaked Wingman and Capture the leader modes, among others, that can all be played over the Gears of War 3’s 10 multiplayer maps. In addition to the competitive versus modes, Gears of War 3 also brings back the fan-favorite Horde co-op mode but in an entirely revamped way. Horde 2.0 adds many layers of depth to the co-op, from collecting and sharing cash, to spending it on weapons, ammo, fortifications and even a vehicle. No longer are players battling waves of just the Horde, but the Lambent forces as well, big, very big and small.

Gears of War 3 Review - Environments

While Horde and its endless replayability will quickly become a go-to mode for fans to play together, Gears of War 3’s Beast mode also offers a new and unique experience for players, allowing them to take control over the Horde units. Instead of simply reversing the Horde formula and having players attempt to survive waves of COG forces, Beast Mode puts players on the hunt, forcing them to lay waste to as many COG units and fortifications as possible in a limited amount of time. Like Horde, Beast awards players with cash to use to purchase playable creatures. While the addition is noteworthy, it won’t be as popular and enduring as Horde 2.0 for most gamers and some of the playable beasts are not very effective.

By the end of the Gears of War 3 campaign, players will have learned the secrets behind everything that has occurred in the series and the final boss battle provides the satisfactory ending that the Gears of War story and all of its included character arcs deserve. Once that’s done, increase the difficulty level and play through again with the game’s 4-player co-op or jump online for some of the best competitive multiplayer available.

Gears of War 3 is a must-play title and the best game in the series, in both its campaign and its vastly upgraded multiplayer component, which introduces a revamped matchmaking process and several new game modes, all complimented by a new stats, awards and unlock system. It takes everything that was good about the past two games and improves it all to give gamers a complete and comprehensive gaming experience (and it’s in 3D). Our only question now, is what happens next for the franchise?

Gears of War 3 releases September 20, 2011, exclusively for the Xbox 360. Click here for midnight launch event info.

Follow me on Twitter @rob_keyes.