Gears of War 3 ends the tale of Marcus Fenix and Delta Squad. The series will go on, no doubt, but it might be awhile before we see another sequel. Epic approached this game as though it were the last Gears ever. They've beefed up every existing feature from the series, making sure no aspect of the game felt unfinished. All the loose ends in both the story and gameplay have been wrapped up.

Gears 3 picks up eighteen months after the previous game. Many survivors from the fallen city of Jacino now live on the Raven's Nest, a warship. They're constantly running from the Lambent, a force of mindless monsters slowly spreading across the planet. Delta Squad receives a message from Marcus' father, a scientist claiming to have found a way to wipe out the Lambent. Fenix and company set out to find Adam Fenix in a desperate bid to save the planet.

Like its predecessors, Gears 3's story gives off a strong "this would make more sense if you read the novels" vibe. You meet many characters on Delta Squad's planet-wide journey but aren't properly introduced to them. Some of the playable characters are still a mystery to me. Still, out of any of the games in the series, Gears 3 tries the hardest to make you care about Delta Squad. By the end, I was a lot more attached to these no-necked meatheads than I thought I would be.

Gears 2's campaign was a big leap over the first game because it featured more spacious, diverse environments and mixed in turret/vehicle sequences and numerous boss fights. The third game's campaign may feel less impressive just because it's not as big of an improvement over the preceding game. The inclusion of pilotable mechs and new Lambent foes are maybe the only curveballs in the campaign. Still, the blueprint passed down from GoW2 is a solid one and you can look forward to an exciting, 10+ hour journey filled with breath-taking action sequences.

Though the campaign lacks any big, flashy improvements, it's a blast to play because the basic combat is so well done. Unlike a lot of other cover-based shooters out there, it doesn't feel like whack-a-mole. You and your enemies don't just sit behind cover taking pot shots at each other. You're expected to move around. Your cover can be destroyed at any time and some enemies have splash damage attacks that you must continually run and dive away from. A new weapon called a Digger Launcher fires a mine that tunnels underneath any cover and explodes when it detects any enemy - those sandbags you're hiding behind won't protect you from that.

Many of the other new weapons encourage you to get close to your enemies rather than snipe from afar. The Retro Lancer is a more powerful but less accurate version of the standard assault rifle. It has a mounted bayonet so you can charge and impale an opponent. The sawed-off shotgun can kill an enemy in one shot, but its power is balanced out by the fact that it holds only one round at a time. The Cleaver, a two-handed sword, lets you slash an opponent in half with ease. Each of these weapons can allow you to kill an opponent instantly but also require you to expose yourself to enemies. It makes Gears the rare cover-based shooter that actually gives you reason to leave the comforting shade of your cover.

GoW3 now supports co-op for up to four players instead of the traditional two. That in itself isn't so spectacular, but it does set up another feature: Arcade mode. In Arcade mode, co-op players compete with each other to rack up the highest score via kills, revivals and so on. It adds another layer of challenge to the game. Gives complete strangers something to jaw about when they're thrown into a co-op game together, too.

The standalone co-op mode Horde, arguably the most popular feature of GoW2, makes a return. Up to five players work together to fight off waves of increasingly difficult enemies. In Gears 2, players would typically find a secluded corner of the map and stay there for most of the match. It was fun but it also felt like you were almost cheating. You were being rewarded for camping, and multiplayer gamers were taught at a young age that camping is for sissies.

With "Horde 2.0," though, you're not just cowering in a corner - you're building a base. By killing enemies or surviving rounds, you win money that you can use to put up defensive structures like turrets or barriers. Building these structures allows you to unlock more advanced versions of them. For example, building spike strips will, in time, enable you to make barbed wire fences. These defenses, simply helpful at first, become all but necessary in later waves or when boss enemies (such as Brumaks) spawn. While yes, there's still some camping involved in Horde 2.0, it's a much more strategic experience than the Gears 2 incarnation.

I don't think Horde will necessarily be the most popular mode in Gears 3, though. It'll receive some stiff competition from Beast mode. Beast is essentially the inverse of Horde; instead of being a human fighting off Locust, you're now a Locust trying to kill humans. By killing more and more enemies, you unlock larger Locust such as Berserkers or Serapedes.

Beast mode has a completely different tempo than Horde. With Horde, you can only die once a round so you're conditioned to hang back and let enemies come to you. Beast mode, however, lets you respawn multiple times in a round and has a very short time limit for each round. In order to wipe out all the humans in a minute (give or take), you'll need to be extremely aggressive.

Each Locust has different strengths and weaknesses. The Ticker, for example, is great at destroying enemy barricades but they're also very fragile. A Butcher can easily rip apart enemies at close range with his blade but he's also a slow, big target. Each creature requires a very different strategy in order for you to be successful. By switching to a different type of Locust, it's almost like you're stepping into a new game. The experience is so unlike the rest of Gears that I think gamers will be playing this mode for awhile.

The only way Beast mode comes up short is in your choice of opponents. The A.I. is a bit dim-witted at times. It doesn't feel like their strategies adapt according to what type of Locust they encounter. When I played as a Berserker (a heavily-armored creature able to essentially wreck any structure or enemy with a single swing of his fist), I was disappointed by how the A.I. soldiers made little attempt to keep their distance. They just clustered up in front of me, firing away, until I clobbered them.

You have to deal with this poor A.I. because, sadly, there's no way to have human opponents in Beast mode. It seems natural that they'd combine Beast and Horde modes and have a team of Locust trying to overrun a team of humans. No dice, though. Perhaps we'll have to wait for the next Gears game for that.

Gears 3 does offer up plenty of other competitive modes to occupy your time. They're essentially tweaked versions of modes from previous games, though. Team Deathmatch pits two squads against each other like Warzone, with the primary difference being that you can respawn every fifteen seconds rather than at the end of each round. King of the Hill is essentially the same as Annex mode from the first two games, with teams competing to hold a shifting control point. Wingman, which splits players into multiple teams of two, returns largely unchanged.

The only competitive mode that feels "new" is Capture the Leader, which replaces the Capture the Leader or Submission game types from previous titles. Each team must attempt to knock down the opposing team's leader and then hold them for 30 seconds. The short timer forces you to be very aggressive, just as it does in Beast mode. You must race to either rescue your leader or try to nab the other team's leader, which stops the capture timer. The leader can be freed by killing the captor or simply hitting them with a smoke grenade, so camping in a corner isn't quite so effective. The team with the hostage then, needs to constantly stay on the move while the clock winds down. It's a very tense, fast-paced mode. Once again, it works because it gets players out from behind cover and forces them to play risky.

Whether you're playing single-player, co-op, or competitive multiplayer, the game is constantly tossing rewards at you. In all modes, you earn experience points and level up. Pop-up windows in the bottom of your screen will continually tell you how close you are to an Achievement or some bonus unlockable. Unlockables include weapon skins, characters, executions and mutators. Mutators, selected prior to the start of the match, modify the game mechanics in some way. For example, the "vampire" mutator prevents players from regenerating health normally but instead gives them health when they deal damage. The game constantly tempts you to play "one more round" so you can unlock a new item.

There's no telling when we'll see another Gears of War. Maybe we'll have to wait until a new Xbox is in stores. I have no doubt that Gears 3 will keep players entertained until then, though. It's a better game than Gears 2 on every front and one of the most complete shooters on the market.

Players: 1-10
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Developer: Epic Games
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
ESRB: Mature
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