Gears of War 3 (Xbox 360) is the concluding chapter to one of this console generation's biggest and best new franchises, so there's a lot of pressure on the game to deliver. Thankfully the series goes out with a bang, even if many of the basic gameplay elements will be familiar to fans of the first two titles. Events pick up two years after Gears of War 2's conclusion with protagonist Marcus Fenix and his fellow soldier buddies stranded aboard a sort of post-apocalyptic Noah's Ark.
Their home planet of Sera has been overrun by monsters, leaving Marcus and company to sail the ocean in run down ships, growing their own crops and simply attempting to survive long enough to formulate a plan to rebuild civilisation, which is no easy feat when you're continually being attacked by sea beasts.
What follows are 12 or so hours of largely spectacular third person shooter gameplay, set across a range of striking environments in a campaign mode now playable with up to four players co-operatively. For Gears of War veterans it's worth noting that the game is pretty easy on anything less than Hardcore difficulty, as the game provides you with a series of overly helpful computer controlled partners who'll steal kills and finish off bosses a little too often.
Story has never been the Gears of War franchise's strongest point, but developer Epic Games does a fine job of wrapping things up neatly in this trilogy-closing chapter, which leaves no cliff hangers teasing a fourth entry in the series. A tale of harsh realities, sacrifice and redemption, there are plenty of plot twists and more of an emotional focus than in the previous Gears of War games.
Without giving too much away, it satisfyingly ties up all the loose ends, bringing closure to a number of character back stories that have been simmering away throughout the previous two games. But the real meat of Gears of War has always been its cover-based gunplay and brutal melee kills, and the third game doesn't disappoint in this regard either.
A new threat
Gears of War 3 introduces a new menace called the Lambent. A race of combustible beasts that can shoot explosive projectiles from tentacles, they're capable of launching assaults over the top of cover positions, meaning you're often on the move, adding a more frenetic pace to combat than we've seen before in the series.
While we're fans of the new enemy type, we were also more than happy once the Lambent stepped aside to make way for the return of the Locust who played the villains in the previous two games. Their introduction led to a greater focus on the series' traditional cover-based shooter gameplay, which has inspired a host of imitators over the last five years.
Gears of War 3 offers a fevered skirmish around every corner and the game's varied arsenal allows you to take a number of different tactical approaches to combat. If you like getting up close and personal there's a devastating new sawn-off shotgun, but it's only effective at point-blank range and comes with a painfully long reloading time. Chainsaw-equipped rifles and gory finishing moves are also perfect for engaging in the series' celebrated close-quarters combat. Meanwhile, there's a new one-hit kill sniper rifle and a grenade which burrows underground before popping up behind cover and exploding.
Gears of War 3 offers a strong mix of multiplayer game modes that will keep you busy long after you've finished the single player game. Popular survival mode Horde, a tense game type which challenges teams to survive increasingly tough waves of enemies, introduces an economy system in which cash earned through kills allows you to purchase fortifications and new items like turrets, spike strips, electric fences and explosive decoys, increasing your tactical options.
Meanwhile, the new Beast mode lets you play as the enemies of the Gears world, from small scurrying monsters to massive lumbering beasts, with kills awarding you money to spend on fresh lives and new monster tiers. Elsewhere, competitive multiplayer modes such as Team Deathmatch and objective capture game types like King of the Hill play out across a number of impressive maps, from an old American football stadium to trenches and bunkers hit by periodic sandstorms. Epic has spent years honing Gears of War's multiplayer component and it really shows.
Going out on a high
While Gears of War 3 arguably plays it safe, never straying too far from the formula that has served it so well over the last five years, the gameplay and graphics are absolutely fantastic, and everything it does it achieves with a level of polish that puts it among the best third-person games of this console generation.
We hope it isn't, but if this is the end for the series, it goes out on a massive high.
+ Brilliant action gameplay.
+ Great visuals.
+ Deep multiplayer options.
- Feels a bit familar.
- Computer controlled allies can be overly helpful.
- The end of the road for the series?