Editor’s note: Ryan Smith is a longtime gamer and freelance writer who lives in Raleigh, NC. A graduate of East Carolina University with a degree in business and marketing, he has written in the past for WRAL Tech Wire and GameArgus.com. He currently plays Xbox 360 and PC as well as Nintendo DS. For story ideas, tips and feedback, he can be reached via e-mail (ryannicksmith@gmail.com)

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. – The final volume in Cary-based Epic Games’ world class video game trilogy Gears of War has finally arrived, almost three years after Gears of War 2 was released. Hitting the shelves hard and selling over 3 million copies in the first five days, Gears 3 is predicted to sell over 8 million copies by the end of its life cycle, roughly 2 million more than Gears 1 or 2.

I had a chance to play in the very popular Beta back in April and could tell that the multiplayer changes they were making would make this one twice as enjoyable as the last. So my expectations were high for the conclusion of Gears’ highly cinematic and enjoyable campaign, but also for the final chapter of multiplayer as well.

I was not disappointed. 

Single Player

The campaign for Gears of War 3 is nothing short of brilliant. It would be a disservice to call it simply “great.” It is much more than that. Gears 1 had perhaps the best pure gameplay of the three campaigns, it was tough, brutal, the boss fights were memorable (nothing like facing off against the berserker for the first time) but I can’t be sure that isn’t pure nostalgia. Gears 2’s campaign was more forgiving than its predecessor, I found it much easier on Insanity difficulty than Gears 1, plus the campaign was much longer than the four hour event of Gears 1. Easier isn’t necessarily better, but combined with the deeper story and longer cinematic scope, Gears 2 proved a richer single player (or co-op campaign) experience.

But as I delved into the campaign of Gears 3, I realized how much I really had come to care for these characters. The heroes of Delta Squad, including now iconic protagonist Marcus Fenix, had become a much deeper group of characters since the onset of Gears 1, it was no longer just about funny banter from Baird, Cole Train’s iconic “Whooo’s!” or the gimmicks of saying “dibs!” or “boooom baby.”

The characters had become deep, their backstories finally flushed out while their emotions and motivations came to the fore. So while they were still charming with their characteristic one-liners, I actually felt a connection to the guys this time around. Not to mention the addition of two female warriors in Sam and Anya, Anya had been in Gears 1 and 2 as an advisor to Delta squad, but now fights alongside them.

Without spoiling anything I can just say that Gears 3 is an incredibly emotional experience through the course of its story. The marketing campaigns for Gears had always nailed what the emotions must be like in a world devastated by war, its people hiding and without much hope, but the games never really pulled that off as a part of the campaign. The final installment of the trilogy changes that and changes it hard, ultimately becoming one of the most dramatic and exciting stories I have seen in a game in years and I never thought I could say that about a game that wasn’t a story driven RPG.

Gears 3 brought on novelist Karen Traviss, who had written the Gears of War novels, to write the campaign’s story and she really turned it into a dramatic masterpiece.

I played through on hard, or “hardcore” difficulty and didn’t find it to be all that challenging, but it was still very entertaining and now I have Insanity mode unlocked which should add the difficulty in excess. The campaign was roughly the length of Gears 2, if not a bit longer. Gears 1 had the best boss fights, Gears 2 had the best levels, but Gears 3 has the best gameplay. The weapons are better, there are more varieties of them, the heavy weapons rock and most of all your AI team-mate’s capabilities are far greater than they were before. Despite an annoying stealth sequence in the middle acts, I had a blast the whole way through the campaign. I played through solo, but it does allow for up to FOUR PLAYER CO-OP which I plan on trying very soon, or maybe 4 player Arcade mode, which allows for a Horde mode like scoring system that tallies kills.

Multiplayer

So while the gameplay was a lot better in the campaign, multiplayer is just flat out perfect compared to the first two titles. The things that always bothered me most in Gears multiplayer were the lag issues, where I would walk up to someone and shoot them point blank to no effect, but also the fact that the only good weapon in the game was the Gnasher shotgun. Of course there were power weapons such as the boomshot (a grenade launcher like weapon), the sniper rifle, etc. but to get one you had to fight for it, using the Gnasher shotgun. Don’t get me wrong, the Gnasher is probably the most entertaining weapon in the game, but with its random damage and the prominent lag issues, Gears VS. modes can be quite taxing.

In Gears of War 3, they solved both those issues. VS modes now feature dedicated servers, instead of forcing you to connect to another player’s Xbox 360 to play the matches. Dedicated servers provide a much more even battlefield where your character is much more responsive, you shoot what you can shoot and don’t have to wonder if the guy you are about to ambush is going to kill you no matter what you do. As for the Gnasher, it is still a wonderful gun, but every weapon in the game is now viable.

You can use your rifles to kill anyone not in cover, no more charging about the map wall bouncing until you get into a Gnasher duel. If someone is out of cover, they are in danger from rifles and not just power weapons anymore. Also if you were never much good with a Gnasher, there is also the sawed off shotgun, which is more powerful but closer range and has a huge blast radius, great for hit & runs or ambushes.

Even with Gears 1 and 2’s problems, I played the VS modes quite a bit as they were still too addicting to discredit easily. Gears 2 introduced horde mode however, a cooperative multiplayer mode that puts 5 players against 50 waves of AI controlled Locust attackers. Horde mode sets the standard for this type of mode nowadays and shortly after it came out, you saw identical modes in games you wouldn’t even expect it like FPS games such as Battlefield Bad Company 2.

With Gears of War 3 we also get the highly anticipated Horde Mode 2.0, which features more enemy types, battlefield defenses such as turrets and spikes, and all the extra guns we have come to love. Gears 3 horde mode is just beautiful, I love the new defenses you can build and huddle behind, the boss waves are much more intense (Berserkers and Brumaks and bears oh my!) and with all the additional weapons, I don’t see myself getting tired of it. Ever.

In addition to the newly improved Horde mode, we get Beast mode, something I was excited about ever since I saw trailers for it months ago. Beast mode is the inverse of horde mode, it is waves of COG (human) soldiers who set up behind defense that you (the Locust) must destroy. You start out with 1:00 on the clock and each time you kill a human combatant or defensive structure you get more time on the clock until they are all dead.

You can progress through 3 tiers of locus units to choose from, ranging from Ticker to Berserker and the more damage you do to enemy unit or defense, the more money you get, which allows you to purchase a better Locust to play as and unlocks additional tiers. This mode is just pure fun, you get to play as the enemies you have slain so many thousands of times since 2006. Whether it be a Ticker, Wretch or Drone like in Gears 1, or the Armored Kantus, Savage Boomer or Corpser(!!!) from Gears 3 (plus more) Beast mode really delivers the cooperative fun.

Rating: 10/10

So with its amazing storyline and campaign, perfectly fine-tuned VS multiplayer (six varieties of it) and incredibly addicting cooperative multiplayer (campaign/arcade campaign, Beast and Horde modes) this game just delivers on $60 more than any game I can think of. I give it a 10/10 because it is flat out one of the most impressive titles I have seen in years, if you have an Xbox 360 you must play it (it’s even got an introduction league for multiplayer beginners). If you don’t you must buy an Xbox 360 and Gears of War 3. They even package them together just for you.

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