It's been two years since Jacinto fell at the end of Gears of War 2. What little is left of the COG army in Gears of War 3 clings to a massive tanker, the Sovereign, which sails the coast, dispatching search parties to look for supplies. For the humans on Sera, it is their darkest hour.

The Lambent Locusts, infected by the imulsion -- the natural-flowing energy substance that once powered mankind's machines on this planet -- are the latest threat, a much more savage (and explodey) enemy. Both human and the vanilla Locust are on the run.

But with such a cliffhanger ending in Gears of War 2, why not just pick it up from there? "We wanted time to pass," executive producer Rod Fergusson told me. "We wanted things to settle in and the novels fill that gap between the second and third game. We wanted time for the weight of the war to settle in on people, for the civilization to collapse and for Dom's beard to grow in. If we [picked up from where Gears 2 left off] then we wouldn't have that weight of it being about survival and then we'd have a game where you're just cleaning up after that big battle. We wanted to make it a more personal story."
I consider myself a seasoned Gears player, having dumped so many hours into the previous two games, so I chose to go through Act 1 on hardcore difficulty ... and I'm glad I did. The lambent-infected locust are no joke in Gears of War 3 -- their ability to explode and shoot you in the face at the same time made for quite the challenging dynamic in combat. I couldn't just meander up to a drone and shred them with a shotty. I had to be far more methodical in my attempt to dispatch them than I had ever been in a Gears game.

Early on, as I underestimated my new foe and adjusted my tactics, I got downed a few times. The system is largely the same as in Gears 2: once downed, you can crawl to cover or toward AI teammates who can then revive you. The AI is prone to just mindlessly running out into combat as it attempts to revive you, thus being downed in the process. It was a problem in the last game and it's still an issue here, and a domino effect I hope Epic can address before the game ships on September 20. Of course, this doesn't apply to a four-player co-op setting.

Outside of the base functionality of being able to play through the campaign with three amigos, Epic's sought to stretch the campaign with an Arcade mode modeled after Halo. Players can unlock modifiers which range from the useful, such as no ammo boxes for boosted XP, to the more zany, like the modifier which causes every killed Locust to run around like a chicken with its head cut off, firing on its comrades during the final moments of life. Scoring is largely the same as in Halo (see: competitive!) and dependent upon performance, but a group meter adds a slightly different spin. This meter builds as the Locust body count rises, modifying the points players receive in combat, and decreases once a player has been downed. It's a really exciting addition.

The polish wasn't particularly unexpected from a game that was originally supposed to debut in April. "We didn't just want to focus on jamming more features in, because it'd be less polished overall," Fergusson said. "So we focused on the beta to give us that stability we needed in the multiplayer for September 20 and put all of the other effort really into focusing on the campaign -- it's the biggest campaign we've ever done and that extra time helped make it happen."

It's not just size but the emotional scale that Epic is toying around with in Gears 3, allowing the player to actually play through some of the more emotional sequences rather than simply watch a cutscene. When Cole returns to his hometown, his home stadium and, finally, his old locker, the mourning for a life lost is obvious by the look on his face. But that scene is strengthened when, moments later, a delusional Cole Train (in full uniform) delivers a bomb to stop some invading Locust, tackling Locusts and juking what he perceives to be defenders in some delusional fantasy game of Thrashball.

Playing through that and seeing reality abruptly come crashing through the almost tranquil sequence really resonated with me. Another sequence, earlier in the game, has Marcus reliving a traumatic moment from his past as he defends his father's mansion from an invading horde of Locust. To be honest, I was just happy to be playing Gears on the Escalation map again, so some of the emotional impact was lost on me.

Now that the game encompasses so many characters, the story won't simply be confined to Marcus and Dom. In the first act alone, I played as Marcus with Dom, newcomer Jace and Anya by my side, and another sequence as Cole Train, who had Baird, Carmine and another newcomer, Sam, accompanying him. The only odd thing is that these new characters aren't so much introduced as they are just there one moment. Jace is added in five seconds when Marcus basically yells his name and tells him to follow. The same happens with Sam, who apparently doesn't like Baird, but it's never explained why. Then again, these are things that could conceivably be explored later on, but having them there from the get-go with no explanation of where they came from was odd.

Finally, after hours of playing Gears of War 3, I had to ask Rod Fergusson a personal question: what is the deal with all of the tank tops now? Did Sera somehow get hotter? He laughed and replied, "We've moved forward a bit to summer wear, from the winter wear we had in Gears 2." However, on a more serious note, Fergusson said it's more a way to identify each game. "When you look on a box cover and you see the same guy with the same armor, you may wonder which version of the game this is. You have to find ways to kind of move the character and franchise forward and this seemed like a nice way to do that." Sometimes you just gotta let them rippling biceps breathe, you know?

This article was originally published on Joystiq.

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