Gears of War 3 review: The damage done

A lot of high profile sequels are exceedingly self-conscious exercises in trying to manage player expectation, to change just enough, but throw in enough of the same to keep things familiar. Gears of War 3, on the other hand, is the most confident release this year.

The word polish is bestowed often, but Gears of War 3 is embarrassingly well assembled. Anyone who played this spring's multiplayer beta has an inkling of this. From a mechanical standpoint, the third-person, cover-based shooting in Gears has never been as fluid, as responsive to player input. Weapons feel and sound fantastic and pack the punch that previous iterations struggled with. But it isn't just those meat and potatoes aspects – or the beautiful, colorful visual palette on display, a marked departure from Gears 1 and 2 – it's the entire package. Nothing in Gears of War 3 feels like an afterthought. %Gallery-133846% Epic doesn't feel like it's desperate to prove anything this time – not that it can do a campaign-based game, and not that its tech should be the standard for the current console generation, issues that haunted the first and second Gears titles to varying degrees. Gears of War 3 never feels like a sales pitch.

"Epic doesn't feel like it's desperate to prove anything this time ..."

The urgent desire to please and impress is absent. The campaign alternates deftly between easy triumph and hard-fought survival. The narrow conflict that defined wide swaths of Gears of War 2 has been dialed up for a wider, more open killing field. Combat in Gears of War 3 moves like a symphony. Smaller battles lead to bigger areas which flow into massive arenas with hordes of Locust or Lambent. The battle is always moving, and there are more tactical options than ever.

But Gears of War 3 knows when to pull back. From chapter to chapter, it takes its time when it needs to, breathes when it has to, when you have to. It doesn't pander to fears of a limited audience attention span. Epic knows what it has with Gears of War 3, and the pacing feels deliberate.

Confidence might seem like hubris without the execution to back it up, but Gears of War 3 never falters. The missteps of past games (poorly executed vehicle sequences, moments of spectacle that prioritize explosions over gameplay) are gone. The old lines of war have been blurred, and the threeway battle between humans, the displaced Locust (after the climactic sinking of Jacinto in Gears of War 2), and the wildly unpredictable Lambent makes for a more interesting fight, and takes place in a world that's falling apart. Marcus and friends' mission in Gears of War 3 hinges on the last bit of hope left, and it propels the game forward fantastically.

Cutscenes are only as expository as they need to be, well used, and never get in the way. There's only one moment in the entire campaign where a cutscene exceeds more than about 45 seconds, and I was so transfixed by the ... thing that was unfolding in front of me, that I wasn't thinking about how long it was. I was thinking about the damage done.

"Gears of War 3 is tuned to four Gears against the world. That world is unforgiving, and it's going to knock you on your ass."

And Gears of War 3 isn't afraid of damage. From the very start, it explores what the characters of its universe have lost, and what they still might – and sometimes do – lose. There's not much bravado left when you see the celebrity Cole, in so many words, beg for food in trade for whatever the former COGs have left. Gears 3 uses scenes like this to hammer the point home, but it skillfully manages to keep things moving, to keep you playing the game. You'll lose hours and not realize where the time went, and you won't want to stop playing – save for that moment I alluded to before, perhaps.

Epic has gone on record saying Gears of War 3 is the longest campaign it's ever done (and it is, at about 11 to 13 hours, first time through), but it isn't just that. Between the pacing and the attention to detail visually, auditorially, and narratively, it's also the best campaign Epic's ever done, and one of the most exciting, consistent campaign experiences on the Xbox 360, or any other system for that matter.

Oh, and you can play through it with three other friends. The requisite co-op has seen an increase from two to four players, and the ability from Gears of War 2 for each player to select their own difficulty has wisely returned. You'll need the help. Whether it's AI assistance or a little help from your friends, Gears of War 3 is tuned to four Gears against the world. That world is unforgiving, and it's going to knock you on your ass. Often. And Gears of War finally sees its own form of Halo's campaign scoring in Arcade Mode, which comes complete with a Skulls-analog in Mutators.

The time, care, and thought evident in Gears of War 3's campaign is just as evident in every online mode. The revamped, spawn limited focus on Team Deathmatch as the main competitive game type works fantastically well, and when playing on dedicated servers in Ranked matches it finally feels like every weapon has a place in Gears multiplayer. The constant give and take of battlefield position lends itself to strategy and teamwork, and power weapons are balanced to make them rewarding, but not the end of the fight. But if you played the Gears of War 3 multiplayer beta, you knew that already.

What you might not know, or might not hope for, is the overhauled Horde 2.0, which adds an economy and light tower defense elements to Gears of War 2's biggest addition to the modern multiplayer vocabulary. The rampant incentivizing of everything in Horde and the more forgiving nature granted by its economy – die during a round? You can buy back in, if you've got the dough – change Horde's priorities from basic survival, which got old after a while, to success. And honestly, success never gets old. Especially when there are challenges. And boss rounds. And ... you get the idea.

Even Beast Mode, which looked like it might be the token included-but-not-fully-realized game type of Gears of War 3, is excellent, and might actually be the most open to experimentation. Beast Mode sees players assume the role of the Locust army and their menagerie of monsters, tasked with eliminating progressively more well-armed human outposts on a map. Taken away from the basic gameplay aspects of "shoot stuff and take cover," Beast Mode encourages players to try something new after every death; you've got die a few deaths as a ticker before you can use that Corpser ... or deploy the living nuclear option of the Berserker.

Gears of War 3 has left me with a parallel set of emotions. On one side, it represents a powerful elegy, a close to a series that has done much to define this console generation. It's a melancholy thing, seeing a solid conclusion for characters that a lot of us liked despite ourselves, that make themselves even more understood in the end. But Gears of War 3 does it with respect and grace, and even subtlety, for a fantastic experience from start to finish. And it bestows a postscript of one of the most full featured, fun, and polished multiplayer experiences I've ever played. Gears of War 3 has finally kept the promise the series made six years ago, and then some.

This review is based on final, retail copy of the Epic Edition of Gears of War 3, provided by Microsoft. Multiplayer was held on retail servers, and played both at a review event held on September 8th in San Francisco and at the reviewer's home. Enough time was spent in multiplayer to reach the rank of 22.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.