Gears of War. The Coalition of Ordered Governments (COG). The Locust. Brumak. Immulsion. Dom Santiago. Marcus Fenix. These and many more have become signature phrases of the current generation of gaming, and for good reason: originally a glorified tech demo for the Unreal 3 engine, the first Gears of War mashed unlikely favorites Kill.Switch and Resident Evil 4 into a close-quarters shooter game that took off like a rabbit in a dog race. Six years later the series has culminated into a trilogy, and Gears of War 3 is not a bad way for Epic Games to show off their development skills and gamer savvy. Not a bad way at all.
Right off the bat, Gears 3 shows you it means business. Epic has dropped the trademark ”typewriter” menu fonts in favor of a more streamlined title menu - from here you can start your local, online, or system link party, check your unlocks and Achievements progress, change your multiplayer character/weapons preferences, or even delve straight into Horde or Beast modes. Choosing a mode of play (Campaign, Horde, Beast, Versus) takes you to a corresponding sub-menu where you can choose connectivity options. Your party is visible and editable from any of these screens.
Campaign progress is written to one of three actual save slots, but these are really just to save the weapons that your character is holding, your ammo count, and your checkpoints. If you lose your save file (as I did after Sunday’s pre-release title update) you can still start at the beginning of the last Chapter you were on, with the default weapons. For obvious reasons this can be life-saving, and it also answers the question of whether or not your co-op friends will keep their progress when playing on your saved game: they will, at least to the beginning of the last Chapter started.
The Campaign is a meaty 30 chapters long, and took me about 12 hours to complete on Normal difficulty. It’s a surprisingly hefty amount of gameplay, and a satisfying variety of scenarios to try in four-player co-op. I couldn’t believe how many different environments were showcased, especially in comparison to Gears 2, which I thought was pretty bland overall. There are a lot of subtle ways that Epic shows off the updated Unreal 3 engine, such as ashen statues that crumble if you touch them. And as far as controls and environmental interaction go: tried-and-true gameplay is here, with some tweaks such as player movement speed and the ability to tag enemies (in both co-op and versus), Battlefield: Bad Company 2 style. The story of Gears 3 takes a lot of elements straight from Karen Traviss’ paperback Gears novels without remorse, so don’t be too concerned if it takes a couple of chapters to catch up on what’s going on; there’s a lot to take in, and the game doesn’t slow down much.