Unspoken expectation as well, even without the time extension of some five extra months of development time that Epic has been granted here. That triggers an active search by all for the smallest misfire, glitch or misstep, a hyperawareness, which only exists with top tier productions, that Gears of War 3 must be perfect. Anything to prove this is anything other than what it should be, and is: a fitting end to a series that has defined Xbox this generation.
For those holding their breath waiting for it fail: it doesn't. For those hoping for it to innovate: it doesn't. The third Gears of War is not going to convince sceptics to sign adoption papers, though they'll be missing out on a lot of Xbox Live fun over the coming months. Haters aren't going to stop hating on the series, though we'd find it hard to find negativity in the fact that in a time of ever-shortening single player modes, Epic's weighed in with a substantial campaign over twelve hours long.
At a glance, yes, it's more of the same. Yet that alone comes with the promise of damn fine entertainment. Look closer however and it's a comprehensive package, a generous development cycle and lessons learnt offering players a robust set of modes built to last. Horde's upgraded to the extent of becoming a standalone game in itself. Beast is boisterous and wonderfully rough around the edges. Deathmatch choices are solid enough individually to present a quandary come selection. The main campaign's set-piece count is staggering, includes a handful of top-notch stand-out moments, and benefits from the upgrade to four-player co-op. Yet expectation would have us wanting no less.
Where it does falter, it falters because it's so unrelenting in it's pace, although this is an issue contained only to the main campaign. There's little breathing room or change-up between gunfights, from one set-piece to the next. The rhythm is typical of the series, though the game's predecessors arguably paced it better; a price to pay due to the franchise's addiction to escalation. Epic raising the stakes again, if only because it thinks you're competent to match them, but to the detriment of their initial impact. There's a smattering of new additions and remixes of past glories, but they lack the surprise factor of the first two games, and while there are stand-out moments, very few surpass what's come before. That said, one in particular demands revisiting, and a wish that Epic could have squeezed a fully-fledged mode from it.
But where Epic surprises the most is in how it humanises Gears of War. It finally gives the conflict a sense of context that was missing before, a sense of place. Your battlegrounds are no longer empty, yet are still desolate. You'll stroll through NPC-heavy settlements, charge through looted shopping centres, shed blood in the shadow of football stadiums. The sci-fi setup is now grounded in something we can identify, associate with. It also allows something that begins as a possible sub-plot to veer nicely into a low-key running joke. Wherever COG are, death is sure to follow.
The studio also manages to scratch a little under the surface of our muscle-bound protagonists thanks to some credible voice work and facial work at specific moments. It's arguable that the characters are as shallow as ever - testosterone-fuelled insults still pepper the battlefield - and it's only through five years' worth of familiarity that we care. Yet Gears has never claimed to be high drama, and subtlety in the series has always been akin a tank rolling over a beetle. That fact never stopped people cheering for Arnie and his cohorts in Predator.
Nicely the game uses the growing cast number to split the narrative between different squads, and you never feel sidelined by these side characters - they've earned their stripes in two previous campaigns, while the new female members integrate so smoothly you'll only remember the addition when litany of mid-fight banter is significantly lessened of one-liners.
For this looking for the resolution to the many dangling plot threads carried across the three games, there is closure, though its in typical Gears fashion; story is served as a one or two line backdrop to the action, and even after a second run through the campaign you'd be hard pressed to explain why you are where you are, or to excuse away certain missing links. The best approach is to not think too heavily on the reason, and more on surviving.
There's little difference in the approach to battle tactics: cover, shoot, dominate or retreat, rinse and repeat. Like we said if it's at times overwhelming - not helped by a score that loses any finesse jumbled alongside screams and explosions - its never boring. Running a chainsaw through a grub for the hundredth time is as enjoyable as the first.
Weapon-wise you've likely read or used the new main offenders plenty already. The sawn-off shotgun is still a suicide juggle between point-blank one-shot kill and lengthy reload time. Its sparsely dropped in campaign compared to the Gnasher shotgun but worth the grab; if only to work out what it doesn't kill in one blast. The Retro Lancer's massive kick when firing will likely see it devolve into a showmanship-grabbing melee weapon - the thrust and gut of the attached bayonet almost bettering the Lancer's saw due to the precision charge needed to land a stab. But then there's additional show-stoppers, cumulating in the Vulcan, a massive two-person operated man-cannon, Epic's own take on Predator's Ol'Painless. A high rate of fire turning grubs and Lambent alike into mulch, and the need for a second character to carry and fill the ammo tank adding a nice bit of strategy to the destruction.
We've played through the campaign both solo and co-op; NPC squad AI is competent, but flanking around enemy squads or covering a pair of comrades from higher ground when paths split rightly adds an extra layer of enjoyment to the experience, and bore witness to some heroic charges to save friends from bleeding out. Insane difficulty needs to be unlocked first, but Hardcore - the setting Epic stated during review was best for experienced Gears players - offered a good enough challenge, though one or two difficulty spikes curtailed our enjoyment for a time.
Horde has been the focus of many previews over the last year, and acclaim for the retooled multiplayer mode has never erred towards caution, and rightly so. Stocking up on cash to purchase, kit out and upgrade defences across your map of choice adds tactics - and likely team bickering - into a game that was more about survival of the fittest before; now there's a role for even the poorer aim of groups even as the enemy count grows. For those that find the deathmatch arenas too daunting - even with the inclusion of a casual setting giving you reprieve to learn the ropes - Horde is where you'll spending your online time. Through reinvention, the pioneer of the gameplay mode is still the champion.
It'd have been easy for Beast to be the Locust flip-side of Horde, but its a smart move in turning it into a twelve-wave time attack that gives the mode's inclusion on the main menu legitimacy. A game in which quick kills are necessary, yet puts you in control of many beasts and monsters whose execution moves are anything but, should devolve quickly into a mess. But in fact its imprecision is its charm, and a decent counterpart to the tactical perfection required in Horde.
Is Gears of War 3 the franchise's defining moment? It's certainly its most comprehensive. The capability of dedicated servers aside, an issue we're not going to be able to address or test until launch day, there's little here to complain about. The game's not lacking for content; a mass of awards, badges and medals await those willing to excel on the battlefield, unlocks await XP progression.
If you're looking for a title that'll last a while, Gears of War 3 is a good choice. A lengthy campaign and gameplay elements that can be played with a friend on the same console if Local is your only option, while online modes have enough features to loose yourself in before even thinking of scratching the others. It's a game of multiple social sink holes; a feature-heavy title that'll see you through the winter months ahead and beyond.