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Gears of War 3

Gears of War 3

When you've the opportunity to attend the presentation of a game like Gears of War, you know you're about to see something important. 

The series has earned that guarantee, and expectation isn't edged with undue concern. And what's more important than finally playing through the opening chapters that'll form the third title's main campaign?

This latest presentation coincides with the inauguration of Microsoft's new Italian headquarters, in the heart of Milan's Southern Park. 

Contained within is an immense presentation room where the game's logo is projected huge upon a seven by four meter video wall. This has the subtleness of a hammer, but you expect no less from the testosterone-fuelled war between humanity's last warriors and the hulking sub-terrain brutes of the Locust.

Eighteen months have elapsed from the ferocious battle that ended Gears of War 2. The Locust have been stopped and the coalition forces have shored up on an island retreat, less holiday resort, more fortified last stand.

The running subplot throughout the previous games is paraded front and centre from the start. Gears 3 starting with a playable dream sequence in which we witness the death of Adam Fenix, only for his son Marcus to be awoken to the news that his father is still alive.

So begins the main campaign proper, as our ragtag squad disembarking from Raven's Nest and intent on exploring a Locust-overrun island, with only a few human-controlled outposts left.

These, as usual, want nothing to do with COGs. Civvies seem more organised than in previous chapters, humanity divided into tribes split between fortified towns and unwilling to accept newcomers. 

As per tradition, the game is divided into five acts, each consisting of six chapters. The developer estimates an average duration of about three hours per act. That's seventeen hours of gameplay.

Interestingly, each chapter is focused on a single character, a trait presumably introduced to support the possibility to play the entire campaign in co-op of up to four players. Although in the version shown to us we weren't given the opportunity to go beyond the first act, it has been confirmed that in single player we're going to play as Marcus and Dom, but we'll also control some other characters, including Cole and Braid. 

The characters' past and personalities play a crucial role this time round, even if they're not all handled with such dour tone. In the first chapter Cole finds himself face to face with a life-sized standee of himself, a relic of a past age when he's promoting a football video game. Video game scholars - if ever there were any - would point this out to a class of nodding four-year olds and explain this as "meta-reference." Less sly wink, more shoulder-tackle slam of a fourth-wall breaking nod.

The first act also introduces Anya Stroud. The producers assure us that women will have a major role in this third chapter of the saga, although in the build we've been shown we didn't have an opportunity to verify this. 

Finally, as a last interesting aspect concerning the narrative, there's a discontinuity between story and plot.

The story doesn't proceed in linear fashion, but rather flicks back and forth between plot points. The second chapter of the first act, for example, is set an hour before the first one. A decision that highlights the writers' ability to introduce some interesting curve balls into what's considered a brain-dead genre. 

Digging into the gameplay, we immediately notice a major difference. Checkpoints this time are marked with a star on the map, and we definitely have the feeling that areas are far larger and wider than we've seen in the past, opening up a greater degree of exploration. We're happy just to admire the beautiful environments Unreal Engine's cranking out; neo-classical architecture with a oriental flair.

Attention to visual details are evident throughout. When you jump onto the likes of turrets which switch to the first-person view, the camera will blur slightly to emphasise the depth of field. A cinematic effect sure, but its useful in focusing in on enemies.

Comrade AI is still an issue. There's nothing even remotely resembling human tactics or care with your squad, but at least we notice our allies are less prone to to commit to frequent mass-suicides. As ever, the best way to enjoy Gears of War is with the co-op, which we quickly learn to appreciate during our play session. On the hardest difficulty, it's a brutal, but no less enjoyable, affair.

Take the gargantuan-sized enemies that are introduced in the first few minutes of play. Two games ago even one of these could have been the endgame boss fight, whereas here they're tossed in like first-level grunts.

The bowel-busting fear we might have felt at facing them is no longer in evidence, but it strikes the right balance with the saga's sense of escalation. Five years and countless replays of the first two campaigns have lead to this logical endpoint; Epic is throwing everything at us, but only because it knows we've earned those stripes and battle scars, because it knows anything less would be a disappointment.

With the single player proving every bit as substantial and enjoyable as the multiplayer, Gears of War 3 is ready to fight one of the toughest gaming wars this winter on both fronts. Grab your Lancer and get ready. It's going to be hell.