After fighting against the Locust and the Lambent, Marcus and Co. are finally ready to put an end to the war and in true Delta Squad style, that’s going to mean lots of chainsawing, curb stomps, and the occasional shotgun blast to the face. The final game in the Gears of War trilogy is everything fans expect – massive explosions, gravelly voiced soldiers, surprising enemies, and, of course, an abundance of chest-high walls. It also happens to contain a tremendous amount of fun, despite its sometimes ridiculous characters.

The best thing about this game is the gameplay. Epic has a well-deserved reputation, having honed its craft through several iterations of Unreal and the first two Gears games. The feel of the weapons is satisfyingly weighty, so when you connect with your shots or your chainsaw bayonet, you really feel the contact with the characters. The feedback from the enemies helps you connect with combat, which is particularly great since, apart from a couple of fetch quests, combat is basically what this game is all about.

The Lancer is still the go-to weapon for me, but I appreciated the range of options here, including the new Retro Lancer. There are a few rare cases where certain enemies can’t be taken out unless you’re using a very specific weapon but on the whole the game rewards smart play rather than just knowing which enemies are vulnerable to which weapons. Even here, the weaknesses of certain enemies are based more on tactics than weapon selection. You’ll have to take out the scrambling centipedes by shooting their tail, for instance, or hit the polyps at a distance to keep them from blowing up in your face.

Each of the spaces in which you fight are full of tactical options, from suppressing enemy advances to flanking fortified positions. It’s a shame that each of these spaces lead to each other in a strictly linear fashion, but you’ll have so much fun shooting it out in large warehouses, mountainside meadows, and city streets, that you won’t care that your entrances and exits are so limited. It’s true that some levels will give you a chance to take one of two routes to get where you’re going, but it hardly amounts to much of a difference in the long run. I still have issues with having a single button control cover and running, particularly when trying to wind my way through the wealth of cover locations in the larger levels. Inevitably, I will wind up passing too close to cover and end up sticking to it instead of running past it.

For the full experience, you can tackle Gears of War 3 in four-player co-op, and even play as female members of Delta Squad who wear armor that properly protects their precious cleavage. New additions to the other online modes have also been made but, for me, the real draw is Beast Mode. Here players get a chance to play as the Locust in a reverse version of Horde mode. Players can buy a variety of different powered Locusts and use them to assault a fortified COG position. Some enemies are great at destroying fortifications, others excel at melee or ranged combat. When your unit dies, you can buy another and keep pressing on. What I like about this mode, apart from seeing how the other half lives, is that it starts off with lots of interesting tactical options. Being able to decide how best to spend your money and actually eliminate the COG soldiers gives players a great sense of freedom.

My only real problem with Gears of War 3 is that it doesn’t offer much contrast in terms of the overall mood. Early in the game, one character complains that another character’s constant sarcasm is monotonous. It’s a shame that line wasn’t noticed by whoever decided that every person around the player should act as frustrated as possible all the time.

Because Marcus is basically angry through the whole game, he has nowhere to go during moments when he really should be getting angry. His showdown with Ice-T is supposed to be dramatic, I guess, but he doesn’t sound any different there than anywhere else in the game. Even at the end when he has the opportunity to show some relief or basic humanity, he just keeps scowling and shouting at everyone. It’s almost as if the developers just wanted to make the least possible effort to ratchet up the intensity of the game, so they just made everyone frown and shout obscenities as often as possible. Don’t get me wrong; this is not an objection based on impropriety. It’s an objection based on the cheap attempt to create a grim tone and then fail to give it anything to play off of.

You see how effective it could have been in the game’s two moments of genuine human emotion. Cole Train seems to be one of the few soldiers whose lines aren’t completely interchangeable with every other soldier in the game. Even better, his light-hearted attitude comes through not just through his dialogue, but through a nice bit of in-game storytelling and encounter design. It’s a breath of fresh air that makes you wish the developers had taken the time to let the other characters express anything other than irritation. Dom’s the other character who has genuinely comprehensible reactions and seems to have lived a life before the series began. I can’t reveal the specifics of his story without seriously spoiling the moment, but I can say that who he is and what he does matters because the game’s writers were willing to give him some real emotions.

Bottom Line: Whether critics like it or not, Gears of War 3 will be a success for Epic, and a well-deserved one. Despite some lingering flaws, the gameplay is fantastic in both single and multiplayer. A big part of the game’s audience won’t care about the lack of variety or depth among the characters, but the monotonous tone still holds the game back from being as great as it otherwise might have been.

Recommendation: If you want to know how the story turns out, or just like excellent third-person shooters, and don’t mind being able to tell a character is frowning just by the back of his or her neck, this is the game for you.

[rating=4]

Steve Butts only frowns so people will notice it when he smiles.

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.

Game: Gears of War 3
Genre: Shooter
Developer: Epic Games
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Available from: Amazon(US), GameStop(US), Amazon(UK), Play.com(UK)

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