While Gears of War 3 continues to support two-player co-op, four player co-op is also available through Xbox LIVE for the first time. Playing with other humans makes the main campaign much more fun, as you're no longer so reliant on AI allies getting into the right position or assisting your assaults. Unfortunately, though, while the enemy AI is fantastic throughout the singleplayer campaign, it clearly struggles to cope with four players at once.
Communication is useful for co-operative success and, like most online experiences, it’s best played with mates. However, this is also one of the few games you can play with random people and have a similar experience, as even if one person is being dumb they’ll usually attract enemy fire, enabling you to flank unseen.
Like previous entries in the series, Gears of War 3 takes its story seriously, but honestly we found it hard to engage with the plot at all, especially given the one-tone approach to the exposition. The same is true of the characters too and while there are some interesting moments, such as when Cole revisits his old Thrashball stadium, we honestly didn't connect with any of the leads at all. There's much more background offered for each personality, but that just clarifies the tired archetypes on which each hero is based.
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In short, Gears of War 3 fails to offer any real surprises. Dedicated fans will no doubt enjoy the close of the trilogy, but for everyone else it’s not going to elicit much of a response beyond admiring the spectacle. Excellent voice acting helps increase the accessibility - we got the feeling the actors actually understood what they were saying and what it meant in a wider context - but it's not enough to inspire a connection on its own.
Gears of War 3’s high production values are noticeable throughout too. The graphics are impressive, sound design is pleasingly meaty (and properly mixed for 5.1) and the slickly integrated online component even has dedicated servers. Meanwhile, set-pieces are a dime a dozen and have all the explosions, bloodshed and large scale destruction you’d expect from a Hollywood action film.
The last game’s pacing suffered from too many of these moments, with one after the other leaving little time to recover and killing any chance of building excitement or dramatic tension. This time, though, the balance has been struck a bit better, with the aforementioned character-building sequences offering respite, if not inspiration.
In terms of online multiplayer, the last game’s deathmatch variations and Horde mode are present, along with the new five-player Beast mode, which inverts the old Horde mode and casts players as Locusts trying to swarm Fenix and Co. It’s a good laugh for a bit, but in our opinion the best multiplayer mode is still Wingman, in which teams of two battle against each other and are rewarded for intelligent teamwork.
While our biggest complaint is Gears of War 3’s refusal to deviate substantially from the tried and tested formula of the series, we have to concede it does what it does extremely well. Gaming clichés such as switch-flipping, sniper sections and boss battles are used throughout, and the rigid linearity can be frustrating, but underneath it all is still a refined, polished shooter that can’t really be knocked for falling back on conventions it helped create.
There's nothing here that will convert those who rally against the popularity of the game, and it's tough to give a flat-out recommendation to those few who have never experienced Gears of War before. In the eyes of long-time fans, however, this will definitely be an exciting close to a much-loved series.