It's not often a studio proclaims the end of a blockbuster franchise at the pinnacle of its popularity, but that's exactly what Gears of War developer Epic Games has done.
The third entry in the American company's smash hit series of third-person shooters is reported to be the last. Knowing this was their final kick at the sci-fi super-soldier can, the makers have done their best to ensure their baby goes out with guns blazing.
Set two years after the nearly world-ending carnage that closed the second game, humanity and its enemies are simply surviving in the wreckage. A creepy trek through a metropolis filled with human statues made of ash and remnants of collapsed buildings that recall the World Trade Center ruins perfectly encapsulates the planet's lonely, war-torn atmosphere.
The members of Delta squad, led once again by the growling Marcus Fenix, are visibly exhausted and unsure of where their next meal will come from, much less what they're fighting for. That is, until Marcus's father turns up holding the key to a technology that can rid humanity of all its menaces, including a new adversary born of the planet's mysterious, glowing fuel emulsion.
This sets the stage for a final mission, one that provides satisfying closure in several ways, including an end to the war players have been fighting over the course of three games and resolution to the personal demons that haunted our heroes throughout their journey. Widowed Dom's homecoming to his wife's birth city is the most moving chapter in the franchise's 30-hour narrative.
- Platforms: Xbox 360
- The good: Lengthy campaign ties up pretty much every loose end in the trilogy. Four-player cooperative mode provides ample reason to play and replay story missions. Deep multiplayer filled with fresh modes and unlockable status rewards will keep fans playing for months.
- The bad: The four-player campaign has resulted in a slight but noticeable drop in difficulty. Narrative won’t do much to clam up series detractors who like to lay into the franchise’s penchant for soapy melodrama.
- The verdict: Epic Games saved the best for last, delivering a satisfying concluding campaign with mammoth cooperative play as well as the richest, deepest competitive multiplayer experience in the series.
There's no denying it's fast-food storytelling (our tree-trunk-limbed jarheads are stereotypes, each and every one), but the game's author – experienced space-opera writer Karen Traviss, who has written Star Wars, Halo and Gears of War novels – has a talent for frying up scintillating sci-fi melodrama of the sort that perfectly fits the pace and spectacle of video games.
The epic tale is matched by expansive levels – a battle on a suspension bridge with a huge creature attacking a cruiser in the waters below proves particularly thrilling. There's ample room for several players to manoeuvre in new four-player co-operative play, raising Gears's notoriously bloody, testosterone-charged action to new heights (though it also makes most missions substantially easier).
Competitive multiplayer, meanwhile, remains surprisingly nuanced and strategic for a game known for its chainsaw rifles and ultra-violent executions. The franchise's famed covering mechanics encourage players to balance aggression with prudence, and a variety of new modes – such as Horde 2.0, which has players constructing defensive structures and turrets while going up against waves of enemies – provide excellent motive to experiment with tactics. Expect to be playing online well into next year.
As gratifying as it is to see a popular franchise properly and decisively wrap up – a rarity in a medium known for endless sequels – this conclusion is so entertaining I find myself wistful at the prospect of never again adventuring with Marcus et al.
Of course, that we've been left wanting more is a sign that Epic has closed the book on Gears of War in just the right way, and at just the right time.