Gears of War defined a console generation, but in 2011 it has almost become a victim of its own success. The signature third-person cover system has become commonplace, and plenty of its tropes have become weary from third-party overuse, such as the needless mini-cutscenes that play out as your team break through locked doors. Yet when all is said and done, and everything has been torn open by chainsaw, torque bow and shotgun, it's clear Epic's third entry in its flagship series has far more meat on its bulky bones than the legion of imitators.
All of humanity's splintered remnants, including the women, have taken to the chest-high battlefields of Sera, these grunting hulks of sinew and muscle wheeled out for the trilogy's explosive conclusion. Yet underneath this buoyant machismo Epic plays its hand with an incredible modesty, crafting careful set pieces, nimble environments, and an intimate and considered suite of multiplayer modes.
Even though Gears of War 3 rarely plays it straight - it's a game that proudly features lines such as "speaking scientifically, we're gonna blow its brains out its ass" across its lengthy 10 hour campaign - the third chapter's denouement triggers a downbeat shift in tone so significant that even Damon Baird and Augustus Cole (undoubtedly gaming's best odd couple) temporarily halt their wisecracking smack talk.
The game's campaign is of impeccable quality and solid construction, though Epic is clearly not pushing its considerable talents when it comes to creative level design. On one hand this is preferable, and it's easy to say good riddance to the fiddly vehicle sequences that blighted the first two games, but it's also a shame that there isn't the adventure and variety of Gears of War 2's Rockworm, or the controllable cover of the Locust burrow.
An early opening sequence in Hanover is a notable exception, with Cole walking through the nostalgia-filled alleys and supermarkets of the town where he was once a superstar. In a brilliant juxtaposition that's either the result of fluke or genius, the game flicks from a surprisingly tender moment of recollection (and I never thought I'd attribute such a sentiment to the bombastic exaggeration that is the Cole Train) to a sequence played successfully for laughs. It's a wonderful moment.
Much of the five-act campaign revolves around a simple thematic question: with the world completely ruined, what is left that's worth fighting for? Each of the bulging ensemble cast has their own answer: Marcus soldiers onwards for his father, Baird and Cole do it for the comic relief, whereas stalwart sidekick Dom plods onward without purpose after the events of the second game. Clayton Carmine, whose fate Microsoft has expressly forbade me to divulge, does it for the sweet kills.
Alongside the fist bumps, biceps and brouhaha lies a deeply personal story - both design director Cliff Bleszinski and production director Rod Fergusson have spoken candidly about the impact of their fathers (or lack thereof) on their lives, and the third Gears of War finally brings those affectations, bubbling underneath the surface for two games, to the forefront of the campaign. Basically, Gears of War 3 is a tale of headshots and family.