In the Xbox 360's 6 years on the market (has it really been that long already?) the one franchise that's truly defined it has been Gears of War. True, there are arguments for Halo (which was on the original Xbox first) and Call of Duty (which is multiplatform) but Gears of War was the first "killer app" for the console way back in 2006 with a blend of gore-spewing gunplay, a harrowing cover system, and a surprising—but not unpleasant—survival horror bent that kept players on the edges of their seats for many different reasons.
Now, in 2011, Epic Games has finally seen fit to finish the Gears of War trilogy with Gears of War 3, a sendoff to the Delta Squad we've grown to know and love over the course of the past 5 years. What a sendoff it is, though; it keeps players in the comfort zone they've built up over the last two games while offering enough changes to give the series a welcome shot in the arm for its supposed swan song.
The first major change that players will notice is almost immediate: Epic has integrated their multiplayer system in every facet of the Gears experience, right down to weaving the single player campaign into the multiplayer interface. Your character is handled no differently than an online character, right down to XP and leveling, even as you plow through the single player campaign. Normally, completing a single player campaign is its own reward but, much like the Xbox's Achievement system, there's additional joy to be found in squeaking that last bit of XP out of a session to advance another level.
The fact that the XP and levels carry over to the multiplayer portion of the game only enhances the experience, which is absolutely bursting at the seams with options. The newest and most unique is Beast mode, which works as a sort of "bizarro" Horde mode, dropping players into the oversized boots of the Locust fighting off incoming COG soldiers. Money earned from kills can be used to upgrade to higher level characters such as Boomers, which is an interesting change of pace from Horde. Joining Horde and Beast modes are the traditional Capture the Leader and Team Deathmatch modes, as well as a few others.
When it really comes down to brass tacks, though, it's all about the single player campaign (it is for me, at least). The game plays as solidly as it ever has, with the added polish that the years of experience have given Epic Games. There are a few new exciting wrinkles, such as the exoskeletal Silverback armor, which is a sort of heat-packing power loader and a few new weapons like the glorious Retro Lancer, which replaces the regular Lancer's chainsaw undercarriage with a viciously fat bayonet that you can use to run your enemies through and impale them. Yes, it's as glorious as it sounds.
Speaking of glorious, some of the set pieces that comprise the game's story are the best the series has ever seen. The Tarantino-esque plot handling that converges with a mutated Leviathan is thrilling beyond measure, and the undersea interlude that has players manning a turret attached to a slow-moving sub is one of the most breathtakingly beautiful moments I've seen in a game, period. In fact, the game benefits greatly from an enhanced sense of beauty in spite of all of its war-scorched landscapes: the designers wisely chose to inject some beautiful bits of color to the traditionally sepia-toned landscape, and it makes the gameworld come alive.
Finally, there's the matter of the story and the final fate of Delta Squad. While there are a few new characters, including the female Gears Anya and Sam, as well as a hilariously foul-mouthed Ice-T as an Imulsion baron named Griffin, it's still the Marcus, Dom, Cole, and Baird show. I refuse to give away spoilers, but there is a certain emotion to play as these characters knowing that this is the supposed end of the trilogy. My girlfriend actually got teary-eyed at one particular scene, and I at another. The Gears of War 3 may be the most blatantly manly forms of media since Schwarzenegger was starring in one-word titled movies, but it doesn't make us any less attached to these characters.
This attachment makes the fact that Gears of War 3 is such a stunningly great game even more satisfying. It closes the book (well, at least partially) on the world of Sera, the subterranean Locust, the feral Lambent, and the heroic COG soldiers that we've played as and against over the course of three games, but it does so in a nearly flawless fashion. This is gaming at its finest, folks, for too many reasons to count.