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Gears of War 3 Review

The Gears of War franchise has been one of the benchmark series of this generation. One of the first games to truly usher in next-gen graphics, the Xbox 360 exclusive has sold more than 13 millions copies since the original debuted in 2006. With the third installment set to release Sept. 20, has developer Epic Games raised the bar once again?

You reprise your role as the franchise's main protagonist, Marcus Fenix, a battle-hardened member of the Delta Squad who is searching for his father while also trying to save the planet. Their survival is being threatened by the Locust, a race of reptilian humanoids, and the Lambent, a highly volatile mutated species of Locus that were created from an overexposure of Imulsion -- a critical, and unstable, fuel on the planet.

But you won't combat these hostile forces alone. Throughout the 12-to-15-hour campaign, you will be joined by a host of comrades. In the previous two installments, you could only play through the story with one other human player. But Epic has upped the ante in Gears 3, adding four-player co-op. This upgrade has not only affected the number of players participating, but also the layout of the campaign. In Gears 1 and 2, the structure was more close-quarters combat, but in Gears 3, the map design is more expansive, allowing for additional flanking opportunities. The difficulty also increases depending on the number of players.

The impressive variety of enemy types will keep you on your toes. The Lambent foes are more aggressive and seek up-close-and-personal confrontations because they erupt after being killed, spewing Imulsion. Some of the more imposing variants of Lambent mutate while taking damage, sprouting additional limbs that fire Imulsion. The Locust also take on many forms, from mini-creatures (Wretches) to grunt soldiers (Drones) to more formidable adversaries like the Boomer, a heavily armored behemoth that fires rockets. In all there are more than 30 different enemy types, each armed with a staggering amount of unique weapons.

Epic has limited the number of on-rails sequences in favor of what the developer does best -- cover-based shooter mechanics. Despite the campaign consisting mostly of pockets of enemies that need to be taken out to advance to the next checkpoint, the action never felt repetitive. The improved AI, which is more apt to flanking you and your comrades, sprawling maps and visceral gunplay has made arguably the best third-person shooter in video games today even better.

Even the executions -- a hallmark of the Gears series -- are improved. Each weapon has its own execution, so if you're holding the Lancer -- an automatic rifle with a chainsaw bayonet -- while standing over a downed enemy, your character will plunge the chainsaw into your foe's torso and slice through. You can also pick up an injured enemy and use him as a shield to ward off incoming fire. But new in Gears 3 is slapping a grenade on the enemy then kicking him away to see him explode. The varying ways to dispose of enemies keeps each encounter fresh and oh so satisfying.

For those who have followed Delta Squad since the original Gears title, the third installment is a thrill ride that will wrap up many of the loose ends in the trilogy. Despite one on-rails mission that disrupts the frenetic pace, the campaign is a no-holds-barred set of action pieces that fires on all cylinders. MULTIPLAYER

Gears of War 2's lasting impact is undoubtedly Horde Mode, which pits you and four other players against wave after wave of increasingly difficult enemies. Since released in 2008, countless games have added modes that have mimicked Horde. But Epic has separated itself from the pack once again with Horde 2.0.

The second iteration brings a host of critical improvements that add additional layers to the mode. The biggest change is the inclusion of a currency system, which grants you cash for inflicting damage and killing enemies. This money can be spent in a number of ways. The most vital way is purchasing fortifications.

At the start of each match, you choose a base of operations. From there you are presented with a number of fortifications -- from wired obstructions and decoys to turrets and sentries and even a Silverback, a mech suit that is heavily armored and weaponized. Each fortification costs money -- the more deadly, the more expensive -- and can be upgraded by spending cash on each one. The more times you use a specific fortification, the closer you get to unlocking a new upgrade that improves its effectiveness.

Money can also be spent on acquiring additional ammo, weapons and even buying back into a match if you die. You can also give money to teammates who are low on cash. All of this brings a level of strategy that the original Horde lacked. In Horde 2.0, communication will be key to begin a match. You will need to decide where you want to build your base, then who will build which fortifications. Epic even added the ability to exchange weapons with teammates, furthering the cooperative experience.

Experienced Horde players will also notice the diversification of enemies. In the original mode, players knew what was coming in terms of enemy types. Epic has removed this crutch in Horde 2.0, making each Horde confrontation exciting -- and challenging. The improved AI adds another level of unpredictability.

The developers even added mutators, which can increase the difficulty of a match (friendly fire turned on), decrease the challenge (Infinite ammo) or add some laughs (Blood effects are replaced by flowers). Each match can have three of these tweaks (there are 15 in total) and provide another layer of replay ability.

New to the multiplayer suite is Beast Mode, giving players the opportunity to don Locust gear. You and four other players can choose from diverse number of characters, each with his own abilities. Tickers and Wretches prefer up-close engagements while the Kantus can heal teammates. You take on waves of Delta Force enemies and have a set amount of time to take them out. The time limit forces players to get out from behind cover and adds a frantic feeling.

Competitive multiplayer has all the tried-and-true favorites but with a Gears spin. Capture the Leader is a variant of Capture the Flag except you have to seize the opposing team's leader for a longer period of time than the opposition does for your leader. King of the Hill is a Domination mode where you try to hold specific points on the map longer than your opponent. Wingman pits four teams of two against each other. In all, there are six competitive modes to choose from and the game ships with 10 maps that can be played across all multiplayer modes.

Gears of War 3 is one of the most robust gaming titles of any generation. With an engaging, action-filled campaign, a bevy of multiplayer options and the genre's most refined mechanics, Epic's latest entry in this trilogy is nothing short of spectacular and a true conclusion to one of this generation's standout series.

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