Gears of War 3

The sum of all Gears.

So where do you go after "bigger, better and more badass"? The guiding principle for Gears of War 2 produced a masterclass in sequel design, taking a monstrously successful concept, ironing out the kinks and delivering one of the most thrillingly memorable blockbusters of this generation.

Back still further, as Halo had with the original Xbox, Gears of War's debut defined not just a platform, but also expectations for a new era of high-definition console gaming with a stunning demonstration of technical prowess.

In triple-A action, Cliff Bleszinksi and his team could not unreasonably argue that they were always one step ahead of their rivals in terms of raw spectacle with the first two Gears titles. But, of course, someone would always come along to match and then surpass that step.

Bleszinksi, ever-cocksure and combative, clearly thrives on the pressure and the limelight that comes with the territory he has forcibly occupied. But where next?

As the final part of a trilogy, Gears of War 3 not only has its willy-waving technical point to prove and rivals to outgun, but a story arc to conclude. In doing so it offers the most complete (in multiplayer) and human (in the Campaign) instalment, but one whose wings are clipped ultimately not by a lack of ambition, but by the limits both of the blueprint Epic created and the technology it has mastered.

Say what you like about the game, but the trailers are always brilliant.

After the discovery of the Lambent, leading to the fall of Jacinto in the climactic scene of the previous game, Gears 3's narrative deals with the legacy of events and decisions, detailing the consequences of these actions in a torrid tale of harsh realities, sacrifice, and redemption.

One direct impact this has on the game is in its pacing. Key characters are each given time and space to have their 'moment' before the end, with mixed results in dramatic effectiveness and gameplay.

As control switches from Fenix early on, for instance, we're treated to a lengthy and indulgent section focusing on another character's backstory that dulls the pace at too early a stage.

Bleszinksi has stated publicly that the team became "drunk on set-pieces" during the creation of Gears of War 2. Which may be true, but the trade-off here for dialling down the intensity is that the previous game's near-pitch-perfect, breathless consistency is replaced by occasional moments that sag in addition to the many that soar.

And boy, does it soar. When Epic plays to its strengths Gears 3 shines, with set-pieces that blend Naughty Dog-scale widescreen awe with a violent ferocity that would make Nathan Drake faint from the shock.

An underground boss fight in Act II is the first genuinely breathtaking moment of the game. This is followed immediately by another stunning sequence above ground - but somehow Epic still manages to crank it up another notch as the Act concludes with a pulsating siege that evokes the climax of Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers.

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Epic pushes 360 even harder and the results are - mostly, but not always - glorious.

And yet, and yet… Throughout this coruscating rollercoaster of action I could never quite shake the nagging sense that much of it was also a distraction from the game's limitations.

The boss battle I mentioned, beneath its gorgeous terror, is incredibly old-fashioned in the way it plays out; the scene above ground requires you effectively to be strapped in for the ride; and the siege came unstuck when I realised my distressed heroics were actually only delaying the next scripted sequence in the battle.

Later on in this game, I spy an area I want to explore and stamp over with Fenix, only for him to mutter grumpily to himself something along the lines of: "I'm not ready to do this yet." In other words, I have to go back and do things in the order the game expects me to before it will let me cut through a few fragile planks with my massive chainsaw. Oh.

It's at the (still rare, I should stress) moments like this that the bubble bursts. Fall in line with the game's rigid rules and you'll be gleefully whisked along by the majesty of it all; step out of line and the edges begin to fray.

To be clear, for every one of these annoyances, there are a number of superbly judged action sequences that present the series at its very best - sequences which should make repeated play-throughs in four-player co-op an enduring blast.

Furthermore, Epic is no fool and at times there's a playful self-awareness of the fact that, for the most part, Gears sticks stubbornly and unashamedly to its terrifically successful formula. Approaching yet another area whose structure has, by remarkable coincidence, collapsed into perfect lines of cover, Fenix sighs: "Aaaaand cue the reinforcements."

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