Version tested: Xbox 360
Of the great many pock-faced star warriors of the Locust horde, none could make for a more enjoyable playable antagonist than General Raam: nine feet tall, mute (which, when you have Epic's writers putting words in everyone's mouths, is a significant bonus) and wielding a serrated sword and a swarm of weaponised bats.
Two minutes in his ogre-ish boots, and Marcus Fenix and the rest of the Delta Squad seem like plimsoll-wearing hipsters. He is a brute with bulk that a steroid-hooked Gears soldier could only dream of, and as such, playing as Raam amplifies the power fantasy of Epic's shooter to an unprecedented level.
With a sweep of the right analogue stick, you order his attendant cloud of Kryll to eviscerate human soldiers ducked behind upturned taxis with the vigorous bite of a flock of piranha fish. Clumps of glistening man-stuff drop to the floor like so many butchers' offcuts. Flanked by Mauler and Theron Elites, you swagger through the human capital Ilima City, fixing two golden eyes on humanity's meagre achievements as they crumble all around, spurred on by the encouragements of your plum-voiced queen.
If Gears of War 3, for all its impressive refinements, had become predictable, the chance to play as this final boss in this downloadable add-on is anything but.
Temporally, at least, Raam is a somewhat awkward fit with Gears of War 3, the character having been defeated by Fenix at the end of the first game in the series, in 2006. A prequel of sorts to the trilogy, Raam's Shadow winds back the clock to five hours before Kryllstorm engulfs Ilima, where Zeta Squad is responsible for evacuating citizens from the city.
Broken into five chapters, evenly spaced an hour apart, control switches between Raam on the side of the Locust and redneck Michael Barrick and the other members of Zeta on the side of the COG, offering two distinct viewpoints on the events that led up to the beginning of the Gears of War trilogy.
Ilima is a bright, tall city that bears a striking resemblance to Washington DC. As the story begins, just as the Locust invasion starts, the city is in uncharacteristically good shape for a Gears game, bright, colourful and quite unlike the brown-and-grey locations seen in the main series. Fighting through banks and empty schools makes for a welcome change of scenario and, thanks to the limitations imposed on the developer by yoking the DLC to a single city, the set-pieces fizz with creativity.
Likewise, there's a slightly softer tone to the writing - perhaps because Zeta Squadron's primary mission is one of evacuation rather than balls-out combat - although the tiresome, jock-like quips soon ramp up in frequency. Pathos is injected in the latter stages as you frantically search for a group of orphans, and there is nothing subtle about the one-note story, but it serves its purpose, driving you through the streets and buildings with a sense of urgency.
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Raam's Shadow, of course, benefits fully from the tweaks and refinements laid out in the third game, and while there are no new basic weapons to speak of, you're given the opportunity to use the full arsenal, from Boomshots to One-shots to Mortars. The opportunity to use Hammer of Dawn control points, calling down laser strikes from the stratosphere using a satellite camera, is enjoyable. Likewise, across the three-hour campaign you'll encounter almost every enemy from the Gears mythology, giving this add-on a pacey, concentrated feel.
Outside of the five-mission campaign, Raam's Shadow comes with six new multiplayer characters to play as (unlocked upon completion), a weapon skin set and a clutch of Achievement points for your trouble.
Sustained by the strength of the moment-to-moment play, this add-on packs a punch. While Raam's abilities are arguably too straightforward to sustain a full game, they fit a shorter DLC mission perfectly. Meanwhile, the structure that has you switching between two warring sides as they close in on one another is interesting and well executed, resulting in a strong, worthwhile expansion.
8 / 10