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Excellent Gears of War 3 signals the end of two different eras

So begins the Autumn of the Threes.

Gears of War 3, which is out today, is part of the opening salvo in this year's tentpole offerings, almost all of which end in the third digit.

It was preceded by its Sony-exclusive, alien-battling cousin, Resistance 3, which arrived Sept. 6. Then you've got Battlefield 3, out Oct. 25; Uncharted 3 on Nov. 1; Modern Warfare 3, coming Nov. 8; Saints Row The Third on Nov. 15 ... it's enough to make you look forward to Batman: Arkham City on Oct. 18 even more than usual simply because it's only the second title in that series.

So, the third time around, how does the second-most-popular (Halo being the first) Xbox 360 series fare? Pretty well. If you liked the first two, you'll like the endgame. It may not be a grand finale, but it's a great finale all the same. And not just for Delta Squad.

While Epic's list of embargoed plot points is a mile long, what I can tell you is that Gears 3 does what most games do these days: Adapt popular plot points from other series to conclude the story of its protagonist, the grim and gravelly Marcus Fenix, and his cohorts. This is a tactic so often used in gaming, it's not even remarkable anymore. No, what's noteworthy about Gears 3 is what it doesn't do.

It doesn't alter the tried-and-true mechanics. It doesn't screw up the multiplayer. It doesn't fall so in love with a new weapon that it penalizes you for not using it. It doesn't shock you with a campaign mode that provides a story you didn't see coming from a mile away (though it does put an appropriate bow on top). And it doesn't lengthen the lifespan of the Xbox 360 one bit.

Because, for the first time ever, I was playing a game that made me feel it was time to start developing the console's successor.

Oh, sure, the Kinect and all its gimmicks will draw things out a couple years. There are plenty of great titles for the system, and I count the Gears series among them. Things still look and play exceptionally well.

But what Gears 3 proves, without a shadow of a doubt, is that while Microsoft and Sony have finally broken with the traditional five-year console development cycle, they really should look into taking that next big step.

The problem with Gears 3 is the same as what is so right about it: It's truly just more of the same. Same waves of attackers. Same on-rails vehicle sections. Same four-person, squad-based combat. Same gaping plot holes and testosterone-charged one-liners from the smart-ass NPCs. Same gorgeous art direction and breakneck run-and-gun gameplay. Same everything.

I loved it, of course. There's no way I can condemn a game that's definitely worth your $60, because these components all add up to an exceptional sequel. But the whole time I played, I couldn't shake the nagging feeling that the end of the trilogy could have somehow been so much more.

You don't have to look far; Microsoft's own Halo series proved that the third game in a trilogy could benefit disproportionately from being released on a new console. The difference between the superior Halo 3 and parts 1 and 2 was made possible by the yawning technological chasm.

Such an advance in chipsets would have no doubt aided Gears 3, during which you can almost see the 360's AI limiter ticking down the number of Locust onscreen at once. Moving away from the monotonous four-person squad combat, during which Fenix and Delta Squad inexplicably must break off from the main battle to perform some random task, would be a welcome change of pace, too.

Could there still be life in Gears of War? Possibly; There are plenty of directions to take — if there is a way to advance the series past the aging console without ruining the elements that make it Gears.

Thanks to the breadth of the Halo mythology, Microsoft had an entire back catalog of Haloverse adventures to dish out for the 360, culminating in the excellent (if derivative) Halo: Reach. Gears fans would be thrilled to get a title based on the Pendulum Wars, or one that explores the 14 years between Emergence Day and the 2006 original.

Then again, maybe we should save all that for the Xbox 720.

— Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at jgillin@tampabay.com.

Excellent Gears of War 3 signals the end of two different eras 09/19/11 [Last modified: Monday, September 19, 2011 11:07pm]
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