Although he’s constantly portrayed as some kind of firebrand loudmouth, Epic Games’ design director Cliff Bleszinski is deliberately misconstrued so frequently that it’s hard not to wonder why the man isn’t perpetually paranoid about opening his mouth. Although he deserves a bit more slack than he currently gets, last week’s harebrained flub won’t be forgotten about anytime soon. In an interview with the VG247 website, Eurogamer were dismissed as “haters” for awarding Gears of War 3 a (deeply enthusiastic) eight out of ten review score. To some, this was concrete evidence that Bleszinski had completely lost touch with his audience, but what’s alarming is that after an hour or two with Gears of War 3, there is every chance that you’ll understand exactly where old Cliffy B was coming from.

Because this is really, really something. The two previous Gears of War games were both uncommonly generous packages, but the third instalment represents a frankly ridiculous expanse of value for money. And whilst the kitchen sink approach (particularly with regard to online multiplayer content) is often a way of generating simply the illusion of good value, everything that’s included in the Gears 3 package was obviously constructed with the same degree of mad love and technical pedantry. So for example, Horde – a Gears-born multiplayer mode that was so inspired that it now features in more shooters than you can shake a Boomshot at – has been very shrewdly overhauled even though it probably didn’t need to be.

Epic have been referring to Gears 3’s Horde mode as Horde 2.0 for quite some time now, and money is the most significant new addition to it. You now use funds to buy and deploy things like decoy figures, gun turrets and barbed wire barriers, all of which become utterly essential during the later waves because the general intensity of play has been raised considerably. You can also buy back into a round once you’ve died, and because this isn’t cheaply done it becomes a big source of fun in itself. Picking the precise moment at which to jump back in, and observing which of your friends are heartless cheapskates, are two aspects of play that don’t feel likely to lose their appeal any time soon.

The storytelling is of a much richer calibre this time out as well. Epic (and our mate Cliff) have always talked smack about the quality of the writing in the Gears of War series, even when their enthusiasm for it was clearly misguided. Their collective adoration for the Gears 2 sub-plot involving Dom Santiago’s wife was particularly mystifying, but the fact that those events have subsequently turned Dom into a beardy nebbish with a penchant for gardening is both smart and surprisingly subtle; and a pretty neat indication of how much more tenacious Gears 3 is than its predecessors. On a much more simplistic level, this also gives Dom a chance to shout some amusing, vegetable-themed dialogue during the game’s opening act, which makes a very nice change from the standard “Hoo-ra!” platitudes that Gears has always been overly partial to.

A quick match option has been added to all of the competitive multiplayer modes, which means that matchmaking is a much slicker process in general. The core competitive modes are all present and correct, and Gears online is still the knife-edge, pensive thrill-fest that it always has been. The new co-op kid – Beast mode, which is essentially Horde turned on its head – is every bit as entertaining as its inspiration, and on the tougher difficulty settings it demands a different brand of thoughtful strategy; because no single species of Locust is good at taking care of every task at hand. It feels like a bit of an experiment – there are only twelve waves in total – but it’s based around such an ingenious conceit that replay value is pretty much sky high.

So it doesn’t make Cliffy B’s public dismissal of an 8/10 review – from a notoriously hard-to-please outfit – any less idiotic, but this is a videogame that many people are going to be playing (and regularly) well into 2012 and beyond. The COD-like XP and unlock system applies across every mode in the game which adds another facet of compulsiveness to the whole thing, and a score-attack style Arcade mode gives you a very compelling reason to re-visit the campaign; which, incidentally, now supports simultaneous co-op play for up to four people. There is so much stuff to do in Gears of War 3, and none of it feels flippant or throwaway. Put simply, contemporary action games don’t get much better.

Gears of War 3 is out now on Xbox 360. 

Watch the Gears of War 3 ‘War Pigs’ trailer here: 

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