Editor note: Some story spoilers.

The season for epic games has begun. Gamers worldwide start shooting and save the world. Epic GamesGears of War 3 launches today, and it brings closure to a sci-fi shooting game series that has kept millions of fans loyal to the Xbox 360 video game console.

Gears of War 3 is one of the blockbusters of the all-important fall selling season, and it has sold more than 13 million units, or more than $780 million at retail, since its debut in 2006. It is one of Microsoft’s major exclusives for the Xbox 360 and will help Microsoft fend off rivals Sony and Nintendo in the coming months.

I’ve completed the game’s most difficult level and am glad to say that the ending to the three-part series is going to be a memorable one for Gears fans. The game introduces its first female characters among the grunts known as Gears, and it brings home a story that had gone down many different tunnels over the years.

Gears of War 3 is the kind of game that has helped magnify the coolness of brands like the Xbox 360 and Microsoft in the gaming business. Gears of War 3 should help the series ascend into the pantheon of some of the best loved and most lucrative video game franchises of all time. Like Microsoft’s Halo, Gears of War has become a cultural phenomenon, where celebrities and fans alike brag about their enthusiasm for the game.

Gears of War’s contribution to video games is that it raised the bar for “movie-like” games, since the action and the film-like sequences are seamlessly interwoven. Only a handful of blockbuster titles such as Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Halo: Reach have delivered these kinds of experiences for gamers, where it’s hard to tell where an animated film sequence ends and the game action begins. Little did we gamers know that the purpose of the film sequences is to give the Xbox 360 hardware enough time to stream in the next bits of the 3D environment. In any case, the immersive feel of single-player campaign game is what I enjoy about the Gears games, in contrast to its multiplayer combat.

Will this game be the bestselling yet? Probably so, since there are now almost 56 million Xbox 360 consoles in the market, much more than when Gears of War debuted in 2006 and when Gears of War 2 debuted in 2008. But at the same time, video games have been in a funk this year in the U.S., with sales down in part because gamers have so many choices for content these days, such as iPads, smartphones and social networks.

If any game can overcome these cross-currents, it is a Gears of War title. The series has spawned four bestselling novels and is the subject of an upcoming film. It has given gamers a reason beyond Halo to buy an Xbox 360. And the competition has steered clear of the Gears of War 3 release. Resistance 3 debuted on the PlayStation 3 on Sept. 6 and id Software’s Rage won’t come out until Oct. 4.

Aiming for a bigger hardcore game market

As we noted in our preview story, Gears has been a tale about hope, survival, and brotherhood. The player assumed the role of Marcus Fenix, an imprisoned marine who was let loose as a last-ditch effort to save humanity. The game is a third-person shooter with a cinematic style and rivers of blood.

The violence and blood are so pervasive that it almost seems like you’re in a violent Quentin Tarantino film, such as Kill Bill. That is part of the appeal of the game, since it is so bloody it is almost comical. Add to that the swagger and the funny banter among the marines, or Gears, and you have a witty and self-aware work that holds the attention of gamers, who have been conditioned to have a sick sense of humor. The characters seem like real grunts from our own modern era, as the dialogue is full of foul language, put downs, wisecracks and comebacks. Only they have to deal with enemies worthy of the scariest horror movies.

In a brilliant piece of game marketing, Microsoft created a commercial for the original game using the depressing “Mad World” song as sung by Gary Jules. That set the tone for the relentlessly downbeat struggle that the player had to fight in a world of “destroyed beauty,” where a beautiful planet was in ruins. That video was so popular that it was watched by millions on YouTube and it multiplied the marketing budget for the game many times over.

This time, musicians Ice-T and Body Count have created an exclusive new song for Gears of War 3. The music is just a small part of a calculated marketing campaign. The overall goal is to get to as many users as possible; that’s why the game includes a more accessible casual mode.

“We’ve made the game easier to play,” Rod Fergusson, executive producer of the game, told me in an interview. “We made it more accessible with a casual game setting and a casual multiplayer mode as well. If there’s one Gears of War game you’re going to play, we want it to be this one. For everyone who hasn’t tried it yet, this is the version to try.”

Five acts for a Shakespearean tragedy

It’s kind of funny to think of Gears of War as Shakespearean, since the characters drop the F-bomb a lot and the game is billed as “bigger, better and more badass.” The game is split into five acts, so Epic Games is deliberately calling attention to the fact that the epic story is just as important as the game play itself. That distinction is welcome, since you get a sense that each major act has a big piece of the story to tell. By contrast, many games consist of 30 different chapters, each telling you a small piece of what is really a small story, not an epic story.

Gears of War 3 continues the story from the first two titles, which were visceral, bloody experiences portraying the troops of Delta Squad as they fought to save the last human inhabitants of the planet Sera from an unstoppable underground enemy dubbed the Locust Horde. Now, a new threat called the Lambent has infected the Locust Horde and created a new mutant enemy for humanity. The humans have to deal with Lambent, or glowing enemies that have mutated due to prolonged exposure to a chemical known as Imulsion.

This new game opens two years after the events of the last game, which saw the destruction of Jacinto, one of the last bastions of humanity. The civilization of the world has long since fallen apart, and survivors are just trying to get by in the ruins. You would think that by now, the humans would be back in the Stone Age. But there are still more human places to be protected or ruined, and there is still plenty of ammunition lying on the ground for the Gears to pick up and fire into receiving enemies. The human coalition has collapsed and the Locust have survived the previous human offensive in Gears of War 2 and they are now back and more fierce than ever. Fenix and his squad are stuck on an aircraft carrier, the Raven’s Nest, one of the last operational ships in the human arsenal. The Gears call the Lambent “the glowies,” and the art style makes them unmistakable when viewed in the environments of the game.

As the game kicks off, A new commander arrives at the ship via helicopter and isn’t particularly welcome since he bailed out on the human forces in the past. The commander gives Fenix a disk to view. As Fenix plays the disk, he realizes that his father, who was supposed to be dead, is alive and has been working on a secret research project. Fenix is stricken, since he had been imprisoned because he disobeyed a direct order in a failed attempt to save his father. Now he learns his father is alive and has a mission for Fenix and his crew. After a decade of war, with billions dead, it’s time for a last stand.

“This is the end of the trilogy, and we wanted to bring closure to Marcus’s story, and part of that is his relationship with his father,” Fergusson said.

The return of Fenix’s father adds an emotional weight to the story. Cliff “Cliffyb” Bleszinski, the creative director at Epic and the visionary behind Gears of War, said at the Game Developers Conference in March that the Gears of War story came to him during a tough time. He was going through a divorce, and he was also thinking about the death of his own father, who passed away when Bleszinski was in his teens and just getting into video games. In creating Gears of War as a trilogy, Bleszinski and his team (this particular Gears story is penned by sci-fi writer Karen Traviss, the author of four Gears novels) had to dig deep into emotional territory and come up with something that would hold our attention for countless hours of game play.

It is no accident that the fictional character Fenix has “daddy issues,” Bleszinski said. In Gears of War 3, where gamers expect some closure to Fenix’s personal story, we expect to find out more. It is not unlike the story of Dom Santiago and his hopeless search for his girlfriend Maria in Gears of War 2. That personalized touch about a personal tragedy within the larger destruction of an entire world  is what makes the Gears of War storyline more literary and epic. Gears of War 3 delivers on this story of personal loss in a most satisfying way that will leave the gamer feeling, “Now that’s a real ending.”

One of the enduring features of Gears of War is that its characters are memorable and they are treated as characters, not cannon fodder, as they often are in video games. Friendship is a big part of the game, and depths that characters go to in order to rescue friends in danger is one of its recurring themes. This ending to the story is welcome in part because so many of the other endings to video game trilogies leave so many openings for future sequels. Gears of War 3 delivers real closure.

The action moves to bigger and better

As I’ve said before, Gears of War creates one of the best combat experiences in video games. This game won’t let down anyone who has acquired a mastery of the controller button pushes and joystick moves that you have to pull off in order to survive combat with the multitude of enemies coming at you. When you are finished with a firefight, you’ll feel like you’re coming down from an adrenaline rush.

The style of Gears isn’t “run and gun,” as with most shooters. You have to pull the left trigger to aim in Gears and then shoot with the right trigger. Since it takes multiple shots to kill enemies, you have to focus on killing the enemies one at a time. If you’re out in the open, this gives other enemies time to surround you and take you down. So Gears is what is called a “cover-based” game, where you have to hide behind cover, peer around corners, and revive wounded comrades as you escape heavy fire.

The game environment always has lots of rectangular blocks that you can use as cover. These blocks are a kind of convention that makes you feel like you’re in a formulaic kind of battle. When a film-like sequence ends, such as when characters finish a conversation, the player takes control of Fenix and starts walking through the environment. When you see the blocks, you know that you’re about to get ambushed and it’s time to find some cover.

When you stick your head up to shoot, odds are good you’ll get shot at and be forced to duck or die. You get a wide variety of weapons, including the trusty lancer with its chainsaw bayonet. But each weapon is really geared at taking down one or maybe two or three enemies at once. That’s because Gears of War’s style is brutal one-on-one fighting, mostly at close range. Every kill feels like it’s happening inside a one-on-one gladiator arena. The great insight of the game designers is that outwitting a single opponent, when it comes to taking cover or making a surprising move, is really quite satisfying.

The game play in the third game has been honed, but it isn’t that different from the original. This is one of the weaknesses as well as strengths of the game. Fans will like it because it’s familiar, but skeptics will feel like there isn’t anything new here except the same kind of fighting with a new story. To deal with that complaint, Epic Games has made it possible for four players to play cooperatively at the same time.

Bigger enemies, bigger weapons

The fact that four players can participate in the campaign game at once means that the enemies have to be tougher to kill. In single-player mode, you play alongside three computer-controlled companions at any given time. In co-op mode, all four players can be real players. So there are many more “bosses,” or huge enemy characters, that you have to take on in the game.

That keeps the single-player game from being just like the other Gears games. When you play it under the most difficult “hardcore” setting, the game becomes pretty tough to beat. I found myself dying and refighting many of the scenes, so the game took nine or ten hours for me to finish. The game did a great job of delivering the feeling that you were under siege and had to hold out against unending hordes of enemies at times.

There are new enemies to deal with in the campaign, such as Lambent Polyps and Stalks. They are variants of the Lambent that are spawned as lots of scorpion-like critters running at you fast to giants that can kill you with a blow or two.

You always play as Marcus Fenix in the single-player story, but you team up with different companion characters as the story unfolds. The game introduces two female characters, the blond-haired Anya Stroud and the brunette Samantha Byrne. They add some fresh banter to the dialogue, and aren’t relegated to sexist subservient roles in the combat.

Sometimes your four-person team splits into two and you have to follow separate paths until reunited. In every scene, you have to worry about the survival of your companions as well as yourself.

You have to earn your weaponry over time, and you have to make tough choices, as you can only carry four major weapons at once. It’s like a little treat when you find a powerful new weapon like a One-Shot sniper rifle, a boomshot grenade launcher, or a Mulcher.

But I found some of the weapons to be clumsy. It was so hard to figure out the way to aim a mortar that I wound up dropping rounds on my character’s head a few times. And the One-Shot aiming system is so unwieldy that it’s quite hard to locate your target in the distance. It isn’t nearly so easy to use when speed is of the essence.

Cool landscapes, little flaws

The game blends styles from so many sources. The fighting and weapons are straight out of the Vietnam War, but the architecture of the city buildings is akin to the elegant buildings of London. Each map is large enough so that you can choose to go straight ahead or make a flanking move. But there’s always one way into the action and one way out. So you usually don’t get lost wandering around looking for the place where you’re supposed to go.

The graphics in this game push the limits of the Xbox 360. It feels that way because the trained eye can spot minor imperfections among the cool 3D imagery. When characters walk, they seem as if they’re made out of wood and are walking like the toy soldiers in the Nutcracker. Epic Games also uses some repetitive imagery that drives you crazy, because it reminds you that you’re playing a game rather than participating in a movie-like experience.

Among the minor annoyances is that there are just way too many garage doors, or shipping bay doors, in the game. That’s because Epic uses the garage doors as a metaphor to tell you that you’ve crossed a checkpoint. The Gears pick up a heavy door and two cross into the opening and then the first two drop the garage door with a loud thud. It’s a nice animation to see — but not over and over again. It’s always fun to see the animation of your character chainsawing an enemy in half, but watching a garage door close is decidedly not the same.

But for the most part, the graphics of the game are beautiful. Since past games have been slammed for looking too gray, this game has an abundant variety of color. But the signature blood is just as red as ever.

Multiplayer combat

Originally, Microsoft planned to release the game in April, 2011. But it decided to postpone the release so that the game could be more polished and it could incorporate feedback from a large-scale multiplayer beta test. That probably cost it a lot of money in extra development time, but it was likely a smart decision for the sake of the brand. After all, if this game really is the last in the series, the multiplayer combat is the way that this game will live on in the future.

In multiplayer, you can play as the Locust horde or the humans. In the Team Deathmatch mode, every team has 20 lives per round. When the lives run out, the players can’t respawn anymore. The dead players have to watch as their comrades try to survive as long as possible on their last life.

I tried a few rounds last night on multiplayer, where you can choose casual, standard or hardcore modes. I found that you need to use cover even more in multiplayer and tread carefully. In every one-on-one duel, you have to have split-second reflexes or lose out. And you have to shoot only when you know you will hit something. Shotguns are very effective for one-shot kills at close range, but they have a very limited range.

When you get wounded, it’s embarrassing to crawl around on the floor until you are revived or someone stomps on your head. I haven’t explored all of the maps yet, but they’re usually contained in a smaller space with a lot of cover. That’s because the Gears-style fighting is all about close combat and getting the drop on someone who is just a few yards away from you. It’s nice that the maps are colorful, in contrast to past Gears games.

You can play in the Horde mode, where you cooperate with other players and try to survive as long as possible. You can also now play in Beast mode, where you play the enemies of humanity and try to take down a small group of Gears. And you can play through the single-player game in arcade mode, where you are scored on how well you do and can compare that to how your friends do.

In conclusion

By the end of the game, the player will get through 32 chapters. To Epic’s credit, there is a huge amount of variety to the game play. But some of the scenes get tiring when you have to go round up four or five things in order to progress to the next level. As I put down the controller and finished the last level, I felt like the game did justice to the gravity of the ending. I felt like I was saying goodbye to an old friend. It was an emotional ending that, along with the intense game play, had drained me of energy.

It’s only logical that this game is getting higher ratings, as it is Epic Games’ third title on the same piece of hardware, the Xbox 360. That’s a rarity in the console business, and it says a lot about how long this generation of consoles is lasting.

I remember when the first Gears of War game was just a rumor. It has been interesting to watch Epic Games’ long journey into a mature company with such a valuable brand as Gears. A decade ago, it would have been a total surprise to see a game like this coming from the combination of Microsoft, the publisher, and Epic Games.

Early on, Gears of War was a very risky endeavor, coming from a development team that had not specialized in campaign games and which was wandering in the wilderness for a while. Microsoft had made a lot of big bets on the Xbox game console, but only Halo and Project Gotham Racing had paid off as huge multi-game franchises. The development team started with the dream of designer Cliff Bleszinski and no more than 25 people.Today, the Gears team is still less than 100 people, but Epic is known as one of the best developers in the business.

So far, the game has a 91 out of 100 on review aggregator Metacritic. I give it a rating of 88. To me, the cinematic style and approach to the story make it slightly better as a game than Sony’s Resistance 3, which we reviewed last week. While Resistance 3 is prettier and has more variety to its game play, Gears delivers a better story. Since I rated Resistance 3 at 87 out of 100, I’m splitting hairs here, as both games are awesome. Call me a sucker for a good story. Hopefully, Epic Games will now move on to bigger things. Meanwhile, I hope that the blockbuster-packed fall season will just keep on getting better from here on out.

Here’s a last treat. We have a souvenir plastic statue of Marcus Fenix from Microsoft. We’ll ship the statue to anyone who leaves the best comment at the end of this story. We’ll leave the winning name in the comments a week from today and will ship it out after that.