Gears of War 3 from Epic Games will be one of the game industry’s early seasonal blockbusters when the third-person shooter game debuts on Microsoft’s Xbox 360 Sept. 20. It will set the tone for the console game industry’s all-important holiday selling season. I’ve had a good look at the first act of the single-player version of the game and am happy to report that it won’t be a disappointment. Up until now, Epic has kept the details of the single-player campaign secret.

Gears of War 3 and other Epic games like it in the blockbuster game category are hitting their pinnacle now. With its third major release on the same console, Epic has mastered the art of creating games for the current generation of game consoles. That means this game should be the highest quality title to date.

But the timing is very mixed. There are more consoles than ever out there, with 55 million Xbox 360s sold. But gamers have more demands on their time than ever, with many moving away from consoles to play games on iPads, smartphones, and social networks. The console games that succeed are the ones that promise a blockbuster experience and are polished in their execution. There is very little room for error in this high-stakes competition.

The cultural legacy of Gears of War

The carnage-filled science fiction game series has sold more than 13 million units since the first Gears of War debuted in 2006. That’s around $780 million generated at retail, not counting all of the paraphernalia that comes with hit games. With the right marketing and proper execution, Microsoft and Epic Games can make the game into an even bigger cultural icon than it already is. Beyond the video game series, Gears has spawned four New York Times bestselling novels and is the subject of an upcoming film. Gears of War 3 is one of the most anticipated games of the year, going up against titles such as id Software’s Rage, which debuts Oct. 4.

Epic Games created the first Gears of War game as a marquee title for the Xbox 360, giving gamers a reason beyond Halo to buy the console. The original Gears was a visceral, bloody experience, 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. It was a story about hope, survival, and brotherhood. The player assumed the role of Marcus Fenix, a marine who was imprisoned and let loose as a last-ditch effort to save humanity. I played the multiplayer version of Gears of War 3 and that was a hoot.

In a brilliant piece of game marketing, Microsoft created a commercial for the game using the Mad World song as played 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, said Rod Fergusson, executive producer of the game at Epic Games, in an interview.

“We’ve made the game easier to play,” Fergusson said. “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.”

The story in five acts

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 coalition has collapsed and the Locust have survived the previous human offensive in Gears of War 2 and are now back and more fierce than ever. Now Fenix and his squad are stuck on an abandoned aircraft carrier, the Raven’s Nest, in the ocean, where they have to deal with Lambent, or glowing enemies that have mutated due to prolonged exposure to a chemical known as Imulsion. A new commander — chairman Prescott — arrives at the ship via helicopter and isn’t particularly welcome since he bailed out on the human forces in the past. Prescott throws Fenix for a loop by giving him a disk.

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 he’s 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. And it’s why my expectations for the end of this game series are particularly high.

Game play is the thing

But I wouldn’t forget about the action. Gears of War creates one of the best combat experiences in video games. You don’t get to be an invincible hero who mows down enemies by the hundreds. Rather, each kill is hard-earned. You have to duck behind cover, peer around corners, and revive fallen comrades as you dodge heavy fire. It takes a lot of firepower to kill the Locust enemies, but if you spend too much time on one kill, you’ll get hit in the flanks by others. In most of the game, you have to find barriers and then shoot around them. Sometimes, your best choice is a bloody chainsaw bayonet. After a Gears of War firefight, don’t be surprised if your hands are shaking and you’re feeling a little nervous.

With the new game, the story about Fenix’s father pulls you in, and then all hell breaks loose. The Locust attack the ship and the Gears squad has to escape from it. One of the giant new enemies they encounter is a gigantic leviathan, or sea monster, that is a Lambent “glowie.” The squad has to keep shooting the monster in the eye or the mouth to take it down before it wrecks the ship.

From there, the action is nonstop. The planet itself is self-destructing and has become unstable because of the Imulsion chemical and its spreading infection. So the Gears soldiers not only have to fight the Locust and the Lambent, they have to do it as things are literally falling apart around them.

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 in giant form. It takes a whole squad to bring some of them down. Fergusson said those tougher enemies were necessary because four players can play the campaign game in cooperative mode, where they can all shoot at enemies at once. Since the human players are much more badass, the enemies had to be more badass as well.

I played through most of the first act of the game. It was a lot of fun. The story splits the team into different groups and introduces two new female characters, the blond-haired Anya Stroud and the brunette Samantha Byrne. During the game, you switch as a player to control other characters. The game does a good job of switching back and forth between cinematic story scenes and action. In the story, you find that among the human survivors, there’s an “every man (or woman) for himself” attitude. And there’s also a lot of humor associated with one of the Gears soldiers who is a former football star. The tough-guy — and finally in this game the tough woman — humor is one of the hallmarks of the Gears series. Some of the sections were really hard on the “hardcore” level that I played, since the levels were designed with cooperative play in mind.

I had to play some scenes over and over again to get through them. During the action sequences, you always have to be careful with your ammo and weapon choice. If you waste your powerful weapons on easy enemies, you’ll encounter tough ones later on that will make you wish you had a grenade or two handy.

Epic Games promises a “spectacular conclusion” to the Gears saga. They had me sold on this series way back in 2006. But hopefully, they’ll do such a good job with the story and action that they’ll get a lot more players for this final installment. The full game is five acts and 32 levels. It’s a huge campaign and a big story. From what I’ve seen, it’s going to make a lot of fans happy.