Gears of War 3's opening moments caught us off guard. Expecting to kick off proceedings with yet another bombastic set-piece moment, we were instead treated to an emotional scene that tugged at our heartstrings and set the tone for what was an unexpectedly personal Gears of War experience.
It's an echo from the first game: Marcus sits in a dark cell when a muffled voice says "Jack, rip that door". The figure that enters this time however isn't Dom, it's Anya, former 'voice-on-the-other-end-of-the-line' intelligence dispenser and newly anointed soldier. She throws a bag full of Marcus' belongs to the floor and tells him that his father needs his help.
"Anya, what's going on?" he asks, but she just turns and walks away. Bright shafts of light warm small pockets of the otherwise aesthetically cold cell block. Our surroundings are decorated with all the browns and greys that have come to typify the series' visual footprint. But it's the kind of dry and dirty environment that the Unreal Engine manages to make look beautiful somehow.
Anya waits at the end of a long corridor, obscuring a door that looks strangely out of place. We approach with caution, being mindful of our environment and the potential threats that may be lurking in the cells around us. Anya finally breaks her silence by telling us "Locust have broken into the house".
Moments after she utters those words the floor and walls around us begin to rapidly decay and peel away like paint dowsed in thinner. A bright light from beyond the door begins to seep through its seams eventually bursting through, engulfing us both.
On the other side we're greeted by Marcus' dead father, Adam Fenix, a face from beyond the grave. He immediately tells us we shouldn't be there and should leave. By 'us' he's including Dom, who quietly materialised behind us at some point.
After surveying our surroundings we realise that we've been transported to the courtyard of the Fenix estate, which is now being invaded by waves of attacking Locust. Disobeying papa Fenix we begin to defend the stairs, putting our noses to the grindstone with some of Gears' trademark brand of cover-based shooting.
At this point the Gears of War gameplay seems to have been reduced to a simple science for Epic and, if you have any experience with the series, you probably know exactly what's involved. The underlying systems and mechanics introduced in the first game are still solid, and even at the preview stage we're confident enough to say the cover-based combat is still the best in the business. Fingers crossed that the game's set pieces hold up their end of the deal, since they'll make or break the moment-to-moment shooting experience.
We blind fire to dissuade the Locust from getting too brave and occasionally pop out of cover to decapitate any brave to advance on our position.
Events take another step into the realm of the supernatural when a massive vortex of light and wind appears at the foot of the multi-level staircase leading up to the family home. The hurricane begins to suck nearby Locust in and pull chunks of the stone architecture into the air. For an instant we find ourselves staring down the barrel of a very deadly gun when a Corpser leaps out of the void. Thankfully, it's quickly sucked back into the hell from which it sprang.
While the backdrop of our battle tears at the environment and takes care of any Locust grunts trailing behind, we're doing our best keep them all at bay with a hail of bullets and grenades. A voice over from Marcus' pierces through the sounds of gunfire and enemy groans, "It was always about work with my father, his research. He tried to save his work, I tried to save him" he says.