The first Gears of War 3 campaign DLC is here; is it worth your time?

We took the new campaign for a test drive from beginning to end to see how it stacks up with the on-disc campaign. With new playable characters, and a full extended storyline set prior to the first Gears of War game, there are lots of reasons to be hopeful about the release. While it might not hit the same high notes as the core campaign, this sort of robust standalone DLC is just the sort we like to see for a big game like Gears of War 3.

Right from the start, RAAM's Shadow delivers something a little different. Namely, the total absence of Marcus Fenix and crew. Instead, players step into the shoes of Zeta squad, a team made up of both new and familiar faces from the storyline. The most central of these COG soldiers is Michael Barrick, a figure who will be familiar to comic readers, but a new face for those who've never strayed from the core game fiction. Barrick's cigar chomping, bald-headed, brusgue disregard of of COG authority is an intriguing perspective to inhabit. We also get to see some ghosts; both Minh Young Kim (the squad leader in Gears 1), and Tai Kaliso (the unfortunate spiritual warrior from game two) are along for the ride.

Their presence isn't some crazy retcon. Instead, RAAM's Shadow takes place before the events of the first Gears of War. This point is significant because we finally get to see the architectural wonders of human civilization prior to total destruction by the Locust Horde. That early time frame also means the return of some old gameplay concepts, including the emergence holes that plagued gamers in the original game. I missed this devilish mechanic in the most recent installment of the series, so it was nice to see its return.

The varied levels on display in RAAM's Shadow are great fun, but they don't always match the polish on display in Gears 3's main campaign. In particular, one extended section in an abandoned school fails to elicit the terror it is shooting for. There are some decent set piece moments, but like the levels themselves, the scope of most of the battles doesn't quite manage to reach the pitch of many of the battles on display in Gears 3's original campaign. In addition, you don't have all the extras you might see in a true campaign, like collectibles or vehicle sections.

On the bright side, far from rehashing existing levels or story, the DLC is entirely new content with a standalone story that sets it apart from the rest of the game series. The scope of that story is smaller -- the evacuation of a city before the Kryll scour it clean -- but I like that the story writers didn't feel like they needed to go back to the well of world-saving for this smaller tale. I loved the sense of impending doom over the course of the few hours it takes to complete a playthrough. The sky is slowly crowding with Kryll, until at the end, it seems like escape must be impossible.

While it's fun to get to know some new COG troopers in this outing, the highlight experience of the new DLC is undoubtedly the brief sections where you play as RAAM and his devastating team of guards. These sections aren't exactly challenging, as RAAM is nearly invincible, but it's fun to see the action from the other side of the battle. In particular, utilizing RAAM's Kryll to eviscerate enemy soldiers is horrifying. These opportunities to partake in RAAM's brutal kill techniques add tension to the final boss encounter, in which you're forced to face off against the monster; at that point, you know just how dangerous he really is.

While Microsoft is touting RAAM's Shadow as an entirely new campaign, it should be noted that the full story is much closer to the length of a single lengthy act of one of the core games. That's not necessarily a complaint; it's great to see a developer attempting something different with DLC, and it's refreshing that so much of this content is new and distinct from its core game. Plus, it's always nice to see new achievement opportunities added to a game you love.

RAAM's Shadow is out today, December 13th, and if you bought a season pass, then congratulations! You can now download RAAM's Shadow for "free". For the rest of the Gears fans, you'll be looking at 1200 Microsoft points ($15) to play.