BARCELONA, Spain--After Microsoft's X06 press conference this evening, those of us who were lucky enough to attend the event in person were herded into a small fleet of coaches and driven to an evening event at a not-quite-as-secret-as-usual location. Three of the location's five floors were devoted to live entertainment, food, refreshments, and the like, while the remaining two afforded us an opportunity to get our hands on some upcoming Xbox 360 games. One of the first games we made a beeline for, predictably, was Gears of War, which we were able to play alongside seven other attendees on three different multiplayer maps.
Although other multiplayer modes will likely be available in the finished game, the work-in-progress version of Gears of War that we checked out today offered only four-on-four team deathmatches. We got to play as both COG soldiers and as Locusts during our time with the game, and for the first time we had an opportunity to check out some of the different skins that are available for each faction. The default skins look like regular grunts, with functional-looking armor, shaved heads (for the humans at least), and very few distinguishing features.
Fighting alongside three players who are all using the same default skin isn't jarring in any way, but there's definitely something neat about being in a squad where everybody looks different. Before each round gets underway, you can use the bumper buttons on the Xbox 360 controller to choose a skin. Our preferred COG skin made us look like an officer of some kind, with a different uniform, a black hat, and dark face paint. When playing as a Locust, we opted for a character who was wearing his armor under a robe that flowed quite convincingly when we moved.
The first of the three maps that we played on was Gridlock, which is the same map that we played at the Electronic Entertainment Expo earlier this year. Like all of the maps that we've seen to date, Gridlock isn't very big, but it features no end of environmental features to take cover behind. Stairwells, burned-out cars, and archways are the cover spots of choice, though we couldn't find a single location that could be considered safe enough to camp at for any period of time. It seems the maps have all been designed in such a way that there are at least two routes into every potential camping spot, meaning that you'll be forever looking over your shoulder if you choose to remain in one place for any period of time. Another great incentive to keep moving are the weapons that spawn in certain places periodically--the rocket launcher in the middle of the Gridlock map is a great weapon, but attempting to reach it is always risky business.
After spending some time with Gridlock, we checked out two previously unseen maps, titled Canals and Mansion. The layout of Canals felt a lot like Gridlock, except that the burned-out cars were replaced with boats and debris from old bridges. We also spent much of our time on this map up to our knees in water, though that didn't have any impact on the gameplay. Mansion, on the other hand, felt quite different, though it's conceivable that it was more as a result of its visuals than of its actual design. Set in and around a partially ruined mansion on a dark and rainy night, the map's exterior and interior locales felt very different, and although we preferred it outside in the rain, what remained of the mansion's interior was where a lot of the action ended up happening. One of the notable features of the mansion interior are destructible items that you're only safe behind for a short period of time if your opponent decides to unload some ammo into them, such as couches.
One of the most popular weapons during our time with Gear of War was, predictably, the chainsaw bayonet that's mounted on the assault rifle as standard. The chainsaw takes a few seconds to warm up, but once it's running you can one-hit kill any enemy that you get close to. Other weapons that we started each round with included a pistol, a shotgun, and some very effective (and great-looking) smoke grenades. You'll use the directional pad to switch between whichever four weapons you're carrying, and if you decide to pick up a new weapon that you find, it will replace the one you have equipped.
When you die in a Gears of War multiplayer game, which won't happen nearly as often once people figure out that it's really not that much work to revive fallen squadmates if you reach them in time, you'll enter a spectator mode. As a spectator, you can choose to watch the rest of the match either from a vantage point that gives you a view of almost the whole map or from an over-the-shoulder camera following one of your colleagues. We got to see some great chainsaw bayonet kills as a spectator and also witnessed a one-on-one battle at the end of a round that went on for so long that it was eventually declared a draw. This happened not because the two players weren't filling each other with lead at every opportunity, but because they were both very good at taking cover to restore their health. We're tempted to say that the speed at which your health restores when you're in cover is a little generous right now, but if it were slowed down it might be detrimental to the game's pacing.
Gears of War is currently scheduled for release in early November. We look forward to bringing you more information as soon as it becomes available.