E3 06: Gears of War Multiplayer Hands-On

We go behind closed doors at Microsoft and find ourselves in the middle of an eight-player team-based game of Gears of War.

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LOS ANGELES--Earlier today during a visit to Microsoft's sizable Electronic Entertainment Expo booth, we were invited behind closed doors to check out Gears of War. The session kicked off with a brief presentation in which a Microsoft representative explained the game's controls to us as he played through a small portion of a level set in a ruined prison facility. The environment was impressively detailed, and there appeared to be plenty of destructible set pieces in the level, including a large guard tower in the courtyard that toppled to the ground shortly after the demo got underway. We also got to see the main character have a brief conversation with another member of his squad, the upshot of which was that we were given the choice to either accompany him or take a different route through the level.

We didn't get our hands on the single-player game on this occasion, but the time spent watching the game in action and being told about the controls definitely went some way to preparing us for the multiplayer game that followed. Although many of Gears of War's controls are much as you'd expect them to be in a shooter, there are a number of neat mechanics that are worth mentioning. Since Gears of War is a stop-and-pop game rather than a run-and-gun, you'll find that moving in and out of cover is really important. This is achieved using the context-sensitive A button, which in addition to moving you in and out of cover, can be used to sprint and perform evasive rolls when you're out in the open. You can lean in and out of cover simply by using the analog stick in conjunction with the left trigger, which is used for targeting.

The only time that you'll see an aiming reticle on your screen in Gears of War is when you're motionless or moving very slowly. The rest of the time, you'll be using your weapons without any targeting aids whatsoever, and regardless of where you point them, you'll find that the accuracy of your projectiles varies wildly. You'll switch between whichever four weapons (including a pistol and grenades) you're carrying using the directional pad, and you'll find that many of them have melee-attack options that you can perform using the B button. For most of the guns that we were using in our multiplayer session, tapping the B button simply saw us hitting enemies around the head with them, but one of the rifles that was in our arsenal as soon as the game got underway came equipped with a chainsaw bayonet, which was used by holding down the B button. Unsurprisingly, the chainsaw bayonet was the weapon that afforded us the most opportunities to check out Gears of War's blood effects, which are over-the-top in a way that makes every kill feel very satisfying without ever looking gratuitous.

During our session, we got to play in team-based games supporting a total of eight players. The gameplay mode, which we don't know the name of at this point, pitted a squad of four COG soldiers against four Locust players in what was essentially a last-man-standing contest. Our games took place in a small urban map that included a handful of buildings to move through and a street littered with vehicular remains--giving us plenty of places to move in and out of cover. The A button performed its various functions with aplomb during our matches, and we found that we were not only able to move in and out of cover but also move between areas of cover while performing evasive rolls and such, all in one action. The games were fast-paced and there was plenty of blood spilled, but they definitely had a very tactical feel about them, and we found that we were most successful when we worked alongside squadmates, with one of us laying down a suppressing fire while the other moved around to flank the enemies in question.

The gameplay was fast-paced and intense enough to the point that we completely forgot to check out the reloading mechanic that we were shown during the single-player presentation earlier. You only need to hit one button (the right shoulder) to reload your weapon, but when you do so, you'll notice that a small line moves across it that Microsoft compared to a swingometer in a golf game. The idea is that if you stop the line at exactly the right place by hitting the reload button again, you can reload your gun faster and, if you time your second press perfectly, you'll get a damage bonus on your next dozen or so rounds. Get the second button press horribly wrong, though, and you'll take longer to reload than you would normally, so it's a real risk-versus-reward situation.

We wish we could tell you that we were the last man standing in all three of the matches that we played, but we'd be lying. It's fortunate that we died a couple of times, though, because it gave us an opportunity to check out the game's health bar substitute, which is essentially a red cog logo that appears in the middle of the screen when you're close to death--the things we do for you, honestly. The first couple of times we killed enemy players, we noticed that they were taking a long time to go down and stay down, but it was only when we found ourselves on the receiving end that we understood why that was. As we already mentioned, a red cog appears in the middle of the screen when you're close to death, and one or two hits later you'll find yourself slumped on the ground and unable to move. At this point, enemy players will need to pop a few more rounds and finish you off, but your colleagues will have an opportunity to come and rescue you--which we didn't experience once during our time with the game.

Our time with Gears of War came to an end far more quickly than we'd have liked, but the 20 minutes or so that we spent with the game were more than enough to get us even more excited about it than we were already. The almost uncomfortably close third-person cam that shudders quite violently when you move will take some getting used to, but it adds to the sense of urgency in the game and makes it even more difficult for you to shoot while moving, which is obviously an intentional feature of the game's design. Gears of War is undoubtedly one of the most exciting games that we've seen during the first few hours of this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo, and we look forward to bringing you more information on the game soon.

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