Gears of War 3 Preview: Updated Multiplayer Hands-On

We rev up our lancer and find out what's new in Epic Games' third-person shooter.

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The fact that Gears of War 3 has been pushed to the fall of next year may be disappointing to some, but fans should be happy to know that even though it was a business decision to release it during the holidays instead of in April, this gives developer Epic Games the opportunity to have a multiplayer beta for Gears of War 3. On top of this, executive producer Rod Fergusson also announced that there will now be dedicated servers--which will be tested during the beta--when the game launches internationally. We recently visited Epic Games, where Fergusson and design director Cliff Bleszinski shared the news regarding the multiplayer beta and dedicated servers, and we were able to play the new competitive multiplayer modes in Gears of War 3.

One noticeable change when you jump into a multiplayer match is that the menu system is much easier to navigate, making it easy to coordinate matches with people you know. Your list of friends is displayed in the top right, so you can stick together as a team and then choose which mode you want to play in. Fan-favorite modes such as Warzone and Execution have been untouched, and Wingman will stay the same, with the exception that it will now allow eight players instead of 10. Depending on where you spawned on the map, there was a distinct disadvantage for the unfortunate souls who appeared in the middle, so the extra players have been removed to balance out the mode.

Three new modes have been added. The first is Team Deathmatch, which may seem like the oldest and most common mode in the realm of shooters, but it comes with a Gears twist. Each team is given 20 respawns to begin with, and once your team has run out, the game turns into Warzone, where you don't get any respawns for the last five kills. This gives the game an intense finish (you're also playing for best out of three), and if you do happen to die, you won't be sitting out for very long. Fergusson explained that these changes were made to make the game more approachable, which is a primary focus for the third game in the series. Both he and Bleszinski talked about how they want to remove some of the barriers so players who have never touched a Gears game before can jump in and not feel frustrated or punished. In Warzone, you end up sitting out a lot, but in Team Deathmatch people can jump right back in shortly after they die instead of sitting out for minutes at a time. As an example of giving newcomers a hand, in Team Deathmatch, if you are buckling faster than the sinking city of Jacinto and eating up all the respawns, it will take a little bit longer for you to get back into the game, and you could spawn near a teammate for some extra cover.

The other two new modes are combinations of existing modes from Gears of War 2. Capture the Leader is a combination of Guardian and Submission with a few tweaks. Your goal is to capture the leader of the opposing team, which could be either Queen Myrrah or Chairman Prescott, who are now playable characters. Once you've captured the leader, there's no longer a ring to drag him or her to. Instead, you have to hold onto them for 30 seconds while your teammates rally around you to protect you. As a captured leader, you have the ability to try to interfere with your captor by pressing B repeatedly to try to throw off your captor's aim. If you time it right, you can even break free. As the leader, you also have the ability to see through walls, making it easier to see where the enemy is coming from. King of the Hill this time around is a combination of Annex and…King of the Hill. Fergusson explained that the goal was to get many people playing the same game type, and combining similar game modes and renaming them made for a clearer rule set. Your team must capture and hold the ring to collect points, but you don't have to stay in it to hold it. The ring also moves around the map based on a timer, whether you're holding it or not, and the game uses Wingman spawn points to prevent camping. All the modes we played required a fair amount of teamwork and were a blast to play, especially with the new arsenal.

Welcome Queen Myrrah to the team.
Welcome Queen Myrrah to the team.

Several new weapons have been added, including a new sawed-off shotgun. Given the popularity of the gnasher shotgun in general, the sawed-off shotgun will instantly turn your foes into a bloody mist if you can get close enough to deal damage. You have to almost be touching your opponent for this to work; otherwise you'll miss, and with the extended reload time, you'd better start running. If you do happen to fire it at point-blank range, though, it will decimate your enemy, as well as anyone else within range, in a single shot. It works well in smaller maps, where you're prone to pulling out a short-range weapon anyway and sneaking up behind your opponent. As seen in the demo at the 2010 Electronic Entertainment Expo, a new Pendulum-era retro lancer with a bayonet attached lets you charge up to your opponents and skewer them with your blade. You need to be at a full charge, though, taking about four or five steps to get started. Otherwise you just bounce off of them. The regular lancer that we're all used to has been tweaked so you no longer get interrupted while you're using the chainsaw. It just needs to be revved up completely, so there is a window of time where you can still get hit and have to start again, but as long as you have it out and ready, you're all set to start slicing. The gorgon pistol is now a full automatic submachine gun, which comes in handy when holding a meatshield. Also seen at E3 was the bag-and-tag feature, where you stuff a grenade into your incapacitated opponent and send it off as an explosive present to the next person who comes in contact with it. This works incredibly well with incendiary grenades, which are particularly nasty and function like Molotov cocktails that explode on impact and leave behind a trail of deadly flames.

For the first time in a Gears game, iron sights have been added, but only to the hammerburst (so far), giving you a better long-range view. By holding the left trigger and pushing down the right stick, you can aim down the iron sights if you prefer to play at a distance. One heavy-duty weapon that can be used now is a digger launcher, which is like sending a line of grenades underground to flush people out of cover. It's not very fast, and it comes with a distinct sound, so when you hear it or see a line of dirt before you start to move, you should have enough time to react and get out of the way. The other new addition is the oneshot, a heavy sniper rifle that goes through just about everything. It's a one-shot kill, but it takes a while to pull off, and the laser will likely give you away, but when it works, it works wonders.

This is how a Retro Lancer is used.
This is how a Retro Lancer is used.

Some new abilities have been added, such as the ability to spot members of the opposing team when you have them in sight, using the Y button. The circle that appears over their heads fades after three seconds, but it gives your teammates a heads-up and time to move into position (and you get experience too, which we'll get into later). Your tactical communication (tac com) ability can now bring up the location of all the weapons and your teammates on the map, making it much easier to locate the weapon you want and to see where your buddies are. You can't shoot in this view, but it's a quick way to get your bearings if you're new to the map. Your teammates are also tagged with little blue or red (depending on what team you're on) carets, so it's easier to distinguish between friend and foe. These changes aren't very distracting; however, the thing that might throw you off is that you'll always be red if you're playing as a locust, even if you're used to seeing red as the enemy.

The cover system is still in place and hasn't changed, but remember how it felt when you were stuck hiding on one side of a barricade that separated you and the enemy, but you both just fired blindly over the wall? Now, instead of waiting to see who wants to duck out of cover first, you can jump over and mantle-kick your foe to send him back a few steps, giving you precious seconds to fire a few rounds in his face. Self-revival, a feature in Execution mode, is nice to have during multiplayer sessions and is available in all the new modes. You can tap A and crawl behind cover and get up at a slower rate, or you can stay in your position and tap A furiously and hope that you don't get curb-stomped, but you're likely to get back on your feet faster.

Speaking of curb-stomping, part of Gears' charm is the many creative execution moves that you can perform on your soon-to-be-dead opponent. Every weapon has its own unique execution move, but they have to be unlocked. The reason behind this is that you gain experience for doing the fancy moves, and the longer you pull one off, the more points you get. Most people who play competitively are really just going in for the quick kill, but by completing these execution moves, you'll get a bit of a reward at the risk of getting chainsawed in the back. We received a vivid demo of some of these moves, which were gruesome to say the least, but if you've been waiting to tear off the limbs of a COG and beat him repeatedly with them, now is your chance. Let's just say a lot of exploding heads are involved in these finishing moves, and shoving a flamethrower down someone's throat and turning it on creates quite a mess.

Everyone wants to see The Cole Train play!
Everyone wants to see The Cole Train play!

The integrated experience system allows you to level as you play in any multiplayer mode. You can level offline as well, but at a much slower pace. For anyone who might be too intimidated to go online right away, this gives you the chance to practice offline and build up some courage. There are training grounds available for you and a friend to test out a new map so that once you feel comfortable, you can bring in bots to play with. You'll earn ribbons and medals through your performance and challenges, and we were told that there are plenty of "easy" achievements to encourage new players to keep at it. New character skins (such as Cole in his Thrashball gear), weapon skins, executions, and titles (for bragging rights) can be unlocked as you play. So yes, you too can be sporting that bright-pink lancer one day.

We were able to play in several new maps, each with its own unique twist, and they were a good size for our matches. Checkout was a supermarket-like space, with empty shelves to duck behind and counters to hop over. This was the smallest map and very tight, so a lot of chainsaws and shotguns came into play. Another area was the run-down Thrashball Stadium, where the Cole Train used to play. Like in an actual sporting event, your team dashes out of the locker room together to rush the field, mostly because there is a nice stash of weapons in the middle. Conveniently hovering above the loot is a giant score board, which can be brought down, and if you're lucky enough, you can take out an entire team if they just happen to be camping under it. We also played in a locust-themed map called the Trenches, which was filled with sandbags and even sandstorms. A sandstorm will roll in periodically, blinding everyone for a while, but it gives people a chance to seek out a better location. There's a sniper's nest in this level, which is tough to get to, but once you're up there, the field is yours. The Overpass was the other map that we played in, set in a city with decaying buildings and disabled cars. Although they don't affect the gameplay, this area is prone to quakes and will shake every now and then. You'll see the horizon start to shift, and the ground will start sinking. Even though it's all cosmetic, the quakes are a stark reminder of how crippled the world has become.

Thrashball Stadium has seen better days.
Thrashball Stadium has seen better days.

A lot was covered during our visit, and it's good to see that Gears is coming along very well. Our multiplayer sessions were intense, and the pace felt much faster than Gears 2. As always, pulling off extensive execution moves is extremely satisfying, and since there is one for every weapon, it can be a fun challenge to try them all to see what they do. It is hard to pick a favorite map at this point, since they all had their own perks. While Overpass is more of a crumbling ruin than what we've typically seen in the campaign, it was refreshing to see areas like the Thrashball Stadium, which will feel familiar to anyone who has seen a stadium, but it's an entirely new experience to be shooting locusts in one.

For anyone who has never played a Gears game, this one has been tailored to you. New players who are having trouble getting kills online will receive a bit of a damage boost and double their health for their first 10 kills if they've already died three times without taking anyone out. As you make your way to 10, your health meter will get smaller so that you don't grow too accustomed to the extra health. Fergusson explained that this was added in hopes of getting people over that first hurdle, and this is available only for those who do not have any Gears achievements and are getting creamed online.

The upcoming beta will let Epic Games receive more feedback to be able to fine-tune the game further before its release. With dedicated servers and a newly revamped menu system, the multiplayer should be much easier to get into and hopefully with fewer hosting issues. Even if you haven't found a game to play in yet, there will be an interactive lobby where you can jump into a game with bots, and the bots will eventually be replaced with real players until you have a full game. For those who spend quite a bit of time playing the multiplayer, the events calendar will give you important upcoming dates when you'd want to log in and reap the benefits of double experience or other goodies.

Lush new environments and new female characters certainly change the look and feel of the game.
Lush new environments and new female characters certainly change the look and feel of the game.

We'll have more on Gears of War 3 as soon as more information becomes available. The beta is currently set for sometime next year, and the game is expected to ship holiday 2011.

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