Xbox 360 Preview

Gears of War 3: Multiplayer Beta

Lee shares his toys

Meaty. That's always been the best word to describe Gears of War. From the tree trunk-necked protagonists, with their hefty physicality, to the slabs of flesh that flop to the floor after encountering the wrong end of a Lancer, the series has always been a brawny affair.

It's also an decent word to describe the upcoming Gears of War 3 multiplayer beta. Launching on April 18th (for those that bought Bulletstorm: Epic Edition) or April 25th (for everyone that pre-orders GoW3 at GAME or Gamestation) the beta will eventually grant access to no less than three game modes across four maps. Plus you'll be able to unlock a bunch of cool stuff to keep once the beta ends on May 15th too. A meaty offering.

And necessary. The online launch of Gears of War 2 was hardly smooth. Thanks largely to one and a half million players swamping the servers during the game's opening week, it was beset by matchmaking problems, connection issues and a whole swarm of bugs that were only successfully patched weeks after release. This time around Epic Games doesn't want to repeat the same mistakes. The beta and a ton of dedicated servers scattered around the globe should see to that.

Team Deathmatch is the focus. Not only does it dominate the majority of the beta's running time, it's also Epic's favourite game mode, the one they get stuck into with the most fervour at the studio and the one they hope will have the longest legs once the game releases. It's... well, it's Team Deathmatch, but with a slight twist. This time around each five-man team has a stock of fifteen lives to burn through, before the game reverts to die-and-it's-all-over finality. Best of three rounds, last man standing wins. The result is some brilliantly tense showdowns.

Later, in the final week of the beta, the other game modes come into play. Both are re-jigged versions of existing templates. King of the Hill is essentially Gears 2's Annex a capture and control mode. Capture the Leader, meanwhile, combines Submission and Guardian with teams racking up points by holding onto downed team captains for as long as possible.

What all of these modes share is an increased sense of accessibility. An overview map is available, showing the location of the heftier weapons, while UI prompts are more prominent throughout and a tactical view reminiscent of Left 4 Dead can be called up with a squeeze of a shoulder button. Knowing where to go, what to do and why you're doing it has never been so easy.

Nothing compares to true familiarity with the maps though, all four of which are playable across all the modes. There's some lovely variation among them too.

Perhaps the most striking is Thrashball. Once the field of dreams where the ex-Thrashballer the Cole Train did his thing, it's now a tattered sports stadium replete with Gears' trademark degradation. Tight tunnels swoop around a surprisingly small pitch that, helpfully, has been peppered with detritus providing waist high cover. Above the field, a giant scoreboard dangles perilously, constantly showing the team's scores. Until you shoot it down, that is, at which point it comes crashing to the ground, splattering whatever poor soul happens to be beneath it at the time. Messy.

There's unusual environmental influences in Trenches too, a dusty, tunnel-riddled map from deep within the Seran Deadlands. Intermittently, a horn will sound, signalling the arrival of a sandstorm that gusts in, reducing visibility to just a few precious yards. The devs advise sticking closely together in such moments. I just hid though, cowering in a corner. I'd never make it through the COG induction.

Then there's old town. Now I could tell you that it's a beautifully realised fishing village with a beach area, and an abandoned square, combining wide open areas with some tight and messy flashpoints. But the truth is that I was wandering around looking for flappy chickens to squish. You can totally do that. You can headshot melons too. These are the important details.

Last up is the wonderfully named Checkout. It's a dilapidated superstore, with abandoned isles, elevators and because, y'know, Gears always has these a couple of fluffy sofas. It's also really claustrophobic, leaving you in a permanent state of vulnerability. You're only a few misteps away from decorating the special offer signs with your spleen.

On which note, it's probably worth discussing some of the new weaponry on offer. Notable among these is the Retro Lancer, a slightly tattered looking relic featuring a bayonet instead of a chainsaw. More powerful than the standard Lancer, it has a fierce recoil and is pretty rubbish at range. It's much better to get up close. Not least because it also allows you to indulge in some immensely satisfying Roadie Run spearings. They're stupidly fun.

Another stand-out is the Sawed-Off shotgun. They've changed it this time around, perhaps mindful of the fact that it was a touch overpowered in previous outings. Now it retains its brutal, face-mangling abilities, but you have to get close enough to melee attack for it to be effectual. That didn't stop me being minced by it on numerous occasions, mind. If you can master a combination of sprightly sprinting and quick-fire shot-gunning, you're most of the way to mastery.

The new heavy weapons are similarly delightful. There's a bonkers-powerful sniper rifle, slow to set up but capable of bursting through shields. Called the One-Shot, it lives up to its name, reducing anyone it hits to mist with a single explosive bullet. My personal highlight, however, was the Digger. It's best described as a rocket-launcher with a projective that can burrow through the ground. Aim at an enemy and it will dive into the floor only to pop up and explode just in front of them. Alternatively, you can also fire it straight into a competitor and watch as it mulches its way up through their stomach before exploding out of their mouth. Seriously, can anyone match Epic for such gleefully silly, not to mention gory, guns? I'd be surprised.

There's more. If all that isn't enough to rope you in to participating in the beta, there's also some unlockable rewards on offer. Playing just one match earns you a Beta Tester Medal. Complete 90 matches in any game type and you'll unlock a Gold-Plated Retro Lancer. Rack up 100 kills with it and you'll be able to carry it over once the beta ends. Elsewhere, Flaming Hammerburts, Lancers, Sawed-Off Shotguns and Gnasher Shotguns can also be unlocked for playing matches at specific points.

Perhaps the most enticing reward, however, is Thrashball Cole. A new character skin that sees cult-favourite shouty-man Cole decked out in his American football-esque Thrashball outfit, you can unlock this particular bauble by completing 50 beta matches. Once you've done that you only have to complete 10 matches to carry him over to the game proper.

Ultimately, the odds are you already know if you want to buy Gears of War 3 or not. If you're sane the answer is yes. It's the perhaps the single heavy-hitting jewel in Microsoft's 2011 crown and the culmination of a huge, landmark series. The chance to get in on the action early, and earn a few prizes along the way, is almost irresistible. We'll see you in the beta. Prepare to get your face mushed.

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