As a big fan of the original Gears of War, the launch of Gears of War 2 was a monumental letdown for me. Sure the single-player was all well and good but the initial multiplayer offering didn’t go so well. Out of the box, it came plagued with bugs, exploits and terrible matchmaking that alienated a lot of gamers in only its first week at retail. Granted, several months and a handful of title updates later, Epic got things mostly sorted but for many gamers, it was already too late.
This leads us to where we’re at today – the solution for rough multiplayer launches. A public beta. And by beta I mean an actual beta. Not a glorified demo that runs right up until launch so the developer has no time to fix anything on the disc. According to Mr. Cliffy Bleszinski, the Gears of War 3 beta will end several weeks before the game is to be completed and shipped, which should allow for some proper time to fix whatever is wrong and ultimately lead to a worthy experience right from the start. If the time we’ve spent with the Gears of War 3 beta is any indication, Epic has little to worry about this time around.
Now that everything is open and unlocked, there are three different game-types spanning four different maps in the beta. All the game modes are familiar to fans of the series but they’ve all received minor tweaks and twists since Gears 2. The most popular is bound to be Team Deathmatch, which replaces Warzone and Execution (at least in the beta) for a more traditional experience. Players can now respawn after dying, rather than waiting until the round is over for another shot. Each team starts with 5 players and are collectively allowed 15 respawns. First team to take down all 20 lives of the opposing faction, wins.
It might sound small, but I can’t tell you how great it is to finally be able to respawn in a deathmatch game-type. Gears of War multiplayer can be an unforgiving experience, especially for new players, so having the ability to jump right back in to the action after getting annihilated by a shotgun at the hands of a Gears of War veteran, is very nice.
The other two game modes are King of the Hill and Capture the Leader. King of the Hill is basically Annex from the last Gears of War game, but with a new name and a couple of very minor tweaks. There’s a single hill on the map that moves every so often and the point is to get inside the hill, lock it up and hold it for as long as possible. Capture the Leader is similar to Meatflag from Gears 2 but there have been substantial changes. For starters, there are now two leaders that can be captured and they’re both human-controlled players as opposed to an A.I. bot. Also different is that you no longer have to drag the leader to a certain spot on the map. Simply capturing the opposing team’s leader and maintaining possession of them for 30 seconds will win you the round. First team to win 2 rounds wins the match, as is the case with the other two game-types.
The four maps included in the beta were Checkout, Thrashball, Old Town and Trenches. Each of them has a very distinct Gears of War feel. They’re all partially symmetrical and they all have power weapons that are placed right along the center line of the map in various locations, meaning the intense race and firefight around the heavy munitions still takes place on a regular basis.
Speaking of weapons, there are some new ones this time around. The Gnasher shotgun, the traditional Lancer rifle and the Locust rifle (aka Hammerburst) all return but they’re joined by a couple of new guns as well. The Retro Lancer makes its debut in the beta and proved it’s a real force to be reckoned with. Instead of a chainsaw at the end of this rifle, there’s a large bayonet, perfect for melee attacks or even one-hit executions if you get a long running head start. Also new to the beta is the sawed-off shotgun, which we’ll talk more about below.
One of the things Epic definitely did right this time is weapon balance. No single weapon dominates the game anymore. All 5 weapons listed above can be chosen right from the start and all 5 of them have very distinct strengths and weaknesses. The Gnasher shotgun works much like in the last game and is the perfect mix of range and power, yet it’s still meant for close range battles and doesn’t pack the punch of the sawed-off shotgun in confined spaces. It also holds a lot of shells so reloading is not really an issue. The sawed-off shotgun is ridiculously powerful but requires you to be within arm’s reach for it to do any good. Also, even if you are close enough for a one-hit kill, a very lengthy 5-10 second reload follows every shot, so you have to be sure you get it right the first time.
On the rifle side of things, the Retro Lancer is the gun we had the most success with. It’s lethal at close range and drawing in veteran players that refuse to use anything but the Gnasher, only to put them down with only a handful of bullets, never got old. The downside of the Retro Lancer is that it doesn’t carry many bullets and is very inaccurate at mid to long-range. The Hammerburst is also very powerful but since it’s just a semi-auto gun, its use is restricted to mid-range and further. Finally, the standard Lancer is the perfect all around gun. Not fantastic up close or far away but still decent at any distance. It’s also not very powerful but it holds a ton of shells so having to reload in the middle of a fight was somewhat of a rarity.
What impressed me the most is how well every gun worked. I used them all extensively and they all have a rightful place on the battlefield. It’s up to the player to adjust their strategy mid game but if you do so properly, you can exploit whatever weapon the opposing team wants to carry. Keeping an open mind was key, however, as most players find a gun they’re comfortable with and stick with it. The ability to comfortably use each of the primary weapons was absolutely vital to having a lot of success.
As far as the power weapons go, most of them are leftover from previous games but there are a couple of new ones. My favorite was probably the Digger Launcher. It launches a small animal in to the ground that will dig its way across the map until it senses an enemy, at which point it pops out of the ground to about chest level and explodes. Also new is the One Shot rifle, which works a lot like a sniper rifle but it’s a huge weapon that’s hard to maneuver with and you only get three shots. Luckily, if one of those shots hits any part of an opposing player, it means an instant kill.
Matchmaking and in-game connections were frankly the best we’ve seen in any Gears of War multiplayer element to date (which is kind of ironic considering this is a beta). Unlike the previous Gears titles, Gears of War 3 will include dedicated servers as opposed to P2P connections under most circumstances and they worked like an absolute charm in the beta. Bullet lag was completely non-existent in just about every game I played, and matchmaking was as swift as could be desired.
Besides fixing the many errors of the franchise’s past, Gears 3 will also introduce some new elements to the franchise, the biggest being a ranking system. Epic patched in a system several months after the launch of Gears of War 2 but it looks like 3 will come with one right from the start. It also appears to have a little more thought to it than the tacked on system we got in Gears 2. Also new are ribbons and medals. Ribbons are short term achievements that can be earned in every match and grant bonus XP, whereas medals are long term commendations for getting X amount of kills with a certain weapon or completing a certain amount of objectives.
[boxout]After three weeks of solid play time, I walked away from the Gears 3 beta with a huge smile on my face. Every single gripe I had from past iterations has been fixed and they added several new things that will drastically add to the overall depth of the game. They have some time to finalize any changes before the game ships but from where I’m sitting, it’s already an experience that bests its predecessors in just about every way, as well as expanding upon them in new ways for the series. Bring on September.
**Special thanks to lukieboy1981 and l C0D3 M0NK3Y l for donating extra beta codes**