Gears of War 3 Multiplayer Beta Impressions (UPDATED)

My copy of Bulletstorm has been out of rotation for a few weeks in favor of other, newer fare, but with the launch this week of Epic Games’ multiplayer beta for Gears of War 3, it’s back in my Xbox 360. Players who purchased the Bullestorm: Epic Edition (which was basically Bulletstorm for Xbox) are allowed a week of early access to the beta test (as is anyone lucky enough to get an unlock code), before it opens up to presale customers start April 25.

It’s nice to have an extra week to mess around in Gears 3 and get my skills back — I hung up my Lancer in Gears 2 some time ago — but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. The beta’s content is restricted, and it appears Epic will be rolling out more maps and mulitplayer modes as time goes on, according to its website. Capture the Flag and King of the Hill modes available in the beta in the coming weeks, plus at least two more maps.

Since we don’t have access to everything just yet, we’ll be breaking down this Impressions article into multiple parts, discussing each map and game mode in detail as it becomes available.

Skip down to Part 2 – King of the Hill/Old Town/Trenches
Skip down to Part 3 – Capture the Leader

Part 1

This week, the beta packs only two maps and one game mode: Team Deathmatch on Checkout, a map set inside a destroyed big-box store, and Thrashball, one set in what is essentially a football stadium. Both maps include some fairly tight quarters, and most of the fighting is confined to side areas where one team can attempt to bottleneck the other. They’re both pretty hectic, as well.

Team Deathmatch

But let’s start with the greater experience of Team Deathmatch. Gears 3 has been tweaked a bit from Gears 2, allowing for greater customization of a variety of things at the outset of each game. There are additional weapons to choose for your loadout at the beginning of each match, and loadout can be changed on the fly at each respawn.

The new weapons, in addition to the Lancer and Hammerburst rifles (machine gun and semi-automatic, respectively) and Gnasher (standard) shotgun, are the Retro Lancer and Sawed-Off shotgun. These two weapons offer some variations on traditional gameplay, and if you mess with nothing else during the beta, you’ll want to try out, practice and become skilled with the sawed-off.

From what I’ve seen in deathmatch so far, Gears 3 is not so different from Gears 2. Up-close battles with the shotgun are the order of the day on both the new maps for the most part, and the sawed-off is basically a three-foot-range pocket death-cannon. More often than not, whoever fires first laughs last with the sawed-off, because it just releases a ton of power. The drawback is the need to be very, very close.

If you’re not ready and willing to deal with the sawed-off, you’re going to be in trouble. The majority of my early deaths were incurred by this weapon, because any time you get close to someone wielding it, they can basically take your head off. It’s less effective than the Gnasher at long range, and the only way to deal with it is to stay well back. Despite the inclusion of other new weapons, it appears that shotgun battles between the sawed-off (which takes just about forever to reload and with good reason) are primarily what Gears 3 is about.

But there are other brands of combat. The Retro Lancer, your other new standard weapon, is an inaccurate but relatively powerful machine gun. It’s almost kind of useless, because unlike the new Lancer, it doesn’t really give you a greater range of combat — it’s effective in the area just outside where your shotgun would normally be necessary. But it does have one nice advantage: a big-ass bayonet attached to the end. When roadie-running or doing melee attacks, the bayonet is pretty effective at running enemies through and murdering them immediately. It leaves you vulnerable, though, and I’m mostly seeing it as a means for teammates to run up and steal kills as you’re about to defeat an enemy.

The big change in Team Deathmatch is the “life pool” system. Each team starts with 15 community lives, and each time you’re killed and respawn, that number is diminished by one. Respawning becomes more perilous as time goes on — as the life pool diminishes and eventually runs out, that’s all she wrote. If you’re dead at the wrong moment toward the end of a match, you won’t be coming back, which leaves teams dwindling.

The life pool system leads to some cool tactical thinking. For example, you might not want to rush around on your own because your death doesn’t effect just you or your team’s score, but your team’s actual ability to compete. It will also have you picking your battles, because finding an enemy alone and picking him off carefully is a lot more beneficial to winning the match than a five-on-five mess in which both teams suffer high casualties. Sticking together becomes much more important than it has been in the past.

Checkout

I enjoy Checkout quite a bit, but it’s not a map you can tool around on by yourself. Being the inside of a store with bare, knocked-over shelves and various departments, there’s really no hiding on it — don’t expect to often be able to sneak around the backs of opponents unless they absolutely aren’t paying attention, because there are so many gaps, holes and lines of sight, you’ll get spotted long before you can make a Rambo-style flanking of your enemies.

Shotguns are the name of the game here, and if you don’t like close-quarters battle, you’re not going to be happy. Checkout is also most effective when you can stand back with teammates and take turns concentrating fire on enemies. Checkout has two side rooms off its main center section that are a bit longer and more narrow, where a principle amount of fighting seems to take place. These locations are great for holding back and supporting shotgun-wielding teammates with Lancer fire to simply overpower enemy forces. It’s also a great place to get totally flanked out.

Checkout’s power weapons alternate between the Digger Launcher, a new Boomshot-style weapon that fires a torpedo under the ground that can get past obstacles and cover, and the Longshot sniper rifle. There’s also the Mulcher portable turret weapon at the far end of the store. The Digger Launcher is fun to use if not particularly effective unless enemies are already distracted by fighting your teammates, and the Longshot is painfully effective in skilled hands. Controlling these isn’t nearly as important as it has been in other versions of Gears, though.

Thrashball

My early impressions of Thrashball is that it’s very similar (perhaps too similar) to Checkout. Both have large center sections filled with cover and debris, and most of the time, players generally avoid them because they’re too exposed. Thrashball’s center area (the field, as it were) is more viable a combat zone than is Checkout’s, but usually having multiple teammates around discourages either group from making a big push across the middle. Oh, and there are mortars, Mulchers and a falling Jumbotron scoreboard to worry about, too.

Instead, most fighting is confined either to the team entryway tunnel on one side of the map, or the VIP section of the bleachers on the other. The latter is where you can find a couple of the big weapons, either the mortar or the Mulcher; the center of the field is the other, either the Torque Bow or the Digger Launcher.

Open field fighting generally occurs as one team retreats from the other — the rest is meeting up in the closer quarters of the tunnel or VIP box. On the field, you’ll find some good uses for the Digger Launcher, as it’s hard to predict and there’s a ton of stuff in the way. Shotguns prevail in the tighter quarters, as usual, and Thrashball is much more susceptible to one irritating guy running around with the Retro Lancer, stabbing people in the back.

Part 1 Final Impressions

If you like Gears of War 2, good news — what you’re getting in Gears of War 3 is virtually the same experience with some nice tweaks and some female characters to choose from. There isn’t much that has been changed other than the deployment of a few new weapons and a few new venues, at least as far as Team Deathmatch is concerned. Here’s hoping there’s a little more variety introduced in the later iterations of the beta.

Part 2

Starting April 25, the Gears 3 beta opens up to all players who have pre-ordered the game from GameStop. As more players flood into the beta, Epic has also released some new maps and a new mode. We now have access to Trenches and Old Town, the other two maps that the beta will see for the duration, and the King of the Hill multiplayer mode.

Throwing in the new maps has really opened the game up, and if Epic ships with a few more that are as strong as Trenches and Old Town, it’s more than likely Gears 3 will be a pretty good time. Both the maps require two very different styles of play, but Epic has done well to balance them against one another — adding power weapons but limiting their usefulness, or leaving wide-open vistas but making sniping difficult.

Team Deathmatch on these two maps remains the same team-heavy experience that you get on Checkout and Thrashball, but both maps are bigger and have multiple areas that invoke different fighting styles. The team that plays together best remains the victor on both, and not necessarily the team with the savant sniper or that exerts best control over the weapons. That’s the kind of experience that Team Deathmatch should be, and so far, it seems Epic has found a way to bring it out in its new maps.

Trenches
The first of the new maps, Trenches puts players in a level divided in many places by elevation. At one end is a new weapon: the One Shot. This is basically a one-hit kill rail gun that’s aimed like a sniper rifle and operated like a mounted machine gun. It’s big, heavy, takes forever to fire and is devastating in the right patient hands.

While the One Shot is positioned at the head of the level, in a trench where players can see a huge chunk of the map’s real estate, it’s by no means the key to winning matches there. On the contrary, the One Shot is unwieldy, best operated by a lone gunman who can sneak off to the top of the hill, snag the weapon and pick away at enemy forces while they’re engaged in other battles. It’s balanced by the mortar, which spawns directly across from it — and the One Shot perch doesn’t get a clear line of sight on the mortar spawn, adding a lot of balance and team reliance to the duel of the power weapons.

While those two guns have a tendency to help teams dominate Trenches, the level is so perforated by upper and lower levels and corners to duck around that players don’t necessarily need to rush to own them. They tend to help give temporary advantage to one team or another, but at the same time, they draw players on missions to stop the sniper and mortar-user, balancing their power with the liability of using them. There are a lot of interesting fights to be had on Trenches, a lot of ground to cover, and a lot of angles to keep your eyes on as you move through it.

Old Town
Old Town, as one Game Fronter put it, feels a whole lot like Uncharted. The little town is littered with buildings and debris, with a market in its center square and allies stretching down both sides. It consists of a lot of long corridors that are great for rifle battles, and is spread out enough and blocked enough that it’s a very viable map for lone wolves to go sneaking around behind enemy positions to drop in for the flanking action.

Old Town might be my favorite of the four maps present in the beta. It just gives so many diverse options to the player — shoot up the ally and try for the Boomshot, or go through the considerably more dangerous middle to cut off enemy troop movements and pick up grenades. Try for the Torque Bow in the consistently deadly side street, or stick to the corners of the more open chateau-like structure at the head of the map. Each section of Old Town presents interesting opportunities without presenting one spot where all fighting always takes place (unlike previous Gears of War maps like Gridlock, where players tended to concentrate at the sniper rifle spawn).

Like Trenches, Old Town includes some very strong weapons like the Torque Bow, Boom Shot and Longshot sniper Rifle, but the layout of the map severely checks their power. There just aren’t many good lines of sight to try to drop Torque Bow bolts into enemies, and often the quarters are too close to spend the time trying to charge it up. Flanking is a serious problem on Old Town and paying attention to one’s back is paramount. Epic has done a great job with these latest two maps, and they may be some of the best yet in the Gears canon.

King of the Hill
Only minor tweaks seem to have gone into Gears of War 3′s King of the Hill mode, which is actually just fine. The “hill,” a lighted ring that requires members of a team to stand in it for a certain amount of time in order to then earn points for controlling it, moves at regular intervals and can be captures more quickly by multiple teammates and broken by opponents entering it. It’s a frantic mode of attack and defense, and plays exceedingly well on the four Gears 3 maps currently present in the beta. These maps feel designed for King of the Hill, making the mode highly enjoyable.

Where Team Deathmatch requires a lot of thought and caution, since each player’s actions could mean the downfall of the entire team, King of the Hill is the mode you should play if you like to be cavalier and reckless with your life. Infinite respawns mean you can basically just keep throwing yourself into the jaws of death, which is often what you need to do when attacking an enemy controlled hill. It’s also a mode that’s much more suited to lone wolf-style players, because marauding around, seeking out single enemies and ambushing them is actually a highly effective strategy.

You won’t see much different in Gears 3′s King of the Hill, but that actually works to its advantage since the beta’s four multiplayer maps are so well situated for the game mode. It’s fast-paced and a lot of fun, and I think at current I prefer it to straight Deathmatch because of its speed and diminished pressure.

Part II Final Impressions
In Part 1, I complained about how much Gears of War 3 feels like Gears of War 2 and Gears of War. Part of that issue has been waylaid by spending more time in the second week of the beta getting to know weapons and map layouts, and with the release of Trenches, Old Town and King of the Hill. All three add the variety I craved, and the two new maps incorporate all the best parts of Gears of War — strategy and tactics meeting skill and teamwork. Yes, Gears 3 remains more like a tweaked Gears 2 than a fresh take, but the tweaks are piling up, and Epic has clearly given some real though to how these maps will work. The result is a pretty addicting multiplayer experience, at least for now.

Part 3

Week three of the beta adds the release of Capture the Leader, a hybrid of Gears 2′s Submission (Meat Flag) mode and its Guardian (Assassination/Leader) mode. The result is a Capture the Flag game-type in which the goal is to knock down and drag off the other team’s designated “leader” while protecting your own, picking him up like a meat shield and holding him hostage.

It makes for an interesting set of rules. It’s similar to the last game’s capture the flag mode, but instead of having a living flag that doesn’t move, you’re basically forced to kidnap a member of the enemy team, while at the same time preventing the loss of one of your own. Unlike Team Deathmatch, Capture the Leader sort of automatically engenders a spirit of team work that the other game modes may lose. Despite its best efforts, Team Deathmatch is filled with players who take no account of how their actions impact their teammates, and King of the Hill allows for a lot more freedom of individuality because of the unlimited respawns. In Capture the Leader, anybody snoozing is generally playing in the wrong game type.

This reimagining of both the leader game and the capture the flag game from Gears of War 2 works exceedingly well, because it takes the most fun ideas from each and marries them — you get a flag that can defend itself, and a leader player with extra perks (leaders revive faster and have a TAC-COM display that highlights enemy players). It’s hard not to have fun on Capture the Leader, although it requires a lot of your teammates, and is often best served with friends rather than the random miscreants that populate Xbox Live.

Overall Cons
Make no mistake, the beta has a lot of great content in it, and this is easily the best Gears multiplayer experience that exists. However, while kinks have been ironed out and many a tweak has been made to the general way that things happen, there are a lot of the weird idiosyncracies that have made it through from the first version of the game. Diving from high ground to low ground, for example, still has weird issues with hit detection and invisible walls.

There’s still a lot of weird internal logic to the game, where two players will blast each other in the face at the same time, or you’ll think you’ve escaped around a corner only to get dropped four feet from it. The A Button still does everything, leading to a lot of confusion between sticking, running and diving. There are plenty of ranked matches where people drop out and you end up with an AI character, or worse, a person just puts the controller down and you’re left with an empty character, sitting in your spawn. A team down one player or even stuck with an AI character will almost always lose, and it sucks to have to go through two rounds of absolute pummeling.

So if the Gears of War experience isn’t something you’ve been into before for various reasons, don’t expect a big change now. This is a better version of Gears 1 but it’s not really a different one. Still, a lot of the tweaks really help the game.

Final Thoughts
There’s a lot that’s great about Gears 3, even with the many little things that can make the game absolutely infuriating. Epic’s changes are nice, and this is one of the more truly tactical multiplayer experiences you’ll find out there.

But definitely the greatest thing about what it seems Gears of War 3 has in store for players is its new, well-designed maps. Finally, Gears has become about teamwork, not about racing to the power weapons and then shredding the opposition. Great balance is found in all the maps and most of the weapons are made less effective by the environment — which is great.

As a (somewhat former) Gearhead, the third installment of this series is going to make me very happy. It’s filled with the kind of gameplay I’ve come to love, and its flaws can be overlooked (although they fill many a TV-directed swearing fit). If the beta is what we get at retail, Gears 3 is going to be a lot of fun.

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