Gears of War 3 Preview

UPDATE 03/06/2011: Small fixes. “Thrashball” is the actual name of the map/sport, not Smashball/bowl. Also, it’s TacCom, not SatCom.

Gears fans — hello and please listen to me: in “mid-April” the recently announced public beta will launch. It will run for an as-yet-undetermined length of time. To get in, do one of two things: a) Buy Bulletstorm to guarantee access (yeah…deal with it) or b) Wait for a different, not-yet-announced method, which Executive Producer Rod Fergusson told me would exist. He wasn’t more specific than that.

Either way, within the beta you’ll find three gameplay modes: Team Deathmach, Capture the Leader, and King of the Hill — playable on four maps. Two of those maps are locked in — Thrashball, Checkout — and two others are up for community vote. Be sure to cast your vote over at the Epic Facebook page.

Mid-April is over a month out, however, and you’re hungry now. So, on with the preview.

Gears of War 3 is deceptively simple. On the surface, it carries itself with that same signature Gears pace and heft. The pop-and-cover gameplay is intact, and it definitely feels like Gears. Slowly, though, you’ll discover a much more nuanced, strategic, gorgeous, rewarding, and all around bad-ass gaming experience. I got a chance to play a whole lot of Team Deathmatch on six different maps yesterday, and it got better and better as I explored. Here’s what stood out to me.

Most of the changes seem small, but are charged with purpose. For instance, while you’re waiting for a match to start, you’ll get a top-down view of the map, displaying the location of all important weapon spawns. There are no secrets anymore, and Epic seems much more interested in showing the player helpful data like this. On Thrashball, for instance, note the location of the Digger Launcher right at the fifty yard line. You’d better, because so did everyone else. You might want to chuck a Smoke Grenade right in the middle of the field, then roadie run like hell for it.

The brand-new Digger Launcher is an odd, powerful weapon. It plants a burrowing grenade in the ground, which tunnels underground Bugs Bunny-style in a straight line towards wherever you aim it. It even travels right under/through debris and cover, exploding either when it reaches an enemy or when it runs out of steam. It’s nuts. It’s an excellent weapon for wide-open, spacious maps, and its only limitation is height, since it can’t tunnel up stairs.

You can also spot weapons in-game by holding LB. You’ll go into a sort of X-ray-vision mode, revealing the locations of both your teammates and key weapon spawns. This was useful for spotting things like the Incendiary Grenades on Thrashball. This new weapon does exactly what it sounds like, explodes and burns people alive. The real fun, though, is “tagging” an enemy with one. They basically turn into lava and melt. Also, if circumstances are right, you use a corpse as a meat shield, then push up on the D-pad. You’ll tag him, then throw him forward, creating a fiery corpse bomb.

In keeping with this idea of showing the player more useful data on-screen, you can also “tag” enemy locations for your teammates. Aim at an enemy, and press in on the left joystick. You’ll see a colored circular dot right above their head for a few seconds, and so will all of your teammates. This is more important than it seems. Let’s say your teammate has the Hammer of Dawn. You can tag an enemy you’ve spotted, alert your palsy-walsy, and essentially call in an airstrike. It’s little touches like these that highlight the game’s improved synergy.

Even your aiming reticule will show you data based on your accuracy. If you’re running around aiming like a crazy person, you’ll see a wide open reticule, which means, “dude, you’re not accurate right now.” Slow down and zero in, and the reticule will get tighter and more focused on your target.

Good aim won’t get you everywhere, though. You’ll need to pick the right weapons. More than any other Gears game, your choice for weapon loadouts should be map-specific, and purposeful. On the tight, compact map Checkout (a wrecked store interior), grab the Sawed-off Shotgun for so-close-you-can-hug kills. You can floor up to three enemies at once with the Sawed-off — seriously. On Thrashball, or Mercy (more open maps), grab the Retro Lancer. Why? The openness gives you charging room. Throw a Smoke Grenade, then hold B to charge in for a brand new, satisfying bayonet kill. You’ll need to experiment with how different loadouts interact with each map; luckily, there’s a new feature to facilitate this: you can now change your loadout while waiting to respawn. This will help you dial in your strategy over the course of the match.

It’s not always that simple, however, nor is it just a matter of picking the right weapons on the right maps. There are new risks to consider, and skills to perfect. Sure, the Retro Lancer is fun to bayonet people with, but the kick back on it is brutal. While firing, it feels like a strong person is grabbing the barrel of the gun and pushing it upwards. Or take the Sawed-off Shotgun. Yes, it can level three guys at once, but it comes with only four rounds and loads slower than you would believe. Not only that, but its Active Reload window is tiny. You’ll have a split second to nail it or it jams.

This is another small touch that has big meaning. Active Reloads have been totally revamped. Each weapon now has a slightly different Active Reload window. This seems to help balance the weapons. For instance, the Retro Lancer is kick-ass because of its custom bayonet execution, but it’s also an old weapon, prone to jamming. It’s Active Reload window is small, somewhere between the regular Lancer and the ridiculously tiny Sawed-off Shotgun.

Epic seems pretty devoted to rewarding your mastery of these new tweaks — they’ve introduced new XP, Ribbons and Medals systems. Whether you’re playing offline or online, you’ll be earning XP, which increases your level. Ribbons are strictly in-match rewards you get for hitting notable benchmarks, like most headshots in a match, or most successful revivals. Medals, though, are long-term achievements that you’ll accrue over time. You’ll get Medals for things like nailing 100 headshot kills — stuff that will take a while to rack up. Medals can be placed next to your gamertag for bragging rights, and to help you wear your specialties right on your sleeve.

One very efficient way to rack up XP is by utilizing the new custom weapons executions, which are bloody, risky and altogether awesome. Each weapon comes with a standard execution, which you can activate by flicking Y. However, you’ll need to unlock each weapon’s custom execution over time in the beta. Like a lot of mechanics in Gears of War 3, these come with equal parts risk and reward. You’ll need to hold Y for a good couple seconds to activate a custom execution. You’ll be vulnerable while it charges, and also while the extended animation plays itself out. It’ll often be worth every second, though, and you’ll pull down some serious XP for doing so.

We’ll have to wait and see how the full Gears of War community takes these changes, but it’s clear that a lot of this is a huge step up. Gears of War 3 looks and plays better. It has a a deeper feature set that encourages more nuanced strategy, but it doesn’t feel wildly different from previous entries. How Epic will implement the feedback from the mid-April beta into the full September 20 retail release is yet to be seen. We’ll keep you up to date through the beta.

Click through to the next page for info on the new maps, weapons, tweaks and tactics!

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2 Comments on Gears of War 3 Preview

Cory

On March 6, 2011 at 9:20 am

It’s Smashball not Smashbowl

Mark Burnham

On March 6, 2011 at 1:36 pm

@Cory, it looks like it’s actually “Thrashball,” the name of both the sport and the map. Fixed. http://gearsofwar.xbox.com/Templates/Secondary.aspx?id=2004