Gears of War 3 Beta Impressions: New Features, Classic Chainsaws

Gears of War fans were naturally upset when the upcoming final chapter of Marcus Fenix’s trilogy was delayed for marketing purposes, but that anger quickly turned into excitement when Epic announced that it would run a public multiplayer beta. While Epic is using the beta to gather valuable technical data to tweak and refine the game, players are just happy for an advanced opportunity to chainsaw their buddies into bloody giblets.

Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Epic Games
Release Date: September 20, 2011
Genre: Third-Person Shooter (With Chainsaws!)
ESRB Rating: Rating Pending

Running from April 18 – May 15, the beta is available for those who pre-ordered the game or who purchased the Epic Edition of Bulletstorm. Currently, there are only two gametypes, Team Deathmatch and King of the Hill, but Capture the Leader will be added May 2. There are four maps: Checkout (a department store), Thrashball (a sports stadium), Trenches (a dusty mining facility) and the cobblestone streets of Old Town, which looks like it was lifted straight out of Fable. Heck, it even has chickens you can blast into a feathery red mist.

First and foremost, you should know that matchmaking is thankfully smooth and painless. Epic learned a hard lesson after the debacle with Gears of War 2, and have implemented a great matchmaking system that is on par with Halo. They are also running dedicated servers, which should eliminate the hated “host advantage” that plagued games past. Hallelujah!

Gameplay is classic Gears – brutal and bloody close-quarters combat that’s fun as hell. Look closer, though, and you’ll see the numerous but subtle changes over the previous iterations: the action has been sped up slightly and the pace is still deliberate with frantic bursts of action, but the roadie run is a bit faster. The game is still not anywhere near the hyperactivity of Quake or Unreal, but the small bump in speed certainly raises the excitement level when you see an enemy rapidly charging towards you.

Other new features include the very useful ability to spot and mark enemies for your team; trade weapons and share ammunition with teammates; mantle kick enemies on the other side of low cover, which stuns them for a few seconds; “bag and tag” an enemy you’ve grabbed as a meatshield by tagging them with a grenade and then shoving them towards another enemy; a shared pool of lives in Team Deathmatch, similar to the ticket system in Battlefield; and holding the X button to pick up ammo or weapons. This last feature fixes the previous problem of accidentally picking something up when you meant to revive a downed teammate (which now just requires a quick tap of the X button).

All of the classic weapons return, including the outrageously awesome chainsaw Lancer, the powerful Hammerburst (now with iron sights), the deadly Gnasher shotgun, and all of your other favorites. New tools of destruction include the Retro Lancer, an “old” version of the assault rifle we all know and love, but with a fixed bayonet and increased damage. Its accuracy sucks though, with a kickback so nasty that hitting anything beyond close range feels more like luck than skill – but such is the cost for that coveted extra stopping power. However, you will definitely want to use it for its cool execution move; hold the B button and you’ll charge with the bayonet, impaling any hapless enemy who gets in your way.

The new Sawed-Off Shotgun is a brutal double-barreled beast that pretty much guarantees a splattery one-shot kill, and has a devastating area of effect. The downside is that you essentially have to fire at point-blank range, and if you miss, you’re in big trouble thanks to its agonizingly slow reload time. The Sawed-Off is a joy to kill with but can get very annoying when you’re constantly on the receiving end, and feels somewhat overpowered. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Epic rebalance this weapon in the final build.

The Oneshot is a massive sniper rifle on steroids, with a Torque Bow-like laser sight that broadcasts where you’re aiming (and where you are), and a nerve-wrackingly long charge-up time. But as the name suggests, it’s a one-shot kill and just the simple sight of that laser is enough to send enemies scrambling for cover.

The coolest new weapon is the Digger Launcher, which fires a digger that burrows into the ground and explodes beneath you. Since we’re all used to looking out for tracer rounds in the air, you can easily forget to look down at the ground for the tell-tale Bugs Bunny-like puffs of dirt signifying potential death from below.

Each weapon has its own gory execution move, and you can unlock new executions by racking up kills with said weapon. The best execution so far: ripping off your opponent’s arm and beating him to death with it. Seriously. It’s like Mortal Kombat with guns, and it’s delicious.

Gears of War 3 has an extensive list of unlockables and mini-tasks similar to Call of Duty, with ribbons, medals, weapon skins, characters, and experience points all guaranteed to keep people playing for a long time.

As before, the maps are small and tight with lots of cover. My favorites are Checkout and Thrashball, each striking a good balance between open battle areas, defensive coverage zones and multiple paths for offensive flanking. Thrashball also has the added bonus of having a giant scoreboard dangling over the center of the field; shoot the cable and you’ll squash anyone foolish enough to be standing beneath it.

Trenches and Old Town funnel you into “hallways” and dead ends, and thus have lots of chokepoints where the fighting can get very intense. All maps are littered with weapons, which can now be highlighted by hitting the left bumper. You can also spot your teammates this way too, in an X-ray effect similar to Batman’s detective vision in Arkham Asylum. You’ll quickly learn to appreciate this handy new feature when you get separated from your teammates, or respawn after a death and want to quickly regroup with your team.

Graphically, the game looks fantastic, especially the colorful Old Town map. Instead of the drab greys and browns the series is known for, Old Town is bright and sunny with warm yellows and lush greens that make for a nice change of pace. As you might expect, the lighting and shadow effects are top notch, and the blood and gore are, well, bloodier and gorier than ever. The sound effects will have your ears ringing with the explosive mechanical clacking of the guns giving your surround sound system a good workout.

Even though this is a beta, it is clear that the game is still extremely brutal for newcomers. There are supposed to be little helpers for low-level players but this is not a game you can expect to just hop right in and dominate. You’ll die quickly and often, as the Gears of War franchise has attracted a very hardcore multiplayer following. Having said that, casual fans shouldn’t be scared away; rather, I recommend playing with experienced friends and hang back to provide them with supporting fire, rather than running in Halo-style by yourself (which is a guaranteed way to get killed).

Overall, the Gears of War 3 beta gives gamers a generous taste of what we can expect in the final build. No, there’s no Horde mode or any hint of the story, but the new changes and additions to multiplayer bode well for the final chapter of the trilogy. The September release date can’t come soon enough.

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