'Gears Of War 3' Beta Hands-on Preview - Something Old, Something New

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Ducking behind cover, I start unloading round after round into an approaching Locust soldier. He's wounded, but I quickly realize that my opponent is bearing down on me at an unfortunate rate. I stand up, ready for the imminent melee encounter, frantically mashing down the B-button. The familiar whirring sound of a gun-mounted chainsaw just barely begins before I realize it's too late: the man himself, Cliff Bleszinski, has just crammed a Retro Lancer blade through my gizzard.

After spending a few nights with the "Gears of War 3" multiplayer beta, I'm convinced that the game's competitive component will prove appealing to veteran fans and newcomers alike.

Having played very little "Gears of War" multiplayer since the franchise's sophomore outing, I was pleased to find the game's basic workings comfortably familiar. You're still attaching neck-deficient Cogs to cover, blasting away at the enemy with traditional (and new) "Gears" weaponry, and trying your damnedest to hit the reload button again within that little white mark. The controls have essentially remained the same as they were in "Gears of War 2," albeit with a few minor additions to allow for some new features, but there are no surprising changes to the game's base structure.

That's not to say that "Gears of War 3" multiplayer is lacking in enjoyable improvements. Starting up the game, it's immediately evident that Epic has utilized Unreal Engine 3's graphical advancements to create a more visually appealing presentation. Trenches, one of four new maps available in beta, places the action within a dusty, barbwire-strewn war zone. While the map suffers from the all-too-familiar "everything is brown" game design cliché, I thoroughly enjoyed the setting's use of an occasional, believably rendered dust storm. It's not merely that the dust storm looks great, it actually supplies a tactical advantage. For example, if the match has devolved into a distanced stand-off, a blinding wall of sand forces you to venture out and meet the enemy in close-quarters combat.

Actually, the majority of the changes to "Gears" multiplayer are rooted in tactics. Hitting the left bumper now brings up a sort of x-ray vision (think "Batman: Arkham Asylum" enemies) that allows you to see where the rest of your teammates are located across the battlefield. It's a small addition, but it comes in handy when plotting your next move from behind that conveniently placed cement barrier.

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Tactical improvements extend to the game's arsenal as well, with weapons being sufficiently balanced in a manner that forces you to decide between stats such as damage prowess, range effectiveness, and reload speed. I found this "give and take philosophy" most evident in my personal new favorite, the sawed-off shotgun. The gun's absolutely lousy at anything more than a couple feet, not to mention its ridiculously slow reload time, but popping an enemy within close range generally leads to a blood-spattering, one-shot kill. That said, there's nothing worse than missing your target and staring down the end of an oncoming (as mentioned above) Lancer blade.

Three game modes are currently available in the beta: Team Deathmatch, which utilizes a decreasing respawn ticket system; King of the Hill, which only varies slightly from the same mode in "Gears of War 2"; and the new Capture The Leader. I prefer my multiplayer shooters objective-based, so Capture The Leader was definitely my personal favorite. Each team is assigned a leader, who must be protected, while at the same time attempting to grab the opposing team's leader. If you can manage to hold onto the enemy leader (while protecting your own) for enough time, the round is won. Think of it as a mix between "Gears of War 2's" Submission and Guardian modes.

There are some other new features, predominantly in terms of weaponry (a badass sniper rifle, a "Digger" gun that sends out a sort of land-based torpedo), and unlockable weapon-specific executions, but "Gears of War 3" multiplayer is, frankly, just another "Gears of War." It only marginally attempts to deviate from its predecessors in any groundbreaking manner, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The game runs a little faster, it looks a little better, and there's enough in the way of new features to keep us interested.

I think die-hard "Gears" fans will find themselves happy with how the game appears to be shaping up, but equally important, Epic appears to be doing a great job of making the game accessible and comfortable to new players as well. If you purchased "Bulletstorm," look forward to checking out the beta for yourself sometime around April 18th. Otherwise, I would say it's definitely worth plunking down the five bucks on a "Gears of War 3" pre-order to check out the beta; it's going to be a long wait until September.

Oh, and Cliff Bleszinski: I want a rematch.