Gears of War 3: Beta Impressions

16th May 2011 marked the end of the best few weeks to date for fans of the Gears of War franchise. Of course, I’m referring to the Gears of War 3 beta, which kicked off on 18th April for owners of the Bulletstorm Epic Edition, and on the 25th for those who reserved the game. The test period generated a considerable amount of buzz, with a reported 1.29 million participants across 145 different countries. While it wasn’t without its flaws, this too-brief multiplayer romp has put Gears 3 on track as one of 2011’s most anticipated titles with more than one million pre-orders already under its belt. I was among those many ‘gearheads’ who devoted their precious time to all four weeks of the curb-stomping, roadie-running, frag-tagging insanity. Here are the high and low points of the Gears 3 beta in case you missed out.

September cannot get here too soon.

For the first time in the series, the game sports dedicated servers in its Ranked matchmaking. As a frequent victim of lag in Gears 2, this was naturally the connection type I started with. When I first darted out of the blue locker room on Thrashball and fired off a few rounds, I was blown away—it was the smoothest, cleanest connection I’d experienced in Gears multiplayer. Not only was my connection crystal clear, but character movement has been significantly sped up and perfected, allowing me to dodge roll in any direction I please, and is generally more responsive. My first round of Team Deathmatch was experimental, yet I was tickled to finish with a positive kill/death ratio, a simple feat that often eluded me in Gears 2. In short, the Ranked servers do make a notable difference in match quality.

After spending some time on the servers, I reluctantly gave ‘Public’ matchmaking a whirl and soon regretted it. Public is the same thing as Gears 2‘s ‘Social’ mode, where players can join in mid-game, play against bots until both sides ‘fill up,’ and quit a match without the woes of incomplete match penalties. The only tweak to this mode is host migration, which, much to my dismay, does not detect poor connections. It merely gives host to a different player in the event that the current host quits, so that the rest of the players are not ‘booted’ back to the lobby. Public is great for more casual players who want to just jump into a match, play a few games, and then be done, without all the thumb-twiddling and waiting of Ranked matchmaking. However, a word of warning: in terms of lag, Gears 3 Public is only a small step up from Gears 2. I should note that when the beta opened up to those with pre-orders, Ranked became a bit inconsistent in match quality, sometimes causing me to lag even worse than on Public. Hopefully this is due to the unexpected amount of traffic, and the full game will have enough servers to accommodate Ranked players.

It didn’t take me long to realise that Thrashball is a very problematic map. It caters to campers, with a room at the top of some stairs at one side of the map and the Mulcher right next to said room. Once a team has taken control of this area, the match is as good as won. The new Digger Launcher, which shoots under walls and cover, would solve this if it weren’t rendered useless by shooting down the scoreboard to cover it at the start of every round. Then we have Trenches, a complex, multi-level battlefield. Its twisting ridges of cover provide for plenty of intense, close-quarters combat. The issue with this map is the dual Hammer of Dawn and the weapon’s crazy reach for splash damage. This is one ugly step back for the series, as the Hammer’s splash damage range was already bordering on unfair in Gears 2. On the other hand, nothing comes to mind for necessary tweaks to the Old Town and Checkout maps.

My favorite map from the beta is Checkout. What's yours?

For week one, Team Deathmatch (TDM) was the only playable game type. This is the debut for TDM in the series, and is a worthwhile addition. It offers something for people with a more run n’ gun play style while King of the Hill (KOTH) and Capture the Leader (CTL) demand methodology and communication. Gears 3 KOTH is essentially Gears 2 Annex—the Hill location changes periodically, and you don’t have to stand in the Hill to keep possession of it. CTL is a curious marriage of Gears 2‘s Submission and Guardian modes. The goal is to locate the enemy Leader and to hold them meat shield-style for 30 straight seconds. It’s easier said than done and can be very frustrating, but it’s also a refreshing change of pace if you begin to tire of the other game modes. If none of those three game types do it for you, never fear; the full game will also include Execution, Warzone, Wingman, Horde, as well as the new Beast Mode.

One of my favorite new things in Gears 3 is the multiplayer unlockables. The unlockable content ranges from multiplayer characters to an array of titles (I loved ‘She-Devil’) to weapon skins, which reward you not only for leveling up, but for finishing certain tasks: play 20 matches of KOTH, get ‘x’ amount of kills with a weapon, play 20 matches as a female character, etc. Customisation is always cool, and unlockables give an added incentive to keep playing. Epic Games says the beta only scratches the surface of the content that can be unlocked in the full game. The ribbons you can earn are also very rewarding, and are handed out for certain accomplishments like killing an enemy mid-execution, getting five assists, or even for having the most headshot deaths in a match (cleverly dubbed ‘Carmine’s Star’). Each ribbon gives extra experience points to help you level up faster.

Thrashball Cole and the Crimson Omen Lancer skin are two of many unlockables in the game.

But more than anything else, you’re probably wondering how the weapons, both the familiar and strange, have fared in the transition to the new game. The three old starting weapons – the Hammerburst, Lancer, and Gnasher shotgun – have remained mostly the same, with increases in damaging potential to the rifles. Overall, this restoration of power to the rifles has prevented Gears 3 from devolving into the same ‘shotgun rush-fest’ that plagued multiplayer in the last two games. The centralisation of the Gnasher was once among the gravest flaws of Gears multiplayer. In the past, many players would switch to their shotties the moment they spawned and bum-rush enemies instead of making practical use of the game’s wide array of weapons. Not the case in Gears 3 if the beta is any indication.

A fine example of the triumphant return of the rifles is the Retro Lancer. I spent a week using nothing but this new starter weapon to learn its ins and outs (and to unlock a cool gold skin for it). If you hold ‘B’ you can also charge at unsuspecting foes and impale them on your gun’s bayonet. The gun is very powerful at mid-to-close-range and great for bringing Sawed Off rushers to their knees before they become a threat.

The new double-barreled, Sawed Off shotgun is just what you’d expect: extremely deadly. As a trade-off, it carries only six shots at a time and has atrocious reloading time. It’s created quite a stir in the community, with veteran players claiming it’s “overpowered” and is “for noobs who can’t aim.” It seems fair enough to tell these complainers just to not let these Sawed Off users get into range, right? Not exactly. In a gunfight between the two different shotguns — speaking from personal experience — the Sawed Off usually wins, even if the user seems to be well out of gibbing range. Why? The Gnasher is supposed to have a much more concentrated bullet spread and a longer range. It doesn’t seem to be related to lag, as I’ve seen this happen on pretty smooth connections. I think all will be well with the gun if Epic curbs its range more. Until then, the Retro Lancer is still an effective counter.

This in-game synopsis of the Sawed Off is a bit misleading.

The One-Shot is a new, ultra-powerful sniper rifle capable of disintegrating entire torsos in, well, one shot. When it has a shot lined up, it begins to screech, warning the target to scamper back into cover or suffer the consequences. I’m quite fond of this weapon merely because its shrieks create an atmosphere of chaos and urgency, making each match on Trenches even more thrilling. It can also pull off some nasty (in a good way) double-kills with its penetrating power.

Grenades come in four flavours: frag, incendiary, ink, and smoke. Former Gears 2 players beware because smoke grenades have returned as a useful stun tool (though it’s a minor, three-second cringe instead of knocking you on your ass). In my opinion, ink grenades have been improved, especially in the context of KOTH matches; they give off a smaller cloud which recedes faster. If you have the skills to toss one directly onto an opponent, it’s a one-hit kill. Thankfully the ‘invisible ink’ problem from Gears 2, where players appear to be outside of the ink but continue taking damage, did not rear its ugly head in the beta. There isn’t much to incendiary ‘nades—they work like inks do, but cover a wider area with flames. Finally, frags are mostly unchanged from the past iterations, though I couldn’t help but notice that the explosion radius is even larger and more unforgiving than before. Seldom was I able to successfully run away from a detonating frag; I found myself dying to them much more than I did in the former games. Epic should decrease the blast radius for frag grenades to match that of Gears 2, which was perfect—not too big, not too small.

How Gears fans celebrate Easter.

Last but not least, there were three community events over the course of the beta. On Easter weekend, all of the characters had bunny heads. A couple of weeks later, everyone had giant heads and squeaky voices. And toward the end, Epic brought us Torque Bow Tag, a TDM mode where the only weapon spawning on the map is our favorite explosive crossbow. These events give promise that the Gears community will be more connected than ever, with plenty of interesting promotions to keep players coming back for more.

While the beta suffered from a few new problems, it’s apparent that Epic has taken great care in crafting their next game. It’s a thoughtful marriage of old and new, wisely taking inspiration from other popular shooters (seen in the implementation of unlockables and TDM) while still remaining unmistakably true to what makes the Gears franchise a joy to play. Gears of War 3 has easily become one of my most anticipated releases of this year, and if you aren’t among the one million plus who have pre-ordered… what are you waiting for?

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Written by Stephanie T

Having grown up on Star Fox 64, Ocarina of Time, and Pokémon Red, she's a Nintendo lover at heart but will play almost anything as long as it's stylish, innovative, rich in story, or any combination of the three. Just don't try to make her play modern military shooters.

2 comments

  1. johndemonic /

    A very professional and objective review.
    A lot of details in there that “Gearheads” will surely appreciate.

  2. Weylen Cross /

    Great review. As. I didn’t get bulletstorm or have the money to preorder gears as I went with me3 before it moved to 2012 I didn’t get a chance to play beta,but with this knowledge now I feel like I won’t fail as bad when I finally do get it ^^

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