Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Gears of War 3 Beta impressions

*Originally written for Mashthepad.com

Spring 2011 was originally supposed to be the release date for Gears of War 3, the next game in the Xbox’s grisly third person shooter series, one of the few franchises aside from Halo Microsoft can truly call its own. Unfortunately, for all us eager xbox fanboys the game was pushed back to Autumn on grounds that more time was needed to polish the game. Nothing to do with Microsoft filling a rather empty void in its Q4 release schedule you understand. The consolation prize for its delay was the obligatory beta… The faithful fans who pre-ordered the game were invited to take part in a three week Multiplayer Beta. If you purchased the Epic Edition of Bulletstorm like I did then you would have of course unlocked it a week earlier. I’ve been playing it for four weeks, here is what I thought.

The Gears of War 2 multiplayer seems to have been the real beta for Gears of War 3. Fans may remember the lengths at which the MP in Gears 2 changed since its release, beginning with a broken matchmaking system, the fan outcry in response to the impotent ‘gnasher’ shotgun and finally the inclusion of a call of duty styled ranking system. Stepping into the Gears 3 beta, the game feels significantly more polished than other betas I have played in. More to the point, having never really got into the MP in the previous games, though lavishly putting more than a couple of hours into horde mode, I can report that the Gears 3 multiplayer is pretty darn good and easily up there with the best.    

Much of the core game remains the same of course. Two teams of six are pitted against one another, the amalgamation of armour and muscles that are the COGs versus the subterranean dwelling bogeymen forces of the Locust. The game is still very much a team game, lone wolves need not apply, the game mechanics of cover and roadie running perfectly usher in a level of co-operation where covering fire, taking ground and falling back are all vital to victory reinforcing the feeling that you are actually fighting a battle with its own ebb and flow. Players will fight each other in medium sized maps clinging to cover, providing covering fire, rushing and incapacitating foes before unleashing a range of brutal finishing moves upon one another, usually involving boot to face, etc. Gears 3 introduces an array of new finishers which will make any mild mannered English gentleman spit out their tea in disgust. One move has you bash an enemies face in with the handle of your gun another involves ripping the arm off a fallen foe and beating them to death with it. I’m not complaining. Violence has always been spectacularly well done in the Gears of War games, its uber masculinity perfectly compensated by its schlocky silliness.     

The biggest change to Gears3 is the rehaul of the weapon selection system, which now accommodates for a greater amount of combat styles. Players can choose between three different assault rifles as their primary weapon. The lancer returns as the series’ standard issue, covering mid range combat; spewing out a concentrated stream of bullets whilst still allowing for the trademark under barrel chainsaw for close quarter decapitation, a particular flourish that once again proves to never get old. For long range shooting, Epic have revamped the semi-automatic Hammerhead with an iron sight which allows for greater accuracy, firing bullets as fast as the player can pull the trigger. A new addition to the Gears arsenal is the Retro-Lancer. Supposedly an older model of the standard issue chainsaw lancer, the retro-lancer has a slower rate of fire and a furious recoil, but improved stopping power makes it perfect for bullet spraying from close quarters and blind firing from cover, dropping those shotgun chargers like flies. It is also equipped with a bayonet which allows you to do a cavalier styled forward charge attack, which is immensely gratifying when pulled off successfully.   

Freud would say...
Players also have a choice on which secondary weapon to take, either the old faithful gnasher shotgun or the new double barelled sawn off shotgun. The gnasher remains a staple for many players, being highly effective at mid and close range, sometimes bringing about an instant kill with a well aimed head shot. The Double barrel shotgun feels like more of an insurance policy against the over eager players that will try to rush you. The weapon is only effective at extreme close range and is burdened by a very slow reload speed, but when it does work it proves to be a super effective display of meat fireworks. I did find myself getting used to a new class of player, the single player who comes up behind you and scatters your bodily composition before you even realized he was there.

Weapons can be switched on the fly during matches, whilst waiting to respawn. Although you can pull off instant kills via headshots or explosions, most of the time you will be incapacitating enemies (or getting dropped to your own knees) and providing the coup de grat finisher or just finishing them with bullets. Incapacitated enemies can crawl around in the hopes that comrades will revive them, but if you can make it to cover, you can revive yourself by hammering the A button, which places more of an emphasis on finishing crawling enemies. Over zealous players may find themselves putting themselves into unnecessary danger should they feel so compelled to go after you to perform that highly satisfying curb stomp.

Dom has a beard now. Beards are cool.

The Beta has seen three game modes fought over a total of four new maps. The usual team deathmatch puts teams of six against one another. Each side has a total of 15 respawns which are depleted with each kill. When respawns have depleted, the deceased will be forced to spectate on the final moments of the match, which can lead to some tense moments as you watch your outnumbered team mate getting rushed from all directions. I believe that scene from the original Alien, when Dallas is negotiating the air vents springs to mind. On the other hand, King of the Hill, is your usual territory holding match, which works extremely well with the game’s mechanics as your team are forced to take ground and defend it. The one game mode that doesn’t seem to work as well is Capture the Leader which elects a ‘leader’ on each team which must be incapacitated and taken hostage by the opposing team for a certain amount of time. However, with both sides having a leader, teams will either have to band together to defend their leader or split their forces to both defend and capture. All too often the situation leads to bitter stalemates, which can of course prove to be tense but are more likely to have the tendency of going on longer that they should. Luckily the weapon selection does allow you to adopt different approaches to break the situation.

As for maps, Old Town is a seaside market town that feels distinctly French. It is a different style of environment to the oppressive colours that the series is usually associated with. Pumpkins sit on market stalls just waiting to be shot at making the obligatory gears headshot noise. The Checkout and Thrashball maps take the more conventional gears approach with their grey chipped stone post-apocalyptic aesthetic. The former takes place in a dilapidated shopping centre, with firefights emerging between rows of shelves and the frozen food section as well as the checkout meaning there has never been a better time to say ‘cleanup on aisle 6’ after you’ve splattered an enemy via shotgun surgery. Thrashball takes place upon a sports field within a stadium, an obvious and long overdue nod to Delta Squad member Cole Train, who played professionally before the war. The map comes complete with a score board that hangs precariously over the heavy weapon spawn point. A couple of shots administered to the connecting cable is enough to bring it crashing down upon the field and hopefully an enemy or two scrambling for the torque bow. 

Trenches is the fourth map which takes place in an arid desert environment. The map usually ends up being a battle for the central hill which is the spawning point for the oneshot, a new scoped heavy weapon which destroys enemies in, you guessed it, one shot. There is also a mortar that spawns in the middle of the map which can be picked up so long as you aren’t reduced to giblets by the one shot. The map is made more interesting when you hear the sounds of primordial horns which heralds the coming of a giant sandstorm which engulfs the entire map greatly reducing visibility, allowing for tense moments of close quarter shotgun/chainsaw skirmishing.

Aside from your two equipped weapons, a single smoke grenade and bog standard pistol, there is the usual variety of weapons peppered strategically throughout each map. Epic have included a couple of new additions, the best of which is undoubtedly the digger which provides a great advantage to players fighting against heavily dug in enemies. The weapon fires off a grenade that burrows underground bypassing whatever cover may stand in the way between you and the enemy before exploding in mid air. It leads to a frantic scramble as enemies leap out of the way of the grenade’s dirt trail in the hopes to avoid the explosion often or not being reduced to sticky crimson pulp in an instant. It certainly throws a spanner in the works of a carefully entrenched team. Most maps have been thought out clearly containing at least one super weapon, more than likely this will cause frantic fight scenes early on in the game.

Gears of War 3, now with girls...

As is the industry standard, Gears 3 includes all the progressive leveling up action of its peers. You will gain experience points for kills, assists or other team based objectives. There is also a robust list of ribbons and medals to collect, which range from easy achievements like assisting over 5 times during one match or dying the most in a round. Mid range achievements give satisfaction like performing the most headshots in a match or being somebody’s nemesis. There are plenty of harder achievements of course, being the fabled MVP is always a nice badge to have but charge killing three enemies with the retro lancer in succession will take a lot of focus. Experience, will unlock a wide variety of cosmetic changes like weapon skins or new characters to play as. Those who participate in the beta get to unlock a series of unique skins such as the gold retro-lancer and Cole Train in his Thrashball kit, which is a nice incentive.           

Overall, the Gears of War 3 Beta proves that Epic have improved on the series formula with little touches to make a multiplayer experience that stands up with the best. Having never really warmed to Gears MP, I have to say that I found it far more accessible than the previous games, thanks to its weapon selection options and a new layer of customization. On the whole however, Gears 3 beta does what all good MP does working on so many different levels, be it the feeling of satisfaction of a perfect headshot, the tension that occurs in the third act of a close game, or just plain laugh out loud moments when you rip off a guys arm and beat him to death with it. Then of course there is the point that the MP is only going to be a small part of the final game. Gears 3 will also, finally have a four player co-op campaign as well as the return of the absolutely brilliant horde mode and the all new ‘beast’ mode. September simply cannot come soon enough.   

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