Gears of War 3 Beta pleases and teases

With “Gears of War 3″ scheduled for release in September, EPIC Games released a Beta test for fans who preordered the latest chapter in this epic saga. The release was for a limited time, April 25 to May 15, and consisted of three types of multiplayer games, four maps and a plethora of unlockable content.

Being a Gears fanatic, I had to pre-order “Gears of War 3″ and get access to the beta release. This release is just the multiplayer version which allows you to play against others in four beautifully constructed maps. I’m not a huge fan of multiplayer shooters and only played a few matches in Gears 2. I was a total “noob” when starting Gears 3. Playing against AI characters in story mode of Gears 2 did not prepare me for fighting against hardcore gears fans.

I was in awe as the first match started.

The first thing that struck me about the beta was how smooth the game played. What turned me off in Gears 2 multiplayer, was the quality of gameplay. Gears 3 now has dedicated servers which greatly improves game performance. Graphics look better, there is no lag while shooting at targets, and environmental effects all add to an immersive game. All thanks to those servers.

The graphics were amazing. I didn’t expect to see that quality in a multiplayer game. I thought that graphics would be sacrificed to speed up responsiveness of the player and improved gameplay. Thankfully it wasn’t. The graphics look improved over the last release with four beautifully constructed maps each with their own unique layouts and environmental elements. From playable characters to weapons and props, everything was at a level of detail that just amazed me.

Maps that kill

The four maps available in the beta were expertly designed to both challenge and tantalize the player. You are able to play through Check Out, Thrashball, Trenches and Old Town. Check Out takes place in an old department store. Its tight pathways and debris makes this map feel claustrophobic. You feel like a drone could be right around the next corner, which they usually are. I particularly like playing this map in king of the hill. The layout of this map gives interesting opportunity for both defenders and attackers.

Thrashball is an old Thrashball stadium complete with stands, team locker rooms and a huge scoreboard. The scoreboard can be shot down to squish the opposing team and the large open field is littered with debris to give some cover. A passage on one side gives great opportunity to ambush other players. There is an open, raised viewing area with either a mulcher or mortar which can help to turn the tide in a match.

Trenches is set in the Locus deadlands, a desolate wasteland which is the largest of the maps. This map has a unique environmental feature which will challenge even the most experienced gamer. Every few minutes an alarm will sound which let’s you know a sandstorm is coming. You have extremely limited visible which can hinder your hunt. During the last week of the beta release, the Hammer of Dawn was featured in this map. A devastating laser for the sky is a beautiful sight when being guided by you. Although having two in this map can give an unfair advantage to either team.

My favorite map is Old Town. It is set in a seaside village which has a nice mix of high and low areas. There is a good amount of cover, alleys and special weapons caches which makes for a great battleground. I found myself quickly learning the best places for an ambush and the best places to safely move through. I really enjoyed playing capture the leader on this map. There are plenty of nooks and crannies to hide in with your captive. With the layout of the Town long distance kills are limited. You are forced to get up close and personal which makes the game all the more fun.

All of these maps are playable in the three game types. You can play through Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill and Capture the Leader. Team Deathmatch is a game were your team shares a limited amount of lives. The team that is left standing wins. King of the Hill requires a little more strategy than just killing. You must capture and defend a position. The team that reaches 170 points wins. Capture the leader requires you to capture the opposing team’s captain while defending your own.

I found that King of the Hill was the best of the three. It had a nice mix of strategy and gory battle which made it fun and challenging. You had to work as a team to capture a position and keep it. You are rewarded for not only capturing a position but breaking the opposing team’s hold on a position.

Guns, mortars and shinny things

Just like Gears 2, you can pick between the Lancer or Hammerbust as well as having the Gnasher, handgun and grenades to take down your opponents. But there are also two new weapons to add to your arsenal, Retro Lancer and Sawed Off.

Retro Lancer is similar to the regular Lancer except it packs more of a punch and has a large bayonet instead of a chainsaw. To effectively kill with this weapon, short bursts of fire should be done to keep accuracy. Just keeping your finger on the trigger will cause your muzzle to pull up away from your target. You are also able to charge with your weapon piercing the enemy with your bayonet. Building up speed will enable you to kill your enemy. At first I found this to be a difficult weapon to use. I wanted to unlock the golden skin for the retail release and needed to make a hundred kills with it. Practice makes perfect and I soon became an expert with it.

The Sawed Off is a double barreled sawed off shotgun which packs a huge punch. You must reload after each shot, but a spray of bullets shoot out in 180 degrees allowing you to hit multiple enemies. Because of this, you don’t need to be accurate to make a kill and some see this weapon as being to powerful, giving an unfair advantage. The beta forum was full of complaints about this weapon saying that only “noobs” use it to make unskillful kills. It’s true this weapon is too powerful, but hey, all is fair in love and war. It’s a weapon that forces players to change their strategies which helps to improve your game. I found the long load times after each fire make this gun less appealing than the Gnasher.

There was also a smorgasbord of special weapons to be found in each map. Torque Bow, Digger Launcher, Mulchar, Mortar, Boomshot, Flammer, Longshot, One Shot, Hammer of Dawn, Gorgon Pistol, Boltok Pistol and a variety of grenades. I could go on for pages about each weapon but will list a few favorites:

Digger Lancher allows the player to shoot out a small digger creature which quickly burrows through the ground and explodes on impact of an enemy. If you are close to your victim, you can see this little creature spring from the ground and blow up your target. My favorite special weapon.

Longshot is an improved sniper rifle with enhanced optics allowing for better zoom and accuracy. It’s a single shot with a long reload time but is a one shot kill if you are skilled.

Hammer of Dawn let’s you paint targets with a laser light. After a few seconds a huge, devastating laser will rain down from the sky. What is really cool about this weapon is that you can direct the laser around the field destroying everything in it’s path.

Characters and unloackables

There are a bunch of human and Locus characters that you can play as during your matches. Under the multiplayer options, you can not only choose what weapons to start a match but what characters to use. You can choose between Marcus, Dominic, Cole, Damon, Anya, and even Cole’s Thrashball uniform for the humans. For the bad guys you can choose between A drone, Flame Grenader, Kantus, Savage Theron and Savage Grenader. Most of the characters are unlocked after winning a set number of matches which is great reward for playing in this beta.

Each week a new flame skin for each weapon was available to unlock if you played a match. Unfortunately, I started playing half way in and only unlocked skins for Sawed-Off and Gnasher but there were other unlockables I could get. I was able to unlock Thrashball Cole by playing 50 matches in any game and unlock him for the retail version by play as him in 10 matches. I was also able to unlock the Gold-Plated Retro Lancer by playing 90 matches and making 100 kills with it.

Everyone who played at least one match was also able to get the Beta Tester Medal. All of these unlockables will be available in the retail release that will be available September 20th. Make sure to keep your saved game. The “Gears of War 3″ Beta saved game file will be need to get these unlockables.

My final thoughts

I completely fell in love with this game. But as great as it was, it is a beta and had some issues. Depending on the time of day and game type, it took awhile to find a match that I could join. Not a huge issue but it got annoying. A few times late at night while playing, the map loaded improperly making the game unplayable. The textures loaded improperly, not lit and in one match the ten of us were stuck in a small area. My biggest issue though were errors in joining your friends in a match. I was only able to join my friends a few times. Most times, I would get error messages about the network which prevented me from joining my friends. Playing against some random people is fun but having your friends on your team enhances the experience.

One last issue which has been brought up on the forums, is the wide range of experienced players. When I started playing, I would join a match with players at level 23, 34 and even level 67. I was at level 1 and was getting slaughtered. I was pretty upset to be wasted only a few steps into the match. I agreed with members saying that the range should be limited keeping like players together. But then someone brought up a good point. You may be at level 75 but not very skilled and someone could be at level 9 and an awesome player.

I noticed that my skills were improving by leaps and bounds. Playing against these skilled warriors, I was picking up tricks and new strategies. I was learning what works and what didn’t. I became a better player because of being thrown in with seasoned players. It’s like evolution. You either improve or die.

We now must wait four months to play “Gears of War 3″ again. We have all spent sleepless nights battling it out on some of the most beautiful maps I have ever seen. This was an amazing game. It looked great, played great and left me wanting more. And this is only a beta test. Players were encouraged to give feedback on the official beta forum which will only improve this game even more. The Gears we have just played will not be the Gears we get in September.

EPIC made an ingenious decision on releasing a beta version for a limited time. It allowed us to experience the awesome new standard in gaming. Some have said they are now going through withdrawals and I would have to agree. I can’t wait until September 20th.

I’ll see you on the field.

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