Just to be clear from the outset: I will not be assigning a score for a beta version of any game. The purpose of this post is more to evaluate what worked and what needs attention from the developers before the final release.
The Gears of War 3 beta allowed players to trial three match types, four maps and several new weapons and mechanics that should be part of the retail version of the game. For those unaware, I am a pretty huge fan of the Gears of War franchise. The first instalment had a short campaign, but also featured a fiendishly addictive multiplayer portion which pitted two teams of four players against each other in three initially available modes. I spent a substantial amount of time playing the original Gears online, and from the beta it at least appears that Epic have tried to restore the frenetic pace and brutality found in the original product. Gears of War 2 had a substantially longer - and for my money, better - campaign which like the first, could be played by two players co-operatively. The multiplayer portion, whilst still unrelentingly violent, featured a distinct change in pace and suffered from sluggish matchmaking at launch. I didn't spend anywhere near as much time playing the sequel competitively, however the new Horde mode - which allowed for up to four players to take on as many as fifty increasingly-difficult waves of the Locust Horde - did consume a fair chunk of my time. The multiplayer suite in Gears 2 has been patched and added to substantially since I first engaged with it, but I am still yet to return to see if it is anywhere near as entertaining as its predecessor (FYI - I picked it up on the cheap, and plan to update my impressions).
Now that I've spent a substantial amount of time playing the beta trial of the third instalment, let us explore what there is to look forward to (as well as what to dread) in September.
Glory Days - After the first few matches played, I noticed that the swift, visceral brand of Gears multiplayer was back after a somewhat-lengthy hiatus. The intricate, almost-expansive maps from the sequel had been eschewed in favor of tight, easily rote-learnable arenas. They still have nooks and crannies to be explored, but when it's down to two players at the conclusion of a round of TDM, one can only hide for so long.
New tricks - The mantle kick above all else is a game changer. No longer will tense, randomly-ended exchanges behind slim bits of cover cheapen a fight. Now that you can jump kick your turtling opponent to stun - and if downed, kill - close encounters are all the more heated and intense. The new executions also allow for players to make their respective beefs personal with at times, offensively brutal animations to end an enemy's life (or kill streak). The requirement to hold buttons to pick up collectable weapons is also appreciated as it not only cuts down on frustration, but also adds an element of risk to acquiring some of the more dangerous kit on offer.
New tools - The digger launcher is a true joy to behold. Launching a projectile that burrows under cover to dispatch your cowardly enemies doesn't ruin the balance of play either. Players can very easily evade the impact area, however the explosion will be lethal to anyone stubborn enough to stay put. The retro lancer also provides ample enjoyment, with some truly violent ends available to both those who charge, and those unlucky enough to be on the receiving end. Some have complained that its fire is too powerful, but the woeful level of accuracy at anything other than short range is enough - in my opinion - to derail that argument. Tweaks have also been made to the Gorgon pistol(now Gorgon SMG) and the hammerburst rifle. The Gorgon is essential to anyone planning on using a meat shield, while the hammerburst introduces a series' first, iron sights. The usefulness and lethality of incendiary grenades is not immediately obvious, but once you master its devilish, direct application, you'll look for them in every round. Finally, no discussion of new weapons in Gears 3 would be complete without discussing the much-maligned sawed-off shotgun. The haters can say what they will, but I can't kill anyone with it (even when someone downs an opponent for me). Bottom line is: it's inaccurate but fatal in the right hands. Sure it is ridiculously powerful, but reloads are sluggish and you only have 5 rounds per spawn; sounds balanced enough for me.
Carrots - The staggered release of modes has been a great success in my opinion. Starting with Team Deathmatch, players learn the fragility of their online existence and come to terms with some series' fundamentals. King of the Hill allowed for players to fight more recklessly; yet with points accruing quickly on each side, the action never falls below frantic. Capture the Leader has been the real discovery of the beta for me though. It's almost always over before it starts, but with shifting spawn points and solid capture mechanics, it never fails to engage.
Smooth - Matchmaking has been improved substantially since the initial release of Gears 2. Finding an unranked match rarely takes more than thirty seconds and on most occasions I was thrown into matches with a near-full player count. The connection quality in-game is unrivaled, with response times low and deaths rarely feeling cheap.
Robots in disguise - The addition of bots to player matches is a masterstroke, with instances of rage-quitting rarely creating a foregone conclusion. In some instances, particularly in TDM matches, I'd almost prefer an AI companion to a human player. They're aggressive, accurate, and always willing to make a save. They are unfortunately, less than garbage in objective-based matches though. These robots want only to kill!
Too convenient - As above, the four maps offered up for the beta are reasonably small. Small enough that it seems a little cheap when spawn points are changed mid round. I understand that this may have been done to combat spawn camping, but it becomes especially troublesome, particularly in CTL matches when enemies spawn right next to their captive leader. The spawn point doesn't seem to change for any pre-determined reason either, as there have been occasions where taking the leader to your team's original spawn point has been a safe option. It's a small gripe, but sometimes the movement of these points can drastically change the flow of a match.
Head in the game - As per Monday's post, I afforded myself some time away from the beta trial to play some recent releases. Less than a week away from Gears 3 has me rustier than a box of old nails. Nothing less than total dedication is required for anything resembling success. Sounds silly I know, as there is a readjustment period when you take time away from any game; but with Gears that period is far more dire. Matches without kills. Rounds without downs. Playing without hope.
Forums - Whether you follow Cliffy B on Twitter or just happen to peruse the beta forums, the conclusion is almost unanimous: a high percentage of testers want the damage dealt by the sawed-off shotgun to be reduced, or for players to no longer be able to equip the weapon at the outset of a match. I personally don't have a problem with it as it as I believe that you are just as likely to be killed by an active-reloaded gnasher at point blank range. If anything, I'm relieved when an opponent misses with this particular boomstick as they'll have to wait a fair amount of time before they can attack me again. I can't even use the freaking thing properly. What happened to sportsmanship people?
Father Goose - Make no mistake, Gears of War 3 is ridiculously violent. More so than its predecessor and any game that I've played this year. This has me worried, as I believe it may fall victim to Australia's ridiculous videogames rating system. This is not a criticism of the game itself, more an expression of my fear that I will once again be precluded from playing a quality game due to some simple-minded, bureaucratic nonsense.
Withdrawal - I've only got until next Monday afternoon to absorb as much of this product as I can before the September release. Epic even had the gall to name the period between the conclusion of the beta and retail release, "Withdrawal," (that cruel joke has since been removed).
Off the record - I could not find a single ranked match to join for the past three weeks. On some evenings I could see a patient handful attempting to find a match, but ultimately, we all had to settle for player matches.
Gears of War 3 is at the very least for me, the most anticipated release of 2011. While I am intrigued as to how the saga of Marcus Fenix ends, I am now equally as hungry to jump online and bring the fight to (or with) the Locust Horde. While there were some hitches that I observed while playing this game for the last month, the Gears brand of war is just as brutal and compelling as it always has been. If the multiplayer suite offers an incremental improvement on what I've played so far, it would still be a better product than most shooters released this past year.