Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Just Plain Talented

After far too many months of waiting, Gears of War 3 took its first steps into the public light at 2am this morning, Vancouver time. Naturally, as a Gears fan since playing Horde mode for the first time at a friends house, I stayed up to get in on the action at the first opportunity. Equally as obvious, Claire stayed up with me to watch the first few minutes before tottering off to dreamland.

The Gears of War Beta allows us fans to experience an early build of the multiplayer, putting the maps and weapon balances to the test. It's only a Beta, so most of the final content that will appear on the disc is not available, and I'm not just referring to the single player campaign. My favorite more, the previously mentioned Horde Mode is not featured, nor is the new gameplay type I'm most looking forward to trying out, Beast Mode.

This first week is for BulletStorm owners and Epic Games friends and family only, and the options available are limited. Currently, there is only one game mode and two maps available, though more will be released over the course of the four weeks the Beta runs for. First up, the maps.

Checkout: This is set inside a ruined supermarket. It is very close quarters combat orientated, with lots of destructible cover and low walls to both crouch behind, but also mantel over and stomp enemies. The rows of shelving give loads of ways to get around opponents and create cross fire opportunities, as well as quickly splitting up uncoordinated teams. The lighting on this map is beautiful, with sunlight streaming through frosted of grimy glass, brightening everything. But we'll get back to that later.

Thrashball: Set in a destroyed thrashball arena from the pre-war days. This is a big, open central area with small side areas for bottlenecked combat. One major issue I have with this map is that it appears to be possible to spawn-camp a team - the spawn zone has one tunnel exit (like a team dressing room exit to the pitch) and if you get forced back to there you're pretty much boned. This happened once to my team last night. When that doesn't happen though, it's a great fun map. The grass and plant-life that has reclaimed the arena are bright and lush, a noticeable departure from the browns and grays more common in the previous games.

Play alternates between the two maps per match, not per round. As I stated earlier, currently there is only one game mode available. While Team Deathmatch is nothing new to shooters in general, it is new to the Gears franchise, and their version puts a Gears style spin on things. Each team has a pool of 15 respawns. The object of the lesson is to kill the enemy team enough times to deplete their pool, then eliminate them. This means that four great players stuck with one sucky player could lose if said sucky player dies a lot and runs though the pool[1]. It also means one player could potentially be the last remaining player on his team and still cream the enemy with skillful use of the shotgun, going on to win for his team[2].

My opinion on competitive multiplayer shooters in general: I play Gears for Horde. I love the cooperative gameplay, the team work, the shared joy of victory and the shared exhilaration of defeat. There are no hard feelings when we die to the Horde waves. No one calls "cheater" or, "unfair advantage". No one accuses the opponents of host advantage, or the game of having unbalanced weapons. But I've never played a competitive multiplayer session that lasted more than a few rounds before those accusations were flying across the chat channels. And the Beta was no different. When my team was winning, this was "the best game ever", and this map was "so balanced" and everything was "great". When same team was loosing, the other team was "clearly cheating" and the maps were "unfair" and the shotgun was "so overpowered" and yadda, yadda, yadda. Sigh. I miss Horde already.

Based on my brief trip so far, here are my two top Pro Tips for the Beta:
1- Stick together as a team!! We lost more rounds by splitting up and running every which way than by opposing skill.
2- Learn when to ignore the voices in your head. When they're being nice and coordinating the offensive, then stay in contact, work as a team. When they're being offensive and complaining about the game, shut up and don't join in. You're better than that, and must accept that chances are you'll lose more than you'll win, especially at the start. Just focus on getting a few kills per game and you'll be fine.

Graphically, the game is beautiful, vivid and lush, with gorgeous lighting. One of the promises was to make everything brighter, and they have. Vivid colours, streaming sunshine. Everything looks amazing. From what I've seen, character models look nice too, but usually they're running about or getting stomped on, so it's hard to tell for sure. If you've played Enslaved, the Thrashball arena especially reminds me of those bright post-apocalyptic areas from that game (also built on the Unreal 3 engine), and the Checkout map reminds me of a brighter, easier to navigate and more interesting version of the supermarkets in Fallout 3.

Here are some stats from my first night playing. This might be especially useful for those of you interested in hoping to unlock the Beta exclusive Gold Lancer and Trashball Cole skins.

10 matches of Team Deathmatch took me approximately 2 hours and netted me 24 Rounds played, and a total of 22 kills with the Lancer alone (the required stat to watch for the Gold Lancer retail unlock), and many more kills in total. I unlocked a bunch of stuff, including weapon skins and Anya as a playable character for just playing the 10 matches.

I originally thought the retail unlock Gold Lancer requirements (Complete 90 matches in any game type to unlock for the Beta period. To permanently unlock, score 100 kills with the Gold-Plated Retro Lancer during the Beta period) were tough, but they seem like something that is going to happen anyway over the course of 4 weeks. Even over the 3 weeks most people have. Kill stealing is a bitch, but I've given as much as been taken, so it all balances out, right? Also, I'm generally ignoring Executions in favour of laying a few more rounds in my target to guarantee no-one else gets to him first.

And finally, the weapons. I'm gonna make this fast, as Claire just hit the shower, so I have access to the PC monitor the Xbox is currently plugged into. Here goes:

Lancer is lancer, gnasher shotgun is broken, retro lancer seems ridiculously inefficient compared to the modern version (terrible recoil, massive footprint), new shotgun is crazy powerful but takes an eon to reload, incendiary grenades are hilarious (melting surfaces), flash bang grenades cause stun, blinding white light and just seem more useful, new digger weapon (tunnels underground and past cover) is cool to see in action but I haven't had a chance to try it yet, mortar is the usual splash damage hilarity, grinder is same as always, and I haven't gotten my hands on the sniper rifle yet.

All in all, I'm loving the chance to get my hands on the game this early. The game modes that will be available over the course of the Beta period are not why I am even remotely interested in the final retail game, but they give me the opportunity to see some of the maps, weapons and gameplay tweaks that is ahead of me. I'll be playing as much of it as possible, all the while yearning for the peace and man-love happy times that is Horde mode, now with female skins![3]

[1] Me.
[2] Not me.
[3] Despite female playable characters, Claire has made it very clear that she will be remaining with Marcus as her ingame avatar of death-by-sniper. Can't blame her. Even after all these years, my man-crush on Baird remains as powerful as the first day I laid eyes on his goggles.

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