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Gears of War 3 multiplayer hands on

Gears 3’s new competitive modes take the best of Gears 2’s offerings and recombine them based on the best parts of each (and loads of playtest research.) For example, the new “Capture the Leader” mode is a Guardian/Submission mashup with a bit of extra flavor added. The enemy leader is effectively a “meatflag,” and he must be held for 30 seconds. During special windows of opportunity the leader can fight back and try to break free, which immobilizes the captor and gives the team a better chance for a kill. The leader also gets a special tactical view of the map, allowing him to see where enemies are located.

“King of the Hill” combines Annex and King of the Hill modes, with alterations to enhance the flow of gameplay. The hill moves on a timer, and once captured your team doesn’t have to stay inside it to continue owning it. You’re free to fan out and find better defense points. A subtle but important change to the HUD shows the score in percentage points, giving you a clearer idea of how close a team is to winning. And finally, spawn points are more diversified to accelerate the action and prevent camping.

"Team Deathmatch" will make its first appearance in the Gears universe, with teams drawing from a pool of 20 shared lives (up until the last few, at which point the endgame plays out like a classic Warzone match.) Epic expects this to become the default go-to multiplayer game.

Importantly, the names of the new match types are now actually descriptive rather than baffling (ie, “Submission” is vague and conceptual, while “Capture the Leader” tells you directly what the hell you’ll be doing.) Warzone and Execution modes will carry over from Gears 2 just as they are, as they are the most loved by current players.

Heal thyself

Above: Forget prayer, mash A to heal

I’ve already mentioned the Mantle Kick and Bayonet Charge, but there are acouple other new abilities will be available in Gears 3. The Bag & Tag move enables you to stick a grenade on your meatshield and shove it away from you, creating a nifty makeshift bomb. Self-reviving, which is currently only available in Execution mode, will be available in all of multiplayer. But the biggest change is Spotting, which places a small icon above the enemy’s head for all your teammates to see. In action, it was most effective when a spotter coordinated with a teammate carrying a sniper rifle or heavy weapon like a Hammer of Dawn or Mortar. Spotting also added to the sense of teamwork that has always pervaded Gears multiplayer. To prevent unbalancing the game, flags disappear after just a few seconds.

Experience points are here to stay

Above: Thrashball Cole, one of the unlockable MP character skins

Experience points and challenges, all the rage in shooters these days, are fully integrated into Gears 3’s multiplayer. Leveling up unlocks new character and weapon skins, medals, titles, the elaborate weapon-specific executions mentioned earlier, and a grip of new goodies called Mutators. Mutators enable players to “mod” their Gears 3 experience to make it either easier, harder or sillier. Mutators can only be activated in co-op games, one per player (though the host decides which ones to activate for everyone.) Some of the silly Mutators on offer are big heads, big feet, and pitched-up voices, which when combined create a “Toddler Mode” (not its official name!) During special community events, the Gears team will offer competitive Mutator variants but otherwise, it’s co-op only.

Above:Just one of many unlockable Lancer skins

The map is not the territory

Above: Cleanup on aisle 3, please (the Checkout map)

We played on five different multiplayer maps, each with its own unique look and feel. Dynamic, world-altering events punctuate the wartorn environs. On the Trenches map, a sand storm blows in and reduces visibility to zero. On Overpass, successive earthquakes cause the map to tilt and sink into the ground. The maps we played felt larger than many classic Gears maps, with more opportunities to add medium to long range fighting to the mix.

Above: Relive Cole's glory days on the Thrashball map - the scoreboard actually works till someone shoots it down!

Gooey GUI

“Usability” doesn’t sound all that sexy, but the devil, as they say, is in the details. Menus, interfaces, party formation and the in-game tac/com have been overhauled to make the game more fluid and accessible. We’re all for knocking down the barriers between the menus and the carnage. A little reorganization goes a long way! Though mostly invisible to the player, host migration and dedicated servers will also improve the multiplayer experience. One very visible (and valuable) change to the tac/com is that it shows weapon spawn locations in addition to your allies' positions.

Parting shots

Above: Sam, one of the ass-kicking newfemale Gears

In many ways, competitive multiplayer in Gears 3 is taking a back-to-fundamentals approach, building on Gears 2’s best ideas while aggressively going after problem areas. The manipulation of cover – the Mantle Kick goes over it, the Digger Launcher goes under it, the OneShot goes through it – is a key theme, and adds to the feeling that you’re playing a strategic chess game and a twitchy shooter at the same time. Along with co-op juggernauts Beast and Horde, there’s a lot to be excited about.

Oct. 7, 2010