When we last checked out Gears of War 3, it was back in February at an exclusive media event. While we got to see the multiplayer aspect of the game, it was running under ideal circumstances: All of the systems and players were in the same room, and Microsoft and Epic reps were available to address any issues. Wondering how it would fare "in the wild," we've spent the last few weeks with the beta, gunning it out with random players the world over. We're still impressed.
Perhaps the most common complaint about the multiplayer component of Gears of War 2 was the simple fact that the game didn't support dedicated servers. This meant that one of the players served double duty as a host system, resulting in a number of glitches surrounding lag — not to mention giving the host an advantage. To be fair, the issues weren't really noticeable if everyone had a great connection, but if the host or players were on a less than perfect link, Gears of War 2's multiplayer could be frustrating.
Epic took the forum complaints to heart, and as a result Gears of War 3 supports both dedicated servers as well as the traditional peer-to-peer hosting method used in Gears of War 2. If a dedicated server is available, the game appears to use it automatically, only defaulting to peer-to-peer when the dedicated servers were offline. Over the course of the beta, the dedicated servers have gone up and down as Epic tested various configurations, and the difference in play was noticeable. Assuming Epic has enough capacity at launch, the dedicated servers alone should be reason enough for fans to migrate to the new game.
In terms of balance, the design team appears to have done an admirable job of crafting a variety of weapons that all behave differently yet still balance out. No matter which gun someone is using, you can pretty much guarantee that there is an effective countertactic. Every weapon that offers the ability to execute a one-shot kill also has some sort of handicap that ensures it isn't overpowering. For example, the shotgun means instant death, but only if you're close and dead-on with your aim. Miss your target, and the long reload leaves you vulnerable to counterattack.
Maps are also impressively laid out, aside from a few notable glitches, such as the wall glitch on Old Town or the platform in Checkout. What makes the various maps appealing is the fact that, like the weapons, there is usually a way to counter just about any entrenched position. In fact, one of our least favorite maps from the February event, Trenches, has ended up as a favorite among the beta selections.
At first glance, Trenches seems like an incredibly unfair map. There are two powerful weapons within easy reach of the starting point, and in early games, it was a race directly for those two positions. Whoever reached them first appeared to have an advantage. As we played through game after game, however, it started to become apparent that little side areas, which didn't initially seem very important, provided some nice vantage points to pick off players who went for weapons like the mortar. By playing smart, a good team can keep an opposing force from ever firing the mortar.
There are a number of examples like this across all four of the maps. The more you familiarize yourself with the landscape, the more seemingly impregnable areas will reveal alternate routes and exposed flanks. Assuming Epic can provide more maps of this quality, there shouldn't be any concern about the design of the battlefield.
We saw a few hiccups in the matchmaking routines. Playing in public 5v5 matches, things generally performed well, resulting in teams that were mixed but with an equal overall skill level. Every so often, however, the matchmaking code would decide to group all of the high-level players on one team and the low-level players on another. In one instance, we were the sole human player on a team (the remaining four slots were filled by bots) facing off against an opposing force packed with humans.
Despite advances in bot programming, Epic has yet to create a bot that can play as well as a human. When it's just you and a bunch of bots, don't expect to win.
One nice touch that we noticed across multiple game types is the fact that team spawn points are not fixed. Instead, the game appears to try to spawn players on whichever side of the map has the least members of the opposing team on it. This means that spawn camping is something of a worthless endeavor, but it also means that players can't just turtle within a spawn area. Hide there too long, and a dead enemy may just respawn behind you.
Another issue that seemed to reoccur was poor quality voice chat. In a team game like Gears of War, communication is key, yet on multiple occasions, team members who had mics sounded like they were speaking underwater. Voice audio tended to warble and was very difficult to make out in most cases. This is something we expect to be resolved before release. Of course, this doesn't account for players who don't have mics in the first place, but that's not something that even the best game designers can overcome.
Game modes that are available in the beta are team deathmatch, king of the hill and capture the leader. Further modes have not been confirmed by Epic, but players spending a lot of time in capture the leader matches have noticed a few glitches that seem to hint at the possible inclusion of guardian mode.
When playing capture the leader, the team leader is supposed to be incapable of dying. The way to win is by capturing the opposing leader and holding him or her for 30 seconds. However, due to a few glitches within the game (it is a beta, after all), it is possible to occasionally have a leader killed. When this happens, the game pops up a message telling you that your leader has been killed, and the rule set shifts to a guardian style set. A team with no leader can no longer respawn, and the opposing team wins by killing off all remaining players.
It was quite a surprise when it happened to us the first time, but the seamless way the game handled what should have been an impossible situation is a credit to Epic's programming. Having seen it happen more than once, here's hoping that guardian makes a return appearance.
Despite having some glitches, the Gears of War 3 multiplayer beta is already quite polished and has been a blast to play over the past weeks. With another four months until the release date, Epic still has plenty of time to tweak and improve on an already solid base. If the single-player portion ends up as good as the multiplayer has been, Gears of War 3 should easily top its predecessor.
Editor's Note: The Gears of War 3 multiplayer beta ends this Sunday, but we ended up with one extra code. If you want it, be sure to check out the WorthPlaying Twitter feed at noon (Pacific Daylight Time) today, as we'll be handing it out to a lucky fan.
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