Embedded: First Impressions of the ‘Gears of War 3’ Beta

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So far, 2011 looks like a year without Halo. (Yes, we know about those Combat Evolved rumors…) What that means is that Gears of War 3 will be the big tentpole title for the Xbox faithful this fall. Epic Games will be rolling an appetizer of what to expect when the multiplayer beta launches in two weeks, but this week the dev studio made an exclusive preview available for the press and VIPs. (More on TIME.com: Microsoft Pushes Gears of War 3 From Spring 2011 to Next Fall)

You can play three Versus Mode match types in the GOW3 beta: Team Deathmatch, King of the Hill and Capture the Leader. Team Deathmatch plays as you’d expect, with players controlling the human COG soldiers and the subterranean Locust monsters facing off to get the most kills. Weapons get strewn all over the map and it’s a mad, lethal scramble to grab them all. One thing I’ve noticed is that long-distance arms like the Torque Bow and the Sniper Rifle tend to be scarcer than the others.

The King of the Hill mode is location-based, working off of a take-and-hold mechanic. Select locations get highlighted by glowing rings of light and each side scrambles to get there first. The quicker you get to the location and hold it, the more points your team scores. Each round ends when a team reaches the score objective, which appeared to be randomly generated. (More on TIME.com: Epic Games President Talks “Bulletstorm,” “Gear of War 3” Multiplayer Beta)

But the mode I played the most was Capture the Leader. It’s a ton of fun, with each side getting a player designated as the leader. Teams then need to hunt and capture that player for 30 seconds to win a round. Yes, it’s a variant on the old staple Capture the Flag but one where the  objective’s not only always moving but can fight back. So the battle never sits on one part of the map too long. Even playing with strangers, I found this match type to be the most strategic. Do you go all out for the opposing team’s leader at first? Let them come to you? And what’s the best way to safeguard your leader, especially if he goes off running to engage the enemy straight away? (More on TIME.com: Epic Games President Talks “Bulletstorm,” “Gear of War 3” Multiplayer Beta)

Glimpsing at the beta teases players that Gears 3 will be the best-looking game of the series. The Old Town map is bright and airy, looking like a quasi-European village. It’d be quaint if not for all the curb-stomping going on. Checkout is a dilapidated big-box store, so imagine a firefight at Costco and you’re halfway there. Finally, the Thrashball map mimics an old football stadium and invokes Cole Train’s glory days as a pro athlete. (You can dress up the loudmouth COG soldier in his old sports uniform, too, and it’s an awesome thing to behold.)

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