This week, Epic showed off Gears of War 3′s online competitive multiplayer for the first time, and there’s a lot to share about what’s changed, what’s back and what the studio’s philosophy is regarding online play. Most of the new information will make Gears of War fans weep with joy. But to understand why, you have to know what they’ve been through.
When Gears of War 2 launched in 2008, matchmaking was painfully slow and sometimes failed entirely. Difficulties with the network code exacerbated the previous game’s lopsided host/client-based connection system. The flow from game to game was choppy and full of dead ends. Glitches, bugs and cheating were endemic. Many hardcore Gears of War fans (along with casual fans and newcomers) abandoned Gears 2′s multiplayer mode entirely. The community made its voice heard loudly on the official Gears forums and elsewhere on the web.
But rather than stick with the status quo for the final game in the Gears trilogy, Epic has decided to ditch the current host/client system in favor of dedicated servers, run by Epic, that will handle all of the matchmaking neutrally for players worldwide. Gamers can now count on a distant computer to crunch all those ping, latency and bandwidth numbers for them instead of having it done by a single player’s code. In theory, dedicated servers should remove one team’s advantage over another based solely on internet connection. (This is known in Gears as “host advantage,” a phrase uttered in a derisive tone normally reserved for Jar-Jar Binks and Justin Bieber.)
When Title Update 6 rolled out for Gears of War 2, Epic began secretly bringing some of these new dedicated servers online and testing them in the real world. Remember that recent match where you were convinced the other team was winning because they had host advantage? Maybe. Maybe not.
Dedicated servers are a huge change for Gears of War 3, and that addition alone probably would have satisfied a large contingent of the series’ fans and critics. But Epic is going all-out with its multiplayer overhaul, leaving many of the choices made for Gears 2 in the dust.
Gears 3 will include true host migration, meaning that if the person who started the game decides to quit (probably because you’re beating them too badly), the game is designed to seamlessly choose another player to control the game without skipping a beat. Peer-to-peer voice chat will also be handled by the servers, heading off what Epic anticipates could be some bandwidth limitations in the newest version of Xbox Live. Social matches like the ones introduced in Title Update 6 will be back in Gears 3 and will use the same method of filling in blank spots in the roster with AI bots. Persistent parties will now be a part of the Gears online experience, allowing you and your friends to move between games and modes without having to disband and re-gather after your matches end. And Epic will even be storing your Gears of War 3 profile information on its own servers to prevent some of the file corruption that has occurred in Gears of War 2.
Many of these are key features fans have been requesting for years, and they’ll completely transform the Gears of War online multiplayer experience. But we haven’t even gotten to the good stuff yet.
Earlier this month, Microsoft announced that it planned to push Gears of War 3 from its planned release date of April 5, 2011 to Fall 2011 in order to position it as a holiday release. On the minus side, that means you won’t be able to get your hands on it until you’re already sick of hearing Jingle Bells. On the plus side, it gives Epic time to do something huge for the franchise: hold a public multiplayer beta.
With six extra months of development time, Executive Producer Rod Fergusson says the team will focus on polishing its levels, doing fine-grain work on art and running the beta on the new dedicated servers, which he hopes will give the team valuable information about what’s working in Gears of War 3′s multiplayer and what needs to be tweaked.
“The hard part about doing a beta is that a beta is no longer a beta. In the console world a beta is pretty much a demo. People judge you really harshly – they’ll make game buying decisions based on your beta,” he says.
But Fergusson and his team made the decision that the feedback they hope to get from the community is worth the risk of putting Gears 3′s multiplayer out there for public criticism. Although there’s no precise date set for the beta just yet, Fergusson says it’s scheduled for early 2011.
Despite the obvious advantages of dedicated servers and public betas, neither will necessarily make it easier for inexperienced players or series newcomers to get sucked into Gears online. So Epic has gone back to the drawing board and streamlined the multiplayer modes.
For starters, Guardian and Submission have been merged into a single mode called Capture the Leader. At the beginning of each round in this mode, each team is assigned a leader, and your mission is to grab the enemy’s leader and hold him or her for 30 seconds. There are no capture points, just you and your captive as the clock ticks down. As an added twist, the captive has the opportunity to struggle every few seconds by tapping the B button. Time it right and you could throw off your captor’s aim at a critical moment, or, if he’s already wounded, do just enough damage to break free. In Capture the Leader, leaders also have enhanced tactical/communications capabilities that allow them to see enemy positions by holding down the left bumper.
The new King of the Hill is a hybrid of Gears’ current King of the Hill mode mixed with Annex. This one’s based on capturing and holding ringed areas that rotate around the map at timed intervals. Enter the ring, and hold it as long as you can in order to milk points out of it. The spawn locations move as well, to prevent players from camping.
“Gears gameplay has always been about creating a front and holding it. In King of the Hill, the ring is the front,” says Epic’s Jim Brown, lead multiplayer level designer for Gears 3.
The modes that have always typified that hold-the-front philosophy in Gears of War’s competitive multiplayer are Warzone and Execution, each a slight variant on the typical deathmatch scenario. Both are back in Gears of War 3, but they’re not in the spotlight. The marquee mode is now simply called Team Deathmatch, described as typical team-vs-team multiplayer combat with a Gears twist.
Each team begins with 20 lives, and they gradually dwindle to zero as team members are killed and re-spawn. The last team standing gets a point, and the first team to score two points wins. There are no locked spawn points, so it’s impossible to camp in an open area with your back to one, unless you want a bayonet in your back.
No new Gears game would be complete without an arsenal of ridiculous weapons. The Pendulum-era Lancer is a particularly brutal beast. Essentially a machine gun with a nasty looking bayonet clamped to the barrel, it’s not as accurate as the modern Lancer, but it has a bit more stopping power. Hold down the B button for long enough while moving with the retro Lancer equipped, and your character will break into a deadly roadie run. Whoever gets in the way will find himself dangling from the end of your weapon, impaled on a foot of steel.
Rather than simply choosing between the Hammerburst and Lancer rifles as your preferred starting weapons, Gears of War 3 throws the Pendulum Lancer in the mix, too. And now you can also choose between two default shotguns, the returning Gnasher and the punishing new Sawed-off.
Destined to be both one of the most loved and hated weapons in Gears 3, the Sawed-off is slow, clunky, impractical and altogether awesome. Once you learn how to use it correctly (get in 50% closer than you think you need to), you’ll be absolutely hooked on its amazing splattery goodness.
The only other new weapon that comes close to its ridiculousness is the Oneshot, the angry, menopausal mother of all sniper rifles. It weighs a ton, only has one zoom level and makes a godawful whining noise when engaged. It leaves you totally exposed, it’s hard to aim, and it broadcasts your intention to fire with a yellow-to-red laser sight similar to the Torque Bow. But, like the Sawed-off, it’s a joy to kill with.
In addition to introducing these the new weapons, Epic has gone back into the sandbox to play with some of the existing favorites. The Hammerburst now has an iron-sights zoom that makes it even deadlier at range. The Gorgon burst pistol has been re-named the Gorgon SMG and fires as an automatic now, suddenly making it the go-to gun for meatshield wielders. Grenades can still be tagged to surfaces, but the Ink grenade and the new Incendiary grenade no longer give off warning beeps when thrown. By the time you see one, it’s probably already too late.
Those grenade descriptions may have made your mind start spinning with all the applications for Horde battles, but so far Epic is still staying fairly silent on what’s in store for Horde. It’ll be back in Gears of War 3, with some “fundamental changes,” says Fergusson. But beyond that, nothing new has been announced.
What we do know is that Horde, like all multiplayer experiences in Gears of War 3, will be tied into the series’ new leveling system, which is leaps and bounds above what was patched into the second game last year. Everything you do, from reviving teammates to holding capture points, will gain you XP, which raises your level. But now, instead of being a meaningless number, your level will lead you to in-game rewards.
In addition to the overarching XP system, there are also new hooks built into Gears of War 3′s leveling. Ribbons can be earned for doing things in matches like getting 5-kill streaks, drawing first blood, killing your nemesis and reviving a set number of teammates. Medals are mini-achievements that carry over from match to match and include things like getting a certain number of headshots or becoming an expert with a particular weapon. That, in turn, ties into Titles, which you earn for becoming specialized in certain areas. So if you’re a slick enough sniper to earn a title for being an expert with the Longshot, you can actually append a special title related to that onto your in-game character.
Even better, your progress with all these little incentives is constantly being compared to that of your friends. So as you rank up with the shotty, you’ll see little pop-ups telling you how you compare to your buddy. And that’s not the only reward for getting good with guns.
The Gears of War series is famous for its bloody and over-the-top executions, flourish moves that you can perform on your downed enemies. You’ll start with access to each weapon’s most basic executions, and as you master them, you’ll unlock more. Then using that unlocked execution will earn you XP at an even higher rate. And once a weapon is completely mastered, you earn the right to mash the execution button over and over for an extended period of time while killing an opponent. Imagine standing over a particularly annoying Xbox Live opponent and just pummeling him to pieces with the butt of your shotgun. Yeah, that’ll work.
Big changes like these will definitely please Gears of War players, but there’s a laundry list of tiny tweaks that also add up to an improved experience. Character movement has been slightly sped up, making multiplayer matches feel nimbler. Aiming reticules are livelier and more realistic. You can now tap the Y button when you see an enemy in order to “spot” him and place a small circle over his head for a few seconds, alerting your teammates to his location (think Battlefield: Bad Company 2, but subtler). Each match now begins with a brief view of an overmap showing weapon locations, spawn points and other map details. A chainsaw rush can now only be stopped by gunfire in the brief two seconds when it’s being revved. Players facing one another from behind opposite sides of the same piece of cover now have the option to “mantle kick” over the wall, pushing the opponent backward slightly. Mashing the A button while down now gives you the option of reviving your character or moving him into cover.
Those are just the tweaks and new features Epic has shared so far. It’s a huge overhaul that manages to change the multiplayer experience while keeping the core Gears philosophy and feel the same. But Epic is also bringing some new zaniness to the table, too. Gears of War 3 will also feature game variants called Mutators (a concept Epic used in Unreal Tournament) that are unlocked as you level up and can be used in co-op online multiplayer modes like Horde. Mutators alter the look and behavior of matches and characters and come with XP modifiers. Want to play as a tiny Marcus Fenix with a huge head, tiny body and super-weird voice? Of course you do.
For all the information Epic has dumped about Gears of War 3′s online multiplayer, there’s still a lot we don’t know. Dedicated servers will be used, but if they fill up or go down, players will be pushed back to the old way of connecting until they can migrate to the servers. But will that be transparent to the user? Epic isn’t saying just yet. Will players be able to browse games and create highly customized matches? Will all these tweaks and changes throw the game out of balance? There’s no way to know until Gears of War 3 makes its way out into the wild.
Epic has something to prove with the final installment in the Gears trilogy, and they’re going all-out to do it. The feature list for Gears of War 3 reads like a fan wish list written in sweat, blood and a healthy dose of crazy juice. Sounds like Epic to us.[/private]