Gears of War 3 Beta

Fenix nights.

How do you follow a game like Gears 2? What do you need to dream up in order to compete with a weighty thrill-ride that pitched its players headfirst into frantic Brumack warfare, before sending them wriggling through the shifting guts of a giant city-sinking worm?

Gears 3's answer is - in part, at least - supermarkets. Supermarkets and a sports stadium. Strange times.

Both locations have been plucked from the still rather mysterious central campaign and spun into multiplayer arenas, forming Checkout (wonderfully, I am not making that name up) and Thrashball respectively.

You'll be getting the chance to try them both out in the beta, which hits at some point this Spring. They're goodies, too. Checkout's cruel, claustrophobic, and daringly small: a tight collection of aisles and corridors surrounded by ruptured shelving and tills, and lit by shafts of light pouring in from the glass ceiling. You'll spawn in the pharmacy or dry goods section a sentence we don't write enough in gaming - and find yourself in a breathless race against time to locate the best weapons and pick a position for yourself before you're right up against the enemy, with little space to hide in. It's a blood bath.

Thrashball's a bit bigger, and not quite as open-plan as the whole sports stadium gig suggests. Rising up out of battered team locker rooms, you'll find yourself on a pitch criss-crossed with plenty of low cover, while a lopsided Jumbotron hangs overhead. As a neat joke, the Jumbotron keeps track of the game's scores, which is nice. Also, it can be shot from its perch to squash anyone camping beneath it, which is not quite as nice. Either way, it makes for a wary kind of close-up fighting where you've always got one anxious eye on the sky.

Beyond that, the multiplayer beta will contain a further two maps, neither of which Epic has actually selected yet. Instead, it's whittled the number down to four, and left it open for a public vote, which has just kicked off over on the game's Facebook page. (Get in quickly, mind, as the polls close on Monday.)

Your choices put you in far more traditional Gears territory: Mercy is a large open-air map that should remind veterans of a heavily-tweaked and re-themed Gridlock. Filled with religious relics and weather-beaten stone arches, there's cover scattered all around the central spaces, and a heavy weapon waiting to spawn inside a nearby church. Old Town is a weird medieval village set-up filled with chickens (you can) and wooden barrels to hunker down behind, and while it initially feels a little too large and confusing to truly get to grips with, there's room in the nest of alleyways at the centre to pull off some really sneaky flanking. And chickens. Finally, Overpass is a nicely balanced map with a fancy - and largely cosmetic - gimmick that sees it flooding and falling apart as the battle progresses, while Trenches throws players out into the dusty Locust badlands in a kind of mining-settlement-meets-construction-site. A large crane dominates the middle of the map, and a sandstorm blows in every few minutes, reducing visibility to almost nothing. Nasty.

After a quick 30 minutes' play, Old Town and Trenches seem like the standouts, but all of the maps create that peculiar strain of intimate and tactical street-fighting that defines the series. And when it comes to the actual fighting, the beta brings more than just real estate anyway.

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