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.
There are the new guns, for one thing. With the option to select a fresh load-out before every respawn, Gears 3 now offers variations on both the standard Lancer and Gnasher shotgun for you to pick between. The former comes in the shape of the Retro Lancer, a cobbled-together assault rifle with a bayonet taped beneath it. The gun bucks unpredictably when you shoot it, but that knife stuck below the barrel allows for a stabbing rush attack as a secondary function. A press of the B button sends you charging into a roadie run, and if you've built up enough momentum, you'll be able to gore enemies and fling them behind you: risky but enormously satisfying. Your shotgun options, meanwhile, expand to include a new sawed-off model. It's useless except in very close quarters and takes forever to reload, but it fires with a brilliant hollow blasting sound, and can turn up to three enemies into mincemeat at once if you use it just right.
As for the heavies, there's the One-Shot, which the team refers to as its elephant gun. The One-Shot's a sniper rifle that fires explosive shells. Yeah. The scoped sites and weight make it tricky to move around quickly, but it will turn a foe into mist with no questions asked if you manage to hit them. Then there's the Digger, which sends out an odd little projectile that burrows into the ground and chews its way under cover before exploding (or taking the left turn at Albuquerque). Again, it's relatively stately when it comes to firing, meaning that it's easy to avoid, but it ensures that enemy players have to keep moving, too.
Finally, the beta promises new modes, showcasing three of the final game's six match types. You won't be able to play the brilliant new Beast offering, which sneakily inverts Horde to see you launching Locust attacks on AI Cogs, but instead you'll be able to try out the new Team Deathmatch - in a Gears twist, both sides gets 15 respawns to work through each round, after which the game reverts to the classic last man standing set-up - alongside King of the Hill, which tweaks Annex from Gears 2 so that you can control areas without having to then stay within the glowing radius, and Capture the Leader, a new CTF reimagining which tasks you with tracking down the enemy side's captain and holding them as a meat-shield for a set amount of time. In a smart bit of detailing, the captain makes up for their vulnerability with an ability to see through map geometry and thus direct their team a bit better. It's classic Gears checks and balances all round, in other words.
On top of all that, the beta will be piling on the unlockables, meaning that even a five minute session will result in a shower of toast as you collect ribbons, grind for experience, and get closer to earning special characters and weapon models. One of each, incidentally - Cole in his Thrashball outfit, and a golden Retro Lancer - can only be unlocked in the full-game by first collecting them in the beta.
Best of all, though – better, arguably, than all the new maps, modes, and weapons Epic could cook up – is what's going on behind the scenes. Gears 3 sees its multiplayer content moving to dedicated servers – an expensive shift that suggests just how seriously Epic's taking the matter of host advantage and lag. That alone should give fans of Escalation and Mansion a reason to check out this short taster of the final game. That alone should give newcomers and veterans alike justification to pick up the controller and try out this brutal, strangely thoughtful, meat-grinder for themselves.