It's impossible to play Gears of War 3's multiplayer beta without hearing an internal narration from Cliff Bleszinski. Roadie-running from our spawn, shotgun cocked, the first thing we see is a chicken. "That's no chicken, that's a mother****ing Gears chicken!"
You shoot; the bird explodes with a comical blast. Blood and feathers coat the screen. "Ka-boooom, right!?!"
Right. Gears 3 is a triple-quarter pounder: all the cover-dancing gib fireworks you know and love, smothered in an overhauled progression system with more weapons, characters, unlockables and screen-filling stattage. Gears of War 2 had its own progression system but this is in a different league. After every game ribbons and medals cascade onto the screen, thousands of points pour into the experience bank and progression towards other goals is soberly noted.
It's still about beefy blokes shooting each other with shotguns, though. Any veteran of Epic's series will be instantly at home with Gears 3; the default weapons are carried over as-is, their feedback still puts hairs on your chest, the movement and controls are identical and everything living contains a butcher's shop. Clearly, it ain't broke.
But when Gears 2 launched, something else did need work: the matchmaking. Over many updates Epic have made Gears 2's online unrecognisable, but many players still bear the scars of its botched launch – when the matchmaking worked painfully slowly, if at all.
Betas for games this big can seem like marketing stunts, but when it comes to Gears 3 it's about making a necessary statement: not this time. It's a chance to hit the ground running, recast its rock-solid gunplay within a better multiplayer framework and prove the COGs can keep up with the CODs.
If you've played a shooter in the last few years the structure will feel familiar. Gears 3 doesn't do anything especially original, but its persistent awards and rewards cover almost every action you perform in the game – the focus is on the messily homicidal, naturally – and only occasionally seem anodyne.
The beta's levelling is fast, with frequent rewards of playable characters and gun decals. Stats that cast you in a good light are regularly cherry-picked. For a Gears game it's remarkably civil, and while it may not blow anyone's mind it does the job.
Cast your mind back to the gaudy, clunky menu screens of old – gone. Gears 3's menus and stat-troves are slick with not a blood-red background to be seen. The matchmaking options are simply presented, easy to navigate and fast at getting you in there, with around a half a minute wait average.
When players drop out, AI bots instantly fill in – they look like absolute chumps when watched with spectator cam, but in-game they're a decent enough substitute. The switch to dedicated servers is clearly working wonders.
The beta's modes – team deathmatch, capture the leader and king of the hill – are refinements of old ones, but they're pretty great all the same. Team deathmatch starts each team off with 20 shared lives and sticks both counts at the top left of the screen. When those are exhausted, there's no more respawning. Old hands will recognise characteristics of Warzone and Execution, but this bleed-out of shared resources provides the perfect foundation for Gears' most all-out gunning.
During rounds, when heads are banging all over the map and there's a bloodbath on every corner, there'll be a point where one team notices the number getting a bit low. They'll start sticking together, reviving each other, and trying to pick off stragglers rather than engage head-on.
To say it happens like this in every game would be an exagerration, but it definitely happens, and makes the final minutes of every match much more tense than a simple numbers race. The addition of spotting enemies, a la Battlefield, comes into its own in these siege wars.
The beta has four maps, all dotted with small destructible elements – pillars, boxes and the odd massive one-off. The smaller destructible bits aren't exactly going to give Dice sleepless nights, but in the frantic pace of a Gears match losing cover under heavy fire is a jolt.
The showpiece moments are gimmicks, but they're good gimmicks. On the Thrashball level, a wrecked stadium, a gigantic scoreboard hovers right over the middle of the level. Halfway through the match its cable can be shot through, bringing the lot crashing down.
Even more unusual is the sandstorm that occasionally whips up on Trenches, reducing visibility on a cramped map to near-zero. Instantly, everyone gets the shotgun out. You can't knock it.
Capture the leader is a neat variant on the more usual assassin gametypes. Iinstead of killing the enemy team's leader you're trying to hold them hostage while protecting your own. Each team's leader is assigned at the start of the round, their location flagged for everyone at all times, and to win you've got to hold them for 30 seconds.
This leads to massive face-offs, with both teams dragging leaders back-and-forth across no-man's land while an army's worth of munitions gets emptied into same. It's not quite as punchy as team deathmatch but thanks to equal teams the battles can be absolute carnage, with both leaders permanently incapacitated and dragged all over the place as gibs and mortars fly everywhere.
King of the Hill doesn't seem to have the same charms as these two – although to be fair, during our time with the beta the teams have had more bots than players. Sure that won't happen at launch. This is bread-and-butter stuff – a ring appears somewhere, the team standing in it racks up points, the ring moves occasionally.
It all works, and the killing's as fun as ever, but in this mode one team seemed to get on top and dominate: perhaps because Gears' cover system is very suited for defending a fixed position.
There's one thing you do noticeably less of in every mode: watch. Gears has previously had a penchant for main playlist modes where one hasty death saw you watching others play for long stretches of time – here it's 15-second respawns and the end of the round showdown.
Gears 3's more subtle changes correct previous flaws: a new move sees you automatically whack an opponent when you're jumping over cover in proximity, stunning them and letting you get the first shot in. In combination with a sawed-off shotgun, it can serve up the messiest multikills.
It's not a game-changing ability, but it keeps the flow of the combat going – the clunkiest bit of Gears has always been those close-up cover battles, messy combinations of hip-firing, prancing and dodgy camerawork.
The sawed-off is a welcome addition to Gears 3's basic loadouts: the choice isn't huge, but these are Man Guns. There's yer basic chainsaw lancer, same as ever, or a retro-styled alternative which is better over short distances and has a more stab-based melee (which can be executed while running).
The classic shotgun is twinned against the sawed-off, which needs to be very close to work (and only has one shot) but turns things into mist. The most radical of the lot, though, and especially as a loadout option, is the Hammerburst – which can be fired in first-person with iron sights.
Gears of Duty? Thankfully not: firing in firstperson is activated by zooming in, and the speed and precision of the shots feels like a typical Gears rifle. Though it's definitely a precision tool, it takes quite a few shots to do serious damage and it's not capable of strafing multiple enemies to death in a single clip. Aiming in first-person in Gears doesn't feel much like a first-person shooter; it just feels like Gears's sniper zoom has been pulled back a bit.
A quick word for our favourite new weapon, the problem-solver that is the tunneling mine. Teams that bunch up and camp can be an absolute nightmare in Gears: this beauty, when aimed in their direction, moves under the ground at a lick then pops up automatically near a body and blows the commie bastards to bits.
Aiming it is more leap of faith than science, but when it surfaces among three Locust, gives a little beep and then sends bits flying everywhere while awards clunk down your screen like match results... Well. You do feel like your balls are a bit bigger.
The execution moves, though, have been ramped up to daft levels. If you've downed an enemy, the Y button executes them – a series staple. In Gears 3, high level players can extend out these beatings – so you're occasionally treated to one of those 15-second respawns while watching a guy beat your corpse with your torn-off arm while grunting with the exertion.
It's kind of funny the first time. But when it keeps on cropping up at the end of rounds, with everyone watching... You just wish they'd get on with it.
It's there, of course, because beating someone beyond senselessness is a very manly thing to do, and this is a very manly game. The COG characters are manly beefsteaks, though this time around Epic have decided to emancipate Anya, the blonde secretary from previous games, by strapping her in a COG outfit and crafting an incredibly detailed, shiny arse on it. Play as a female character 10 times and you'll bag the 'Battle Mistress' medal, we noticed. Very droll.
But what else do you expect from a game that has a weapon called the mulcher on a map called Oldtown? Gears 3 ain't new, or subtle. How different is it really? In terms of the changes that franchises like this can go through, which is to say pretty limited, we're not even talking jetpacks. If you've played any Gears of War game, imagine it playing a little smoother and looking a little better – that's what this multiplayer beta is.
But what it lacks in flair it makes up for with its meaty interplay of weapons and positioning, a formula oft-copied but never bettered, and the sheer gusto it can bring to an exploding chicken. Most importantly of all, if this beta's anything to go by, Gears 3's multiplayer will have an incredibly important quality at launch. It'll work.