In common with the vast majority of UE3 titles there's a native 720p resolution with no anti-aliasing. Gears 2 appeared to feature 2x multi-sampling anti-aliasing on some of its render passes, an effect that was then blitzed by later effects, giving a 0x AA effect with just a few smoothed-off edges remaining. In the new sequel it looks as though UE3 doesn't bother wasting GPU cycles on an effect that is mostly killed off by additional processing, and it's the right thing to do in freeing up Xenos resources for effects that do matter.
Despite the lack of any form of AA in the beta code, it has to be said that overall image quality in the beta is excellent, and jaggies are hardly an issue at all; this is mostly down to a combination of the artwork style lacking extreme contrast and also in the accomplished post-processing effects. Indeed, if anything we see an improvement over Gears 2 here - the majority of the older game's specular aliasing issues are all but gone.
Another element where we see clear improvement is in how the engine handles LODs and texture streaming. In stark contrast to what we saw recently in Crysis 2, there's virtually no discernible geometry pop-up, and texture streaming appears to be smooth and more accomplished than in previous Gears titles, with just a hint of it kicking in occasionally at spawn points. Here we see the blended mip-mapping approach introduced in Gears of War 2 being utilised, but the transitions appear to be much faster than they were previously. LODs are in use, especially apparent in the characters and objects, but you've got to work really hard to see any popping as the game moves between lower and higher detail models.
Gameplay-wise, comparisons with Gears 2 as an overall package are obviously going to be limited right now. The beta includes a quartet of multiplayer maps and no single-player content at all. Similar to Killzone 3, it's difficult to escape the feeling that most of the spectacular stuff has been saved for the single-player campaign, where the developers are much more in control of the action and how much the engine can handle at any given point.
From a multiplayer perspective, Epic has done some excellent work in improving and refining the Gears 2 online experience from the day the game shipped, with a total of six Title Updates adding important elements such as bots and dedicated servers. The studio has made much of Gears 3's support for dedicated servers, but it's really nothing new - improving the way the game plays online has clearly been a long term project and the developer is to be applauded on rolling out core improvements to the existing Gears 2 userbase as opposed to hording them all for the sequel.
Interestingly, however, on a few games of the Gears 3 beta we saw host migration in effect - something we'd only really expect on a traditional Xbox Live P2P set-up, suggesting that Epic uses both systems in tandem, or else that the dedicated servers are utilised in a manner somewhat different to the traditional set-up.
In addition to the iterative changes, there are clear improvements to the gameplay too. The visual upgrades to the renderer help the game feel significantly smoother and maybe even a touch crisper in response, with some elements - such as finishing off downed opponents - now much easier to pull off.
In general, the gameplay feels more faster-paced and while none of the game modes are new, Epic has made efforts to shake things up a bit. For example, Team Deathmatch now has a set number of respawns per team, as opposed to the single life players had in Gears 2. This makes the initial stages of the round a bit of a blood bath, but at least an early kill won't lock you out of the whole round and as the action progresses and lives fall to dangerously low levels, survival comes to the fore and resuscitating fallen comrades becomes increasingly important.
It's clear that Epic has also done a lot of work on the game balance, and a key element in this has been in tweaking the weaponry. The sawed-off shotgun seems to be annoying many with its somewhat excessive reload time, but used precisely at short range it remains a fearsomely powerful piece of kit, and if that doesn't take your fancy, the Retro Lancer also seems to be particularly suited to close-up combat. The Hammerburst gets its customary per-game refresh, going from a weapon with a three-round burst in Gears 1 to a semi-automatic in Gears 2 with a small zoom, while in the new game it now features full-on iron-sights.
Right now it's difficult to judge whether Gears 3's online gameplay is more a case of evolution than revolution - after all, Epic may well be keeping much of its powder dry for a full release that is still months away, but the overall feeling you get from the beta is that the studio has upped the technology stakes significantly, making a series of improvements to the way Gears played that will both please its core players and make the game a touch more appealing to newcomers.
Similarly, from a technological perspective, while what we have here is just a taste of what it is to come, it's obvious that the improvements made to the Unreal Engine 3 technology are considerable - far more so perhaps than what we saw in the recent Bulletstorm. This is not only good news for us as gamers, but also for Epic's licensees too who stand to reap the benefits in their own UE3-based titles going forward.
Thanks to Alex Goh and David Bierton for their valued input into this piece.