First things first: this isn't a hands-on with or any kind of preview of the Gears of War 3 campaign. The gameplay footage from the Microsoft conference is as much as you, me or anyone else is getting. Might as well watch it one more time, eh?
As is fast becoming the custom for action game royalty, the campaign stays under tight wraps until the very last moment while conveniently spoiler-free supporting multiplayer modes step forward to fill demo pods and journalists' column inches. Last night, Bungie let Firefight do the heavy lifting at an E3 party for Halo: Reach. Tonight, we're in the exact same plush art deco bar and the exact same scenario with Reach's even more coy stable-mate, Gears of War 3.
The difference this time, however, is that we get to play an all-new multiplayer mode, and it's an original and hugely entertaining one, too. It's called Beast.
This, as a helpful Epic rep points out, is Horde in reverse. It's the players as the bad guys, the various hulking, skittering and loping (mostly hulking) monsters of the Locust horde. Five players take on waves of AI humans, clearing them against time limits.
It's far from an exact mirror image, though. Unlike Horde, you have infinite respawns and can select a new character to play each time you die. Your ammo simply recharges after a moment when it runs out. And you're unlocking new monsters as you go, both in general outside the match by ranking up, and within the match from wave to wave.
The Locust are split into four groups - Beasts, Humanoids, Boomers and Drones. There are five per group, going by the incomplete tree in the demo, so 20 in all, and you move along branches to unlock them. You'll need to dedicate yourself to a particular path over the course of both your career and a match if you want to bring its biggest, baddest character into play.
But you'll want to think carefully before you do, because it costs Tokens to spawn a new bad guy, and the more powerful the Locust, the more expensive it is to spawn as him. Tokens are basically scores acquired in moment-to-moment play, conferred in greater quantities the more humans you kill per spawn (or if you bag one of the game's COG heroes, who are effectively tough-skinned bosses in this mode). The Tokens for your current character are refunded at the end of the round, giving you a strong incentive to keep a more expensive and powerful spawn alive on the battlefield.
In the E3 demo I tried, we were well funded with Tokens and unlocks so we could try a broad range of characters, but it's easy to see how this simple but clever system brings attractive elements of strategy and gambling to a mode that, moment to moment, is all about gloriously dunderheaded action.
In the demo, the game was locking out certain selections in each wave, forcing us to explore the tactical permutations of certain arrangements of bad guys. Combined with the randomised spawn points of the humans (scattered in the open and under-armed in early waves, entrenched and heavily defended by laser tripwires and machine-gun posts in later ones), this ensured the games never played out the same.
It's already evident that Beast is an extremely well put-together mode, and the map we played on - a rather idyllic collection of golden, crumbling ruins - packed a lot of pretty variation into a relatively small space. But the real stars of this creature feature are, of course, the monsters themselves.
The basic unit, always available in the games I played, is the Ticker, the little skittering bug that scurries across the map and then self-destructs. Intended by Epic just as a means to ensure players always had a way to earn more Tokens, no matter how broke, the Ticker is actually the most popular choice by far in playtests, says the Epic rep.
Because it's cheap, or because it's fun? It's definitely a lot of fun. The short charge time on your blast means that using the critter is a matter of precise timing. Next in the same Beast class you get the Wretch, who lopes around, can vault over cover and has an agile dodge, but most rely on fairly weak melee blows. Later on, there's the Serapede, a low-profile creepy-crawly who lacks offensive power but is very hard for the humans to spot.
The chunky, golem-like Boomers are heavy and slow but have pounding runs available on the A button. The basic Butcher has a devastating melee attack using his sword thing, the Savage Boomer throws the new burrowing underground grenade that's in Gears 3, the enormous Grinder touts a mini-gun while the rather ponderous and difficult-to-handle Mauler possesses a shield and whirls a mace around his head. They're all simply too big to use cover.
The only Drone we get to try is the base unit, the Grenadier Elite. He handles much like one of the game's human protagonists and carries one grenade round and the devastating shotgun (long-range weapons are in the minority in Beast, at least with the creatures available in the demo).
The Grenadier Elite was available alongside the base humanoid in the game, the Kantus, with its long tails and vaguely papal head. As well as possessing a fully-automatic machine pistol (a new weapon), the Kantus is actually a healer with the ability to revive downed comrades, although he needs to stand stock-still while he does it. The various monster combinations bring out some interesting class-style gameplay, says Mr Epic, and we believe it.
We also get to play two further fantastic Humanoid characters. One is the Armored Kantus, a wicked bipedal porcupine of a thing that is almost impervious to bullet fire, rolls up into a Sonic-style dash attack (albeit much spikier and more painful) and, brilliantly, dual-wields giant six-shooters.
The final character in the demo is the famous Berserker, an almost unkillable but frighteningly expensive tower of rock with devastating melee attacks. Epic's come up with a brilliant solution for balancing this over-powered nightmare; they've made it almost impossible to see while controlling her. Her vision's clouded (by berserker rage, presumably) so you can only see a little around the edges of the screen, very little in the middle-distance, and the rest is obscured by her gigantic bulk. Berserker players consequently stumble around like they're mad and stupid and need to be guided home by their team-mates.
They amazing thing about Beast is how well, and uniquely, all these creatures handle. Even with 20 individual characters to create (by our reckoning) for this one mode, Epic has taken lavish care over each. Their controls schemes are often quite simple, but they each have their own spin on that rock-solid cartoon heft that Gears does so well, and they each need to be played in a very particular and wholly individual rhythm. They're bursting with personality and stark but interesting design, and more to the point, they're all terrific fun to play.
Beast has great momentum and full matches - Epic is currently considering 10 to 15 waves - should reach an epic crescendo. It manages to replicate much of what was so irresistible about Horde whilst feeling strikingly different and opening new avenues of tactical options and long-term reward. However much you wanted to see the campaign, there's no feeling fobbed off at this.
Gears of War 3 will be released exclusively for Xbox 360 on 8th April 2011.