Just a shot away
Where Gears of War's multiplayer comes into its own is the realisation that even intimate knowledge of the maps isn't enough. Death is always one mis-step away. It may well be a game that's all about cover, but there's always a weakness to wherever you position yourself. As a result, there's a tension to the gameplay that absolutely requires co-operation and teamwork, and knowing which weapons work in given positions. Getting people to watch your back while you lie in wait next to the doorway makes for a compelling game when it all goes to plan. Revving the chainsaw just at the right time and sawing an unwary opponent in half just as they stride through a door - well, Freud would have a field day.
Co-operation is, without question, absolute paramount to getting any enjoyment out of Gears of War. The four-on-four team-based dynamic can work a charm as long as you all have your microphones switched on and can be bothered to communicate with one another. Having people on your side who all know the map's weaknesses and can inform you where the enemy is likely to appear can make a huge difference when you're an unfortunate n00b.
And even then, death itself is a lesson, with a great spectator mode that gives you a chance to observe the tactics of your more experienced team-mates, noting the way that certain players whip out the Gnasher shotgun at close quarters to deal with those chainsaw-bayonet-wielding sods that try and go for the g(l)ory kill. Or the clinical efficiency that certain players pull off a melee grenade kill by ramming it into the body of a shocked opponent, or the sniper specialists who manage to pull off headshots seemingly at will. All the while, you and the other dead players are busy shouting in joy or utter despair as the often-thrilling spectacle plays out in front of you. In the dead space, no-one can hear you scream - which is probably just as well, given the amount of smack talking going on.
Team deathmatch to the power of three
As you get into the game and start learning the various maps, you start to appreciate the differences between the three multiplayer modes - however subtle they might appear in the first place. In particular, Warzone and Execution feel like the same team deathmatch mode to begin with, but the ability to revive yourself in Execution mode (by hammering the A button) after being injured actually makes a big difference to how the match tends to play out. Whereas Warzone gives you the chance to kill foes from a safe distance, Execution essentially forces players to go for the close quarters kill in most instances, putting the aggressors at risk of being ambushed by opposition laying in wait - possibly using their own team-mate as bait. As such, you have to rely on your team-mates a lot more - not only in the hope that they'll be kind enough to run over to you and revive you in the first place (a risky business in itself in the heat of battle), but that they can help finish off downed opponents before they manage to revive themselves. Assassination differentiates itself from the other two by assigning a leader to each team (one's Hoffman, the other RAAM). The winner of the round is the one who kills the other team's leader, which often leads to quite short rounds if you end up with a gung-ho leader who wades in and gets shot early on. In a sense, it's the most team-focused of the three modes, but it's also by far the least popular for that very reason. Which leads me to my next, and most important beef with Gears of War's multiplayer shenanigans.
The problem with Gears of War right now is that it's only a team game in theory. It sounds great talking about the fun that you can have when you've got a good team with you, but in practice the servers are currently populated with an alarming number of selfish players (notably in ranked matches) that are merely obsessed with getting their TrueSkill rank up and going for as many kills as possible. In one astonishing incident, I was actually booted out of a match for supposedly 'stealing' the host's kills, when in fact I thought I was doing the decent thing of being clinical and finishing opponents off before they were revived. I pointed out incredulously that it was a team game, and that surely all that mattered was that our team won, but sadly, such incidents are not rare in the realm of Gears of War's evidently younger audience. In short, the ranked games are a mess, full of whining kids with nothing better to do than bitch, swear, boast and talk absolute non-stop gibberish. It's a scary glimpse into the void of where we're at right now if people really are this demented.
It could have so easily been avoided, though.
Why on Earth didn't Epic put clan options in the game? Sure, you can host your own match with private slots and get your own buddies together in an unofficial clan, but the whole process of actually finding good team-mates isn't made any easier when the end of a ranked match results in everyone disappearing and having to start afresh - before you've even had time to make a note of who the guy was on your team that wasn't a moron. And so it goes on. You're then left with the lottery of playing with another random selection of people who may or may not end up being a bunch of idiots who have no desire to communicate or play as a team. When that happens - which is with alarming frequency - the game goes to pot. My advice? If you find someone good and not a jerk and evidently knows the game well, definitely make a note of their gamertag.