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.