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Playing games with the people who made them is like eating with a chef. It can be both intimidating and enlightening all at the same time. If the gamer and the developer each have the right attitude, it’s possible for each of them to learn things about the game neither would have otherwise discovered. We got a small taste of that this week when we sat down with the lead level designer of Gears of War 3, Jim Brown.

Jim walked us through all the new changes to the game, and gave us a chance to play through several of the new levels and modes. Come mid-April, Jim and the rest of the team at Epic want to extend the experience to everyone through the Gears of War 3 multiplayer beta. We spoke with Jim about the new modes and weapons, the various design tweaks, and the new persistent character elements. You can read all about the new changes in our recent interview. Here we’re just going to talk about how the game actually plays.

Team deathmatch may be a new mode for Gears, but it’s the heart and soul of the first-person genre, so it’s good to see here. Our first map is Oldtown, one of the ones which will be considered for inclusion in the upcoming beta. It’s a small urban map with lots of low walls and corners and stairs that reward players who are good at fighting up close. I decided to give the new Retro Lancer a try. This weapon does a lot of damage but has a fairly short range, but the level seemed to favor it. Better yet, it came with a standard knife bayonet, which I was sure would send my Locust enemies fleeing in terror.

Since this is a new map, I wanted to quickly get my bearings before charging into certain death. There are tools you can use to keep track of what’s going on in the battles. First, pressing the BACK button automatically brings up an overhead map that shows you the location of friendly players and weapon spawns, as well as the names of the map’s locations. So for instance, if you say, “I need help in the alley,” new players can just open up the map and see right where the alley is.

Most of my allies seemed to be heading for the middle of the map, where there was a large open-air market, complete with a handful of fruit and fish stands. As we entered from one side, the Locusts came in from the other and the fight started. While we might have been content to hide behind cover until the Locusts rushed us, we knew the Locusts could flank our position by taking one of the side routes to our side of the market.

As we traded shots across the market, I noticed the environments are much more dynamic now. Not only can you have a lot of fun blasting the watermelons on the carts, but with enough fire you can also actually destroy some cover elements now. It’s not on the level of Red Faction of Battlefield 3, but it definitely makes the fight feel more destructive. I just feel sorry for the poor chickens who found themselves caught in the middle of the fight. If Gears of War 3 taught me anything, it’s that chickens are the true victims of war.

While I was busy shooting melons and chickens, sure enough, some Locust players were sneaking around the side. Before I realized it, I was down. In the previous games, players would have to tap A in order to stay alive long enough to be revived. Now, you can tap A to get a bit of a second wind and get back up after being down. You won’t be able to fight, but it’s as good a chance as you’ll ever get to crawl to safety. Unfortunately, it didn’t make much of a difference for me and I had soon earned the ribbon for being the first person to die in the match.

Gears of War 3 gives players a chance to change weapons before respawning, but I was sure the Retro Lancer wasn’t my problem. I dropped back into the map and decided to seek safety in numbers. Using the game’s Tac Com system, you can see a blue outline of your allies, regardless of where they are. Seeing a big blue clump around the market, I decided to head there.

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Coming up, I saw my guys pushing down the right hand side of the market, but I also noticed a Locust soldier crouching behind a wall on the left. He had a good shot at my allies as they were advancing. In the past, you’d have to shout out a clear description of this danger to the folks on your team, but in Gears of War 3, you can actually tag enemies to show them to your allies. Simply get a good line of sight on an enemy and hit the left thumbstick to make them visible for a few seconds to all your allies.

I rushed into the market, hoping that I’d have enough ground to build the momentum I needed for a truly devastating execution. Sure enough, the charge bar turned red and I rammed my bayonet straight into the stomach of the only enemy stupid enough to still be standing out in the open. I raised him up in the air and shook his body around with my bayonet poking out of his back. I lowered my rifle and his lifeless body slipped to the ground. My allies had taken advantage of my charge to rush other nearby enemies. One was down right beside me, so I picked him up and used him for cover as I approached the far side of the market.

Jim showed me another new move. Hitting up on the D-pad brings up the grenades, which you can now use for a bag and tag attack. Here, you basically stick your grenade in the enemy’s pocket and then kick him forward, hopefully towards some of his friends. Then the grenade goes off and, well, you get the idea.

While the enemies were recovering, Jim took the time to tell me about another neat trick. There’s a new mantle kick in the game. Where enemies of opposite sides of the same piece of cover have just sort of had to wildly fire at one another in the past, Gears of War 3 lets players mantle over cover and kick enemies on the other side. It stuns them momentarily and shoves them back, giving a chance to really let them have it. You can even mantle kick enemies who just happen to be standing too close to cover as well.

We kept playing like this for several minutes, slowly ticking away at each other’s spawn counters. As they neared zero Jim explained that the game would transition into survival mode. With no possible respawns left, each side enters an elimination mode. The intensity picks up, as each death is a player’s last, and a lone holdout can snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Of course, that wasn’t exactly my experience…

After a few rounds of this, we moved on to the new Capture the Leader mode. This is like Capture the Flag, but in this case the flag is one of the players. As luck would have it, I pulled the leader role on the first round. I had all the same abilities as the other players, but I also had an additional bonus to my Tac Com. Now instead of just seeing friendly players, I could see the location of all players. This ability was very helpful in avoiding capture by the enemies but, of course, all players happen to know where the leaders are at all times. While you can anticipate enemy movements somewhat, they’re still going to be coming at you with speed and focus.

Finally, we played several rounds of King of the Hill. This new version is much more straightforward than in previous Gears games. It’s essentially like a much more focused version of Team Deathmatch. Since all the players are competing to gain control of a specific location, the action tends to be much more concentrated than in deathmatch.

Gears of War 3 is already very polished, but Epic hopes it can still benefit from additional time in development. Fortunately, Epic’s balance sheet gives it the resources it needs to take the time to balance and refine the game as much as possible. The beta will be a big part of that, letting Epic see not only what the community’s response is, but also how players perform with the new modes and weapons.

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