The beta test used to be something that only really existed within PC gaming - a sort of playable demo prior to a game's release, principally used to fine-tune multiplayer features like weapons and collaborative gameplay, on buggy, unfishished maps.
By playing them, gamers became akin to lab rats, let loose into a virtual playing field of glitchy sprites, soundtracked by deranged screams of, "OH MY GOD, WHY IS THAT THING I'M TRYING TO SHOOT TWITCHING LIKE SOME SORT OF DRUNK CHICKEN?!?!?!?!?" Often they were fun - the World of Warcraft beta is an obvious example of that - but fun in the same way that banging your head repeatedly on a brick wall will eventually result in some sort of head rush if you keep at it long enough.
We can report that this pre-release beta has got (not twitchy, presumably sober) chickens in it too. But in all other respects, the Gears of War 3 beta is unlike any other beta that's ever preceeded it.
In truth, it exists for marketing purposes as much as it does testing, yet the Gears 3 beta is so good, it's almost undeserving of the word that punctuates its name. It's one of the most fun multiplayer experiences we can ever remember having.
Moreover, it's the most mouthwatering of appetisers for one of the year's most exciting releases still to come. The beta features three modes (Team Deathmatch, King Of The Hill and Capture The Leader - a neat variant on capture the flag which is won by grabbing the opposing team's leader, then holding them as a meat-shield for 30 seconds) as well as four new arenas for combat (Checkout, Old Town, Trenches, and our favourite, Thrashball, set in the now ruined home of Augustus Cole's team, the Hanover Cougars, the scoreboard of which not only displays both teams' kill counts but can be utilised for a sublime glamour kill).
All have features unique to their terrain. Set in the Seren deadlands, Trenches features Locust-built tunnels and zero visibility sandstorms that pass every few minutes. Old Town has - yes! - chickens you can - um - curb stomp.
There's a bunch of special unlockables you can only get by playing the Beta too. These transfer over to the full games release, and include a version of the Cole Train in his thrashball get up, a unique 'Beta tester' medal' and a gold-plated Retro lancer (along with a new double-barrelled shotgun, the best new weapon on show) that you can charge your opponent with, hoist them up on the attached machete, then watch them drain of body fluids while laughing like some sort of maniacal take on that Sharpe bloke off the telly.
All of which provide clues to the future Gears story; the Retro lancer and the like are weapons that look thrown together in desperation by the game's characters, the maps are locations spread far and wide, which appears only to add to the "journey" that Gears Executive Producer Rod Fergusson told us Marcus Fenix goes on in the forthcoming 'real' game.
In it a ramshackle and depleted COG face the Horde once more - as well as a new threat, the Lambent - on a planet where the last human city has now fallen. Gears of War 3 will be humanity's last stand, now due 20 September.
And, if you were excited about the game before, you'll be delirious after spending some time with this here Gears beta...
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