Preview: Gears of War Ultimate Multiplayer Beta

Although Microsoft announced the Xbox One's backwards compatibility update, that's not going to stop them putting out a remaster of Gears of War, the game that helped put the Xbox 360 on the map. The critically acclaimed third-person shooter, itself a debut of the newest version of the Unreal Engine, created a franchise that quickly transcended video games as books, comics, a board game, and a movie (seemingly trapped in development hell) occupied shelves faster than a Locust invasion. The Coalition, formerly Black Tusk Studios, has been given the reigns to develop Gears of War Ultimate Edition. Apart from giving the game a visual upgrade, they're adding in content exclusive to the PC version, new achievements, and "modernized" multiplayer. In its current form, the Gears of War beta is strictly devoted to multiplayer. Available to those that register on the game's website, the timed demo features, at the time of this writing, Team Deathmatch against eight players in five maps. My experience with Gears of War extends to its campaigns and beloved Horde Mode. Even though I was used to the slow movement of the characters, it made combating human players all the more interesting. It took some getting used to but I was surprised to discover that the pacing means there is little need for twitch-based gaming. What also surprised me was how quickly my muscle memory recalled the game's unique (for the time) controls. Perfecting the active reload, moving in, out and over cover, chainsawing poor saps in half with the Lancer, such tactics and control scheme came back to me faster than a rocket powered boomerang.

Team Deathmatch is the only game mode available and it can be played socially or competitively, where scores and achievements are saved and posted to the in-game leaderboards. Getting into a game takes little time and while the servers collect and divide players into teams, they are free to vote on maps and choose character and weapon skins. There are different paint jobs to choose from, many of them are so vivid and bright that they radically stand out against the game's trademark earthy color tones. Character skins are modeled after prominent figures from Gears of War like Marcus Fenix, Carmine, General Karn, and RAAM. Whoever you choose to represent yourself in the field, no one character performs better than the other. In fact, when all players enter the battlefield, they are equals, though it's easier to tell the more seasoned players from the new folks..

The five maps featured in the beta are pulled from memorable sequences in the main game. They're not very big but instead are stuffed with cover, so there's no excuse for not finding a safe place to avoid fire. Because of the small size, maps are easier to navigate, strategize positions, and locate choke points. Players are equipped with a basic loadout of weapons (the Lancer, a shotgun, pistol, and smoke grenades) but better tools, like the sniper rifle and davestating Hammer of Dawn, can be procured on site. Spend enough time with each map and the initial charge becomes a race to find these weapons to gain an edge over the competition. So, while all players have the same capabilities no matter which side or skin they play, those with intimate knowledge of the maps can easily dominate a game.

Team Deathmatch is built around the concept of killing the other team to deplete their respawn points. Both sides start with ten points and when those reach zero, the round is over and the winning team is awarded a point. The first team to score two points wins the overall match. For as plodding movement can be in Gears of War, these matches can end pretty quickly. To shake things up, respawn locations for both teams swap at random intervals (there doesn't appear to be a visible player action to influence the shift). This makes it easy for newly revived teammates to flank the enemy from the other side of the map and dish out surprise kills. Personally, I'm not too thrilled with this ability. It's hard enough to determine player positions without a mini map and there's nothing that sucks more than getting shot in the back of the head while engaged in a cover-based firefight.

In situations like this, death is instant. After all, there's no way to heal a disintegrated head. In a regular firefight, however, players shoot each other until one of them is knocked down in true Gears of War fashion. Rendered helpless, there's nothing to do but either wait for a teammate to revive you or mash on the A button to stop bleeding out. For the most part, expecting a heal after getting downed is a pointless unless your team is tightly knit and aware of each other's existence. One more hit at this stage and the player is killed for good. All the player's I've encountered enjoy adding insult to injury in the moments by performing perverse executions, like shooting me with a shotgun at point blank range or the good ol' curb stomp. I've grown to loathe it because it happens to me a lot. When I do it, however, it's fun!

The beta is a chance for The Coalition to show off their development skills at handling an online multiplayer environment. It's also an opportunity to take stock of the game's visuals, especially on the robust Xbox One. In that regard, they have put together a very pretty good vertical slice of what the remaster will look like at launch. The Unreal Engine is phenomenal as ever and is capable of providing intense visuals and fantastic lighting effects. Based on the five multiplayer locations, the visuals are a noticeable step higher than the 2006 original. On the multiplayer level, the game runs at a smooth 60 frames per second. It's almost too smooth. When I set my character into a sprint, which lowers the camera as it bobs along close behind, I found myself feeling nauseous!

Gears of War was a fun, violent, and gritty sci-fi war romp that set the world on fire nine years ago. It's hard to say how the remaster will recapture the zeitgeist but as far as multiplayer is concerned, the franchise is in good hands. The multiplayer may not be as fast as, say, Modern Warfare or Halo, but there is still a great amount of fun to be had.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.