Gears of War 3 multiplayer preview: Dedicated to the fans

When Gears of War 2 launched, its mutliplayer community quickly singled out two distinct issues: the nerfed shotgun and a mess of glitches, including a host exploit that was allowing unscrupulous players to gain an unfair advantage. Epic would eventually address these issues through title updates, but one serious problem remained: all of those damn cheaters.

These ne'er-do-wells plagued the community until the bottom fell out, leaving only a dedicated core group of players. You won't find too many folks playing much Gears 2 these days.

For Gears of Wars 3 multiplayer, Epic is adding dedicated servers, the community's most requested feature, which design director Cliff Bleszinski describes as "the best way" to combat cheating.
%Gallery-117484% "It's the best way, it is absolutely the best way," Bleszinski insists of the dedicated servers. "Look at WoW; when you actually have a server farm, suddenly everything changes quite a bit."

Online multiplayer developers have long clashed with hackers. "Counter-Strike back in the day," Bleszinski reflected, "they had to go back and forth with all of the wall hacks, and it eventually became a running gag. There's almost a metagame of 'how can I circumvent the system; how can I hack this and ruin everyone's experiences,' which I wish we could find a positive outlook for, but it doesn't look like that'll happen anytime soon." The solution, then, has got to be dedicated servers, according to Bleszinski, and he's glad Microsoft is on board for Gears 3.

"Getting Microsoft to invest in this kind of infrastucture -- you don't see it with a lot of shooters online -- it brings a lot of good will, which, to be frank, is necessary after you look at the perception of Gears 2's online play."

Playing Gear 3 multiplayer at a press event this week, it was impossible to grasp the exact impact of dedicated servers. While producer Rod Fergusson confirmed that the matches were being run on dedicated servers, the event was, by nature, a small sample of players. As an active Gears player myself, I did note that I would've liked to have been able to see a real-time indication of host migration built into the UI.

Of course, servers aside, I was excited about some of the other changes to the multiplayer. First of all, there's now more customization: Players can choose between the standard or (new) "Retro" Lancer, or the single- or double-barreled shotguns at the start of each match and again while dead, waiting to respawn. Some weapon behavior has changed for the better, too. The Gorgon Burst Pistol, for instance, is now fully automatic.

The Tac-Com on-screen navigational system has also been overhauled, ditching the cursor-based location data of old for a snazzy x-ray vision-type display that reavels ally locations in the environment. Tac-Com also now shows weapon spawns, and a new overhead mini-map displays all of this data in real-time, as well.

My favorite change to the multiplayer is definitely the restructuring of the setup. Before, the game was broken up into rounds: a group of players would search for a match, connect, load the map, and then play out each round against another team. A lot of times, you'd have to suffer through long-drawn-out rounds because a player on the other team was hiding or not actively playing. This waiting game was further compounded by the wait-time between rounds.

In Gears 3, each team now has a pool of shared lives, which is depleted as players respawn. If that pool hits zero, your team loses -- and the first team to win two rounds wins the match.

This subtle change really seems to have addressed the pacing issues. Throughout my admittedly brief time with the game, there wasn't an instance of waiting to play that exceeded 30 seconds, even between matches. The engagement is further augmented by constant on-screen awards: milestones, badges and other mini-achievements. You now earn assists, too, which should help quell some of the "kill-stealing" that has irked a lot of players in the past.

Still, this taste of Gears 3 multiplayer was ultimately familiar -- in the most comforting sense. Epic has taken care not to alienate fans, essentially iterating the parts of the multiplayer that they love best. The true test, however, will be when the multiplayer beta launches and the community pushes the limits of the dedicated servers. Only then will we know if Gears of War 3 has the potential to do what its predecessors could not: Keep the rotten apples from spoling this barrel full of fun.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.