Microsoft has a big showing at GamesCom this year, with a whole host of new titles on offer, such as Kinect Star Wars, Dance Central 2, Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary Edition and, of course, Gears of War 3. And according to Epic Games president, Mike Capps, it's "the best Gears game yet", with an extra six months polish and a surplus of modes, from the rip-roaring campaign and addictive multiplayer arena, to the all new and improved Horde and Beast modes, which we got hands-on with.
Once we'd quite settled into the cramped press room where Microsoft had hidden away Capps and a producer, Epic's president explained that the extra six months afforded to the team - Gears 3 was originally scheduled for April before being pushed back to September - has allowed Epic to add and iterate to their hearts content, spare no expense. "Gears of War 3 is f*****g awesome," exclaimed Capps. "Although you probably shouldn't quote that." Sorry, Mike.
To demonstrate, Capps fired up a never-before-seen level from the campaign, starring Augustus 'The Cole Train' Cole returning to his old Thrashball stadium, now abandoned and in ruins. To make matters worse, it's overrun with Lambent, the viral force spreading across Sera, striking fear into the hearts of Gears and Locust alike.
Cole is joined by old pal Baird, new female Gear, Sam, and the third and last Carmine brother - who I must say is an intimidating bloke whose no-nonsense attitude is a far cry from his fallen kin. They land a Raven just outside the Thrashball arena, a great Lambent Stalk jutting from its roof. It's quite the sight - Gears has always been beautiful, but under the fierce light of the sun it's spectacular.
The squad soon find themselves in trouble as Lambent spawn from the nearby Stalk. A mix of infected Wretches who burst upon impact - or death - and Drudges, twisted Locust drones swollen with unstable Imulsion juice. The Lambent add a new flavor to Gears combat scenarios, able to mutate suddenly and swing the tides in their favor.
In the interests of time, Capps skipped the demo forward, overlooking a potentially brilliant scene where Cole and company encounter a bunch of Stranded who request their female compatriot, Sam, in exchange for bacon. With supplies low, the team "consider their options," according to Capps.
Jumping forward, the demo relocates to a lonely park, wedged between two rows of ruined housing. The park is abandoned, its rusty swings idle and unused, but it's not long before a Lambent Stalk erupts from the ground and begins spawning enemies. Epic has been keen to stress that Gears 3 returns the original game's 'combat bowels', firefights where you're pinned down in one area, surrounded on all sides and forced to constantly move, adapt and survive.
It's cracking stuff, and I imagine in co-op mode - now with four players, no less - it could be an absolute blast. Capps revealed a cute little easter-egg to us; Cole sliding down the children's slide, arms in the air. Useless, but amusing.
With the demo over, Capps opened the floor to questions. When asked whether the new and improved Horde 2.0 mode, which allows you to purchase turrets, fortifications and more with the new currency system, would alienate fans of the original, far simpler mode, Capps explained that Epic, working with Microsoft's research department, had spent considerable time ensuring Horde was accessible, intuitive and above all fun. For instance, items such as barbed-wire defenses or automated sentry guns highlighted in green can be bought; but if they're red, you'll need more cash.
We also asked Capps about the all new 'boss waves' in Horde. At each tenth wave, you'll have to contend with one of the Locust - or Lambent's - big bad beasts. It might be a flock of Reavers, or maybe two Beserkers - or the far more deadly Lambent variation. It could even be the hulking Brumak who, Capps confirmed, can appear in any map, be it the sprawling Trenches or the cramped Checkout. Oh, and he won't be the last enemy you'll face. Boss waves are randomized. He might turn up first!
Being big fans of the multiplayer beta, we quizzed Capps over how Epic had addressed feedback. Opinion, he said, was very split. While some fans loved the Sawn Off, for instance, others loathed it, and Epic had a difficult time deciding who to listen to. In the end, Capps made the point that the beta was just that; a beta. Close to finished code, and as such the changes in the final game will be slight, if anything. And we couldn't be happier.
Capps didn't spend much time talking about Beast, the all new mode where you control a number of different Locust troops. But it didn't matter, as a demo was on the show-floor and we duly got hands-on. Beast is very simple; pick from a variety of Locust load-outs, be it the scrambling Wretch or scuttling Ticker - with bigger Locust unlocked along the way - and attempt to kill all the humans hunkered down on the map within the time-limit.
So far, Beast appears to be decidedly limited in comparison to the campaign, multiplayer and even Horde. It has novelty value at best, and I doubt it'll develop much of a foothold in the community. However, it is a whole load of fun. The Ticker, for example, is like no character you've ever controlled in Gears. It's almost like a racing game, as you steer the careening Ticker towards a target before it explodes.
The Drones are very much like Marcus Fenix and co; in fact, they're identical. The Boomers, however, are a riot. Great, lumbering beasts carrying a machete as long as a car, they can absorb a huge amount of damage as they plod ponderously towards their target, one swing from their giant blade enough to eviscerate a lone Gear.
Overall, we were very impressed with Gears of War 3's showing at GamesCom 2011. It's shaping up to be one of the best shooters this year, and the sheer amount of content is staggering. Plus, Capps had some good news for German fans. Gears of War 3 has been approved by the ratings board for release in Germany; a first for the gory series.
So does that mean Epic have cut down on the spewing viscera and bloodletting? "No, actually," Capps admitted. "Actually, I think it's worse this time around!" Fantastic.
Look out for Gears of War 3 when it hits store shelves September 20th in Europe and North America