The gameplay has also been completely overhauled too, now catering for different play-styles via the use of what appears to be a balanced weapon selection (at this stage at least). Close or long ranged weapons part a huge part - often in providing a counterbalance - with players being able to switch between either option at any time. Here, you'll find that someone with a Retro Lancer to be just as deadly as someone with a Sawed Off. It just depends entirely on their own ability and approach in any given situation. The game modes too, have also been reworked and made to be a little more accessible to those unfamiliar with GOW's own brand of multiplayer action.
Of course gameplay and graphics often go hand in hand. The Unreal Engine 3 and Epic's Gears Of War series have been at the very heat of pushing high-end visuals on Microsoft's Xbox 360 console. Not only has the engine been behind some of the most graphically superb releases on the platform, it is also constantly undergoing a range of subtle tweaks and major enhancements.
Gears Of War 2 saw the engine being upgraded to handled bigger environments with longer draw distances - texture and object steaming was refined to prevent noticeable object pop in the campaign mode. Epic also expanded on the lighting component present in the first game and SSAO brought an increased depth to the title's already decent use of shadowing.
Even in it's current stages as a mutiplayer beta, Gears 3 demonstrates similar leaps in visual quality, with upgrades in a variety of different areas. Perhaps the framebuffer is the only thing exempt from this, but in any case image quality was never really an issue to begin with.
For the record, you're looking at a native 720p rendering resolution forgoing the use of anti-aliasing. In past titles, AA was performed pretty early on in the rendering cycle, meaning that it had pratically no impact on the final scene being rendered. Sampling was only done on static objects and lighting, thus additional post processing elements - such as depth of field, bloom etc - and dynamic lighting weren''t covered by the limited use of MSAA at all. So as a result Epic has disabled the use of edge-smoothing completely, perhaps in order to maintain more consistant performance while the game benefits from a range of graphical improvements.
The lack of AA means that we find a variable level of jaggies and shimmering edges. Stages featuring copious amounts of sub-pixel elements suffer the most, whilst areas with mainly large geometric structures fare much better. This is of course in line with most UE3 titles, and in the case of Gears 3 can be considered a worthy trade-off considering number of HQ components in the game's rendering tech. It's also worth pointing out that aliasing is less noticeable overall than it was in Gears 2.
Overall, even in its unfinished state as a multiplayer beta, Gears Of War 3 is clearly shaping up to be another noteworthy graphical showcase for the 360. Sure enough, the real test of course, will come in the form of the single-player campaign, in which larger environments and distinct set-pieces are likely to push the engine a lot harder than anything we've witnessed thus far. But for now things are looking rather promising, with Epic successfully using its underlying tech to craft a suitably lavish visual experience. Going back to Gears 2 and then to the beta, and there's a real tangible difference to be felt in the overall quality of what we are seeing.
Coming away from the look of the game and there is also a sense that Epic are trying to further hone in Gears Of War 3 as a distinct online experience, separating it from past titles and from other online shooters in order to keep things fresh. Not only is the gameplay faster, but the close/ranged set-up for example, seems balanced enough for players to compete on an even keel regardless of their play-style, while the skillfully deployed weapon placements ensure that mastery of the maps themselves, and the calculated strategy that goes along with them isn't lost to those more inclined to simply run and gun their way to the top.