Gears of War 3 concludes Epic's Xbox 360 trilogy with a host of improvements, including a four-player campaign and new multiplayer features. The co-operative Horde mode is also seeing an upgrade, adding tougher enemies, a currency system and customisable defence systems. Digital Spy visits Epic Games' offices to have an exclusive look at Horde 2.0.
Following the reveal of the new Beast co-operative multiplayer mode in Gears of War 3 and the beta of the game's competitive Versus offering, fans of the series have been wondering when developer Epic Games would start talking about the online mode that arguably epitomises Gears of War: Horde.
After its debut in Gears of War 2, Horde became virtually a brand name for co-operative matches involving survival against concurrent waves of AI-controlled enemies in other titles. The mode proved such a success that most Gears online players preferred it by two-to-one over the Versus, and it's back with new additions and features in Gears of War 3.
Gears of War 3 screenshots: Horde 2.0 in action
Evolving the fan-favourite mode
Cliff Bleszinski, games director at Epic, said that he wants Gears of War 3 to be a game that players "marry, not date", and that means creating a suite of online multiplayer modes which keep gamers coming back for more. The Versus multiplayer beta has worked to iron out some of the kinks in the competitive game and Beast will add a new dimension to the co-op, but it was still essential for Epic not to "screw up" such a beloved mode as Horde.
Essentially, Horde 2.0 retains the same core mission of surviving up to 50 waves of enemies of increasing difficulty, with a breather between each round. But the new features come in the options available to the player, along with the challenge they will face.
When Epic created Horde for Gears 2, the studio expected that the mode would only be used by friends playing locally. However, Horde became a runaway online success, as players gorged on the highly addictive co-operative challenge. For Gears of War 3, Epic decided that it was important to inject a greater variety to the "shallow" experience of Horde, while also providing a clear sense of progression to keep players gripped.
The team judged that Horde was all about a "defence scenario", finding a position to dig in and stave off the waves of enemies. This led to the idea that each map should have a series of designated defendable command points, based around key factors such as elevation, closeness to spawn points, ammo dumps and so on. At the start of each match, teams of players must select a base and then prepare for the onslaught.
Gears of War 3 screenshots: Horde 2.0 maps Sandbar and Dry Dock
New maps, bigger enemies, greater diversity
We played Horde 2.0 on a new map called Drydock, essentially a giant container ship in a dockyard, packed with cargo containers and buildings. We set up shop right in the middle of the ship, close to a gantry area for raining down fire and benefiting from a few good choke points on either side. There are various other maps available in Horde 2.0, including Sandbar, a strip of beach next to an abandoned military base with a stunning mountain backdrop, along with selected maps from the beta (given slight tweaks to make them suitable for Horde).
The core mechanics of Horde are very much the same; its still a game that requires constant co-operation and teamwork to fend off the increasingly frantic waves of enemies. However, Epic has created greater diversity in the enemies to keep players on their toes, while also listening to the community's wishes for more elaborate boss battles.
Waves now bring standard Locust Drones, Boomers and Grenadiers, but also a range of new enemies, such as a spiked Kantus that must be killed with flame, mutated Lambent Dredges and a horrific centipede that must be shot away in sections from behind. Each block of ten waves builds with sweaty anticipation to a boss encounter, which is really where the frantic action begins.
Each boss fight brings the double trouble of two famous Gears monsters, including Brumaks, Reavers, Berserkers and the new Lambent Gunkur, which fires a volley of devastating goo. Boss waves also trigger a legion of Locust warriors to ramp up the difficulty, with level 50 being a truly momentous battle (especially on hardcore difficulty). Each boss has a specific strategy for taking them on, such as the Berserkers needing to be set on fire before being shot. But also, there are a variety of fortifications available that can make defending your command post that bit easier.
Gears of War 3 screenshots: New Horde tools include Decoys and Electric Fences
New to Horde 2.0: Currency and fortifications
Everything in the game is driven by an internal currency system. Each point earned represents $1 that can be spent on resources to defend against the horde. Points are gained for a variety of things, such as killing enemies or reviving a downed teammate (the latter actually taking 100 points off your colleague).
All players start off with $1,000 but then it's up to them to earn their crust. Money is spent on four types of fortifications - barriers, decoys, sentry guns and turret guns - that can be placed on the map to reinforce your command point and make it easier to dispatch the enemies. All fortifications have four levels of upgradability, meaning players can earn the right to ramp up their team's protection as they put in more Horde playing time.
The first level of fortification is barriers that can slow down the enemies and make them easier to kill. The basic barrier is a set of spikes that sticks in the Locust/Lambent legs, temporarily slowing them down and also doing some damage. Upgrading the spikes brings barbed wire, which blocks and does damage, but the real fun comes with the electric and laser fences, which dole out some comical damage to the enemies, including the latter setting them on fire.
Each fortification brings tactics into play; for example, the laser and electric fences turn off when the players walk through them and so it's important not to "open the door" for the Locust.
After the barriers come the decoys, a variety of devices used to distract the Locust's attention and enable them to be taken out. The entry level decoy is a humorous cardboard cut-out of Cole advertising a cereal brand called 'Thrashies', which takes a pretty minimal amount of damage.
After this comes a broken dummy, a full dummy and finally a dummy with a proximity grenade attached that explodes if the Locust get too close. (A sneaky side tactic involves buying the cardboard Cole and simply putting a sticky grenade on it.) While the decoys at first seem underpowered, it quickly becomes clear that distracting the Locust is a powerful tool, especially in frantic sections.
Gears of War 3 screenshots: Multiplayer map Checkout in Horde
Sentry guns and giant mechs
Sentries are remotely-firing guns, starting with just a basic assault rifle, followed by a more powerful machine gun and rising to a double barrel canon that also shoots electric bolts. The interesting aspect about sentries is that they also act as warning beacons, designating that enemies are attacking by their sound and a health bar that indicates how much damage they are taking.
Turrets are manned, heavy guns that can be placed at designated choke points, starting with the entry level of a mounted Retro Lancer as a "last resort turret". Level two is a chainsaw Lancer, level three is a Mulcher mini-gun on a stick and the final level is a very powerful canon with a shield defence. Levels one and two turrets have long reload times, level three heats up and must cool down, but level four can be shot continuously.
The most interesting fortification, though, is the Silverback, a hulking mech unit boasting chain guns and rocket launchers (players can also stomp on enemies with the Silverback's hulking feet). Designed to be the top perk of all, the Silverback is extremely useful for the hectic latter waves, but it should be noted that the mech is vulnerable to fire from behind so it is worth protecting the device in a defensive pack.
It will take players a long time to unlock the Silverback, not to mention a big heap of cash. If damaged, it's also important to get the unit out of the line of fire as it is cheaper to repair than replace. Indeed, Epic wants Horde 2.0 to be a "slow burn", involving players gaining access to new fortifications and upgrades on an incremental basis, but ideally with enough progression to reward commitment.
Everything in Horde 2.0 comes back to money earned. Players are given the incentive to perform well in the waves to earn more cash and buy fortifications, or repair damaged ones. Epic at first imagined giving the players a level creator style approach to the fortifications, in which they could be placed anywhere on the map, but this soon proved a headache in terms of the physics and technicalities.
Instead, fortifications are placed designated points on the map, indexed to a colour system. Green markings indicate that a fortification can be placed because you have enough money, blue indicates that fortifications are upgradeable, and yellow means they can be repaired, but anything designated red means you cannot afford it. All upgrades and repairs must be conducted in the 30-second break between waves.
Gears of War 3 campaign trailer
More rewards for high performing players
Another dimension to the building is that players can skill up by performing certain acts. So, some players might become expert builders of barriers, or excel as turret gunners, and all these achievements and skills are persistent, meaning they can be transferred between game sessions (the same being true for money). Within games, players can share cash, so if one player has a higher building skill they can be handed funds to build up barriers.
Likewise, all players can pool their money towards the latter waves to get the Silverback. One of the most welcome new aspects in Horde 2.0 is host-to-host migration, meaning sessions do not need to be stopped and lost when the host says, "Guys, I need to go to bed". This is all about encouraging players to fight through the waves and get to the magic 50. Alongside the in-game currency, there are the usual ribbons and medals for rewarding achievements.
Bonuses are on offer for consecutive waves survived and grisly executions, which have been ramped up for the third game. There are in-wave spot challenges giving an extra incentive, such as score ten headshots or get ten executions. Beating the challenges brings in-game loot drops providing a very welcome boost, particularly if it's five Boom Shots. Toasts show when other players have performed well, and there is a general feeling of pride at scoring the most kills in the end-of-wave breakdown.
Horde, though, is very much a co-op experience, all about working together, picking a strategy and defending against the onslaught. Epic also intends to introduce 15 different Mutators, which range from making the game easier, harder or just downright wackier, including the perennially humorous big head mode. There are new characters available to unlock, including Engineer Baird and 'Superstar' Cole (who looks like a pimp), along with the opportunity to wield the Butcher Boomer's meat cleaver; casting Locust asunder in a splatter of blood and guts.
Having played around four hours of Horde 2.0, the signs are looking extremely good. Initial fears that the new fortifications systems would corrupt the purity of Horde are unfounded, as the defensive items (and their upkeep) actually bring a fresh dimension to the team-based gameplay. The variety of Locust and mutating Lambent enemies is excellent and succeeds in sustaining a frantic challenge, especially with the bosses, while the upgrade and levelling up system ensures addictive longevity.
It will be interesting to see how players consume Horde 2.0 with the new Beast mode, but there certainly seems to be a good balance - the latter being a fast and fluid challenge, and the former being all about playing into the wee hours battling wave after wave of Locust. Certainly, killing monstrous beasts has never been such fun.
Join us for an interview with Gears of War 3's Cliff Bleszinski and studio tour of Epic Games' North Carolina studio later this week.
Gears of War 3 will be released exclusively on Xbox 360 on September 20 worldwide.
More Gears of War 3 coverage:
> Gears of War 3 interview: Rod Fergusson on Horde 2.0
> Gears of War 3 interview: Lee Perry on gameplay and enemies
> Gears of War 3 hardware revealed - E3 2011
> Gears of War 3 sets Xbox pre-order record