Much has changed in the year since Epic Games last showed Beast Mode, the play-as-the-bad-guys part of this September's Gears of War 3. Much has changed for the better, I learned, when I played the new Beast Mode yesterday.
It sure is fun to be the ugliest bad guys in the Gears universe. Let me explain the joys of Beast Mode to you.
Beast Mode is a standalone part of Gears of War 3 that can be played by up to five players. As the Gears developers at Epic Games first advertised it when they showed it a year ago at gaming press events, you play as the Gears games' bad guys. You play as the brutal Boomers, the irrepressible Berserkers, as the pesky Tickers and even as something that looks like a giant centipede. The biggest change is that Beast is now played for time. The game's Horde Mode, which lets a batch of players team up against waves of beasts can be a four-hour survival marathon. Beast, Gears of War 3 lead producer Rod Fergusson explained to me yesterday as we battled through it, is a game of speed. Anyone can get through Beast Mode's 12 levels, but how fast can you do it? Half an hour? Maybe just 16 minutes, if you're a ninja Epic Games tester?
A Beast Mode session rolls out in waves. At the start, it's just you, as one of an initial selection of five types of beasts, against some wimpy humans. You play on any of the game's multiplayer maps (we played on "Drydock" which is a rectangular map full of blind corners with an elevated walkway in the centre). The humans are computer-controlled. They automatically place traps - barricades, turrets and dummies - the kind of defences that players can deploy as humans in this new game's "Horde Mode 2.0."
The most important thing to know about playing Beast Mode is that you start with only one minute left on the play clock. In one minute, the Hammer of Dawn will strike from above and kill everyone on your team. That would be bad. Thankfully, you gain time on the clock every time you kill an enemy or destroy an emplacement.
You also earn money with each kill, healing moves and damage caused to pathetic human emplacements. That's handy, because you must pay money to become a beast. Each time you die, you have to pay to become a new one. As you earn certain large amounts of money, you'll unlock new beasts to choose from and have an increasingly enjoyable time mauling pathetic humans. But as the waves of Beast Mode progress, you'll also find yourself no longer just going up against easily-shredded ordinary male and lady soldiers. Heroes of the Gears-verse will appear, one at a time, then in groups. They are harder to kill and, worse, they have heavy guns. Anya's got a mortar. Cole's got a Boomshot. Hoffman has a Hammer of Dawn.
The First Beasts
The cheapest beast is the Wild Ticker. For a mere virtual $US75, you can be this scampering, fast little pest that excels at munching through spiked fences. It can eat grenades, but that's a useless skill unless you have a friend playing as a grenadier unit. (This would turn you into a virtual suicide bomber. See the next unit for why that's good.) You want to be this guy if you want to chomp through defenses.
The Ticker is also only $US75 and very similar, except he's always ready to blow up. He can detonate as soon as you pull the trigger, so make him run into a crowd and blow himself up. Try not to think about what the real-world equivalent is.
The Wretch is a basic melee unit. His best ability is a scream attack which can stun humans. As Fergusson noted, you want to think about team strategies for this mode. If I'm the Wretch, I can stun guys into position. Then you can run up as a Ticker and blow them up. Good plan?
If you want to wield a retro lancer, be a Savage Drone.
This guy is a Butcher. He is very slow but can take a beating. He's a walking tank, if a tank had a machete instead of a cannon.
The Second Tier of Beasts
As you kill and destroy, you are clearing waves of human enemies. Each player is also amassing a pile of virtual money that they draw from each time they die and need to spawn (you're never locked into being the same beast). As you reach certain money goals, you unlock a new tier of more expensive, playable beasts...
I hate, hate, hate the Kantus when I have to fight him in Gears games. He's a shaman of sorts, and it turns out he's great to be. He has a gorgon pistol and inky poison grenades. Better is that he can heal and revive injured and downed allies. Healing earns you money, so it's worth doing.
Fergusson told me that the Bloodmount was hard to control. That sounded like a challenge. And sure enough, I made sure the Bloodmount ruled the battlefield (briefly). You control the beast here, not the rider. You've got a melee attack and the ability to spot enemies for the rider who is constantly shooting. This is not a beginner unit, I'm told, but it is awesome.
The Mauler has a shield, as you can see. Fergusson said that one of his team's strategies in Beast Mode is to form a phalanx of Maulers and then march them ahead of a few Boomers who fire boomshots over their heads. That is a hell of a tip, from Rod to you. Use it!
Beasts: Tier Three</h3
As noted above, you start each wave with one minute remaining on the clock. Kills and destruction of emplacements add time (so, bear in mind, if the clock is about to run out, some backfield beast can save the day by munching through an unattended enemy fence.) But if you and your teammates all die and have to re-start the wave, three minutes of penalty time are added to the total time tabulated for getting through Beast Mode. You don't play those three minutes. They just make your completion time look even worse. Remember, the goal is to finish Beast Mode's 12 waves as fast as possible.
The incredibly awesome Giant Serapede is a heavily armoured, fast centipede you control. It's weak spot is its tail. It's killing moves come from the pincers around its jaws. This thing lets you live out whatever monster-movie fantasies you've ever had, if your favoured monster movies that involved giant snakes and if you wanted to be that snake. Surely, that's at least one of you out there? This unit costs $US1350, by the way.
The Savage Corpser is another wonderfully evil unit. It is sort of like controlling a giant hand. It has a brutal melee attack and, even better, can burrow under the ground to heal... then pop out to murder.
If you like using the Gears of War shotguns, play as the Savage Grenadier. He's got a shotgun. And he can throw grenades, though Fergusson said that his ammo stock of grenades restores slowly, since grenades are so powerful in this mode. Note that this guy has grenades. So he can stick one to a wall in order for a Ticker to eat it and then run off and bomb someone. Teamwork!
The Boomer needs little introduction to Gears fans. He's got a boomshot. Those things are like cannons. Pay $US1500 to be this unit and your money's been well-spent.
The Best, Baddest Beasts
Fergusson and I played with a cheat unlocked that gave us about $US100,000 from the start. So by wave five we had all four tiers of beasts unlocked. That is not normal, and so our relatively easy march through human enemies was atypical. You really should be playing this mode in groups. You can randomly matchmake to assemble a crew, though once the match starts (hosted, initially on the lead player's system), other players can be added by invite only.
Your goal for Beast Mode should be to be the Berserker. These big ladies (yes, ladies) are partially blind, so when you play them, the periphery of the screen is clouded in blackness. That's about all the disadvantages you have. For a mere $US5625 you can run through enemies like a linebacker, murdering them as you stride through them. Or you can stop and smash them. In other words, you can be the Flash and the Hulk, only evil... and female.
I didn't play as the Armored Kantus, but his deal is that he's like the Kantus but has spiky armour. As a result, he won't take much damage while he's busy healing his teammates. Bonus: since his armour has spikes, he can roll into humans and perforate them to death. (If the beasts were nice and gentle, they wouldn't be beasts, right?)
I didn't play as a Savage Boomer either. They are, Fergusson explained, a great fire-and-forget unit. They are because they shoot burrowing projectiles that won't detonate until they are near a target. So aim at a scumbag human, fire your shot, and then turn away to the next victim with the confidence that the first one is probably about to be blown up from underground.
Rod Fergusson and I didn't get through Beast Mode's 12 rounds. We didn't have time, what with all my note-taking and, uh, strategising. We killed lots of human characters though, including, repeatedly, the one voiced by Ice-T (that was me, not Rod, Ice!). Fergusson told me that the waves get harder, of course, and climax with a level-12 onslaught from 10 members of the elite Onyx Guard and the head of the Gears military, Prescott. I can't even imagine the insanity, because even at level five (or maybe it was six), we were going up against human characters who were marching on us with SIlverback mech suits.
The new Beast Mode was a lot of fun. It's supposed to be tricky without taking forever. It's supposed to present a challenge while allowing you to feel massively powerful. After one try, I'd say it seems like a success. It will be part of Gears of War 3 which launches for the Xbox 360 on September 20.