We were lucky enough to snag a beta key for the Gears of war3 beta, and we spent the whole weekend in the middle of the action, checking the four new maps, three new game modes, and tons of new and re-tooled weapons. The number of changes in the Gears of War 3 beta from what you might be comfortable with from Gears of war 2 is staggering, but most players will like them. The beta shows off some interesting new features that players can look forward to when the full game comes out in September. If you loved Gears of War 2, you’ll love the beta, there’s no doubt about it. Almost everything you loved about the previous title made it into the sequel, and the things that have been changed are clear improvements. The environment is brighter and more open than the previous Gears of War titles: if you really liked the dark and gritty nature of the Gears of War games, you’ll get plenty of “dirty” environments, but it’s not quite as dark and gloomy as the previous titles were. The brighter, more open and spacious maps are a bit reminiscent of Bulletstorm, another Epic games title released earlier this year. Speaking of the maps, Epic is showing off four maps in the beta: Thrashball, Checkout, Old Town, and Trenches. Thrashball takes place on – you guessed it – a heavily damaged Thrashball court where you and your team need to control the center of the map. Checkout on the other hand takes place in a department store, perfect for fans of close combat and duck-and-cover tactics. Old Town is a European-inspired villa that’s falling apart, but not so much that you can’t find plenty of cover and back-alleys to use to flank the opposing team. Trenches is a madhouse, a dusty, desolate map full of corners you won’t want to just rush around and a massive platform in the center with a mortar on top that you can use to rain death on your enemy. The beta also features three different play modes: Team Deathmatch (where most people will spend their time,) King of the Hill, and Capture the Leader. King of the Hill will remind you of Gears of War 2‘s Annex, and Capture the Leader is essentially capture the flag except you’re going after a person. The fun part is that once you catch them, you use them as a meatshield while you try to keep the other team from doing the same to your leader. In Team Deathmatch has been tweaked to depend a bit more on teamwork. Instead of rushing to rack up kills, each team gets 15 respawns shared between them, and the team that uses all of their first loses. Expect tension on losing teams, and expect new or inexperienced players to be ridiculed for being the weakest link and costing the team unnecessary respawns. The controls have been tweaked from the previous game as well. For example, one complaint a number of players had about Gears of War 2 were that the menus were clunky and difficult to navigate in the middle of battle. The beta gets around that problem with a new tap-versus-hold system that allows you to tap a button to perform quick actions like picking up ammo, reviving teammates, and killing enemies quickly. Holding the same buttons will perform different actions, like picking up a new weapon or performing an execution kill. Gears of War 3 also includes an experience-style system, reminiscent of games like call of duty. As you kill enemies and win matches, you earn experience points and levels. Right now those levels don’t net you terribly much, but expect to see more rewards there before the game is released. Epic has also put in a good bit of effort to make sure the title is accessible to new players. Most – but not all – of the controls are pretty intuitive and easy to figure out. Veteran players will have no issue jumping right in and scoring enough points and kills to start unlocking some of the beta goodies, like a beta tester’s medal, Cole’s Thrashball suit, and even a gold-plated Retro Lancer. The graphics have been amped up and the weapon effects are absolutely stunning – especially the new flamethrower effects. The beta crashed our xbox360 once, but aside from that hiccup, it ran smoothly and beautifully. The game looks great, and is a lot of fun. If you can get in on the beta, do it – it’ll only serve as more reason why you’ll be glad you pre-ordered the game.