Gears Of War 2's multiplayer component, while highly entertaining and incredibly well put together featured some obvious latency issues compared to other high profile online titles. Some matches would go by without issue, while in others you would struggle to maintain aiming accuracy as controller lag impacted on the experience. Since then Epic has listened to these concerns, and for Gears 3 have provided the community with dedicated servers helping to reduce latency to negligible levels.
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.
Looking back at past titles, it was the single player campaign that trumped any of the multiplayer modes graphically. And it's very likely that we'll see a similar kind of visual leap again with the campaign in Gears 3. The current beta exceeds past instalments in most areas, which leads us to believe that Epic have even more visual mastery packed away under the hood.
Compared to Gears 2, the various upgrades come in thick and fast. At the base level we see more detailed character and environment modelling, both in texture work and in geometric complexity. Little cracks and other small details that feature on the surrounding environmental stonework are more distinct than before. In particular, the depth of the parallax mapped floors have even more of an impact, even if they do look just a little too OTT as a result.
There a few obvious low resolution, and repeated textures dotted about, along with some rather flat looking surfaces. But these do very little to spoil the over look of the game considering how detailed the environments actually are. The leap in quality is huge compared to Gears 2's multiplayer mode, and even exceeds the single player campaign portion of it with ease.
Additionally, there is little in the way of harsh LOD transitions at the beginning of each match. In Gears 2 there was a tendancy for the engine to still be streaming in final quality assests for at least a minute or two after matches had begun. But thankfully, we see that this issue is pretty much non-existent in Gears 3.
The biggest change however, comes in the form of the game's lighting system. Like with the likes of Crysis 2 and Battlefield 3, Gears 3 features its own implementation of global illumination via Epic's Lightmass solution, which provides a cheap alternative to the few real-time GI systems doing the rounds right now (Geomeric's Enlighten for example). Ambient lighting, along with the main light bounces are rendered off-line before being pre-baked onto the environments, thus providing a similarly realistic look but without the raw processing costs usually associated with doing this.
Dynamic lightmaps ensure that the lighting data actually affects moving objects in real-time, rather than having no impact whatsoever. Given the fact that the sun's position never changes, by far the most important factor is believably lighting up the various dynamic objects present in any given scene - lighting that never moves can be convincingly baked, so long as it still affects environmental objects in real-time. And the implementation found in Gears 3 manages to do a excellent job in this regard.
We also see that sunlight now casts dynamic shadows off select objects, further enhanced when combined with the game's pre-baked shadowing components. Other elements that give off light - such as gunfire and explosions, burning parts of the scenery etc - react with both the environment and the objects contained within. Although they did this in Gears 2 as well, the effect is more refined in this sequel.
Even if the baseline environmental lighting is static, the combination of dynamic lightmaps and additional light sources help breathe life into the way in which scenes are lit and shaded. The difference is dramatic to say the least; there's a whole lot more depth added to the scene over the previous games.
Outside of Lightmass, and there are a few other nice touches that Epic have made with the lighting engine in Gears 3. A probable FP10 buffer, and a controlled use of bloom substitutes true HDR lighting without over-emphasising the top end of the spectrum, while the game now features stronger use of simulated godrays (they are simply a post process-based effect). As you can see above, in some stages sunshafts dynamically react with the environment, while in other areas they are more static in nature.
Additionally, the way that SSAO is handled has also been tweaked slightly. SSAO is done as a post process in both GOW 2&3, with it being reprojected and accumulated over multiple frames. The end result is that it could appear more noticeable in still scenes in GOW 2 than when moving. In Gears 3 however, the temporal side effects have been reduced, and there is now greater consistency in deploying the effect throughout the scene.
In terms of alpha-based effects, smoke in particular features convincing depth being heavily multi-layered, while also appearing volumetric. Particles, fire and smoke look much fuller than they did in Gears 2. The way in which they interact with the surrounding geometry is almost bug free - you can see clearly in the shots below how the smoke collides with the nearby walls, rather than simply clipping through them. Alpha buffers are also rendered in full resolution, taking full advantage of the high bandwidth eDRAM present in the 360's Xenos GPU.
Moving on, and when looking at the online element in any game the importance of having a consistent frame-rate is paramount. It's not so much about ensuring you have a visually smooth experience (though that certainly helps), but instead one with as little controller latency as possible. Essentilaly the two do go hand in hand, but with previous Gears games this was limited by the lack of dedicated servers, thus introducing additional latency outside of the game slowing down.
Although it's likely that we'll see greater variation in performance during the single player campaign, due to the engine pushing much larger environments and more stenous action, in the beta Epic has done well to keep things under control in order to deliver as little input lag as possible. And this is something that has further been addressed by the use of dedicated servers. In the beta not everyone will be on dedicated servers at all times, although performance on these alternate hosts is improved compared to the ones powering GOW2's online component.
Performance-wise, Gears Of War 3 operates at 30fps and employs v-sync in order to maintain image consistency. However, we also see that v-sync is disengaged when the frame-rate drops below 30fps in order to maintain a steady level of performance in scenes which stress the engine. To that effect there is some barely visible tearing that manifests by crawling up and down the screen, which can frequently occur during gunfire, but its impact goes reletively un-noticed for the most part.
While the game manages a stable frame-rate for extended periods of time, there are a few drops in smoothness to speak of when the engine is put under stress; mainly in scenes whereby multiple players are present and lots of gunfire and explosions create additional load. But outside of these scenarios there is little in the way of slowdown to impact on the experience, which also ensures a crisp controller responce is maintained as often as possible.
Also, like with many games this generation (Alan Wake and Vanquish both spring to mind) GOW3's smooth refresh rate is further enhanced by the inclusion of motion blur. Going back to the first game and the Gears series has always used a vector-based motion blur implementation, but this is now handled on a per-object basis. As you can see below, the effect varies in strength - ranging from rather subtle to in your face as it were, producing a nice screen distortion effect in the process - but also serves to seamlessly blend individual frames together to create a more fluid screen refresh.
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.