Hands-on / Gears of War 3’s Horde mode

Interruptions – I can’t stand them. As many a player can attest to, there’s nothing worse than getting torn away from a screen that has, at that point in time, become your very being. Be it for the phone, dinner, or dying pet it’s a rude reminder that says “Hey, you’re not actually in that world, jumping onto that train and blowing up the helicopter, you’re still on that seat.”

It does, however, allow for reflection. And reflect I did as a nice PR lady near-dragged me away from Gears of War 3’s Horde mode last week. If said nice lady hadn’t beckoned me on to see a different game, I may not have ever had that sudden thought of “Damn it, I was really enjoying that.”

Not that my levels of enjoyment surprised me; Gears 2’s Horde mode was an addicting romp that’s spawned countless copycats since its inception, and Epic have had more than enough time to work over its kinks and add new bells and whistles in the sequel.

One such bell/whistle is the new upgrade system that allows you to purchase new items on the map. It’s simple stuff: killing locust nets you points to spend on turrets, spikey traps and such, all of which will help you get out of tight spots. It’s not the greatest innovation man has ever seen, but it comes in handy when the enemy is overwhelming the squad and you can buy up a nearby manned-weapon to even the odds.

Cosmetic changes such as this are welcome, but feel rather shallow to simply list and talk about here. Horde mode is about more than that. The real heart of it is – much like in Gears 2 – the expertly-designed maps, team-focused tactics and the consistently tight gameplay, which can take the fun from a harmless co-op lark one second to a tense, controller-gripping, order-barking war the next.

Things start off slowly, with each player in the five-man team wondering off to explore every nook and cranny of the decaying urban map. And for a few rounds, that one-man army approach works just fine; I’m carving up baddies like the game’s predecessor was released yesterday, not four years ago. Then your first teammate will go down, and things start to get a bit panicky. A desperate rush for that last-minute revival reinforces the word “teamwork,” which is also being screamed at us from a developer behind.

Okay then, teamwork it is. And that’s when things just sort of click. A horde of enemies (well what other word could I use?) starts to bunch up in a corridor and it takes four of us to hold them off (thanks for the help, number five). It’s at this point where I’m yelling “you’re in my line of fire” to the player next to me, while I lay down covering fire as one teammate legs it to heal another, that the screen has become my very being, and there’s a big grin across my face. I’m having fun, lots of fun, and that’s something not too often seen in game demos that are trying to make you marvel at new tech, pretty graphics or deep storylines. Horde mode isn’t trying to do that, it’s trying to get me to sit down with friends and have a good time, and it does so brilliantly.

Pretty soon that feeling of intense pressure and hopelessness discovered in single encounters spreads to the whole game. Those brief moments where I can prepare become desperate scrambles to pick up anything I can find rather than set up a cunning trap. Then it all starts to mess up, like a game of Tetris that you’ve lost control of. It’s the “oh god moment” as the enemy starts to move in. And then they come. And we fight, and we’re doing badly. And then one player goes down, and another, and the other. But then one player saves them! And we’re back! And we’re battling them off! But they’re coming back in bigger numbers! They’re inching their way down the corridor! They’re right in our faces! We can’t lose! We can’t—

Oh, I have to go see another game. Damn it, I was really enjoying that.

That sounds a little over-enthusiastic, sure, but anyone who spent a good amount of time with Gears of War 2 can testify that games of Horde can quite easily get that chaotic that fast. It looks like its successor will be no different.

Look for Gears of War 3 to hit Xbox 360 in September.