Gears of War 3 is the last chapter of the Xbox exclusive Gears of War franchise. It follows 18 months after Gears of War 2 and sees the return of Delta Squad, with you taking the controls of Marcus Fenix. The complete game is due to land on 20 September 2011, and is set to be one of the biggest games of the year for Xbox 360.

However, this time around, Epic Games has had the chance to develop a multiplayer beta for Gears of War 3 which is open to the public. 

Here comes the rub: to get access to the multiplayer beta you have to pre-order Gears of War 3 (available from Game or Gamestation) to then get the code. In addition, if you bought Bulletstorm Epic Edition you’ll find you also have 1-week preview access to Team Deathmatch on the four new maps.

The beta runs from 25 April to 15 May 2011 through Xbox Live and will give you a chance to test out the multiplayer maps and the weapons, and provide feedback to Epic, as well as giving Epic the chance to test their new dedicated servers - which Rod Fergusson, GoW producer, told us would avoid some of the problems they faced with the multiplayer launch of GoW2.

But this isn’t just a standalone beta testing phase. Although most of the elements of the multiplayer game are available from the off, Epic told us there will be some unlockable content - beta exclusives - which participants of the beta will be able to carry over to the full multiplayer game when it launches in September.

So you’ll get a beta tester medal, but you’ll also be able to unlock the Thrashball Cole version of Gus after you complete 50 beta games. Play 10 matches as Thrashball Cole in the beta and you’ll have access to him in the final game.

If you’ve never played Gears of War then the multiplayer action is full on: full of laughs and full of action, but it is distinctly different from the sort of multiplayer action you get on the current batch of military shooters. You’ll find it slower in terms of movement, but you’ll often get closer to the action: melee attacks are more common than sniper multikills, and in the hours we were playing the game there were plenty of chainsaw kills.

Team Deathmatch, Capture the Leader and King of the Hill

We had a couple of hours of LAN play on the new maps of the Gears of War 3 multiplayer. There are three game modes: Team Deathmatch, Capture the Leader and King of the Hill.

Team Deathmatch in this case has a respawn limit (for us it was 15 respawns, with 5 players per team), so it isn’t just about racking up kills. The aim of the respawn limit is to get the teams whittled down so you can end up in a position where you have one member of one team left, fighting against whoever remains from the other team.

As a team game, it means that the person to get the most kills isn’t necessarily the hero - it could be that the one who is left at the end turns the game around for the team victory. It’s a blast, and plenty of fun, but if you have problems staying alive (like we do) then you’ll find you burn through your team spawns pretty quick. Just make sure you get some kills in the process. 

Capture the Leader is exactly as it sounds. You have to get the enemy leader (indicated in the game) and hold on to them for 30 seconds to win the round. It’s tough, because you have to get to them first, then hang-on. As soon as you grab them, the rest of his/her team will be alerted and come to stage a rescue.

It’s actually a lot of fun. There is the chance for an opportunist to grab the enemy leader unsupported and then just drag him off into a corner and sit it out. As long as the rest of the team keeps the enemy team distracted/dead, victory will be yours. Yes, it’s never that simple, which is what makes it so much fun.  

King of the Hill (pictured above) is about capturing and holding areas of the map indicated by coloured rings. Of course, the enemy will also be trying to take areas too, so like capture the flag type modes, there is plenty of switching hands before a victorious team emerges. 

Out of all the modes we spent the most time on Team Deathmatch, which will probably be the most popular, but each of the game modes has its merits and the variety will appeal to those looking for something more than just straight killing. To be fair, whichever game mode you choose, the killing comes by the bucket load in that imitable Gears of War style.

Teamwork is high on the agenda. The advantage we had playing the beta was that we were all in the same room, so we could shout at other players on the team and listen in on what the other team might be doing. A great atmosphere, but we guess that most of the time you won’t get everyone in the same room at the same time - but this is laugh out loud multiplayer gaming you won’t want to miss.

Sticking together as a pack has real advantages, not only giving fallen members on your team time to recover themselves, but also reviving those around you when they fall. But if you are caught on your own and five COG/Locust come racing around the corner you have very little chance of surviving. 

Unless you are packing some serious firepower that is. Generally speaking you can soak up a number of shots before you are in trouble but if you happen to run into the muzzle of the sawed-off shotgun, it will obliterate you, and probably your friend too.

However, you have to be almost within touching distance for it to be effective - we got a double kill with it and given the close quarters fighting and plenty of cover that the new maps offer, we can see this weapon being a big hit. It’s devilishly slow to reload, so slow that you’re better firing and changing weapons if you don’t evaporate your opponent with your first shot.

There are plenty of weapons, from the chainsaw-equipped Lancer and the retro Lancer tipped with a bayonet, right up to flame throwers, the heavy sniper rifle, Boomshot grenade launcher, Mulcher and so on. There are pros and cons to all the weapons - the Mulcher will pretty much cut down anything, but it takes time to spin up before it starts firing.

Maps: Thrashball, Checkout, Old Town, Trenches

The four new maps are relatively small if you compare them to the sorts of maps you find in other multiplayer shooters. The emphasis on fast-paced close quarters action means there is never really much distance to cover. Perhaps a good job as the characters aren’t as swift on their feet as they are in, for example, Call of Duty or Battlefield multiplayers.

Thrashball is a disused stadium with plenty of cover that means you can have pitched (excuse the pun) battles across the middle, or run flanking manoeuvres in the passages down the wings. You also respawn in team locker rooms, so we did find ourselves pinned in by the enemy on one occasion - time for a smoke grenade and a bayonet charge for victory.

Checkout is a disused supermarket and is probably the smallest map, so you are almost always in contact with the enemy. There are also some pretty clear sight lines through the maps so you have a good idea of where the enemy is moving at all times. 

Old Town (pictured above) looks like a piece of Mediterranean village with cobbled streets. It’s one of the larger maps and respawning in a couple of different spots it’s easy to get separated from your teammates. Hit the left shoulder button and you’ll be able to see where your team is (as seen at the beginning of the video above), as well as weapons to collect. We loved this map and think it will be the preferred map for Capture the Leader and Team Deathmatch. 

Trenches is a rough map with a number of dead ends and strategic high points. We only played one game of King of the Hill on this map (which it seems well suited to) so we didn’t get as familiar with it as we did with the other maps. However, we did experience the sandstorm - on the sounding of the horn the visibility drops drastically and you’ll have to just plunge in and take your chances - but it’s a great time to break the enemy’s defences. 

All in all, if you’re a Gears of War fan, you won’t want to miss the opportunity to get some action in the multiplayer beta, so you might as well rush out and pre-order the game now to secure your place. We had a great few hours playing the game and if you've played Gears of War before, you'll be into the thick of the action in no time.