When Epic announced that Gears of War 3 was delayed until next fall, fans of the hugely successful series were understandably frustrated. Even an additional six months feels like an eternity for the millions itching to dive back into the cover-based shooter. However, if what I played at the studio recently is any indication, this additional time could make the difference between another awesome Gears product and the most polished title the studio has ever made. We’re presumably about a year out from the game’s release, and what I played already feels like a final product. With another six months to refine the gameplay and launch a newly-announced multiplayer beta, it’s a surefire bet that Gears of War 3 will be the most immediately complete installment of the series.

Executive producer Rod Fergusson repeatedly used the word “optimization” to describe their approach to the game’s competitive multiplayer. On paper, Gears 3 doesn’t feature any dramatic departures from what we’ve seen before in the series. We already know about the four-player campaign co-op and the new Beast mode, but competitive multiplayer doesn’t feature many sweeping changes. However, it’s a great example of a multitude of smaller tweaks adding up to a significantly improved experience.

If you were to simply look at the names of the game modes, you might think more has changed than really has. Epic realizes that gamers were oftentimes confused by the mode names in the first two games...”Annex” and “Submission” don’t exactly spell out what you’ll be doing. That’s why modes in Gears 3 will feature more obvious names. Capture the Leader is essentially Guardian plus Submission. Players must down the opposing team’s leader (Chairman Prescott leads the humans, Queen Myrrah the Locust) and use them as a meat shield. If you’re able to keep the leader as a hostage for thirty seconds, the round is yours.

Team Deathmatch is a no-brainer, and Epic expects it to be the most popular mode. Warzone always featured a newcomer-unfriendly “die and you’re out of the round” rule, but TDM opts instead for limited respawns. Each team will have twenty respawns to begin with. Once they’re depleted, the mode essentially turns into Warzone. This helps ensure most rounds end dramatically, with one player attempting to fight off however many soldiers the opposing team has left.

While I enjoyed the new modes, it’s the gameplay tweaks and additions that really have me excited for the multiplayer experience. A dynamic reticule isn’t a new concept, but it helps nevertheless in realizing just how accurate your shots will be. If you’re in an awkward standoff with someone on the other side of the same cover, pressing A will perform a mantle kick to your opponent, making him stumble back (and opening him up for a close-range shotgun blast or melee attack). Being able to set your default weapon and character means you won’t have to select them every time. A new persistent party system streamlines the matchmaking process in a manner similar to Halo: Reach. Dedicated servers and host migration ensure less connectivity problems online. Overhead maps and the new Tac/Com vision filter help players become acquainted with weapon spawn locations. A spotting system similar to the one in Bad Company 2 has been implemented, assisting in pointing out enemies to your team. None of these are huge attention-grabbing headlines, but they all work together to create a more polished and complete multiplayer experience.

The Gears of War franchise has never been lacking violent and creative ways to murder your enemies, but Epic is cranking up the gore even more this time around. My two favorites were the Digger Launcher and the Pendulum-Era Lancer. The former is a rocket launcher that burrows underground towards your opponent. As it travels through the ground, it resembles old Looney Tunes cartoons when Bugs Bunny would dive into the earth to escape Elmer Fudd. It’s pretty terrifying to see dirt and debris flying out of the ground in a straight line towards you, and the results of a direct hit are devastating. If it hits you dead-on, the rocket burrows up through your entire body and winds up in your head. As you can probably expect, your cranium explodes like a watermelon not long after. Without a direct hit, the explosive pops up like a bouncing betty, doing damage to any nearby foes.

Gears fans are certainly familiar with the iconic Lancer, but now they’ll have access to a prototype version of the weapon. In the extended fiction of the franchise, the Pendulum-Era Lancer (or Retro Lancer) featured a bayonet that would break off when it came into contact with a Locust, forcing the COG to add chainsaws underneath the barrel. Epic feels that a quality gameplay feature is worth breaking fiction for, so these bayonets will work just fine on humans and Locust alike. Rather than utilizing the same close-range melee mechanic that the standard Lancer does, you’ll have to charge your enemies if you want to impale them on your bayonet. Holding B will activate what’s essentially a modified roadie run, and coming into contact with an enemy will lift them into the air with a supremely satisfying animation. One of my favorite tactics was to throw a smoke grenade near a group of enemies, and come charging through the fog with my bayonet before they realized I was coming.

Snipers looking for a more powerful alternative will love the Oneshot, a devastating long-range weapon that the Epic team initially referred to as the “elephant gun.” It takes a while to get a shot ready, with a laser designating your target. It’s powerful enough to pierce right through a Boomer shield, and will decimate an opponent no matter where you hit them.

If you’re bigger on the short-range game, the sawed-off shotgun will be right up your alley. You need to be ridiculously close to your opponent for it to really damage them, but they’ll be ripped to shreds if you’re within range. Performing a mantle kick followed by a blast from your sawed-off is a great one-two punch if you’re looking for a surefire (and messy) kill.