The super-carnage video game Gears of War 3 is set to launch its public multiplayer beta in mid-April and debut on the Xbox 360 on Sept. 20. Alongside Halo, the Gears of War franchise is Microsoft’s best-selling video game on the Xbox 360 game console. Fans are chomping at the bit to get a close look at the game’s newest release, which will be the culmination of eight years of work for Epic Games on the three-part series. Today, the game press got a close look at the game’s multiplayer combat.

Gears of War 3 is one of those games that could take off into the financial stratosphere; that is, the sales of this third game in the series could turn out to be much better than the sales of the first and second, in contrast to the usual pattern of decline for a movie series. Since Microsoft has sold more than 50 million consoles, the possible audience for a Gears of War 3 is far bigger than it was for the original Gears of War that debuted in 2006. If Epic Games adds the right touches to the game in its third version, then Gears of War 3 could become an even bigger cultural phenomenon and help Microsoft hold its own in the ongoing console war of 2011.

The only thing really holding back Gears of War from reaching wider audiences is that some people just have an objection to absolute combat carnage. (I can’t imagine why). Having seen the game up close, I can assure  carnage fans that they won’t be disappointed by this game.

Gears of War 3 is, like Epic’s just-released Bulletstorm, a celebration of violence that is so severe that it’s almost comical. When you’re firing at someone or they’re firing at you, the screen quickly fills up with the color red and you hear squishy sounds as body parts explode. You can take a chainsaw bayonet and saw your opponent in half. Yet it’s also a thinking shooter’s game, as you have to take cover to hide from enemies to survive on the battlefield and outflank rivals as well. In Gears of War 3, you’re either shouting, sweating, or laughing through the experience.

Rod Fergusson (pictured), executive producer of Gears of War 3, says the company is trying hard to make this the biggest and best game yet. It’s particularly important because the third story will bring an end to the planned trilogy. The story about humanity’s struggle with a fierce underground race of locusts has always been a big part of why fans like the series. Fans have the right to feel like they got an ending to the story, Fergusson said. He says the company has simplified the multiplayer modes and tailored the achievement rewards in multiplayer to encourage gamers.

Originally, Microsoft planned to release the game in April. But it decided to delay the game to make it more polished and make sure that it could incorporate feedback from a multiplayer beta test. That’s costly to do, but it’s probably the smart decision for the sake of the brand.

In my own turn at the game today, I got to play on the side of the bad guys, the Locust horde, who fight the heavily armed humans. In the Team Deathmatch mode, every team has 20 lives per round. When the lives run out, the players can’t respawn anymore. The dead players have to watch as their comrades try to survive as long as possible on their last life. I didn’t realize this and I probably consumed more lives than the rest of my teammates. But no one cursed at me. A lot of the time, I got wounded and had to crawl around on the floor hoping someone from my team would revive me. Generally, I could shoot someone for a sustained time and kill them. But if I did so, someone else would nail me from another direction. It definitely paid off to take cover behind the plentiful stone blocks and to take on enemies from the flanks.

The maps are good. One was like the inside of a wrecked grocery store and another was set in a splendid outdoor garden for a place that resembled a French château. I got to enjoy grabbing a mortar weapon in the center of one map. But the map was so small I didn’t really have very far to shoot the mortar. The shots went up high and landed somewhat randomly in the middle of my enemies. But those rivals just got in close and dismembered me before I could get off more than a couple of shots.

The maps that I played today were not particularly large, at least in comparison to Killzone 3 or Call of Duty Black Ops maps. That’s because the Gears-style fighting is all about close combat and getting the drop on someone who is just a few yards away from you. The sound was cacaphonous and there was absolutely no communication or cooperation possible, as I think we were all too busy just trying to stay alive.

One thing that makes the multiplayer maps easier to understand is that Epic actually shows you a map of the game area at the beginning of the round and shows you where all the best weapons are hidden. That way, new players can master the map and play competitively against more experienced players. You can also play any of several female characters, which is something new for the game, which typically stars Marine-like male grunts.

Check out our interview with Epic Games’ Rod Fergusson, the executive producer of Gears of War 3.