Gears Of War 4 – Multiplayer Beta Impressions

Title   Gears of War 4
Developer  The Coalition
Publisher  Microsoft
Platform  Xbox One
Genre  Third Person Shooter
Release Date  October 11, 2016

Coming out of the Gears Of War 4 multiplayer beta, it’s at once pleasingly reassuring and slightly disappointing to know that new developer The Coalition are building a Gears game very much in the traditional Gears mould for Microsoft’s second-biggest franchise’s proper Xbox One debut. Barring some not so major tweaks and additions to the formula, if you’ve played any of the series’ prior outings online, you’ll know what to expect here. Two teams of five, mostly armed with Gnashers and Lancers, clash against each other across a collection of symmetrical maps which contain power weapons placed in the centre, such as the returning Boomshot and Torque Bow (as well as some new ones), for all to fight over in order to help gain the upper hand. So far, so Gears, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the beta acted as a potent reminder of just how entertaining classic Gears still is, so perhaps it’s reasonable for The Coalition to take a more conservative approach for their first new effort before putting their own stamp on things in the future (just look at 343 Industries with Halo).

That’s not to say that The Coalition have been resting on Epic’s laurels completely, because they have brought some new tricks of their own to the party. Chief among them is Dodgeball mode. Having nothing to do with throwing balls or wrenches at your opponents, Dodgeball mode gets its name from its namesake’s elimination process. Get killed and you’re out of the round, but if a member of your team scores a kill you or another friendly are back in, providing there’s at least one of your squad still standing after a five-second respawn timer. It’s a gloriously hectic and erratic tug-of-war between the two warring teams, members on both sides being drafted in and out at a moment’s notice, meaning the tide of battle can turn within seconds. One minute it can be one survivor against the entire opposing force, and the next the tables could have turned completely with all members of the lone player’s team back in hunting down one enemy straggler having gradually whittled down the others through rising odds.

As has always been the case for Gears multiplayer, teamwork is essential for victory, but even more so in Dodgeball. When there are only two players against double the opposition, you’ll need to work together to at first level the playing field before ultimately maximising your numbers and eradicating the enemy, or lone wolves almost certain to be cut down in a barrage of Lancer fire and Gnasher blasts, in the process bringing another enemy player back in. Although essentially a twist on Team Deathmatch (which also appeared in the beta), Dodgeball is clearly set to be one of Gears 4’s hallmark modes, the other being Escalation, which unfortunately did not feature during testing. Squared at the eSports crowd, Escalation is a capture point mode where the round’s losers can choose what and, critically, where the next one’s power weapons will be, handing them an advantage whilst upping the stakes for the other team.

While objective-based modes like Escalation, King Of the Hill, and Guardian will feature in the finished game, the beta was disappointingly focused more around the straight-up deathmatch side of things, with Dodgeball, Team Deathmatch, and the confusingly called Co-Op Team Deathmatch making up the beta’s trio of game types. Team Deathmatch remains unchanged from previous entries, with teams given a fixed number of respawns in need of bringing down, whilst Co-Op Team Deathmatch is the same only this time it’s one team of human players against one team of AI bots set to Hardcore difficulty. Clearly designed as a training ground and for those uncertain of venturing into the more hostile territory of competitive multiplayer, a Co-Op variant is said to be included for every mode in the final game, allowing players to test their mettle against the tough AI and still earn XP and rank up. It’s a nice and welcome inclusion, no doubt, but it’s certainly no substitute for Horde mode, which is as yet unconfirmed to return.

These Co-Op modes may dish out XP and help increase your rank, and you can still complete Bounties to earn extra XP here too, but understandably they don’t impact on the new performance tiers for matchmaking. Depending on how skilled you play will depend which tier you’re assigned to, ranging Bronze, Silver, Gold, Onyx, Diamond and, if you’re really good, Master. Not only should it help with fairer matchmaking, but also, alongside expanded spectator options, it’s another clear nod to the tournament scene. Evidently, The Coalition and Microsoft want Gears Of War 4 to be a big eSports hit.

As for the beta’s selection of maps, there were three to play on, and none of them exactly screamed instant classic or fan-favourite like Gridlock or Blood Drive, nor do they pack the personality or atmosphere of Checkout or Thrashball. The worst of the bunch by far is Foundation, a largely grey and lifeless map set in a construction site within a COG settlement, filled with concrete walls to duck and dive behind as dark clouds form overhead. It’s an immediately boring and forgettable map to fight on, its colour scheme and setting hardly the most inspiring, but luckily the other two fair better. Harbour is set during a stormy night overlooking the sea, narrow walkways and shipping containers giving battles a more intimate feel, though it does have its fair share of longer sightlines too. Dam, meanwhile, is a more open map taking place during a sunny and bright day at the base of the titular wall.

It’s a shame these maps aren’t as interactive as maps from Gears’ past. Avalanche from Gears 2, for instance, would splatter you with a deadly wall of snow if you weren’t too careful, and a number of maps from Gears 3 featured events which unfolded naturally or could be triggered by the player, such as visibility-reducing sandstorms periodically blowing in on Trenches, or shooting down the scoreboard to crush anyone standing underneath it in Thrashball. Gears 4’s so far are comparatively static, and while they look nice enough running in 1080p at 60fps (the campaign will be capped at 30fps, just like last year’s Gears Of War: Ultimate Edition), they don’t quite do Unreal Engine 4 justice in their current state. It’s still early days, of course, and with the full game set to contain ten maps (including the obligatory Gridlock remake), and violent storms referred to as ‘windflares’ set to play a prominent part in the campaign, might we be seeing some other maps battered by Sera’s out of control weather conditions?

Naturally, more maps will be released after launch, and they’ll be available for free. However, The Coalition are taking a rather unusual approach by rotating maps in and out of the game’s roster on a regular basis. It’s an interesting take, in theory allowing The Coalition to pull out unpopular maps and possibly apply some tweaks if needed before rotating them back in, and if your favourite map has been pulled you can still play on them in private matches providing you pay for them (there’s always a catch). Will it work? It’s hard to tell until release – no one has ever tried anything like this with a game like Gears before – but it will be interesting to see how well it works in practise and how well the community responds to the map count being maintained rather than expanded.

The beta also allowed players to get to grips with one of the game’s new weapons. The Dropshot is effectively a grenade launcher which fires a floating explosive that moves further away as you hold down the trigger. Release and it will slam into the ground to explode. It’s not a fire-and-forget weapon like the Boomshot, requiring a degree of skill in order to hit your mark, with a laser sight attached to the projectile pointing downwards assisting with your aim. The only other new weapon revealed so far is the Buzzkill which fires spinning saw blades that can ricochet around corners to dice up enemies, and looks like it could have come straight out of Bulletstorm. Sadly it didn’t make an appearance in the beta, nor did the Retro Lancer, which is set to return, or the infamous Sawed-Off Shotgun (no word on that one yet).

There were some new moves to practise too. There wasn’t any free running, but there is a new yank manoeuvre to compliment the returning vault kick. If an enemy is hunkered down behind the same piece of cover as you, a press of X will have you reach over and pull them onto your side, temporarily stunning them and opening up a window for you to blast them apart or chainsaw them in half. Alternately, a well-timed tap of Y will see you whip out a combat knife and brutally execute them. The move can be countered with an equally well-timed tap of Y also, but both are incredibly tricky to pull off. Indeed, not once was I able to do it myself, nor did I witness anyone else succeed, most opting for a point-blank Gnasher blast or rev of the Lancer’s chainsaw bayonet. Either The Coalition need to make some fine adjustments or perhaps after some practise in the campaign it will become easier to accomplish.

Gear Of War 4’s multiplayer is a classic case of evolution over revolution, then. The most radical changes seem to be found in the campaign at present, with a new cast facing a new threat (although the Swarm don’t seem to be too dissimilar from the Locust), but for the online portion The Coalition evidently don’t want to risk ruffing up fans’ feathers the same way 2013’s divisive Judgement did, abandoning that game’s admittedly rather excellent class-based modes and reverting back to the old style control scheme. Old hands should feel right at home as a result, while newcomers will find it more accessible than ever thanks to the new Co-Op multiplayer modes. Time will tell whether Gears 4 is doing enough to truly warrant that number at the end, though – as a complete package, it’s got a tough act to follow in Gears 3 – but even if it can only recapture the magic of the older games and bring it to Xbox One, it should be enough to keep fans’ chainsaws revving.

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