The Gears of War franchise has been in a odd spot ever since it left the hands of Epic Games and creator Cliff Bleszinski.
Since the gaming icon's departure in 2012, the franchise changed from a brutally methodical cover-based shooter to something more akin to an FPS with Gears of War: Judgement.
Then, to make matters more convoluted, the new developers on the franchise – an in-house studio at Microsoft called The Coalition – decided to remake the first game in the series for Xbox One and PC before finally getting around to the fourth iteration of the game.
But, after a long four years of waiting, Gears of War is back. Back in the proper sense of the name. We've had some time with the multiplayer already, and though we only got a small look at what's to come, we walked away having learned a lot. Here's what you need to know about Gears 4 multiplayer.
We're back to classic Gears
"When someone picks up this game, the first thing we want them to say is 'This feels like Gears" - those are the words of The Coalition creative director Chuck Osieja, and as far as the multiplayer goes, he's not wrong.
The Coalition wants to prove it's worthy of carrying the torch from Epic Games, and so it's buried back down to the roots of the franchise. It's about taking cover. It's about tactics. It's about grabbing and defending power weapon spawns. It's about executing your enemies in the least humane way possible, or using them as human meat shields while you sink rounds into their teammates.
"We learned a lot from Judgement," said Coalition studio head Rod Fergusson in a presentation. The cosmetics have changed in Gears 4, but the guts (and guns) are here.
Keeping with the organ analogy, the heart of the Gears of War's multiplayer is the same as it ever was: five-on-five team deathmatch. In its traditional form, the mode pits you and four of your crew against another five-person squad. It's basic, granted, but it's the onyx pillar that Gears of War was built upon.
The latest iteration of the squad-based shooter latches onto the mechanics that have worked thus far in the series. To that end, expect every active reload to be the difference between life and death in your next firefight and, at least on one occasion, get a Chainsaw Bayonet in your back when you're least expecting it.
Jumping into our first match, the shaky camera and cover-to-cover combat felt very familiar, and the executions as gory as ever - although this time the Locust have been replaced with the uglier Swarm.
So far, so Gears. But the dev team is adding a few new features to the fourth iteration, including a new multiplayer mode called Dodgeball; three new cover-based melee moves; a few new weapons; a MOBA-esque skill-based ranking system; and a promise to make all new multiplayer maps free.
Old dog, new tricks
While the cover-to-cover style remains constant, Gears 4 brings new ways to enact violent justice on your foes. The first of these is called the 'Yank and Shank' and solves the deadlock problem when you and your enemy are both ducked down either side of cover. By pressing up on the left joystick and 'X' you can reach over, grab them, and yank them over to your side, briefly stunning them.
Then comes the shanking - a brief window of time, while your enemy is stunned, where pressing 'Y' will insert a large combat knife into their chest. Great in theory, tricky to pull off in practice; there were a few comical displays of us and the opposite enemy both taking turns reaching over and failing to grasp the other. But it's damn satisfying when you nail it.
Your second new trick is the Vault Kick. In past Gears games, a similar move called the mantle kick required you to run up to cover, stop and then hold 'A' to leap over the barrier and onto your opponent. That brief second before you leaped into the air was usually all your opponent needed to whip out a shotgun and shred your innards into a red mist.
These days, the Vault Kick doesn't require you to stop. As you're running towards cover you can press and hold the 'B' button to leap over the obstacle and land a foot in your enemy's face all in one fluid motion. Press and hold 'Y' after they're stunned and you'll score yourself a melee kill.
Third, we have the Counter, which you can use to prevent either the Yank and Shank or Vault Kick. When timed correctly, you'll stop your opponent mid-move and stun them with a melee attack of your own. Toss in the ol' 'Y' button for a big finisher.
Don't forget the five D's of Dodgeball
During our preview we got to try a new mode called Dodgeball, although this one doesn't involve a ball at all. Rather, it lifts the rule where you can bring a teammate back into the game by eliminating an opponent. Die once and you'll be out of the game and placed in a first-in-first-out queue, and assuming your team don't royally suck, you should be back in the game shortly.
Still, it makes you value your lives a little more, and there were a few times where we felt the pressure of being the last teammate standing, knowing everyone was watching and waiting to be brought back in. Worth noting that there's a five second wait between killing an opponent and a teammate being brought back in, just to make it a little trickier.
There are also new guns to play with. The Dropshot is our favorite of the two revealed so far, and replaces the Digger Launcher from previous games. The Dropshot launches a drill bit that flies over enemies and then, once you execute at the right moment, will drop down through your enemy's skull and turn their entrails into a human merry-go-round. Delicious.
It wants to help newcomers find their feet
"If you look at the history of Gears 1, 2 and 3, you see a team who's fighting to keep it more accessible, a team that's fighting to keep it open to new players," said Coalition studio head Rod Fergusson. "Instead of fighting, we decided to embrace it."
There are two sides to this: Gears 4 multiplayer has upper skill echelons for the pro players, while also helping new players find their feet. Gears 4 adds skill-based ranking in addition to the standard XP levels. When the game launches there will be five ranks: copper, silver, gold, onyx and master.
Fergusson said that the franchise has always tried to put equally skilled players against one another, but that this system was hiding in the code away from players' view. That could get confusing when a Level 5 player found themselves up against a Level 60. Gears 4 has a more public-facing ranking system that hopes to get around the problem.
According to Fergusson, the inspiration for the skill-based hierarchy comes from real-time strategy games like StarCraft and MOBAs like League of Legends.
Another element of this is a new mode for human players to go up against a team of bots - another good way of building up skill before taking on the pros. In the switch from the Unreal 3 engine to Unreal 4, The Coalition lost all of its AI, so it's built it back up again from scratch. AI is now more at the forefront - bots previously existed in Gears, but again, they were slightly obscured - and can even be assigned personalities.
But it's also pushing further in the other direction
The ranks also serve as a carrot at the end of a stick. The Coalition hopes that seeing players with higher ranks will push you to keep advancing up the ladder and bring even more gamers into Gears of War's eSports competitions, something the multiplayer is heavily focused on.
Although we only played three maps - Harbor, Dam and Foundation - we quickly noticed how symmetrical they were in design. This is just one of the ways Gears 4 is taking eSports more seriously; getting to the Dropshot gun is the same experience for both teams, and the team says this careful balancing extends to weapons too. A fleshed-out spectator mode also means viewers not partaking can get a more in-depth and customizable experience.
"The teams that are most successful play together, and they talk and they strategize, and they move through the world together, and they flank and support and all that stuff," said Osieja. "I think from that standpoint Gears 4 will be a great indication of where Gears can go in terms of eSports. I think it's got a really high ceiling."
Gears of War 4 will be the first game in the world to use Triton, a sound technology that accurately maps sound in 3D spaces. The upshot is that, for the first time, war will truly sound like war, although the headphones we used for the preview were too quiet to appreciate it (even turned up to the max) so we can't speak too much for its effectiveness just yet. You can read more about it here.
It's taking a Netflix approach to maps
While disparities in skill level might've annoyed fans of the past Gears games, it was paid multiplayer maps that really kept friend groups divided.
"Some gamers would only buy the first set of maps. Some would maybe buy the first and the third. Some wouldn't buy any at all," Fergusson said. "[And because everyone in the party needed the same maps to play together] every map pack would fragment the multiplayer pool more and more."
So how can you make everyone happy? Make all the maps free. Well... at least for a month or two.
While the final number isn't set in stone yet, Fergusson says The Coalition plans to release two new maps every month after the game ships. The maps, which would be a combination of new creations and some rehashes of old favorites, would initially be free for everyone.
Then, when the next wave of new maps comes out, older ones will be taken away in a Netflix-style rotation. You can also buy maps and keep them permanently, the benefit being that you can not only play them when you like, but that only one person will need to own it when you're playing with friends.
Say it with a card
Gears 4 brings in a card-based system to give the multiplayer another layer of depth. As you play the game you'll earn credits which can be spent on card crates - each containing five random cards.
Cards can either offer permanent effects, like weapon skins and XP boosts, or one-time consumables, known as Bounties. Bounties can be played before a game and will promise a perk if you win - consumables can only be claimed upon success - such as double XP for the match.
There'll be different types of crates, and if you don't have enough in-game credits you'll be able to purchase crates with your own cash. However, The Coalition stresses that you won't be on the back foot if you don't.
"There is no pay to win. Everything is earnable through play," said Fergusson. "You might want to enrich your experience but you don't have the time to sit there and grind it all out."
We still don't know much about the campaign
We liked what we played of the multiplayer, but that's just a section of a section of Gears 4. The Coalition still hasn't said much about the single player campaign, but we know it's set 25 years after the events of Gears 3 and features Marcus's son among a list of other new characters.
Going by what we've seen and the comments from The Coalition about keeping within the themes of Gears, we don't expect it to depart dramatically from previous campaigns. Chuck Osieja promised us we can expect a "typical" campaign length, and said we'll hear more about it soon, with the game set for an October 11 launch.
As for how the multiplayer is shaping up, we're pleased by what we've seen. It's clear that The Coalition sees a bright future for Gears in eSports, but otherwise not an awful lot has changed. For players who were put off by the difficulty of multiplayer in previous Gears games, Gears 4 might be the time of return. For the fans who were put off by Judgement, it looks like Gears 4 could rekindle the love affair.
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