April is an incredible month for anyone that lives and breathes the Gears of War series. A multiplayer Beta launches for the most loyal Gearheads on the 18th, opening out to everyone else that really should care from the 24th, ending 1st of May. Gamereactor got an early taste of what to expect.
To hear Rod Fergusson talk about Gears of War is never less than inspiring. Though most press tours for Gears 1-3 were led by fellow ex-Epic superstar Cliff 'Cliffy B' Bleszinski, since the Gears franchise changed hands it is now Rod front and centre on behalf of his new team at The Coalition. Together with creative director Chuck Osieja, the message being conveyed is that Gears as we first adored it, before the unusual side-project Gears of War: Judgement, is making a welcome return. Every word out of their mouths at a recent London unveiling served to reassure that this will be the case, and on the evidence of our hands-on with the game, was practically confirmed. Gears of War 4 cannot be called a reboot in all fairness, but there is no secret made of re-establishing earlier credentials, which should be music to the ears of anyone that ever carried a Torque-Bow into battle.
Without delving too deeply into why Gears of War: Judgement didn't light the fires it really ought to have done, Rod summarises this succinctly as "Lead, don't chase" meaning that rather than evolve the Gears franchise in ways that are in danger of being unrecognisable, the intention is to embrace the cover-shooting gameplay that made the series famous and extend that in strong, significant ways.
The first example we're given is that Gears of War weapons are characters too; as distinctive as the heroes that wield them. While many shooting games encourage modification via under-barrel attachments, scopes, muzzle-brakes and so on, in Gears of War going forward the armoury is sacred. Cool custom paint jobs aside, the Lancer, Gnasher, Hammerburst, Snub Pistol and Longshot perform the same for everybody. You know what you intend to accomplish with them and what to expect on the receiving end. In short, Gears should always offer a level playing field before battles commence.
In terms of adding to what we know, so far only one new weapon has been announced plus a couple of agility-based moves to keep opponents guessing. Essentially they share the same goal, which is to invalidate the cover of players that spend too long in hiding, and/or prevent being locked into joyless Gnasher (shotgun) blind-fire battles that emerge out of desperation.
The Drop Shot weapon is a mining tool (in keeping with the narrative of a peacetime world rebuilt) with a laser-targeted drill that seems to reward a one-shot kill. Its range is managed similar to the Torque Bow, so requires some skill to line up targets while the recipient also gets a small chance to escape. Those agility moves include Yank and Shank, which entails dragging opponents over mantles to stab them, and the Vault Kick. The latter may sound familiar, but differs from the basic Mantle Kick in that it is carried out while running instead of stationary cover. Both techniques are easy to learn, and shift the balance in favour of the offensive though not without risk. Yank and Shank can be countered, for one thing, while a guy charging your position for a Vault Kick is clearly a target.
Tactically these additions should become very interesting over time, and it's all owing to the benefit of Gears gameplay having fresh eyes from The Coalition design team after being handed this golden opportunity to fly the franchise flag.
Given that so much of what Gears of War stands for speaks to its strong community, the versus audience is more important than ever to where Gears 4 is headed. No matter how the Campaign shapes up, the need to attract players to versus game modes is clearly now a huge focus. There are players that will be completely new to Gears of War, looking for clear points of access. There are those that enjoy hanging for the social experience as much as anything else, like five-a-side of an evening after work. Many treat versus modes as a competitive platform, and among them this move is a stage further into the realm of esports. Gears of War 4 is taking all of these needs into account, including options to make the game caster friendly for broadcasting before esports audiences.
The starting point for all versus modes is that matchmaking is handled according to skill rank, meaning that everyone can enjoy a fun game. Rod Fergusson used a basketball analogy, rightly pointing out that he'd hate to go up against a team of pro-players on the court when all he wanted to do was shoot some hoops against pals. After losing terribly he'd never want to play again. So, with Gears of War, we're going to be skill-matched, ranked under Bronze, Silver, Gold, Onyx, Diamond and Master categories, based purely on performance. Versus game modes will also be playable as co-op, with teams up against AI opponents, with difficulty settings cranked to whichever is most enjoyable.
What's most interesting about all this is that everyone earns XP in versus modes of any kind, providing all players with what Fergusson calls "a viable place to play". Everyone is rewarded for their investment of time, and really the bragging rights are reserved for players that care about achieving the higher tier rankings of Onyx, Diamond and Master. In terms of in-game rewards, Gears of War 4 is introducing a collectible card system with four degrees of rarity, acquired from Gear Crates purchased using the credits earned across all game modes. There are two kinds of item, Consumable and Durable. Consumables include XP bonuses for performing certain feats in battle. Durables are such things as Vintage costumes and gear, or Emblems to display on your profile.
Everything is earnable through play, but there is the option to purchase Gear Crates if we wish. This ethos also extends to how DLC is being served throughout the lifetime of Gears 4, starting at launch. There will be 10 versus maps at launch in October, with new maps to download every month. These maps will rotate in and out of playlists, all of which are free for public play, but this does mean that specific maps that are occasionally out of rotation could include your favourites. With this in mind, there is an option to purchase maps for private play where only the host needs to own the map to invite others for sessions with up to 10 players online.
The Beta starting April 18 includes two new game modes across three maps. 'Dodgeball' is adapted from the schoolyard game, a knockout competition in which a key rule allows for the last remaining player to recall one other player upon taking out an opponent. There is scope for some true heroics here, 'swinging it' back in your team's favour when all seems lost. 'Escalation' is being touted as the "premiere competitive mode", also a knockout format designed with viewing/casting in mind that promises to be very tactical with a strategic meta-game. More details on this will be at PAX East, during the 'Out of the Shadows: Inside Gears of War Multiplayer' panel taking place on 24 April.
Gamereactor got to try out Dodgeball, in addition to playing straightforward Team Deathmatch, across the three maps 'Harbor', 'Dam' and 'Foundation'. Without spoiling the Beta experience for anyone reading this, we found Dodgeball to be an irresistibly vocal affair that became instantly gripping for the team working as a unit. Maps displayed variation between sprawled out, long line-of-sight arenas to more vertical, close range and enclosed layouts that necessitated constant movement and awareness of exposure from above and below. While our efforts to incorporate the new Yank and Shank or Vault Kick manoeuvres initially met with failure and embarrassment, and it was hard not to resort to the Gnasher face-offs that felt all-too familiar, Gears 4 does seem closer to Gears 1 & 2 in terms of pacing and we're hugely looking forward to spending more time learning.
With Gears of War 4, The Coalition really has grabbed this opportunity by the throat and we can't wait to spend more time with the Beta.
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