The Gears of War games have some instantly recognisable features.
Unnervingly disproportionate musculature, trailers featuring a predictable mix of ultraviolence and plinkety plonkety piano music, guns, grunting, more guns, a robust multiplayer experience... wait, what was that last one?
Even if you haven’t spent a great deal of time cosying up to Epic Games’ cover shooter trilogy, the words ‘Gears of War’ are more likely to conjure images of a single player campaign with set-pieces bulging with wanton destruction and en-masse pwnage than competitive multiplayer, which has lingered in the background.
The Coalition (the developer that’s taken the reins of the series from Epic Games) wants to change all that. We headed down into an east London bunker (seriously) to see if the next Gears has got what it takes to convert the Counter Strike crowd.
The yank and shank
Front and centre in The Coalition’s vision is a new technique it hopes will shake up multiplayer combat in Gears 4: the yank and shank. Sure, this sounds decidedly like a something from a dirty movie, but it is in fact a new ability that allows you to pull (yank) an enemy that’s the other side of some cover and then initiate a brutal execution (shank).
It’s designed to reward high risk plays and to prevent players relying on cover too much, and during this initial playtest it seemed to have just that effect.
If feeling particularly fancy, there's also a new running wall vault that serves the same sort of purpose. Players hop over the obstacle and stun their opponent on the other side, leaving their soft exposed bellies at the mercy of a combat knife.
It’s easy to pull off in training but exceptionally hard in the brutal cut and thrust of multiplayer combat, just as it should be.
The Coalition is hoping to produce more dynamic matches with these two abilities - and it’s not just us casual players it wants to please. These days it’s almost impossible for big-budget multiplayer games to avoid the looming shadow of esports (don’t even say that word around games publishers - they tend to start salivating uncontrollably) - and Gears of War 4 hasn’t escaped pro-gaming fever.
The first of the game’s fresh modes, Escalation, is intended to be as esports friendly as possible. Designed as the successor to Gears 3’s popular Execution match-type. Escalation sees teams engage in a multiple-round tournament, with both aiming for a majority win.
Most elements within Escalation remain unchanged from the Execution mode: combat is short-range focused because players who are ‘downed’ from a distance can pick themselves up after a few seconds - so long as they aren’t skewered up-close in the meantime. The guaranteed kill of a yank and shank does the job in one move, so makes far more tactical sense than taking pot shots from the perimeter only to then have to make a frantic dash into the killzone to finish off your wounded opponent.
What Escalation adds is the tournament-style structure and the rather fiendish distribution of special weapons. During each round hyper-powered weaponry is left at locations across the map that must be contested by both teams. The Dropshot - something I swear I’ve had at the dentist - is one such instrument of death: it launches forward an explosive drill when the trigger is held. Upon release the pointy bomb comes careering downward to deal enormous splash damage.
Supermarket Sweeping these prizes can turn the tide of battle and also influence future outcomes. The fiendish bit is that the losing team of each round will find these weapons in easier to reach locations in the next, thereby levelling the playing field and hopefully making for closer, more tense engagements.
One in, one out
The second mode in which I dabbled is called Dodgeball. As the name suggests, the rules are similar to the American high school game made famous to us Brits by Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn. Neither of whom is in Gears of War 4. As far as we're aware.
Each team begins with five players. If a player is killed they’re out of the match - the first team to be completely wiped out is the loser. It all sounds simple until the added complication: each time a team-member scores a kill, it revives a fallen ally. In other words, the opposing team has the irritating bouncebackability of an infestation of mice - fail to get rid of every last one of them and they'll come back in force to make your life a misery.
This setup leads to a manic oscillation between high and low team numbers. A two versus four advantage can be quickly equalised with a single kill. A second kill could even see the tables turn entirely. In theory, even a single remaining rogue player can turn the tables on a group of five by securing a couple of takedowns.
Almost, but not quite, free
The Coalition has promised multiplayer DLC will be released every month, mostly in the form of maps and game modes.
In the past, games that have sold maps to players have inadvertently split their community down the middle: the haves spend their time in new environs, the have-nots linger in the old, under-populated ghetto.
To prevent this, all new Gears of War 4 DLC maps will be available for free, but only if you’re happy playing them online in matches open to any other player. Want to set up a private match for just you and your mates? You’ll need to fork out so that you own those maps. It’s a slightly odd system that we can’t see making Microsoft much money, but we don’t expect many people will be too put out by it either.
Of course, the marketplace in Gears of War 4 will be hawking far more than just maps. Gear crates containing what the developers describe as ‘consumables and durables’ will also be made available, as well as the standard vanity items such as new outfits.
The Coalition is keen to stress that none of these items affect gameplay mechanics and that it strongly opposes ‘pay to win’. As in many other online games, all marketplace goodies can also be purchased using credits that are earned in-game and require no monetary investment. That’s all well and good assuming this isn’t one of those games that requires such a monumentally huge pile of credits that it essentially does put those items out of reach. We’ll have to gauge that once the game is finished and live.
For a game to work well as an esport it doesn’t just need to be fast, fun and balanced to play - it also needs to be great to watch. But the spectator mode in first- and third-person games generally suffers myriad problems; it’s unexciting, difficult to see what’s happening, and only provides an isolated view of the map.
The Coalition is aiming to resolve these issues with its updated take on match spectation. Rather than awkwardly flashing between different participants, the camera now smoothly flows from one team member to the next, which it hopes will leave the experience feeling less disjointed.
The HUD now also features a menu displaying the status of each player and allows them to be selected for camera-lock straight away, preventing spectators from tediously cycling through both teams before reaching what they want to see.
Long-term, the plan is to introduce top-down camera modes that allow spectators to see the whole map. The isometric cameras of League of Legends and StarCraft II are key to their success as esports; it’s makes them eminently watchable and, if The Coalition can make the same work for Gears of War 4, it would be a huge leap in the right direction.
Gears of War 4: the early verdict
Esports ready or not, the true test of Gears 4’s multiplayer will be its reception from the regular gaming community, not from pro-gaming folk.
I certainly enjoyed the few matches I played, but I was also left with a vague sensation of gaming days gone by. Compacted arenas and power ups are a distinct flavour of shooter exemplified by the likes of Unreal and Quake III Arena back in the nineties. To me Gears 4 lacks the hyper-responsiveness that made those games such a blast, and I left my play session feeling distinctly unsatisfied.
So if you're looking to the net Gears of War for your multiplayer gaming fix, you could be disappointed. Most people, though, will be looking to the next Gears of War for a story full of bombastic, melodramatic sci-fi action, and it could well deliver on that front. Looks like we'll have to wait until closer to launch to find out for sure, though.