There are few things more satisfying than running up to an opposing online player, revving up a chainsaw bayonet, and brutally cutting them in half. Gears of War 4 will soon be bringing this joyfully bloody offering to Xbox One. I got a chance to take on a swarm of opponents in Gears of War 4's multiplayer, and the good news is that all it's gory, blood-soaked goodness is intact. However, with a new iteration comes some tweaks to the multiplayer formula, and developer The Coalition is making some significant changes to the competitive side of the game.
I played an early pre-alpha build of Gears 4 that showcases some of the new mechanics. Everything from the weapons in your arsenal to the way you use cover has seen some adjustments, but from what I've played so far, it feels like going back to the old-school Gears gameplay we all fell in love with... with a few, necessary modern features to top it all off.
The last Gears game in the series, Judgment, changed the way the series' mechanics worked making the experience more in tune with a first-person shooter. But now, The Coalition is throwing all that nonsense out of the window and is basing the Gears 4 multiplayer gameplay on Gears of War 3 mechanics - going back to the cover-shooting, shotgun mayhem of the original games. The developer is focusing on teamwork, effective use of cover, and skilled use of the map-spawned power weapons.
As you probably know, cover is an extremely important part of Gears' combat. In previous games, your options in cover are limited, especially when one of your enemies is right up in your grill. In Gears 4, you can 'yank and shank' enemies, pulling them over cover. You can also sprint and vault kick enemies in cover, or vault kick them from a stationary position. Successfully pulling off one of these moves stuns your opponent, leaving them open to an instant kill execution. But you have to be careful. Executions can be countered. With these extra moves, close-cover combat ends up feeling like a game of tag, except, you know, the loser dies in the end.
It's been 25 years since the war ended after Gears 3. Marcus Fenix and his dudebros are heroes, and humans have been enjoying over two decades of peace. As a result, new wartime weapons are no longer being produced forcing the new Cogs to adopt tools to bolster their arsenal in the wake of the new threat. The Dropshot, a piece of equipment used for strip mining, shoots an explosive drill bit that can pass over cover, drill into the ground, then explode. If you're skilled enough to bullseye a headshot, the bit will drill through your enemy's head and blast them to pieces from the inside. It's pretty gross.
The new tools repurposed for warfare will replace some of the old games' weapons that no longer exist. After the events of Gears of War 3, weapons like the Ink Grenade and the Digger - the previous weapon that nullified cover - were destroyed when the emulsion countermeasure went off. The Dropshot is the first new weapon to be revealed, and there are sure to be more on the way.
The developer wants to make Gears 4's multiplayer accessible to everyone, and that gets a little tough when pro players are able to matchmake with brand new players. The solution: everyone gets assigned a skill rank. Your rank is based on how well you do in your matches, which allows you to move up or down the Bronze, Silver, Gold, Onyx, Diamond, or Master skill tiers. The idea is to keep players of the same skill level playing together, so regular players can ease into multiplayer without getting repeatedly shotgunned in the face by a pro, and skilled players won't always steamroll the newbies.
If you're still apprehensive about jumping into competitive multiplayer, a co-op multiplayer mode has also been added to give new players a place to practice. This mode allows you to matchmake with other human players and have encounters against bots. The bots have adjustable difficulties that you can tweak for your skill level, but just because they're bots doesn't mean they are pushovers. There's improved bot AI that has the computer opponents act like humans. They work as a team performing flanking movements, and take on their own tactical personalities.
I got my hands on a new game mode called Dodgeball. And no, there are no rubber balls involved. Rather, the game mode adopts the elimination rules of a schoolyard game of dodgeball. Players who die stay dead until a teammate kills an enemy. Once your team gets a kill, the dead players on your team rotate back into the game. When a team has been completely eliminated it's the end of the match. Dodgeball is a more social, just-for-fun game mode, which seems great for hanging out with friends. There will, obviously, be other modes that are much more competitive. Elimination is another that has been mentioned, and it's more of an eSports-focused game mode. Elimination is built on Execution, which is the classic competitive mode for Gears eSports competitions. More details and a demo of the Elimination will be coming to PAX East, so stay tuned for more info then.
On top of putting players into skill-based brackets and the Elimination mode, Gears 4 is adding plenty of eSports-centric features. The Spectator mode allows eSports announcers to see a match from a customized perspective. A spectator can view players from various camera angles using a free-flying mode: this lets you watch from the standard third-person over-the-shoulder view right through to a high-up overview of the overall battle. All players will also be visible through walls, giving the announcers the ability to actively predict engagements and plan out the perfect view.
Like many other shooters, Gears players tend to stick around in the multiplayer long after they've completed the campaign, and one of the reasons they hang around so long is to customize their characters. You can get various character skins and weapon skins by collecting cards that come in four different rarities. As you do battle in the multiplayer arenas you earn credits that can be used to purchase randomized crates, which in turn dole out random cards (similar to how Mass Effect 3's loot system works). But if you don't want to spend the time earning in-game credits, you can also purchase the crates with real money. It is important to note that all of the items in the crates are cosmetic, so pay-to-win is off the table.
Forcing an online player-base to purchase map packs can cause division in a community. Essentially, there's no way to make sure everyone has the same maps purchased, downloaded, and ready for matchmaking. To circumvent this problem, The Coalition will be releasing DLC maps for free, but you won't have access to every map anytime you want. The developers will be curating map playlists in a seasonal rotation. So, when new maps are released, they will be added to the public playlist and in place of few of the old ones.
If there are maps that you want to have access to all the time, you can purchase them and play them with your buddies in private matches. The developers said that they would favor the more popular maps in the rotations and use the downtime for more unpopular, pulled maps to tweak and improve them. It all seems like an interesting way to keep the online portion of the game interesting and engaging, but we'll just have to wait and see how it works out when the game is released for Xbox One later this year.