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'Gears of War 4' multiplayer brings the series back to its roots

Engadget Engadget 14/04/2016 Nathan Ingraham

© Provided by Engadget

Excluding Halo, Gears of War is Microsoft's biggest multiplayer shooter -- for many players, multiplayer is far more important than the main story-based campaign. That's what made Gears of War: Judgement a disappointment for many long-time players. The multiplayer experience was changed enough that long-time GoW fans were left a bit cold. As such, developer The Coalition looked at Gears of War 4's multiplayer as an opportunity to make the best GoW experience it could while sticking to the formula that previously had made it so popular.

"Judgement was a big change in how Gears played -- it was basically Gears meets first person shooter," Rod Fergusson (studio head at The Coalition) told reporters at a Gears of War 4 multiplayer preview event last week. "It had first-person shooter controls, it had faster movement, human vs human combat... it really felt like it was a move away from what was core to Gears of War." For the latest entry in the series, Fergusson decided to "double down" on what's unique to the series rather than chase a trend like making GoW into a first-person shooter. A mantra for the team was "don't change yourself so much that you lose the people who already love you," Fergusson said.

As for what defines a GoW multiplayer game, Fergusson referenced "intimate violence" -- it's all about getting right up to your enemy and taking them out in the most grizzly way possible. To that end, The Coalition added some new close-combat moves to vary gameplay and provide new opportunities to get up close and personal with the competition. The "yank and shank," lets you pull an enemy hiding behind cover over to you, leaving the vulnerable for an up-close kill.

The "vault kick" lets you run full-speed towards a barrier where an enemy is hiding, leap over it and kick them square in the face. Again, the enemy is wide open for a brutal, close-range kill, and that's not a coincidence. Fergusson said that using cover to get up close to combatants and take them out with your knife or chainsaw was a defining part of the GoW experience that was missing in the last game -- that's where the inspiration for these new moves game from.

In actual play, however, I didn't find these moves to be terribly useful. Maybe that's just due to my relative lack of Gears of War experience, but it felt like both me and the competition used teamwork and surprise flanking to get at warriors hiding behind barriers. That said, the game's hardcore fans will almost certainly find ways to use these new moves, but they don't exactly change the core gameplay experience in any major way, at least at first glance.

More notable is a new gameplay mode called Dodgeball. In this mode, once you die, you don't immediately respawn. Instead, you're left on the sidelines until someone on your team makes a kill -- you then get to jump back in. Every kill your team makes brings back another player from the sidelines, and it makes for some pretty wild changes of pace in a match. You and a teammate could be in a dire two-on-four situation, but one kill both takes out one enemy and brings back one of your companions, making it an even three-on-three match. Wild changes of fortune aren't common, but in the time I spent playing dodgeball I definitely saw a few comebacks where one team was down to one-on-five, and The Coalition said those types of crazy comebacks are the kind of thing they had in mind when building that new gameplay mode.

Gears of War 4 also makes it a lot easier for inexperienced players to get into multiplayer. There's a new co-op experience in which you and four fellow noobs take on a squad of five AI players in a match that feels just like a standard deathmatch against human competition. To keep the gameplay from feeling too stale, each AI competitor has its own personality and style, just as human players would, and you'll still earn experience to redeem for in-game collectibles.

Even if you spend your time beating up on bots, jumping in against human players for the first time could still be a jarring experience. As such, the game will assign each player one of six skill level badges and only put you in multiplayer games with combatants of the same grade. It's a smart move to avoid getting your clock cleaned and then giving up the first time you try multiplayer. Of course, this will all depend on how good the game is at matchmaking, something that remains to be seen at this point.

The last few additions are designed for the competitive gaming crowd. Another new mode called "Escalation" is meant for eSports-caliber players. The Coalition said it was the most "strategic" GoW multiplayer experience yet, but there weren't any more details on what it'll look like, and I didn't get to play it either. There should be more details on the new mode at PAX East at the end of April, however.

Regardless of what game mode you're playing, you'll be able to take advantage of new broadcasting features to make a live streamed match much easier to watch. Broadcasters who control what is seen in a live feed now have more options for switching between various players to keep things from being too jerky and jarring. Previously, if you wanted to cycle from player one to player five, you'd have to hit a trigger and jump quickly through four players to get there, but now you'll be able to seamlessly switch between any player view or camera angle you want. It's not something that'll matter for most players, but if you're big on watching live streams (or producing your own), they should look better in Gears of War 4.

When the game launches on October 11th, it'll come with ten maps included, and The Coalition says it'll release both new maps as well as remastered ones from previous games every month. They'll be free, but rather than flood the market with dozens of maps, the game will feature a curated "playlist" of ten DLC maps in addition to the core ten that come with the game. They'll rotate in and out so there's always a fresh selection -- but if you really love one particular map and don't want to see it leave, you can buy it and run it on your own private server.

If you want to get a look at how Gears of War 4's multiplayer mode is shaping up, a beta starts on the 18th for anyone who has played Gears of War: Ultimate Edition; it'll open up to everyone with an Xbox Live Gold account on the 25th. The Coalition warned that this is a true technical beta rather than a polished preview, so things might be buggy or broken entirely. Based on the few hours I spent with it, I'd recommend any Gears fans out there give it a shot and try out a few dodgeball games -- it was a clever way of mixing up a formula that's gotten pretty familiar over the years.

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