Gears of War 4's multiplayer goes back to the glory days

Gears of War 4’s bloody battle arena feels familiar: the swivel of the chaotic camera, the rush of the "roadie run" cover-taking tactic, the sweet click of an active reload before a shotgun blast. These elements exist to remind players of the franchise’s peak and assure them that it can be replicated. Gears 4, which comes out on October 11th, is purposefully built to resemble its predecessor when it comes to multiplayer combat. And it’s a welcome return to form.

After 2013’s Gears of War Judgement, a prequel developed only in part by the series’ original creator Epic Games, fans of the game’s multiplayer were disappointed. Gone were hallmark Gears features like the ability to "down" an enemy opponent, who could either be revived or executed if they didn’t bleed out entirely. Mechanical tweaks, such as starting with grenades and letting players respawn infinitely, made the game more approachable, but the changes irked longtime players who savored Gears’ stressful last-man-standing approach.

Gears of War 4 is purposefully built to resemble its predecessor

In Gears 4, those changes have been reversed. The down-but-not-out system is back, grenades have returned to their position as scarce obtainables on the map, and the Locust are once again online playable characters. Active reloads are also making a return, and the signature death match mode has been left as it was in Gears 3.

"The single biggest pillar was to create a game that feels like a true Gears of War experience," says Rod Fergusson, the former executive producer on the original Gears trilogy at Epic Games. Fergusson now heads up The Coalition, formerly Microsoft’s Black Tusk Studios before it was renamed in honor of the company’s acquisition of the Gears rights from Epic in 2014. (Players in the series assume the role of COG soldiers, for Coalition of Ordered Governments. Get it?)

That mindset is welcome, because if there’s any game series that relies on its visceral aesthetics, it is Gears of War. The franchise has always succeeded by eliciting distinct sensations no other shooter game can produce. From the obviously ludicrous assault rifle / chainsaw combo and Unreal Tournament-esque body explosions, Gears has sought to obsessively construct a system of risks and rewards for players to experiment with. Every mistake is met with a viscous punishment, but each small victory makes you feel invincible.

The characters are also giant, lumbering beasts — both human and otherwise — who still operate with precise and calculated dodge rolls and frenetic scuttles to cover. Players are asked to utilize map geography to carefully create or close the space between enemies, and much of what occurs against other humans online is, as Fergusson puts it, "intimidate violence." This formula is tried and true. Messing with it, as Judgement did, didn’t quite work out.

When I played the game last week, four other players and myself faced off against another team of five in a variety of new maps and modes. That includes a new Dodgeball variant that lets you bring a teammate back by killing an enemy, like catching a ball in the middle school gym game. It was a good taste of how Ferguson and crew are trying to mix old and new.

For one, Gears 4 is adding a new dynamic way to assault your enemies using cover. You can now yank players over to your side or lunge over a piece of cover with a kick. If you do it right, the opponent will remain stunned for a brief second, allowing you to initiate a deadly knife execution. The animations are as gruesome as you might expect from Gears.

Judgement made the franchise much more inviting to casual players; prior entries could be oppressive, forcing you to spend hours learning Gears’ unique quirks. To remedy the skill gap, Ferguson says Gears 4 is introducing new ranking tiers, similar to Halo, that match players with people of roughly equal performance. There’s also a new co-op mode for facing off against AI enemies with your friends online, with a difficulty scaler to help newer players improve.

The Coalition is launching Gears 4 with ten maps and plans on adding one new map every month for free. New maps will rotate in while older maps will be taken out, but players can purchase any DLC map they like to keep it in their personal rotation. When playing in a private match, the maps are available even when other players on the roster don’t own it. It’s part of a new microtransaction element of Gears, but Ferguson stresses that real money will only be usable for cosmetic character upgrades and these map purchases.

The Gears of War 4 beta starts on April 18th for anyone who played Gears of War Ultimate Edition on either Xbox One or PC before April 11th. The public beta goes live on April 25th for any Xbox Live Gold member. It should be a good opportunity for any Gears fan to see for themselves what The Coalition has done to remedy the wrongs of Judgement. If anything, it’s a chance to see if the game makes you feel as Gears 3 did, by producing that supremely satisfying sensation of having survived hell to stay alive.

The Gears of War 4 beta goes public on April 25th

In my most glorious moment, I spawned into a fresh deathmatch and bolted for a signature Gears staple, the Rambo-like Torque Bow. I dispatched four human opponents, using up my explosive arrows before advancing on the team’s spawn point. There, equipped only with ammo for my shotgun, I was able to make use of the new cover system to yank an enemy from behind his block of concrete cover and pull off a knife execution. As I frantically hugged my way around a pick-up truck, I made excessive use of active reloads and blind fires to try and nab more kills.

My reign of terror was finally ended when I ran out of bullets and tried to roadie run my way to safety. The whole exchange felt like a highlight reel happening in real time, and it was like I never left those formative multiplayer years on the Xbox 360. Gears is back, I thought.

Gears of War 4 comes out on October 11th, 2016.

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