Game preview: Gears Of War 4 multiplayer is bloody good fun

GameCentral gets a preview of the multiplayer beta from the new Gears Of War, and speaks to director Rod Fergusson.

It’s only been three years since the last Gears Of War game (five if you don’t count the divisive Judgment) and yet it seems like the franchise has been away for much longer than that. As synonymous with the Xbox 360 as Halo ever was, the original was one of the most influential games of the previous generation; especially in terms of third person action and co-operative play. But gaming has changed a lot in the last few years and it’s interesting to see how much Gears Of War 4 has changed to reflect that – and how much it’s purposefully stayed the same.

What’s also changed is that Microsoft now owns the Gears franchise outright, after purchasing it from original creators Epic Games and making developer The Coalition custodians of the franchise – much in the way 343 Industries are for Halo. Although they have retained the services of director Rod Fergusson, who has been with Gears since the very first game and who we got a chance to interview at their recent multiplayer event.

Gears Of War has always had competitive multiplayer, but as Fergusson readily admits it’s always been a tertiary feature at best. And yet so far it’s been the main focus of Gears Of War 4’s build-up, with a beta set to start on April 18 for anyone that’s already played Gears Of War: Ultimate Edition (The Coalition’s first crack at the series) and for everyone else from April 24 to May 1.

We assume the beta content will be largely the same as what we got to play: two modes and two maps. And as you’ll see when you play it yourself the immediate take away is that this follows on directly from Gears Of War 3 in terms of play style, almost completely ignoring the faster and less tactical gameplay style of Judgment.

If you’ve not played a Gears Of War game before it’s the definitive third person shooter of the last generation, and basically the reason why so many games have a cover system nowadays. The developer still describes it as a ‘horizontal platformer’, with the idea being that you never want to be caught out in the open – or at least not unless you’re planning to use the iconic chainsaw bayonet for a spot of close quarters combat.

However, this could sometimes lead to players taking potshots at each other from either side of the same wall, like something out of Naked Gun, and so one of the main changes in Gears Of War 4 are moves that let you reach over and pull an enemy towards you, and ideally stab them with a knife afterwards. Alternatively, there’s still the self-explanatory mantle kick, but also the new vault kick – which lets you charge at a position from a distance and segue into a knife finishing move.

The new moves work great and although you may mistake them for QTEs from watching a video they’re actually made up of a series of separate actions, and it takes some practise to pull each part off with the right timing.

In terms of the new weapons the Dropshot is our favourite so far: a mining drill which you can use to dig opponents out of cover. You aim at them and then keep your finger on fire to try and judge the distance, while staying in cover yourself the whole time. The considerably less subtle Buzzkill fires circular sawblades like Frisbees, which ricochet around the map and can injure you just as much as anyone else.

Microsoft is going to be making a big push into eSports for Gears Of War 4, which may seem odd to some as that’s never been a focus of the game before. But the competitive multiplayer has always been perfectly solid and feels particularly fresh now, after the series has been out of the limelight for a while.

We particularly liked the new Dodgeball mode, which technically only gives you one life. Except that every time you kill someone from the other team one of your team-mates gets to re-join (as long as you stay alive for an additional five seconds). This worked great in practice, and the panic of realising you’re the last person left, as your team-mates scream at you to get them back in, was a lot of fun.

In this way Dodgeball is already quite newbie friendly, but the new Co-Op Versus mode is specifically designed with new players in mind. We didn’t get to play it, but the idea is that it’s one team of human players against computer-controlled bots – which seems promising. We weren’t so sure about the idea of Gear Crates though, which contain Titanfall style cards that confer various permanent or temporary bonuses. Only the cosmetic ones can be used in campaign or versus multiplayer though, and they can be bought with earned in-game credits.

There’ll also be extra maps released as DLC, but they’ll be free. The catch is that only a set number will be in rotation at any one time, and if you want to play one that’s fallen off the playlist you’ll have to buy it and use it in a private match.

Although we got Fergusson to talk briefly about the story campaign and Horde mode in our interview, there’s purposefully little information on either of them at the moment. The campaign mode was shown off briefly at E3 last June, but the only update since then has been a relatively un-enlightening trailer featuring Marcus Fenix’s son JD. The story takes place 25 years after the defeat of the Locust, Lambent, and Imulsion and it’s not yet clear what the monsters are in the trailer.

No doubt we’ll find out soon enough though, not least at E3 in June. But for now the multiplayer appears to justify the renewed focus placed on it, and is making us all the more anxious to play the rest of the game.

GC: So, I guess you’re not going to talk about the story campaign today?

RF: I can reaffirm things that may already have been put out there. I’ve been known to mistakenly say things that haven’t been out there…

GC: Well, let’s see if we can encourage that.

GC: I’m curious, first of all, at how long you’ve been making Gears Of War games for. Because you left Epic, you’d escaped. You didn’t have to come back!

RF: [laughs] Yeah, I was out for three years. I started with Epic in 2005. I was the publishing producer at Microsoft, so I worked for six months as a Microsoft employee on Gears Of War from the Microsoft side. And they didn’t have a producer dedicated to the project and they were kind of stumbling through, from a production standpoint.

And I’d just come off Counter-Strike Xbox and we’d basically shipped that game, and so I’d had a taste of internal development, rather than publishing, and I was like, ‘They need help and I really love internal development. I’m gonna go do that’. So after six months I left and went to Epic in July of 2005. And then 18 months later we shipped in 2006.

GC: And then you were there until… 2013?

GC: But at the end of all that, of four Gears Of War games, you still hadn’t had your fill? What’s drawing you back to the franchise now?

RF: I love it! A lot of me is in the franchise. One of the things you have to do as a producer, especially somebody coming from the outside to a team that already exists, is you have to find ways to add value. And so one of the ways to add value is to pick up all the loose threads, and that’s what I did at Epic. I asked, ‘Okay, what’s missing here?’ And so I designed the UI [user interface], I started directing the voiceovers, I wrote the combat chatter… anything that was sort of on the floor, that nobody else was picking up, I went and picked up and started doing. And because of that more of me started going into the game over time.

And then Cliff [Bleszinski] got stronger and stronger in our relationship, and then I was helping to drive more and more of it. And so there’s a lot of me in the story and, especially because I was helping to direct VO, creating those characters and working with the actors, like John DiMaggio, and getting the Marcus voice and all that stuff I had a role in. So I really felt like Gears became a part of me. And so after seven years there were definitely people at Epic who were like, ‘Okay, I’m ready to do something else now’ and that was hard for me, because I wasn’t. I wanted to keep going.

And so when things changed there, when they wanted to go free-to-play and they wanted to go more mobile and all that stuff, I was like, ‘But what about Gears? I wanna keep doing Gears’. And when I realised that wasn’t possible at Epic, that’s when I said, ‘OK, I’m gonna move on and find another triple-A’. And that’s when I found Irrational [developer of BioShock], and I thought, ‘OK, that’s a new experience: story first and working with Ken [Levine] and all that stuff’.

So when I went through my little three-year hiatus, and bouncing around and trying to find myself, I actually phoned a friend of mine at Microsoft. I’d quit 2K and I said, ‘Look, I’ve quit 2K, I wanna start my own company, I wanna start working on something else. Do you want to come with me?’. And then he was like, ‘We’re talking about buying Gears, if you’re free that changes some stuff’. And so they asked, ‘Would you work on Gears again?’ And I was like, ‘In a second!’ And I’m back. [laughs]

GC: I don’t think I was the only one to assume that the new game might be a reboot, or at least would be trying to channel the original idea of a gritty sci-fi Band of Brothers. But the E3 demo didn’t seem like that at all, it was still a fairly cheesy dudebro shooter. And I absolutely don’t mean that as a criticism.

RF: [laughs] It’s a fine line. The dudebro thing… we try to understand where that’s coming from and why. And that was one of the things where we realised when we look at the Maria scene or we look at Dom’s death, and all that stuff, there’s definitely aspects of our games that I don’t feel are dudebro. I think a lot of it is because of the combat chatter and that they’re these huge guys…

But I think there is stuff that we’re doing to make it more contemporary, in terms of the stylisation of the characters and the stylisation of the dialogue. I don’t want to lose what makes Gears, Gears. And so I think there has to be that dark humour and there has to be banter – I don’t want a humourless game, I don’t want a game that takes itself too seriously. Part of that is my personality.

GC: I don’t know why the phrase ‘Batman v Superman’ has just popped into my head.

RF: [laughs] That was the thing. When I first got there, they were making Brothers in Arms meets Resident Evil. And when we came out the other side, after everyone had put their own personality into it, I said, ‘We’ve essentially made the video game version of Predator’.

GC: Did you give CliffyB a manly handshake to celebrate?

RF: [laughs] I actually embraced it all. I thought that was good. And so that’s the kind of line we’re trying to walk. When you look at Gears 1 and where we were in the development, we didn’t have a lot of time to tell a lot of back story. And we felt like we had to come up with a shorthand for these characters, where you felt, ‘OK, I get overenthusiastic sports guy, and I get the science smart assholey guy, and I get the anti-hero, and I get the best friend with the missing wife’.

And things you find, as you look over time… look at the Tim Burton Batman and the Christopher Nolan Batman. There’s a nuance to it that we’re trying to get to for JD and Del where’s it’s not like, ‘Oh, here are the two words that sum them up instantly’. There’s more to them, it’s not black and white.

GC: So on the Batman movie scale of character depth you’re not as cheesy as Burton but you’re not as dark and serious as The Dark Knight?

RF: That’s right! [laughs] We’re in between. We try to walk a middle ground. [laughs]

GC: That’s great I’m going to try and use that again. So does that tone help with other aspects of the game, I imagine it certainly makes it easier to justify the more out-there weapons.

RF: It does. That’s super important, that’s why we have it based on Sera and not Earth. It allows us to create things that would not normally exist. One of the things was when I came to The Coalition they were working on things that were very realistic. Like, the previous games they’d been working on where super realistic [they used to make Microsoft Flight – GC]. And so one of the pillars I put on the wall was, ‘We’re science fiction!’.

So we were thinking, ‘They’ve had 25 years of peace, how do we come up with a new weapon?’ So we started talking about changing tools and mechanics rather than preparing for war. So we have the Dropshot that shoots out this thing that does strip-mining. Then they were saying, ‘Why would anyone launch dynamite off in the distance to do mining?’ And I’m like: ‘It doesn’t matter! You’re on Sera and it’s science fiction and it’s cool and it’s fun to play. Stop overthinking it!’

GC: Gears obviously has a history in competitive multiplayer, but it almost seems like you’re promoting it now as the primary mode?

RF: No, it’s not the primary mode. But in the past we’ve almost kind of ignored it, or at least not really tried to draw attention to it. So now we’re just to look at simple things to help grow it. So things like symmetrical maps is something that helps make it easier for people to compete. But I don’t think we’re jumping on the bandwagon because we were there back in 2006. Our roots are there in eSports.

Even with Ultimate Edition, we’re getting official teams with official sponsorship. And why? Because it’s a throwback to what they were playing 10 years ago. They were eSports Gears players 10 years ago, and so to us it’s just living up to our legacy and actually saying to players, ‘You deserve better and we’re gonna make that happen as we continue to go from crawling with Ultimate Edition, to walking with Gears 4, and hopefully over the tail of Gears 4 this will become a run – or if not Gears 5.

GC: And yet eSports has become the latest thing that publishers feel they have to jump onto the bandwagon of, whether it’s appropriate to their game or not. I agree it is appropriate for you, but in general surely this is something that has to grow organically from the community?

RF: Yeah, and I think that’s why we have a legitimate claim to it. I think one of the things that makes Gears unique is that the third person view makes this ultimately more watchable. Because at the end of the day the way eSports succeeds is in viewership. And the reason things like Dota and League Of Legends are successful is because of the isometric map where you can actually see what’s going on. And that’s much harder with first person.

GC: That’s what I was thinking too. And yet eSports doesn’t appeal to me at all, so if you’re doing something that makes sense to me then I wonder whether, logically speaking, that means it won’t make sense to eSports fans?

RF: [laughs] I think part of it is how we embrace it even further. The notion of switching players was ultimately jarring, and even the casters weren’t able to anticipate and see things… if you watch our finals on YouTube those commentators become highly skilled, because the ability today, in Ultimate Edition, to find where the action is and to cast it correctly is a huge talent. It’s almost intuition more than anything.

So the fact that we can provide more tools to these people, to make it much more seamless, is hugely important. I feel like we’re not following the latest trend, I think we’re reclaiming our heritage.

[As if on cue there’s a roar from the people playing behind us, as one team of journos wins over the other.]

RF: See! They’re having a good time back there. [laughs]

GC: [laughs] In terms of co-op, I don’t think you mentioned Horde at all? Was that what you were getting at with the term Co-Op Versus?

RF: No, Co-Op Versus is basically a way that… you’re right that co-op is the number one thing for us. Co-op is cake for us, not icing. We would never cut co-op. We’re going to have split-screen in multiplayer and every other mode in our game. But the thing we’ve looked at is, how do we take co-op and make it work for multiplayer? And we figured, let’s formalise bot play. Let’s figure out a way to put all the humans on one team, so they’re only playing against bots. So they can socialise, make friends, learn techniques playing against bots. But we’re not talking about Horde yet.

GC: [laughs] I was thinking that while having my free breakfast burger, yes.

GC: But the other thing I was thinking was about how much third person shooters in general have progressed since the first Gears in, what… 2006? This all started with Resident Evil 4 and Gears and I don’t know that it’s changed an awful lot since then. I’m sure you looked at the genre as a whole before starting Gears 4, so what conclusions did you come to?

RF: I think for The Coalition we have something to prove, about being the caretaker and torchbearer for Gears Of War. So after seven years, if Epic had come out and said, ‘Gears Of War is now a first person shooter’ people might go, ‘Oh, after seven years they want to try something new’. But if we took it over and said, ‘Gears Of War is a first person shooter’ they’d be saying ‘What the hell are you doing to my franchise?’ Same game, two different views, right?

So for us it’s more about refining the craft, how can we do better? So that’s how we looked at it. And sure, there are things that inspire us. Uncharted is a huge inspiration for me, in terms of how they’re able to interact and go from gameplay to cinematics. With Uncharted 4, even their stage demo was amazing. But there’s lots of things you can look at and ask how we can raise our game in storytelling or gameplay or cover use or co-op… But the fundamentals are lead, don’t chase. What makes Gears, Gears and how can we build upon that and still stay true to ourselves?

GC: I’m curious now, did anyone suggest turning Gears into a first person shooter?

RF: That’s what you see with Judgment. Judgment was sort of a half measure to see if that was the way we wanted to go when I was at Epic, so I think Gears Of War 4 at Epic probably would’ve been first person. So when I got it back, at The Coalition, the first thing I said was, ‘We’re not doing first person. We’re staying true’.

GC: Wow. Actually, that makes me wonder: how do you think these kind of games are going to work with VR? Like, any third person game? Is that something you’ve thought about? Because one of the things they say about, say, Call Of Duty is that it’s too fast to play comfortably, that you’d have an aneurism or something. But Gears plays purposefully more slowly, and yet is third person.

RF: I think that’s an advantage for sure. One of the things we’ve always talked about is the notion of Gears Of War as a single-stick game, and that’s part of the approachability. You use the move stick to get into cover, then you use the camera stick to look around, and then the move stick to go to the next place… and you could alternate sticks rather than have to use them at the same time. At the time first person shooters were doing a lot of circle strafing and bullet dodging and we were like: run to cover, look around, run to cover.

So I think potentially that has opportunity for VR but we haven’t really looked at it. The thing for us has always been what makes a better experience? That’s why you never saw any Kinect features on Gears Of War, because it was never going to make the game better. It was going to make it different, but it wasn’t going to make it better. And it’s the same when we look at any new technology.

GC: Excellent, well thank you. Sorry, I know we overran a bit there.

RF: No problem, nice talking to you.

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