This week, I played the Gears of War 4 Beta.
It has become somewhat of a trend in recent times for “betas” to launch in remarkably close windows to full release, leading many to consider these betas more of a demo than anything. Fortunately, that’s not the case with Gears of War 4.
As the opening “pardon our dust” screen indicated to me, and as the game reaffirmed, this is still very much a beta. There is screen tearing, unpolished assets like small blocks of cover, and random disconnections during the matchmaking process. At one point, I even got to see the entire multiplayer map phasing in and out of existence, like watching the game through a flip book. That being said, it was still a lot of fun to play!
Construction aside, the whole of the multiplayer operated satisfyingly well. The Coalition, the developer now responsible for carrying on the Gears legacy, is showing us their chops as the launch of their first title under this IP draws near. Microsoft purchased the rights to Gears of War in the beginning of 2014, and I couldn’t be happier to see the continuation of this series.
I threw myself recklessly into Team Deathmatch in the early hours of April 18th. This was a mistake. I was as green as hell, and my opponents quickly began exploiting this fact. Deathmatch plays a lot like the older Gears. Although I can say that the Lancer feels a little stronger than in past titles, it became apparent that any given match quickly turns into a battle of close-quarter wits and Gnasher dexterity, just like old times. The upside to close quarters combat is the new ability to pull the enemy over their cover and stab them in their face. I love this feature.
Once I found my rhythm, I was able to jump into the dance of death, too. Active Reloads became my metronome, clicking in time to mark my impending doom. Active Reloads can be done on a full magazine, offering a damage boost to the already devilish Gnasher, and operate on a cooldown. Now it’s not only possible, but strongly suggested, to Active Reload every time the cooldown is up to stay as competitive as possible against the enemies.
If I wasn’t being totally demolished by expert Gnasher-wielding opponents, I was instead being “educated” in the use of the new power weapon called the Dropshot. This fiendish weapon fires an explosive into the air with a laser designator pointed at the ground to indicate where it will drop should the user release the trigger button. This allows some creative uses, like firing over walls of cover and dropping the bomb down right on top of the enemy.
In one case, I saw this bomb lodge itself firmly in the place of where my head should’ve been, only to explode a moment later, offering bits of my corpse to the four corners of the map.
So, we know that Gears of War 4 hasn’t lost its gruesome touch.
The biggest showing in this beta, however, is the introduction of the Dodgeball game mode. I’ll be honest, I didn’t know what to expect when I first jumped in. As it turns out, Dodgeball means you can only respawn when a teammate makes a kill. How competitive could it be?
What transpired was nothing short of pure intensity, from start to finish. The limited stock of lives highlighted the importance of each individual player. No situation more so than a 2v1 or 3v1, and your last surviving teammate managing to squeeze off a kill with enough time to get a teammate back in and flip the odds against the enemy. I spent most of my time in Dodgeball for this very reason. The shorter, much more intense rounds bring to mind other competitive shooter game modes, such as Breakout from Halo 5 and the Trials of Osiris from Destiny.
The Gears of War 4 beta introduces three maps to us- Dam, Foundation, and Harbor. The design inspiration behind these stay very true to maps from the past. The maps are symmetric, offer only slight verticality, and encourage competition with power weapons placed at equally accessible points, often providing an element of danger to their acquisition. For example, on Foundation, obtaining the Boomshot grenade launcher involves entering into an exposed area of a three-way junction. This translated to several “First in, First Out” medals awarded to me for failing to grab it before I was swarmed by the enemy (no pun intended) and blown to very literal smithereens.
One significant issue I did experience on a few occasions is the lack of good spawn protection. A few seconds of invulnerability are offered during respawn, but this is never enough to get into a safe place and establish a good fighting position. What results is a brutal spawn trap with the enemy dug in close to your spawn, annihilating you in those precious seconds after your Spawn Protection expires but before you reach cover.
After the thunder of combat was finished, after the tiny bits of my body had settled from soaring through the air, and after the embarrassing post-game statistics had flashed by, I had a chance to sit back and fully consider Gears 4. As far as the beta has shown, there is little in the ways of innovation, which may or may not be pleasing to veterans of the series. It still feels and plays like the Gears we’re used to.
There is still a lot that remains to be seen. There’s still no word on whether Horde mode will be returning, and very little is known about the story outside of the appearance of The Swarm instead of the Locust Horde. I would really like to see some sandbox expansion that would encourage more mid- and long-range combat, and make an effort to push away from the Gnasher as the go-to weapon for a majority of engagements.
Ultimately, it’s a matter of taste. Gears 4 is going to set the tone for future titles released by The Coalition, and maintaining the traditional feel is a very safe move for their first release. Some fans of the series may be ready for something more than wallbouncing and shotguns. If the beta is indicative of the whole release, those of us wishing for mind-blowing improvements or sweeping changes will be disappointed, while Gears purists will find themselves right at home with more of what they’re used to.