I have to start my first impression by saying I wasn’t a huge fan of Gears of War before now, but I find that makes it easier to be objective instead of getting swept away by hype or excitement. The GeoW4 beta didn’t include any story or single player options, just the online multiplayer experiences with a special Beta-only level up scheme. As one of my observant GameCloud co-workers pointed out, I didn’t have all that long to “git gud,” but honestly, I’m not sure how much difference that would have made overall.
In a Beta, there is always plenty to pick at, but The Coalition made sure the design was almost flawless before sending it out into the world of critics and fans. I have played enough of earlier titles to have gripes about faces or animations or details that could have been better, but running through this multiplayer I was forced to acknowledge how damn good-looking it was. There were three locations to choose your battle arena from; dam, foundation and harbour. Hearing those choices to me brings up dreary, blocky areas with predictable setups and so much grey that I wonder if the developers are colour blind. What we have are minimal grey blocks, and maximised design on areas giving you more ways to defend and attack as a team, instead of everyone charging to that one epic spot and hoping for the best. If you pay attention, there are also several spots where either team can blend almost entirely into the scenery.
I’m going to use the dam as an example because I enjoyed it the most, for its look, and for the way the new mechanics worked with it. The overhead map doesn’t look like much but once you’re on the ground with your team it was more impressive; also distracting because I kept looking at the background design around the arena, and not at the shotgun in my face. It is a relatively small map but for five on five, it felt borderline cramped. Using cars, barriers, machinery or the split levels you could take cover quickly, or set up a decent defence in the area that worked best for the team you were on. I found the one sniper rifle and made a b-line for it immediately, making it slightly easier to hold off the swarm – unless they used the terrain to their advantage well enough to sneak up on me when I was singing the “imma snipe you” song and separate my limbs.
The best part about the maps was not the design in themselves, but the new mechanics; using cover to attack, chase down or save your arse just got better. If timed correctly, you can reach from your cover over to the enemy in adjoining cover and stun them, making it easy to finish them. You can also drag enemies to your side of the cover, stunning them, or dive between gaps to avoid any gunfire messing up your face. The issue was not that you could block any of these moves from an enemy (my button prompt never seemed to pop up in time, but hitting the B on instinct worked), but that almost every time I was attempting to do something from the cover, I was killed. It wasn’t ALWAYS due my crappiness at death matches, but it was like being in an Assassin’s Creed game: I wanted to run passed that wall, not into it! Hopefully, it’s just a Beta issue, because I ended up avoiding the cover mechanics as often as possible in case they didn’t work again.
The multiplayer modes were regular team match, death match against bots and the new dodgeball option. I spent 90% of my game time in dodgeball for two reasons: I made sure I was the last man standing to get bonus points whenever possible, and it was much more fun than a death match. Dodgeball used the same maps and the same team sizes and weapons, what was different were the respawns and rules. Each side started with five players and started hunting down the others while the HUD displayed 5V5 for everyone to see. As players got picked off, their numbers went down, but no players respawned until they managed to kill off one of the other team. Just like in dodgeball catching the ball brings one of you team back to the field, obliterating one of the opposing team causes one of your team to respawn.
The dodgeball matches were more fun because there was a different sense of urgency to them; different play styles were emerging when players realised their respawn was dependent on everyone else, and things escalated quickly in every match. These rounds also counted towards your ranking (bronze to platinum) for future bouts, so spending time on them worked out to be the best way to level up for me. One match that was more than half bots saw my team down to 4 of the Spawn vs. one player, and losing would have lost us the tie breaker. He managed to kill two of the other team, so myself and a bot respawned making it 2v3. Next minute my teammate died, someone respawned on a torque bow, took almost everyone out (there was a small countdown to be respawned), somehow it was back to 5v1, and I got chainsawed in the face ending the tiebreaker. I have no idea what happened; it was great.
I struggled not to die instantly because my style is not Gears style: running up face to face and using your shotgun faster than the other team. I never understood the point of stats, leveling up, cool mechanics and items, or even providing cover if that is the only way to play. With the multiplayer, even several shots left the other player standing; so often that I walked away from the game several times. The scoring after the game frustrated me too; my seven shots that took the player down counted as a ‘downed’ while the person who was closer and got in one final shot got my kill. This meant at the end of a match I had 11 downs and one kill making it look like I did nothing the whole time. Aside from those gripes, it looks great, the use of bounties, dodgeball matches and new cover mechanics are a positive addition (assuming it stops taking cues from Ezio) and everyone knows chainsaws make everything better. I’m not rushing back to play it, but the full game has a strong foundation judging by the multiplayer.