|System: Xbox One|
|Dev: The Coalition|
|Pub: Microsoft Studios|
|Release: October 11, 2016|
|Players: 1-2 (2+ Online)|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p|
by Sean Engemann
The series that revolutionized the third-person cover shooter is finally getting a fresh entry on the Xbox One, and will be the first of the series developed by The Coalition. A subsidiary of Microsoft Studios, the Vancouver-based team did a stellar job with Gears of War: Ultimate Edition, a remake of the original game that is one the most visually impressive overhauls to date. Gears of War 4 still has several months before its release, but in an intelligent move, Microsoft has opened a multiplayer beta early in the hopes of getting loaded with feedback, both constructive and critical. This will afford them plenty of time to pour through the comments and statistics and in the end offer the mass of fans a supremely polished experience.
It didn’t even take getting through my first match before nodding my head in approval at the dedication the devs put into preserving the essence of the Gears formula. Sprinting into a roadie run camera shot, sliding into cover, and sawing through my first opponent with the Lancer are merely a few nostalgic implementations that made me feel right at home. Even the sound effects whisked me back nearly a decade ago when the series entered the scene. In fact, what the multiplayer beta offers feels a lot less bloated than what we see in nearly every shooter nowadays, and that’s just fine.
The maps are small, the pace is fast, and body parts fly almost the entire match. With a squad of five, the basic strategy is move to the middle, grab the power weapons, and destroy the opposing team. With such a close proximity to the enemy, the Gnasher Shotgun assumes the role of the standard sidearm, but the Lancer remains useful when catching an opponent running through a mid-range open area, or sneaking up on them unaware and cutting them down. Nabbing the Longshot, Torque Box, or Boomshot gives the team a sizable advantage, making the dash to nab them priority one. The newest weapon, the Dropshot, is a blast to play with, literally. Functioning as a grenade launcher, you control its final destination by release the trigger, where it immediately plummets to the ground, blasting anything in the area. It certainly adds some tension as the opposing team, since you could be instantly blown apart without notice, even behind cover.
There is a strong emphasis on working as team, as drifting off alone usually precedes a quick death. The Team Deathmatch mode utilizes a shared pool of lives rather than a timer, which I enjoyed far more since it encourages approaching your assault in a more strategic manner, rather than singly trying to rack up kills before the clock expires. The Dodgeball mode also sports an interesting stock mechanic, with each player beginning with a single life, and only respawning if another team member gets a kill. Both modes are straightforward, and defeat doesn’t breed discouragement, since the matches are quick and the frenzied pace and simple structure promotes levity in match outcome.
That said, I did find the ranking system flawed with the hours I spent in dozens of matches. You are “sized up” during your initial five matches, and then given a rank of Bronze, Silver, Gold, Onyx, or Diamond, fitting into a similarly ranked match going forward. It makes sense in theory, but I consistently found my Silver and Gold matches dominated by a single player or two whose skills were far beyond what their rank suggested. Whether this was due to a lighter pool of players or an exploit by some to play weak during their first five games is unclear, but it did throw the handicap of the match off, making them not nearly as fun as matches where the skill levels were evened out.
The three maps are similar in design, with only a few variations between them. All provided a small starting alley that opened into a cover-laden central area flanked by wings that held the power items. Dam has the best middle spot, sporting highly contested cover to bunker down and track the enemies respawning. Foundation (my personal favorite) has a fun walled-in room, usually covered by a smoke grenade, and plays with high and low ground, making it a great venue for all the power weapons. Harbor was my least favorite, as the layout was too generic, and narrow alleys wreaked havoc with sticking to the right piece of cover.
The rewards give the perfect incentive to keep playing match after match. Reaching level 20 before the end of the beta will grant you a few vanity skins, but also an experience boosting Bounty Card when the game is released. The Bounty Cards for the beta have unlimited uses, and provide a variety of XP boosting challenges for players of all skill level.
I’m sure there will be plenty more multiplayer features added, but I honestly hope it doesn’t become convoluted in the end. One thing that made this beta so engaging was the pace. Matches were fast and fun, but the process in between let you jump right into your next match quickly without having to tweak class skills (since there are no classes) or fiddle with weapon loadouts and attachments. Just go in and blast away, which is a credential that a Gears of War game should never stray too far from.
Date: April 25, 2016