When returning to an old franchise on a new console, there are a few expectations from both fans and newcomers alike. But the one that bridges the fears of veterans and the intrigue of novices is the “accessibility” of these revived franchises that attempt to cater to new audiences whilst appeasing to long time fans. Gears of War’s new developer, The Coalition, ignores this sentiment respectfully. According to them, Gears 4 is going to be a Gears-ass Gears of War game, and the beta certainly reaffirms this approach.
Gears of War might not quite be in the upper echelon of popularity as Halo and Call of Duty, however it’s nonetheless a widely loved competitive and cooperative third-person cover shooter. Coalition studio head Rod Fergusson knows this better than almost anyone, as he was the former director of production on the franchise while at Epic before he left to lend a helping hand on other projects, such as BioShock Infinite.
“We have a very diverse group of people from many different types of games,” says Fergusson in an interview with IGN. “They say, ‘Hey, I finally get a chance to work on Gears. Here’s something I’ve never seen in Gears; here’s verticality, here’s this here’s that’. But at the end of it, we just want something that feels like a Gears game.” When playing the Gears of War 4 beta, Fergusson’s “doing right by the fans” mentality shines through at every step of the way.
In case you were wondering, Gears of War still holds the best cover system on the market. Full stop. We may rave about the sophistication of Ubisoft’s tactical cover approach in games like The Division, with a plethora of options in combat, but the responsiveness of Gears is absolutely, positively second to none. Any accessibility in Gears of War 4 primarily exists in its new performance at 60 frames per second. Now, I generally distance myself the “performance whore” mentality of salivating over 1080/60, but its impact on Gears 4 is immediately evident. Bouncing from wall to wall from hilarious but satisfying distances like a firecracker magnet, and quickly manoeuvring cover while rapidly rotating the camera to scope out your surroundings, feels slicker and smoother at double the frame rate. Gears of War 4 isn’t only the best controlling cover shooter I’ve played, it’s also the fastest.
The cover options in and of themselves largely remain the same, which also allow to navigate interior cover and auto-swap between parallel cover. Vault mantling, on the other hand, is one of the few additions that have been added, which is triggered by tapping the B button after running towards cover. This allows you to, say, race to power weapons much more quickly, or make a B-Line to an ally that’s been downed. After 72 plus hours in The Division, one would wish that they added perimeter cover options, however mastering double tapping the A Button when cornering a wall almost works as a place holder. All of this feels instantaneous in a way that’ll have you express an internal exclamation, “It all works!”. But getting a handle on movement in Gears 4 fooled me into thinking that I can compete at a high level; that was until I actually began competing with high-level competitive players.
Skilful players make ample use of Gears 4’s subtle combat options that play out significantly. There’s a new over-cover assassination tactic that’s been added to the game’s repertoire. It’s easy to use, but incredibly difficult to time and master. Simply tapping the X and Y buttons after positioned at the opposite end of cover from an enemy will prompt your character to pull their sorry ass over and stab them in the neck. It’s brutal and satisfying when pulled off, but feels particularly situational and incredibly risky especially when knowing that the player on the other side has a nasty close ranged weapon. You’ll get a similar, but less uncertain feeling when wielding the Dropshot, an obvious addition to Gears’ arsenal. This new power weapon further argues the case that Gears of War is a masterfully designed cover shooter when realising that it fires an explosive that travels over cover and detonates, instantly killing the target below.
The Torque Bow, Longshot, and Boomshot are all back, but – as we resume the discussion about accessibility, so is the Gnasher. The Gnasher, a hellish shotgun that has been a Gears staple from the beginning, is arguably what drew the line between those who stuck with Gears of War and those who stayed far away from it. This nasty motherfucker can easily perform instant kills at close range. As far as player options go, Gears is through and through an arena-styled (albeit cover) shooter where everyone starts with the same weapons, including the Gnasher. The thing is though, being good at Gears means being good with the Gnasher. The mapless HUD, and numerous opportunities to sneak up on a player, make close ranged combat a clear path to success. But when it comes to shooters, not everyone is good at using shotgun-styled weapons, just like not everyone’s good at using snipers. Despite this, Fergusson and the Coalition are unapologetic about the Gnasher’s one-shot capabilities, stating that it’s part of what makes Gears, Gears. There’s nothing more satisfying or frustrating as watching someone get blown to smithereens when on the receiving end of a Gnasher.
Gears of War 4 is a complete return to form, a seemingly unchanged transition despite being from another developer, which is in stark contrast to the many changes 343 brought to Halo. The best cover system on the market feels even better when playing at 60 frames per second, and the minor changes to the overall gameplay only further streamlines these incredible mechanics. But newcomers be warned, Gears 4 is still a “shotgun fest”, festering a high level of play that segregates its players and honours long-time fans (Let’s just hope that Horde Mode makes a triumphant return).