The chainsaws are back. Gears of War 4's multiplayer is due to go into closed public beta from 18 April, to give a taster of all the duck-and-cover, shotgun-to-the-face, third-person shooter mayhem. And ahead of time we got to play a couple of hours of the new Xbox One exclusive, exploring new weapons, new moves, new maps/arenas and new team games.
Frantic and fun for existing Gears heads (especially if you're playing Ultimate Edition already), yet designed for players across all disciplines - the development team is targeting, beginners, social players, competitive players and esports pros this time around, with a matching system to suit all - you'll need team play tactics and cunning to not get your head stomped in repeatedly.
Just like any multiplayer other game, it has all the potential to grind those gears with repeat deaths just as much as you'll be smug as heck when you get the drop on your opponents. Especially if it's a special kill.
After a decade of Gears games, can Gears 4 keep things fresh and fanciful in among the glut of competitive multiplayer titles out there? Or will it be all about the as-yet-unplayed single player?
Gears of War 4 preview: New moves
To begin our multiplayer mission we limber up in the training area, because Gears 4 has some new moves for close-quarters cover-based combat. It's still a cover-based shooter at its core, but has tried to open up the possibilities for more fluid play.
There's the "yank and shank" where you can pull an opposing player into your cover and, you guessed it, shank them; there's also the "vault" where you run at cover and do a flying kick before, you guessed it, shanking some more.
The key here is that you can decide between more aggressive forward attacks, or more contained defensive moves to keep within your existing cover. Unlike in Gears 3 you don't have to settle into cover first to set these moves off. Or, at least, the potential for it.
There are some issues though: it's possible to deflect one of these attacks with a well-timed tap of the B button (it's displayed so rapidly, though, it's tricky to keep up); placement of your character is crucial otherwise you'll end up yanking at thin air and exposing yourself for an attack; but most problematic in our view, from the maps we played, is that very little cover is "thin" enough to benefit from such new moves - something that is likely to differ depending on the play arena.
Gears 4 preview: Guns, guns, guns
While Gears 4 relies on a spate of familiar weapons - chainsaws still included in the lancer rifle, but of course - there are some special new weapons too.
And the one that's going to get everyone talking is the Dropshot. Unlike a standard missile this launcher hurls a single explosive device that can hover over terrain/obstacles and then, upon releasing the trigger, drops it vertically downwards. Boom.
It's fairly tricky to predict if you're going to make a critical strike given these right-angle logistics, and the blast radius isn't nuclear in scale, so every strike - typically unbeknownst to the receiving player - feels like a victory. And the results are often hilarious as everyone tries to leg it.
If you have the Dropshot in play and get into close-quarters combat then it can even be used to impale and enemy and send them launching into the air with, um, explosive results. Oh, digital violence, you strangely satisfying thing you.
Beyond the Dropshot other favourites return. From sticky grenades to the rocket launcher Boomshot, through to sniper Longshot and the must-have Gnasher Shotgun for close-quarters quick kills. Switching between loadouts can feel frustratingly slow using the d-pad, but that's the usual trickle of fear/anger that pumps around the system when not getting one-up on the opposing team.
Gears of War 4 preview: Rotating maps
In addition to 10 maps from the off (or arenas, whatever you fancy calling them), developer The Coalition will be introducing a new arena on a monthly basis. These DLC maps will be free-to-download each month, but - and here's the crucial part - not always left in play, rotating on a "curated" basis. The original 10 will always remain in play, but others won't.
However, you can purchase said DLC maps, making them free to play privately when they're out of the rotation cycle. We can see competitive/esports players needing to know the full ins and outs of every map; only one player in a team needs to own a map for others to play it. Otherwise, we think it's good to see some freshness injected into the game to keep things moving forward.
We got to play on three maps: Dam, a near-water, daytime arena which felt like a shipping yard; Harbour, a nighttime based arena which didn't really pull on the idea of darkness at all as a play mechanic; and Foundation, a dusky halfway house that, of the three, was our favourite for its more open areas combined with mixed cover - the best play arena to utilise those new moves, take up vantage points or run like hell when you're outnumbered.
In addition to the usual Deathmatch style games there's also a "Dodgeball" option where each kill allows one of your team of five to re-enter the game. A Spectator mode is now also available (but wasn't operational just yet) where two casts are available with camera controls for spectating/viewing/judging.
Gears 4 preview: XP treats
In our play time we didn't experience any notable issues - a crash-free couple of hours is pretty rare at this stage in the development cycle - although load times are really long at present. Hopefully they'll be reduced for the public beta, which is where the real testing begins.
By release at the end of 2016 the game will be running in 1080p at 60fps according to The Coalition. Right now, and the same stands for the public beta, that's not going to be the case. So we can't comment on how well that transition will occur. As it stands, though, the graphics are fine - but the multiplayer lacks the apparent sheen and dynamics of the single player campaign (as seen at last year's E3 show, because we sure as heck haven't played it yet).
There's the promise of more too: Gears 4 uses Triton, a Microsoft proprietary sound technology, which bakes reverb into a map. So if gunfire is far away it'll sound like it; if it's behind you, ricocheting off the walls a decent headset will feed that back to you realistically. But it's not implemented properly yet so we don't know how well it'll work. The same can be said about character voices: a lot of it's not done, so there aren't many "fuck yeahs" to be had just yet (but the promise of plenty come release day!).
And as we've been playing offline, we've not got to see how XP progression, skill-based matchmaking and so forth will work in the game. There are also cards available in drop crates that open up weapon skins, character skins, bounties and gear - they're free, but quick-purchase DLC crates will also be available for fast-track access to some.
Not everyone will think of Gears as the multiplayer game of today, with the campaign being a real driver for many classic players. But as The Coalition has already shown with the re-rubbed Ultimate Edition there's a real appetite for multiplayer Gears.
And Gears 4 shows off its new skills admirably. New weapons, new maps and some new moves (which we're hoping can be employed more frequently than possible on the current maps we've played) all drive the series forward. Whether playing COG militia or one of the Swarm there are the same frustrations and victories as with any multiplayer game, but in third person and with some deft team play and cover tactics it certainly gets the adrenaline pumping.