At a recent event I had a chance to play Gears of War 4 multiplayer on Xbox One (Microsoft has yet to announce a PC version but it seems like a safe bet), and it's pretty good. It's familiar in that it feels very much like Gears of War multiplayer - Gears of War 3 multiplayer, that is, as opposed to Gears of War: Judgment's - but there are a few tweaks to the gameplay that stand out, and one new weapon that's sure to go down well.
Your character, a suitably beefy human or mutant enemy type depending on which side you're on, moves around in that tank-like Gears of War way. And all the up close and personal brutality the series is famous for is present and correct: the Gnasher shotgun still turns your enemies into chunks of meat, the Lancer still chainsaws your foes in half, and the Longshot still pops heads from across the map. Gears of War 4 is as much a cover-based third-person shooter as the first three games in the series were, and you find yourself moving in and out alongside your teammates on the hunt for flanking positions and power weapons.
But developer The Coalition, which has taken charge of Gears of War development duty following Microsoft's purchase of the franchise from Epic Games, has added new cover mechanics in an attempt to improve the cover system, while retaining that Gears feel.
One of the big issues with Gears of War multiplayer is that you'd sometimes find yourself embroiled in silly looking shootouts against an enemy who was crouched behind the same piece of cover as you. You'd pop up and fire your Gnasher, then your enemy would pop up and fire theirs. It was the video game version of that Naked Gun scene where they end up chucking their guns at each other.
The Coalition reckons it's solved this problem by adding the Yank and Shank move. Here, you're able to pull your opponent over cover to your side, and open them up to a combat knife execution. It's considered a defensive alternative to a mantle kick, the cover mechanic Epic introduced with Gears 3.
It's important to note that you can counter a Yank and Shank. There's a brief window of opportunity to do it. But if you mistime the counter, you're dead.
Also new is the Vault Kick. This lets you leap over cover without stopping and kick your opponent. It's designed to be a faster alternative to the mantle kick, which requires you snap to cover before the mantle move. Like the Yank and Shank, if you nail an enemy with the Vault Kick, you leave them open to a combat knife finishing move. But, again, like the Yank and Shank, it can be countered.
Usefully, the Vault Kick can be used to seamlessly mantle cover even when there isn't an enemy on the other side. It's a little difficult to master the timing, but once you do, you can press and hold the A button on the Xbox One pad to roadie run, then roll your thumb to the B button to vault over cover when you get close. This, in combination with The Coalition's commitment to 1080p resolution and 60 frames per second visuals in multiplayer, should make for a satisfyingly fluid and responsive PvP experience.
It's hard to tell at this stage whether these new cover moves will significantly change up the way Gears of War multiplayer works for this game. The Coalition chief Rod Fergusson says these moves are optional, but learning to use them well will make you a better, more effective, player.
"It's like Active Reload," he says. "You can play the game without ever Active Reloading. But if you do Active Reload you feel rewarded for it and it changes how you play. The same is true for close cover combat."
But what I can say for sure is that the whole thing leaves Gears of War: Judgement's first-person shooter influenced style behind - and that's a good thing.
Judgment was Gears meets first-person shooters, minus the camera perspective. It had first-person shooter controls, first-person shooter movement, and PvP was human versus human.
Fergusson said lessons had been learnt on that one.
"It was an interesting experiment from a team that had been working on the game for over seven years," he says.
"We learned a lot from it, but it felt like we were chasing. When I got to The Coalition, it was about lead, don't chase. Rather than going after somebody else's success or what's hot in the market, go deep on what makes Gears what it is, and embrace that fully."
I got to play team deathmatch and the new Dodgeball mode (more on that later) across three maps. Harbor is a nighttime map.
Dam is a daytime map.
And Foundation, a Coalition settlement, is somewhere in between. Each is packed with cover, choke points and areas in which power weapons beg to be picked up.
Talking of power weapons, Gears of War 4 adds a new one that I reckon will be an instant favourite.
The Dropshot lets you fire a drill-bit with an explosive head on it. When you fire, it sends the drill-bit out with a laser sight that tells you where it will land. When it gets far enough, you let go of the trigger and it drills down and blows up. It's a bit like the Torque Bow. You pull the trigger and hold, and at the right moment release. Then boom.
It's cool for a few of reasons. One, it's pretty funny to nail someone with it, as they explode in typical Gears fashion. Two, if you use it to execute a downed enemy, you boot them across the map with a drill-bit attached. And three, it lets you go over cover and attack holed up enemies - something we're not used to doing in Gears of War.
Back to the game modes. I mentioned the five versus five team deathmatch Gears of War PvP is built upon. One new mode I quite liked was Dodgeball. Here, if you're eliminated, you can be brought back in by one of your teammates if they score a kill. So, even if you're the last player standing against five enemies, there's a chance to slowly but surely make a dramatic comeback: 1v5 becomes 2v4, then all of a sudden it's 3v3 and it's game on.
Dodgeball reinforces what I love best about Gears of War multiplayer: it's skill-based, and every player counts. Battles rage on a level playing field, no matter how many hours you've put in. Your Gnasher is as powerful as their Gnasher. And, crucially, because Gears is a five versus five, kills matter. You can make a difference.
Dodgeball drills down into that feeling. When you're the last person standing, you're in cover, the camera's tight and the enemy is on you, you know if you can kill just one enemy player your team might win. It's good fun!
While Gears of War 4 competitive multiplayer is reassuringly familiar with a few welcome but subtle changes, I feel like it's outside the gameplay where The Coalition makes the most significant changes.
The Coalition is doing something pretty cool with maps. Here's how it works: the game comes with 10 maps (nine new and a remake of Gridlock). Those you own, as you'd expect, and you're free to play them whenever you want.
But, post-launch maps will be added to the mix each month in a rotation. It's a bit like what League of Legends does with its champions. The idea here is to avoid splitting the userbase by selling map packs, as Gears games have done in the past. Instead, The Coalition will curate its DLC map offering.
If you want to play a DLC map when it's out of rotation, you can buy it with real-world money. From there, you can host a private match, inviting nine friends to play the map you've bought. The cool thing is those nine friends don't need to own the map to play. They just need the invite from someone who does.
Fergusson uses a restaurant analogy to explain the approach:
"I like to think of it like a seasonal menu at a restaurant. Pumpkin ravioli is a classic on a fall menu. Let's say it's March and now it's the spring menu and it's citrus salad. And I'm like, damn it! I really want my pumpkin ravioli. How do I get my pumpkin ravioli? If pumpkin ravioli is the most important thing to you, you can actually buy pumpkin ravioli, and play it privately. So every time I go in the restaurant, it doesn't matter what time of year it is, I can always get pumpkin ravioli."
And here's another cool thing Gears of War 4 multiplayer is doing: it adds a new co-op versus mode designed to make it easier for new players to transition from Campaign to Versus.
Like so many shooters, Gears of War multiplayer can be a daunting experience. Experienced players can tear up the less experienced in the blink of an eye, and because every player counts in Gears of War PvP, teammates don't suffer fools gladly.
Gears of War 4's Co-Op Versus mode lets players matchmake onto the same team to compete against new AI bots - AI bots that benefit from the transition from Unreal Engine 3 to Unreal Engine 4. The bots have personality types, Fergusson says, and so assume roles in the team. Some are aggressive, some hold back and go for the sniper. Some use cover smartly.
It's a "safer" experience, Fergusson says.
"In the past what's happened is, a new player would come in, say, I've heard a lot about Gears of War multiplayer, I wonder what that's like? And they get in and get shotgunned in the face five times and go, screw that. I'm going to go back and play the campaign."
Usefully, Gears of War 4's experience point gain system works across all modes, so you'll level up by playing Co-Op Versus just as you will if you play PvP or campaign. And by gaining experience you'll earn in-game credits, which are used for, wait for it, buying Gear Crates, which contain, wait for it, virtual cards!
Like every game nowadays, Gears of War 4 features crates and cards. Blame Hearthstone. Blame Team Fortress 2. Blame whatever. This is modern gaming.
Here's how it works: there are three tiers of Gear Crates, which include varying amounts of durable and consumable cards that come in four rarities.
In Versus MP, only personalisation Gear Cards, such as weapon and character skins, are available to players. Phew! There are also Consumable Bounty Gear Cards, such as get an XP boost for scoring 10 headshots with a certain character, but these are only consumed when the player accomplishes the Bounty. So while there's a degree of risk associated with their use, it's not a big one.
As you'd expect, you can buy Gear Crates with real-world money. Fergusson, who stressed everything is earnable in-game without spending money, says the system is for those who perhaps don't have the time to pump hours and hours into the game.
"If you're like me and you're 47 and you have a job and kids, maybe you can't play 20 hours this weekend," he says.
"There's a way you can enrich your own experience by using real money. But that's not necessary. Everything in PvP is a personalisation, its customisation. It's optional. It's a weapon skin. It's a character skin. There's nothing in the cards for versus multiplayer that changes the game. It's just about how you look. Everything is earnable through in-game credits. It's only if you want to expedite that, you can if you want use real currency."
Why would you bother? Gears of War 4 sounds like it has a much deeper weapon skin system than previous games in the series. With this game, you can skin up to 12 weapons, so now when you pick up a Boom Shot it'll have your skin on it.
So there you have it: Gears of War 4 multiplayer is familiar fun, and structured in a clever way. The beta begins on 18th April for those who played Gears of War: Ultimate Edition on Xbox One or Windows 10. It opens up to Xbox Live Gold members on 24th April.