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In praise of Gears of War's horrible shotgun

A familiar monster bears its teeth in the Gears 4 beta. Will The Coalition finally tame it?

The Lancer is one of the most recognisable video game weapons ever designed - an improbable hybrid worthy of Jekyll and Hyde, which sums up at a glance Gears of War's oddly persuasive mixture of styles and tones. It is barbaric yet precise, a clownish torture device that doubles as an unpretentious assault rifle with a generous magazine. It's also the meat on the hook of a terrible trap.

When the first Gears stormed E3 in 2006, the Lancer was all anybody would talk about. Epic fought hard with a squeamish Microsoft for the weapon's inclusion, and previewers were only too delighted to put its chainsaw bayonet to use. What more complete and primeval an expression of macho petulance, after all, than to rip a foe open from collar to crotch? Phwoar. I still recall the first time I tried out the Lancer's underslung surprise in multiplayer - during a round of Execution on the charming Mansion map. Having drawn first blood and driven my opponent into the shadow of a pillar, I scurried out to administer the coup de grace, or at least coup de gib, scattering hipfire as I ran to keep the target suppressed. And it was then that I learned a punishing lesson. The Lancer might be Gears of War's feature weapon, its rockstar frontman, but as many a would-be butcher has discovered, the Gnasher is where the real power lies.

We're all accustomed to the role shotguns play in shooters, but there's something especially harrowing about how bodies react to a point-blank Gnasher blast in the first Gears of War. They don't simply fly back in a shower of gore. They fall apart at your feet. It's as though each character model were actually a precarious armful of shopping, or an ineptly assembled bookcase from Argos.

Perhaps your new enemies The Swarm will field a gun worthy of the Gnasher's mantle. Right now, they feel mostly like a Locust reskin.

Nobody was more shocked by the Gnasher's popularity than Epic, which had designed Gears to be more of a trench warfare sim - a relatively genteel question of flanking actions and covering fire. I interviewed former senior designer Lee Perry about the evolution of Gears multiplayer last year, and he picked out Gridlock as the map that finally brought everything together. A horseshoe-shaped environment with wrecked cars strewn artfully across the centre, it is built to encourage symmetrical battlefronts and readable mid-range clashes. The game's tanky handling and aiming are also, of course, an incentive to keep your distance. But if serious multiplayer enthusiasts are celebrated, and resented, for anything it's the capacity to break ranks, trampling the developer's best intentions in their quest for a competitive edge. And in practice, the Gnasher's ability to evaporate anything within reach of a high-five was just too inviting to spend all day lurking in cover.

I should probably make clear at this stage that I'm a fairly mediocre Gears player - the kind who scrapes a few kills from the rear while better players hold the enemy's attention, only to be soundly clobbered en-route to a power weapon. But at the risk of exposing myself to mockery, I think Gears of War's unsuitability on paper as a platform for close-quarters duelling, is actually the reason the Gnasher is so popular. Much like fighting without a shield in a Souls game, the swampy controls create a clear and unambiguous distinction between the lumbering greenhorn and the magically catlike pro. Seeking their shotgun fix, committed players learned to twist many of Gears of War's core systems to their advantage, much, again, to Epic's consternation.

One early baptism of fire is working out the range and cooldown time of the so-called "evasive" roll, in order to barrel serenely through crossfire and land a fatal shot before your opponent has time to turn. Another is learning to tighten the weapon's spread without slowing to aim "properly", by tapping LT as you jockey for position. And then there's "wall-bouncing". This is the practice of using Gears of War's homing lock-to-cover mechanic to fly between surfaces much faster than you can run - ricocheting through and around densely furnished areas with brisk taps of A button, as though grappling tether points (Epic's former director of production Rod Fergusson has, in fact, compared cover-to-cover movement to rock-climbing). The first time somebody used this tactic against me, it was like being trapped in a room with one of those turtle shells from Super Mario World. I can't remember if I made it out of there, but I suspect a lot of squealing was involved.

New combat knives are used for close-range executions. You might be ambushed while you're completing the animation, though.

Following Gears of War's unexpected success as a multiplayer game, Epic took steps to rein the weapon in. Predictably, these initiatives often gave rise to as much rancour as they dispelled. Over the course of the original trilogy, the designers would add a "stopping power" mechanic to discourage rushdown tactics, and increase the effectiveness of the Lancer and its Locust cousin, the Hammerburst. But Epic ultimately came to embrace what players had made of the game. It even added another shotgun in Gears 3, the infamous Sawed-Off, to help newcomers make headway against Gnasher pros. If you've yet to have the pleasure, the Sawed-Off is essentially a two-charge smart bomb with a tiddly range and a near-180 degree angle of effect. It spares you the bother of having to aim, but it does require that you get in close and get out fast - a bruising introduction to the more scientific business of wielding its older brother.

Epic has left Gears behind, but the struggle to tame the franchise's shotguns continues on The Coalition's watch. Going by the Gears 4 forums and my last few deaths in the beta, the latest incarnation of the Gnasher is just as formidable a customer as the 2006 original. At a recent preview event I asked Rod Fergusson how it felt to revisit the subject, 10 years on, and he laughed the laugh of a man who has read approximately three billion variations on the phrase "trash shottie OP", and may one day carve those words into somebody's gravestone.

"Rather than it just holding true to this ideal of a tactical game of assault rifles, and how we drag the player back to that, we said 'You know what? That ideal is gone, just let it go'," Fergusson told me. "And it's like 'OK, what is the game, really?' Well, this game is fast movement with a skill gap around shotgun use. Now, how do you empower people that have other playstyles, who maybe aren't so good at that?" I look forward to hearing The Coalition's answer to that question - whatever the outcome, I'm sure it will inspire plenty of lively discussion. In the meantime, I'll be in the beta working out how to wall-bounce. I suggest you do the same.

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