“Playing it safe.”
After roughly 2 weeks of activity, the Gears 4 beta concluded Sunday evening. It gave players a glimpse of what to expect this October, and aimed to sway the fans who remained skeptical of the thought of a new Gears of War.
From my time playing the beta, my overall feeling is that Gears 4 is 100% classic Gears, for better or for worse. Everything felt familiar, which is also my biggest gripe with how the game is shaping up.
To start positively, by far my favorite change in the entire game is how Gears 4 handles active reloads. By Gears 3, pre-activing (active reloading your weapon to get a damage boost before you even get in an engagement) had ruined what was such an innovative mechanic in the original Gears. One of the few good changes in Gears: Judgment was removing the damage boost altogether so players couldn’t abuse it, but it still didn’t feel quite right. Now, players can active their weapons at any time, but the active reload is a resource that needs to recharge after it’s used. This is a fantastic compromise, and maintains the significance of a perfect active reload while ensuring that it’s not abused.
As for other new additions, the Dropshot is a new explosive weapon that is a vast improvement over the Digger; whereas the Digger was slow and gave a loud audio cue to warn enemies, the Dropshot is quick and silent. It forces players to move from where they’re comfortable, and it fulfills a role that the Boomshot does not. Given that it’s so similar to the Digger, it’s not a new weapon that had me overly excited to use, but it’s a welcome addition.
The new game mode, Dodgeball, is a really smart addition to the cannon of Gears gametypes which mixes elements of Warzone with Team Deathmatch. Players have one life. If they kill an enemy, they bring back a dead teammate, and the momentum of the match shifts. It’s a fun, different mode for the series that I’m surprised hadn’t been thought of before.
The three maps, Harbour, Foundation and Dam speak to Gears 4‘s commitment to honoring the series’ past. All three were symmetrical, and within my first match, I intuitively knew exactly where each power weapon was located, what position to defend, and where to flank. For longtime fans, these maps will just make sense, and I have a feeling that most of the other maps will be consistent with this symmetrical design.
One thing that stands out about Gears 4 in comparison to the other titles is the cover movement, which is as good as it’s ever been. With each Gears installment, there are tweaks to the cover system, and Gears 4 is no exception. It’s the first Gears where when I attempted a cover maneuver, I almost always ended up exactly where I intended. However, this is one of the only aspects of the core Gears 4 gameplay that felt ostensibly new.
As for what didn’t work, the yank is a new mechanic that I was worried would break multiplayer, but it ended up being neutered to the point of hardly being useful. In order to pull it off, your target has to be in a highly specific location opposite side of the cover you’re on. If you actually manage to grab him, you can either just shoot him outright or try to go for a knife kill which can be countered by your target. So the yank is incredibly situational, and I wasn’t even able to pull it off once (although I was yanked upon).
While the yank doesn’t really hurt the game, in general Gears 4 just made me feel underwhelmed for the first time in my Gears history. When I was playing the beta, I felt like I had played what I was playing before, which is what I was ultimately most disappointed with. The first time I played Gears 2, it felt like I was playing a new and improved Gears. And when I first played the Gears 3 beta, I was blown away by how far the series had come since Gears 1. But after a few hours with Gears 4, I felt like I had my fill, and there was nothing new there that I hadn’t experienced before.
The Coalition definitely played it safe, which I understand given that Microsoft wants to revitalize the franchise. If Gears 4 would have been too off-the-wall, it would never have been accepted and the series would have died off. I get the situation the game is in, but it shouldn’t be given a free pass either.
I don’t think the graphics help the game feel any more fresh either. The Coalition’s Gears: Ultimate looked like a game that could have only been run on a current-generation system, whereas Gears 4 looks like it could run on an Xbox 360. You could say that it was only the beta and that it’ll look better in the final build, but I can’t think of any recent examples of games which significantly improved their visuals from beta to release. Graphics don’t make a game, but when your core game already feels a little stale, having it look dated doesn’t do it any favors.
That being said, I had fun on the Gears 4 beta, albeit it was the same fun I’d have if I was playing a Gears game that’s already out. I’ll probably still put a ton of time into the multiplayer, it’s just unfortunate that The Coalition stayed so conservative for the first game in this new era of Gears.