As I shoot at an enemy player, he hides behind some crates. This is the perfect opportunity to use the new vault kick that I've just learned how to execute. As I run up to the crates, a couple of deft button presses is all it takes to leap over them, kick the hiding enemy Cog backwards and then plunge my knife straight into his head to finish him. Welcome to Gears of War 4 multiplayer.
I'm at a preview event where ten of us are playing Gears of War 4 multiplayer for the first time, sampling its new weapons and maneuvers. If I'm being honest, I've been waiting for several games for a chance to successfully pull off the new vault kick. I've had a couple of cracks at it before, but haven't quite gotten the timing right. But this time it works, and it's a very satisfactory experience. The vault kick, along with the yank and shank – where you lean over cover and pull the enemy towards you before stabbing them to death – are two new moves that developer Coalition says will help bring "intimate violence" and "close range visceral combat" to the game.
This is explained in the pre-play briefing session, where we're given an overview of Coalition's goals for Gears of War 4. Their primary objective is to make Gears of War 4 the "best Gears of War multiplayer experience ever", by essentially returning it to the gameplay style of Gears of War 3 and "embracing what makes Gears unique." What that means in a nutshell is sophisticated cover-based shooting that plays out like a horizontal platformer, new and powerful weapons that have character, the new aforementioned cover mechanic kills, and, of course, plenty of grisly close-quarters combat.
But there are more changes afoot than just gameplay tweaks and adjustments. Matchmaking is going to group together players of similar skill to ensure equitable combat. Players will be ranked on a visible skill system that essentially breaks multiplayer participants into tiers that players will be able to rank up through as their performance improves. Not only that, but bot matches will be available to those who want to practice against AI opponents before stepping into the multiplayer arena against other players.
What's interesting here is that bot matches can take any kind of format the player wants, from a couple of people playing against one another with bots filling out both teams, to an entire team of players playing against a complete team of bots. It's an interesting concept, and one that promises to be genuinely useful as a training tool. The bots' AI has been re-written from scratch to incorporate different kinds of personalities, and to work together as a team. Combine that with a variety of different difficulty levels from Casual to Insane, and you have a system that will enable players to practice the game to a quite high level. Obviously, bots will never be as good as the best human players, but apparently the Insane-level AI is capable of putting up a seriously good fight – especially as a team.
Another new feature coming to Gears of War 4 is loot crates. Players will earn credits when playing the game - even against bots - and can use them to buy loot crates, which will contain cards that feature cosmetic upgrades like new weapon and character skins. While it's nothing we haven't seen before in other multiplayer games like Halo 5: Guardians and Call of Duty, it nevertheless adds some additional appeal in terms of being able to customize your character.
We ended up playing the game for the better part of an afternoon, and I enjoyed the very bloody experience. Two modes were on rotation: Deathmatch and Dodgeball. The former is pretty much what you'd expect – a straightforward battle where the highest-scoring team wins. Dodgeball, however, is an all-new mode that proved to be very entertaining. The objective is to simply eliminate the opposing team. Whenever you're killed, you're out of the match and can’t respawn until a teammate kills an opposing player, whereupon you're able to come back into the game. Multiple deaths queues up players in the order that they died, and this creates a fascinating push-pull mechanic that can give rise to some great moments. We were 4-1 down at one point, and our last player managed to get two kills in. That resulted in two of our team's players respawning, so that we were 3-2 up. Our three players eventually managed to kill the remaining two enemies and turn around what looked like a certain loss into a victory. Great fun!
If you're interested in checking out what we played, Gears of War Beta opens on April 18th to anyone who played Gears of War Ultimate Edition on Xbox One or PC prior to April 11th. The game heads into non-restricted Beta a week later for anyone who has an Xbox Live Gold account.