Preview: Gears of War 4 Beta (Xbox One)

I’ve been spending the past few days putting the Gears of War 4 Beta through its paces and while there are some things to like about the game, there’s certainly some things not to like about it. The concept of a public beta test has changed a lot in the past few years. I’ve been playing betas lately and have been thinking to myself, “I remember when these used to be called demos.” Back in the day, a public beta test was simply a way to stress test their game, mainly on the network. Could the servers handle a large influx of users, and if not, how can they implement fixes? It was also a way of identifying rarer bugs that only show up a small percentage of the time. When you have 100 in house developers testing a game, you’re only going to see the bugs that rear their ugly heads at least 1% of the time, usually.  When you open up the game to several hundred thousand gamers then you’ll start to see the bugs that show up 0.001% of the time and so on. But now publishers have realised that betas represent free advertising for their game. They have realised that the people who are downloading their demo (erm I mean beta) are exactly the kind of people who will likely invest in the game itself. So now we are starting to see players (erm I mean beta testers, sorry) being incentivised to get the full game once the test is over and publishers have even gone as far as blatantly asking their testers to pre-order their game. Gears of War 4 is no exception. In this beta players are encouraged to reach level 20 on their accounts and if they do they will receive exclusive character skins for use in multiplayer Plastered on the main title screen is the option to pre-order the game. Whether or not this is a good thing or not is up to you, but the way I see it, where will the line be drawn? Will we end up seeing betas that can only be played if testers commit to pre-ordering? Maybe, we’ll see. Onto the review…

Gameplay

Plenty more to talk about here. Cast your mind way back to when Gears of War was first demo’d at E3. Cliff Blezinski proudly unveiled his cover based third person shooter to the world. The premise was to create a shooter that was gritty and grounded and felt like trench warfare. Players literally took cover and had gun fights. Get too close to a player and you could whip out your shotgun as a defense or you could try and chainsaw that player in half with your lancer’s bayonet. The premise was revolutionary and awesome but gamers generally speaking don’t pay much mind to a game’s premise and will always try to find the most efficient way to win a game. That turned out to be shotgun dancing. People quickly realised that Gear of War’s multiplayer experience heavily favoured the better connection, and no weapon typified that better than the shotgun. If two combatants fired off their shotguns at the same time from close distance, the player with the weaker connection would be blown apart while the stronger connection barely suffered a scratch. The gameplay devolved when this became the strategy of choice. Cover mechanics were largely ignored as players roadie-ran across the map one-shotting hapless players with a poorer ping. In Gears of War 2 and 3 attempts were made to try and balance this out. They introduced stopping power to the lancer. If a player was roadie running towards you, you could fire your lancer at them to slow them down. This was countered by a skill called wall bouncing. by rapidly moving from cover to cover the games animations would take over player movement and the stopping power was completely mitigated. In Gears of War 4 I was hoping that some of these issues might have been addressed but I was sadly mistaken. This Gears game, like all of the others, will punish you for having a poorer connection than the other players and still gives a massive boost to the player with the host connection. None of the old mechanics have been balanced or tweaked. New mechanics however have been introduced.

Players can now vault over cover mid run, do this while an enemy is taking cover on the other side and you can kick them out of cover, stunning them for a moment as you finish them off. Also if enemy combatants have taken cover on either side of a barrier, players can attempt to reach over and pull the other player over to their side, again stunning them for the kill. Also added to the mix is a new weapon called the Drop Shot. I have a feeling that this weapon has a campaign level dedicated to it that teaches you how to use it properly because it’s devilishly tricky to figure out. It’s a gun that fires a canister that glides through the air, kinda like a Frisbee that points a laser vertically straight down. You have to fire the weapon by pulling and holding onto the trigger; once you let the trigger go, the canister shoots straight down and blows up. The idea is to blow someone up who is hiding behind cover and it is very satisfying to land a kill with, mainly because it’s very difficult to judge its position at a distance. Weapons overall have had a re-balance. Pistols seems less useful, the Hammerburst seems to have been nerfed and the shotgun still reigns supreme. In my opinion shotguns should be two shot kills from any distance to try and discourage shotgun running but that’s just me. Overall Gears, for better or worse, still very much feels like Gears, so if you’re a fan of the old games, you wont be disappointed. If you were like me and were looking for a new and improved experience, you’ll feel a little underwhelmed by this. Gameplay 60%

The Lancer high-five: manliest of all the high-fives.

The Lancer high-five: manliest of all the high-fives.

Visuals

Gears is still set in the gritty visceral world we’ve come to know and love. Everything looks sharper and everything looks smoother than our editor in chief’s bourbon (don’t fire me Toby!) but the graphics don’t look all that much better. If anything the higher resolution brings the flaws of the visuals into starker contrast. I can clearly remember being impressed with the graphics of each Gears game as they came out, especially with Gears 3 because it made me wonder if they had finally reached the limit of the Xbox 360’s capabilities. But with Gears 4 I simply don’t think they kicked it up by enough notches, especially considering that this is the first iteration to be released exclusively for the Xbox One (I’m not including Gears of War Ultimate Edition). If they had upped the number of pieces that bodies explode into, or had blood spray out in a glorious arc from the bodies that have fallen victim to your chainsaw, or even had blood flecks hit the screen when you got shot it would have added some extra satisfaction to the level of brutality you afflict on your enemies. But it seems like its a case of missed opportunity. Visuals 50%

Audio

Gears 4 has gone with an almost completely new sound palate for this game. The iconic sound of the lancer’s bullet sputter is the exception to the change that has seen almost every other weapon sounding different. Most noticeable are the pistols and the torque bow. They just don’t sound right. But the worst thing by far that is wrong with Gears of War 4 is the new sound of the Hammerburst. For some reason the gun sounds like its being fired from the top of the Swiss Alps, regardless of where you find yourself on a map. Each shot that gun fires sounds like it has echoed off of the side of a mountain that has somehow amplified its sound to be louder than the gun itself. What’s worse is they have changed the Hammerburst from a single shot weapon to a burst fire weapon so you get triple the irritability from each trigger pull. Sadly it made it so I couldn’t bring myself to use the weapon, which felt under-powered anyway. No music in multiplayer except for a brief reprise between rounds and some mood music in the main menu means there’s not a lot to go on when it comes to how effective the soundtrack will be. So unfortunately audio is going to score very low. Audio 30%

It looks like a picnic basket. But all it carries is death.

It looks like a picnic basket. But all it carries is death.

Replayability

All of the multiplayer elements that have become staples of the Gears experience are present and accounted for, including ribbon, account level and, by the looks of it, skins. They have introduced something new however, which is a bounty. The way it works, you pick one specific achiement to be your active bounty for a multiplayer match and if you hit it you consume it and gain its rewards. Eg. “Get 7 Kills in a Match” or “Earn 2000 Points in a Multiplayer Match” which will either earn you a static amount of xp for your level or earn you a bonus multiplier to the experience you earnt rom the game. To be honest they don’t really add a lot more to the experience. It seems a little gimmicky and I can see a number of people simply not giving a hoot. Aussie connections will tend to struggle with multiplayer, especially those of us without NBN (and especially those whose partners are addicted to Netflix). Replayability 80%.

Story

Not much to speak of here as this is a multiplayer beta and it doesn’t necessarily need a story. It would have been nice to see a level of the campaign here though. But if there’s one thing you can generally rely on with the Gears franchise, they know how to tell a story. So in this case I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. Story: 100%

You will have to wait for the full game to witness the adventures of Marcus Fenix’s son.

Overall

The full game, when it comes out, will probably score a whole lot better than this preview score because I will be able to factor in the campaign, horde mode (there better bloody well be a horde mode or heads are gonna roll!) and whatever else they have in store for us. As it stands the beta has been a mostly underwhelming experience that could have been handled a little better. Instead of merely trying to recreate all of the good elements that make up Gears games and then splashing in a dash of something new, they should have sought to enhance these elements to really bring it into the new generation. I’m sure the story will be rich and compelling enough to make me want to get it when it comes out but for now the hype train seems to have left without me. Overall 64%

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