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A Newbie Goes Hands-On With the Gears of War 4 Beta

"Duck, Dive, Shoot, Dodge, and Chainsaw"

Going into the Gears of War 4 beta relatively blind, I had little knowledge of the series to this point. That’s a disclaimer.

I know it’s a cover-based third-person shooter, Marcus Fenix is a guy, there are chainsaws attached to firearms, and there’s another guy who talks about his wife a lot.

Gears of War Beta
The Gears of War 4 Beta looks good, and… well…

Other than that, it was a pretty new experience for me, and honestly, I’m not sure I’m entirely impressed with it.

The beta features three gameplay modes: Team Deathmatch against other human players, Team Deathmatch against bots, and Dodgeball, an innovative new mode that we’ll talk about in a bit.

Each round had three basic weapon types available at the start: The Lancer, an accurate, longer range rifle; the Hammerhead, which best I can tell is a heavy machine gun meant for medium-range encounters; and the Gnasher, a shotgun which turned out to be the only weapon anybody needed.

There were some powerful special weapons available for pickup in high-risk areas of the map, like sniper rifles, frag grenades, and a “dropshot,” which targets enemies behind cover (i.e. everybody). These were pretty fun to use, and all of them were worth the risk, as they basically all result in one-hit kills.

That said, either the game needs some serious balance tweaks, or I just don’t understand the core mechanics of multiplayer, and neither does anybody else I played with.

Roughly 70 percent of every round I played consisted of somebody shotgunning somebody else’s face off. I tried the Lancer and Hammerhead, and got very little joy from them. I was able to get a couple good kills with the Lancer, after a bunch of bullets hit their marks in a row. The Hammerhead never seemed to hit what I was aiming it, so I ditched it quick.

But ultimately, why bother with either of those, when the Gnasher is a one-hit kill basically anywhere within 20 feet?

Gears of War 4 Beta Gnasher
The only gun anybody needs, apparently.

Because the game is so heavily cover-based, it’s rare to get a clean shot on somebody. I can see that the game is about positioning and flanking, and I appreciate the strategic aspect of it, but the game flow didn’t really reflect any of that. Just about every round was about getting in close and pulling the trigger on your shotgun before they pull the trigger on theirs, because when it’s hard to get even a single shot in, may as well make that shot count, right?

Most of my kills were via shotgun. Most of my deaths were via shotgun. Most of the gunfire I heard across the map was “POW,” rather than “rat-a-tat.”

Even melee kills seemed completely impractical – especially since two characters meleeing at the same time results in a clash minigame – both characters pop up and try to overpower the other with their chainsaw ( by mashing B). It only takes a few seconds, but I never got to see the result, because both I and my opponent were gunned down by other players before finishing the animation.

Aside from that, there isn’t any aspect of a melee attack that the shotgun doesn’t do better.

I don’t mean to focus in so much on a single aspect of the game, but my experience was largely that the Gnasher shotgun more-or-less trivialized every other weapon/strategy in the game, and that really removed a lot of the game’s potential depth for me. Maybe that’s something they’ll figure out before the game comes out this fall.

Now, in terms of aesthetics, the game looks fine. The gore that serves as one of the series hallmarks is certainly still around, and the detail on the characters is impressive, though the environments lack anything notable. I don’t know if this one will include the infamous content filter.

One thing that stood out to me about the Gears of War 4 beta over the Uncharted 4 beta I played last month: The Gears of War 4 beta felt like… well, a BETA.

Maybe it’s because Gears is further from release than Uncharted, but it seemed like there was a fair amount of polish on the Uncharted beta – there were costumes, classes, and a variety of powers.

The Gears of War 4 beta wasn’t just content-bare (three weapons, three maps, a couple specials), but the gameplay itself wasn’t smooth – stutters and jumps, weird glitches in the animations, and of course, the aforementioned balance issues.

Now, there was one thing I really liked about this beta: Dodgeball mode.

Dodgeball Gears of War 4 Beta
White Goodman: unfortunately not playable.

I admit I was a little disappointed I didn’t get to play as the Average Joes. But I found Dodgeball mode really clever, and probably ended up playing more of it than standard Team Deathmatch.

Dodgeball is a 5-on-5 battle in which automatic respawns are turned off. The goal is to get the other team to zero active players, but each time you notch a kill, you respawn a member of your own team.

This generally results in much shorter rounds – a one-sided affair lasts less than a minute. But there were some climactic, back-and-forth battles in which a 1-on-5 situation became 3-on-3 in a few seconds because of a clever double-kill.

It puts you in a position to press your advantage when ahead or employ guerrilla tactics when outnumbered. The cover-based gameplay lends itself extremely well to this mode, since the game turns into hide-and-seek when hunting down the last member of a team.

If you’re that last member, you want to basically hide out and get one good shot on someone carelessly running through the map trying to find you. One good shot, and 1-on-4 becomes a much more manageable 2-on-3.

This was the only time when actually thinking and employing tactics seemed to work… but all I could think about was that I wanted to play that game mode in a different game.

Maybe multiplayer is a hostile introduction to a series newbie. Maybe the Gears of War 4 beta is a better tool to excite existing fans than it is to gain new ones. But Uncharted is also a highly campaign-based series, and its multiplayer got me a lot closer to paying attention to that series than the Gears beta did.

I know the Gears of War series has a legion of fans, and I know it’s well-reviewed. I’m well aware that the problem may be me, and not the game. So maybe this is nothing more than a review that says “this game isn’t for me.”

But the fact remains, I came into this beta as someone who was not planning on buying Gears of War 4. And I leave the beta feeling very comfortable in that assertion. If the point of the beta was to pull new interest and fans, they’ve failed on at least one count.

Seriously, though… somebody get on stealing dodgeball mode, though. That should be industry standard.

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I've been a gamer since my grandfather got me into Tetris at age 4. Now I play a little of everything, but I champion the truly unique and unusual. Unsurprisingly, I also really like Japan. On that note, you should all play Valkyria Chronicles.

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