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Gears of War 4: esports, dodgeball and gore

JD Fenix and co. are rushing the esports arena as Gears of War tries to grab new players.

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"There aren’t any huge surprises, but with a spirit absolutely true to the series and a more accessible ladder, would we have it any other way?"

First, the bad news. We didn’t get to play horde mode. The good news? Pretty much everything else.

I asked Chuck Osieja, creative director at developer The Coalition, "how will Gears of War 4 cater to the hardcore faithful?" If you’re not a hardcore Gears fan, then you’re in luck, because this could be the best balance between pro cover-­sliding shotgun butchery and accessible brodude fun yet.

"Our hardcore player base is very vocal, and we’re definitely going to cater to them. If you really want to be a sustainable game though, you need to bring new people into the equation too."

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It’s a philosophy that’s clearly at the centre of all the modes and innovations of Gears 4’s multiplayer. Algorithmic matchmaking and in­game ‘ranks’ or ‘leagues’ isn’t exactly blindingly original but Gears has been in need of them for a long time.

"It’s so much more fun playing in a similar skill pack ­that we want everyone to feel like they’re making progress," Chuck continues. "It’s about having a fair shot."

Which you certainly have with the new Dropshot, a weapon designed to replace the Digger, which fires a hovering, explosive drill. And you’d better believe headshots with it are a new level of gory.

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In a deft touch, one of the coolest additions to multiplayer actually caters to armchair fans and armchair pros: proper esports integration and features. Firstly, there’s now a proper spectator mode, with two slots per game, and a UI built from the ground up to enable proper casting. Without muddling things with a HUD, it looks great. Tt’s intuitive and relatively comprehensive. Spectators or streamers can switch between four camera modes: intimate (an offset close up); follow (self explanatory); ghost (totally free form); and in the style of older Gears games, the fixed angle security cams.

There’s also dedicated LAN support, which won’t affect most of us, but will make tournament organisers very happy.

So what’s new for the actual runnin ’n’ gunnin’? For one thing, you’ll soon be vault kicking fools and following up with an instant finisher like there’s no tomorrow. Tap Y whilst sliding into cover and you’ll launch over it and stun the enemy. It’s a gorgeously fluid, aggressive move. You still have the mantle kick and the ability to grab opponents while you’re both in cover, but they feel static in comparison now.

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A bigger addition is that of Dodgeball mode. Sadly, this isn’t a mode where you throw wrenches at each other but rather 5v5 elimination, in which a kill rewards your team with a respawn. As my team of fellow journos and someone so young and good he can only have been a YouTuber discovered, this mechanic leads to some epic clutch moments and comebacks. Being the sole survivor and swinging the whole game back is profoundly satisfying and tense. Not that I can say I was ever responsible for that.

Escalation mode was also teased, although we didn’t go hands on. Word is it’s the most competitive mode, heavily geared towards the pro/esports scene, and is a kind of dynamic Control mode, where the zones change on a timer. It features a strategic meta, where the power weapons and placements are decided each round by the loser, and Coalition have promised more concrete details in the near future.

"If you really want to be a sustainable game, you need to bring new people into the equation too" - Chuck Osieja, The Coalition

There are also cards, and we’re not talking Gears branded solitaire. It makes sense, at least it’s a more transparent method of unlocking skins and cosmetics than previous entries in the series. "The reaction can be binary... but I worked on the original FIFA Ultimate Team when I was at EA, so I’ve always been a fan," Osieja said. Fret not, the boosters can’t be used in multiplayer, but any cosmetic options/gun skins etc will also be useable in the campaign which is a sensible update.

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I wondered what the personal motivation was behind the addition?

"Gears has always been about customisation ­but it’s never been super clear on how you got it all. I’ve been gaming 30 years, now I have a 16 year old son with time and no money and I have money and no time. I like to be able to keep up with him, so while I’m at work building this game he’s at home playing non-stop getting the advantages."

The Coalition also revealed how map rotation would work, and it’s another in a series of sensible, if not ground-breaking decisions. The developers estimate there will be a new map or two every month, and they will be free ­in a curated rotation, like a gladiatorial, seasonal menu. This means it’ll never be overwhelming for the non-­hardcore. Each map will be available to purchase for permanent use for private games, and only the host will need to own that map. Not that you’ll have much time to stop and take in the scenery, but it looks better than ever.

Fancy Xbox tech with names such as Triton and temporal anti­aliasing mean that the sound design is incredibly realistic and immersive, the environment in general is smooth and beautiful and the frame­rate is totally safe. Gears has usually been a high graphics watermark for that console, and it’s really encouraging that immersive details like sound are also getting an upgrade.

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Though it’s still supposed to be under tight wraps, Osieja did promise the campaign will have plenty of "twists and turns...[it will be] by far the best story yet for the series."

He even gave me a little colour on new human faction The Outsiders. "They’re reformed COG. Whereas the Stranded [in previous Gears games] didn’t have any choice, they were left out to die... The COG are like an overprotective parent, all about repopulation. But there are factions who say I’d rather live free and potentially be in danger than be ruled and safe."

It won’t be long now before all the Xbox One multiplayer cogs fit into place. As you’ll see from the beta next week, there aren’t any huge surprises, but with a spirit absolutely true to the series and some upgrades essential to the meta, and a more accessible ladder, would we have it any other way? Or you might say, as Osieja does, "It’s crazy it hasn’t happened until now."

Gears of War 4 multiplayer beta goes live on April 18.

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