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Gears of War 4 multiplayer plays it safe (for now)

First-time Gears developer The Coalition adds new modes, mechanics, and weapons to the foundation laid by the original game.

Three days ago, Microsoft posted a 10-second teaser showing Gears of War 4's newest weapon in action. A day later we saw a COG soldier rip an enemy from cover before stabbing his victim in the face. And yesterday we got a clip of a COG seamlessly vaulting over cover and kicking a Swarm gunner in the chest before slicing him up with that same combat knife. All three snippets arrived with no context or explanation, but thanks to some recent hands-on time, we can finally fill you in.

All these clips came from Gears 4's multiplayer component, and while the weapons and maneuvers on display provide new solutions to old problems, the core experience is steadfastly devoted to recreating the trademark Gears gameplay established in the original trilogy. That means slower, heavier movement than typical shooters; intimate, close-quarters violence; and cover that serves both as a defensive tool and a traversal mechanic. It also means wall-bouncing, curbstomping, meatshields, active reloads, five-on-five matches -- basically everything Gears fans grew to love before Gears of War: Judgment decided to shake things up.

While the team at burgeoning studio The Coalition affirmed their commitment to delivering "authentic" Gears multiplayer, they also expressed a desire to resolve several persistent issues by introducing new mechanics. That clip of the COG soldier pulling an enemy over cover, for example, displays a new move called the "yank and shank." As the name implies, when two players take cover on opposite sides of the same object, maneuvering into the proper position produces a button prompt that, when pressed, initiates a yank animation that drags your opponent over to your side and leaves him open to a quick combat knife finisher.

I never actually encountered this situation during my playtime, but in theory, the yank and shank should eliminate the awkward blind fire battles that used to ensue when two players found themselves in a shared cover stalemate. Similarly, you can now execute a "vault kick" when roadie running through the environment. Basically, with some seriously precise timing, you'll be able to vault directly over a cover object without breaking stride and automatically kick anyone on the other side, again leaving them open to a fatal stabbing. This should allow you to maintain your momentum -- something the existing mantle kick could never accomplish.

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The yank and shank can be countered with a well-timed button press.

The Coalition

The new weaponry also aims to alleviate certain Gears-specific issues. Gears 4 takes place 25 years after the events of Gears 3, which means the Locust are still very dead. And with the Locust gone, organic weapons like ink grenades and diggers are gone, too. In their place, The Coalition is introducing modified mining tools like the Dropshot, which shoots a drill bit that dives straight down and explodes as soon as you release the trigger. This should help you root out opponents who like to remain hunkered down behind cover, much like many of the Locusts' weapons used to do. Don't worry, though--the Locust guns may be gone, but classics like the Lancer, Torque Bow, and Gnasher live on.

So too do traditional game types like Team Death Match, though they'll be joined this time by a few new modes. The highlight of my hands-on time was a mode called Dodgeball, a subtle but exhilarating TDM variant. Basically, any time you get a kill and survive at least another five seconds, one of your dead teammates is allowed to respawn. That means a single kill can turn a five-on-one match into a four-on-two and another kill could bring the teams back to even numbers. This natural push and pull made for some seriously nail-biting turnarounds during my playtime.

The developers also teased another new mode called Escalation, which pits two teams against each other in a series of thirteen consecutive rounds. After each round, the losing team can choose where the next power weapon will spawn on the map, potentially giving them a strategic edge over their opponents. According to the devs, this mode was designed with eSports in mind and should yield deeper team tactics and plenty of dramatic conclusions by encouraging both teams to compete all the way to the bitter end. These matches will even offer two dedicated spectator slots for shoutcasters, as well as brand-new spectator tools for smooth camera swapping.

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Chainsaw bayonets and curbstomps? Oh yeah, this is Gears.

The Coalition

While Escalation openly caters to the hardcore crowd, The Coalition is also adding options for more casual players. For example, you'll be able to easily create matches that pit you and your friends against a team of customizable AI bots, allowing you to practice and even earn unspecified "rewards" without getting slaughtered online. The devs have also added a visible ranking system that openly displays each player's skill level. With six skill brackets in total, it should now be much easier to avoid being utterly outmatched by more experienced competitors.

Finally, The Coalition plans to include the most dreaded of all features: microtransactions. If you choose, you'll be able to buy Hearthstone-style card packs that contain cosmetic items and other gear that, according to the team, will not impact gameplay. The devs were also quick to emphasize that all these items can be earned through play; spending real money to gamble on a Gear Crate just speeds up the process. You'll also be able to buy maps, though again, you'll never have to. The Coalition plans to add new maps and rotate out old maps for free approximately once a month, which should provide fresh content without segmenting the player base. However, if you want permanent access to a map so you can use it in private matches, you can buy it and host all your friends (who will not need to own it to play).

With so much added to the overall experience, it's somewhat disappointing to report the actual gameplay is enjoyable yet unremarkable. The movement and weapons need fine-tuning and the visuals are currently a bit underwhelming, but more importantly, the entire approach feels safe and predictable despite thoughtful gameplay additions like the vault kick. It absolutely feels like Gears of War, which should please longtime fans nostalgic for the earlier games. But with major shooter franchises like Halo and Call of Duty constantly progressing (or reinventing themselves entirely), Gears 4 may need to do more to remain competitive.

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The Coalition

Fortunately, the team still has plenty of time not only to polish the mechanics but also to surprise us with new modes and ideas that spin the classic formula into something fresh and exciting. Gears of War 4 launches exclusively on Xbox One on October 11, but Gears of War: Ultimate Edition players can check out the multiplayer beta starting April 18 before the weeklong open beta begins on April 25.