Earlier this month, we took a look at the campaign of Gears of War 4 and found a faithful and enjoyable return to the third-person cover-based shooter series — lots of chainsaws, lots of exploding enemies of subterranean origin, and lots of hiding behind concrete blocks. Like with any game today, it’s tough to review multiplayer before those servers have to deal with the full demand of the public, so we held off on a multiplayer review until we could really see how the game holds up online. Turns out, it’s once again a return to form for Gears of War — in good ways and bad.
The best part about Gears of War 4‘s multiplayer is the sheer number of options. That starts with who you play against — you can play against strangers online, play against strangers in a party with some of your friends, set up a private online match, get a local LAN game going, or go back to local multiplayer, using split-screen for two players. On top of that, you can do campaign co-op, online matches, or horde mode, a tower defense mode that pits you against waves of enemies.
For campaign co-op, developers The Coalition have gone back to two-player co-op instead of four. If you’re playing with a friend online or locally, you can start a new save file and play through the game properly — in a public game, you only have the option of choosing which chapter from the game you want to play. The game plays the same way as it does in single player, just with a teammate you can actually talk to. Online public co-op is OK, but it’s always going to depend on who (or if, but we’ll get to that later) you get matched up with. But, grab a friend and you really get the best experience Gears of War 4 has to offer. The original Gears of War games were co-op classics, and we’re glad to see this one keeps that tradition alive.
Online matches are all team-based, five-on-five games. King of the hill and deathmatch are pretty standard modes, although the way deathmatch is implemented — each team gets 15 deaths, then each player gets one more life — can set the stage for late-game heroics or 5-on-1 beatdowns to end the game, and is well suited to the more defensive style of Gears. In dodgeball, both teams earn a player back every time they kill someone from the other team, until the other team has no one left. Arms race requires teams to get enough kills with one weapon before being given a new one, until they’ve run through most of the game’s weapons. In Guardian, a team gets infinite respawns until their leader is killed, while in warzone, each player gets one life, and that’s it. There are also a couple of competitive modes — execution, in which only execution kills count, and escalation, which is a bit like king of the hill, but with new weapons getting added to the map after every round. All of the modes use a best-of-(odd number) for scoring, depending on how long each mode’s round usually takes. There are also themed seasonal community events.
Generally, the modes are pretty fun. King of the hill, dodgeball, and warzone in particular are well-suited to the game’s emphasis on cover and defense. Despite that, a lot of matches tend to devolve into bouncing between cover and using shotguns at close range. It doesn’t help that there’s a lack of differentiation between the maps — where you play usually doesn’t affect strategy that much, although there are some environmental hazards to watch out for. Fortunately, arms race provides a nice change of pace, forcing players to use the game’s other weapons.
The other big multiplayer mode is horde mode. In horde mode, five players work together to defend themselves against waves of enemies. You get ammo drops once per round, plus the Fabricator, which can be used to spawn turrets, barricades, and other defensive structures. As usual, it’s best played with friends, but if you get a random group with everyone on a mic (rare), it can be just as good. Again, it plays to the defensive strengths of the game, and separating players into classes (like an engineer class that can repair structures) adds another layer of strategy. The competitive modes can be lackluster at times, but horde mode is almost always a good time, and can go on for a long time once you start getting the hang of it.
The competitive modes can be played ranked or for fun, and in each, you can select a bounty — a mission (get x amount of points in y game mode) to get extra XP. Leveling up gets you more card packs (you can also buy those), which include more bounties, power-ups for horde mode, and cosmetic changes to guns and new multiplayer characters. So, there’s a lot to do and a lot to explore, and that’s awesome.
But, there’s one problem, and it’s a problem that’s always plagued Gears games. The games are fun, provided you can actually get into one. Despite patches that were supposed to improve matchmaking, wait times for most game modes can be as long as three minutes, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get placed in a match in the end. I could usually find a king of the hill or deathmatch game within a few minutes, but for any other mode, wait times were interminable, and I frequently gave up on trying. Even if you do get into one, the game will populate teams with bots if ten players haven’t been found, which happens frequently. Using bots to fill in for people who leave mid-game isn’t a terrible idea, but it’s less fun seeing bots on your team from the start of the match. The most reliable way to play is social quickplay, which keeps loading you into new games, putting the next game mode and map to a vote. Finding a public horde mode group is reliably fast, as well.