Gears Of War 4 Xbox One

A band of clock­work sol­diers shoots for the past

EDGE - - GAMES -

De­vel­oper The Coali­tion

Pub­lisher Mi­crosoft Stu­dios

For­mat Xbox One

Ori­gin Canada

Re­lease Au­tumn

To think that Gears Of War was once an ex­cit­ing se­ries is an odd thing. The orig­i­nal may not have in­vented cover com­bat, but its me­thod­i­cal pace and hor­ror in­flec­tions were a rad­i­cal de­par­ture for Epic fol­low­ing its twitchy Un­real shoot­ers. While the im­pact of the game’s en­gine on the rise of HDTV has been ex­ag­ger­ated, it made a fear­some case for the Xbox 360 hard­ware at a crit­i­cal point in the war of per­cep­tions with PS3. The mul­ti­player, mean­while, be­came the scene of a tril­ogy-length clash with fans who pre­ferred to ex­ploit the hal­lowed Gnasher shotgun rather than fight­ing at mid-range as the de­sign­ers had in­tended.

By con­trast, The Coali­tion’s Gears Of War 4 seems el­e­gantly con­structed but an­o­dyne. The first brand-new in­stal­ment since Mi­crosoft ac­quired the li­cence in 2014, it’s a game in thrall to both its own her­itage and mar­ket re­search that has yet to make an unan­swer­able case for the IP’s re­turn. The clos­est it comes, right now, is in the wind.

Gears Of War 4’ s cam­paign takes place 25 years af­ter the de­struc­tion of the Lo­cust in

Gears 3, with the vaguely Ital­ian planet of Sera now rav­aged by enormous elec­tri­cal storms, oblig­ing much of the pop­u­la­tion to live in for­ti­fied cities. The se­ries is no stranger to hazardous weather – the orig­i­nal had its clouds of pho­to­pho­bic flesh-eat­ing bats – but the im­pact on play seems more sus­tained in Gears 4. At its most se­vere, the wind may erode the very lay­out, al­low­ing you to blast cover spots loose and send them spin­ning across an area, mow­ing down op­po­nents. It may also af­fect grenade and heav­ier pro­jec­tile tra­jec­to­ries, toss­ing them rudely back into your face or, once you re­lo­cate up­wind, use­fully length­en­ing a throw. Char­ac­ters are harder to ma­noeu­vre in a gale, and you can pick off foes by shoot­ing their legs out from un­der them so the tempest whisks them away.

It’s an en­tic­ing layer of tac­ti­cal vari­ables, and a way of directing and shap­ing en­coun­ters that evokes the per­pet­u­ally col­laps­ing land­scapes of Sony’s Un­charted, a fran­chise whose power Xbox head Phil Spencer is ea­ger to counter. But this sits along­side en­emy de­sign that, so far, reprises the Xbox 360 tril­ogy’s Lo­cust a lit­tle too nar­rowly, with a com­bi­na­tion of ‘fix­ers’ who pin the player, ‘flush­ers’ who drive you out, and ‘mir­rors’ who are there to form a clear op­pos­ing bat­tle line. Sera’s new bo­gey­men, the Swarm, have a few distinc­tive tricks, in fair­ness. There are the Ju­vies, flail­ing new­borns who some­times hatch from eggs in an area, and may evolve if left upright into fully fledged Swarm foot­sol­diers. You’ll also run into Pounc­ers, ag­ile quadrupeds with un­ar­moured bel­lies,

who flick darts at tar­gets in open ground and rush down those who hide.

The vo­latil­ity these new ag­gres­sors bring to the sand­box is wel­come, but prece­dents ex­ist in pre­vi­ous games, and the gun­play it­self is ex­tremely well-trav­elled. Dis­pens­ing with

Call Of Duty- style me­chan­ics such as off­hand grenade throw­ing in Gears Of War: Judgment, The Coali­tion has re­verted to Gears Of War 3’ s con­trol model. It’s a sen­si­ble de­ci­sion, and there are tweaks to the flow in close com­bat sit­u­a­tions – a more fluid cover-vault that sets an op­po­nent up for a con­text-sen­si­tive knife execution, and the abil­ity to reach over and col­lar a foe hun­kered down di­rectly op­po­site, at the risk of ex­pos­ing your­self to a shotgun ri­poste. Ex­plo­sive, how­ever, all this most cer­tainly is not, and what new weapons the de­vel­oper has re­vealed so far are equally per­func­tory. The Drop­shot is an evo­lu­tion of the Lo­cust Dig­ger, the dif­fer­ence be­ing that the bomb floats over ob­sta­cles rather than tun­nelling un­der them, while the Buz­zkill spits ric­o­chet­ing saw­blades that may pose as much threat to play­ers as the tar­get. Stu­dio head and se­ries co-cre­ator Rod Fer­gus­son is un­fazed by ac­cu­sa­tions of play­ing too safe, ar­gu­ing that the new de­vel­oper still has to prove it’s wor­thy of the li­cence. “That’s the best thing you can tell me, that it feels a lit­tle too much like Gears Of

War,” he says. “That’s great. If we were Epic and we’d been work­ing on the game for seven years, it would open the door for all sorts of ideas. But we’re a whole new stu­dio, and we felt we had to be true to the se­ries, rather than spin­ning it out. I think it would be seen as dis­re­spect­ful.”

Creative direc­tor Chuck Osieja con­fesses that The Coali­tion is “al­ways ner­vous” about chang­ing the for­mula, even fol­low­ing the rea­son­ably ac­com­plished Gears Of War:

Ul­ti­mate Edi­tion re­mas­ter. “I think when this game launches and it’s re­ceived well, then we’ll start to look at other op­por­tu­ni­ties for where the IP can go,” he says.

Nowhere is Gears Of War 4’ s fond­ness of con­ven­tion more dispir­it­ing than in the per­son of hulk­ing Cau­casian pro­tag­o­nist JD Fenix, flanked by mixed-eth­nic­ity

side­kick Del­mont ‘Del’ Walker and the tomboy­ish Kait Diaz. Fer­gus­son in­sists that this quintessen­tially dude­bro trio of­fer more room for “nu­ance” and growth be­tween games than, say, the orig­i­nal’s African-Amer­i­can car­i­ca­ture Au­gus­tus Cole. “We had to cre­ate a short­hand [in Gears Of War 1], and so we cre­ated archetypes,” he ex­plains. “Be­cause for a while, Cole was the sci­en­tist, but peo­ple couldn’t con­nect with that – we had to do a lot of ex­pla­na­tion. So we thought: this is kind of known, it’s an archetype that peo­ple un­der­stand. Any Given Sun­day, that foot­ball char­ac­ter, peo­ple know that. It made it eas­ier to say ‘this is who Cole is’, be­cause we only had 60 min­utes of cin­e­mat­ics, [so there was] no time to go into the back­story. Whereas here we have much more nu­ance, we have time to de­velop these char­ac­ters, be­cause they’re young.”

Gears Of War 4’ s mul­ti­player is also built for growth in a way its pre­de­ces­sors weren’t. In keep­ing with Halo 5, the of­fer­ing has been re­jigged to suit new­com­ers and sea­soned play­ers alike. There are now per­for­mance tiers that sit along­side ba­sic mul­ti­player XP pro­gres­sion and feed into matchmaking, for more bal­anced games. The Coali­tion has yet to say whether Gears Of War 2’ s beloved Horde Mode will re­turn, but there’s the op­tion of co-op against sup­pos­edly more var­ied and “per­son­able” AIs on mul­ti­player maps. The new Es­ca­la­tion mode is aimed squarely at the tour­na­ment crowd, a game of cap­ture and hold in which the loser gets to pick the map’s weapon drops dur­ing the next round. There’s a more ro­bust spec­ta­tor in­ter­face that al­lows you to mon­i­tor each player’s health and equip­ment, leap­ing to their view­point with a sin­gle click. The Coali­tion has even re­designed cer­tain abil­i­ties with spec­ta­tors in mind. The fa­mous Ac­tive Reload tim­ing mingame, for ex­am­ple, now has a small cooldown to dis­cour­age play­ers from con­tin­u­ally fir­ing a bul­let, then reload­ing to gain a power boost. This looked “stupid”, Fer­gus­son com­ments dur­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion, which is a fas­ci­nat­ing ob­ser­va­tion to make of a game with a chain­saw bay­o­net. If you’ve found the time to play the

Gears 4 mul­ti­player beta – and in par­tic­u­lar the ex­hil­a­rat­ing Dodge­ball mode, which respawns an ally for ev­ery op­po­nent killed – you’ll know that Gears Of War is still an im­mensely en­ter­tain­ing shooter, of­fer­ing a mix­ture of bloody in­ti­macy, team tac­tics and ar­chi­tec­tural mys­tique that has yet to be ex­celled. How­ever, there’s the sense that, as with pre­vi­ous Xbox One ex­clu­sives, too much of the game has been as­sem­bled by com­mit­tee. Gears Of War saw out the Xbox 360 gen­er­a­tion with a bang. It threat­ens to ar­rive in this one with a whim­per.

“That’s the best thing you can tell me, that it feels a lit­tle too much like Gears Of War”

Stu­dio head and se­ries co-cre­ator Rod Fer­gus­son

Gears4 sup­ports twoplayer splitscreen and on­line co-op – a wel­come step back from

Gears 3’ s chaotic four­player cam­paign. Player two gets to choose be­tween Kait or JD

TOP LEFT GearsOfWar con­tin­ues to re­sist the lure of Call Of Duty- style load­out cus­tomi­sa­tion – there are no un­lock­able perks or gear, only power weapons on the maps them­selves.

ABOVE On the tech­nol­ogy side, The Coali­tion is aim­ing for locked 60fps and 1080p in mul­ti­player, complete with re­al­time re­flec­tions and tem­po­ral an­tialias­ing There are new ways to ne­go­ti­ate cover, but the old tac­tics hold up fine. Most close-range bat­tles are won by som­er­sault­ing past an op­po­nent and draw­ing faster than they can turn

LEFT The ori­gins of the Swarm are un­clear, though they su­per­fi­cially re­sem­ble the Lo­cust. JD and co first en­counter them while in­ves­ti­gat­ing raids on Kait’s fam­ily set­tle­ment

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