Gears Of War 4 Xbox One
A band of clockwork soldiers shoots for the past
Developer The Coalition
Publisher Microsoft Studios
Format Xbox One
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